05 October 2005

Discovering Context

One day while teaching an eight year old to hit a ball with a bat I had a vision that altered my view of teaching forever. I homeschooled other people’s kids for about five years and it was during that time that I had an insight that has guided my work ever since. Dale and I were at the baseball field in the park across the street from my house, where I offered private teaching services. Our friend and my other student that day, eight-year-old Keith, was helping us as best he knew how. Keith was encouraging Dale and making every suggestion that popped into his head. Keith, in contrast with Dale, was a natural and confident athlete but had a great store of patience for helping his friends.

Keith and I had thought of just about everything that could be thought of to help Dale. We tried different bats, balls, pitching distances, holding the bat differently, and every way we could think to adjust Dale and his performance. We also varied our own behavior by taking turns pitching, talking about how we remember learning to bat and demonstrating our own batting techniques.

I always knew Dale was challenged. He is the only child I ever taught who truly needed his prescription of Ritalin. Dale was born drug affected and his adopted mother was a school district employee who had studied prenatal development and specifically the effects of maternal drug abuse. She figured by Dale’s pattern of neurological dysfunction that his mother had probably done some heavy cocaine in his fourth month in her womb, not to mention whatever she was doing when he was born.

So, after what seemed like hours of unsuccessful coaching, there I was pitching a dirty white baseball with red dirt-dulled stitches underhand to Dale standing with an shiny aluminum bat only 10 or 15 feet away. At that particular moment, just as I was releasing the ball (that Dale would swing mightily at, but miss) I saw something. In that instant I made an observation that lead to an insight into teaching that has driven my fascination with education ever since. Just as I uncurled my fingers and the ball was released to fly towards Dale, he twitched, ever so slightly.

That twitch did not reveal to me how to help him. Only our determined, relentlessly loyal and supportive practice eventually helped him improve his batting. What occurred to me was a very peculiar vision of the task that I had chosen as a profession. Suddenly, every one of the details that Keith and I had attempted to adjust became dimensions in (what I later learned mathematicians call) an n-dimensional space. An n-dimensional space is an imaginary space that has an arbitrary number of dimensions, anywhere from one to infinity.

Since the task itself was a fairly straightforward physical coordination of motor skills, the basic variables might be accounted for by a reasonably small finite number of dimensions although more than just the four space-time dimensions we are all familiar with. Within this imaginary space in which the behavior occurs there is easily imagined a particular region in the space that we would call, “success”. My job as the teacher is to help him as the student to move out of the space of “failure” and into the space of “success.”

This is a pretty straightforward concept but what occurred to me upon observing his twitch was that Dale may have had things thrown at him before under less favorable conditions and his emotional response to having something thrown was something that I could neither control for, nor reliably find out about. But, rather than simply adding a single dimension of emotion, this insight lead me to realize that there were a potentially infinite number of dimensions if I wanted to take into account his whole history with bats, balls, throwing, where we were, the time of day, his experience with men, and everything else that could possibly affect his mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual state of being. The challenge of teaching is not only moving the results of his performance but accurately discerning, from nearly infinite possibilities, both the relevant dimensions and the appropriate direction to move within each of those dimensions. Not to mention the challenge of figuring out what combination of causal factors are relevant in each dimension and responsible for movement in the desired direction.

As you can imagine, the insight was initially a little overwhelming. But over time, as I have studied and read in various fields my understanding of it has gone through a metamorphosis. My insight was not simply a realization of how potentially daunting teaching can be, but was the revelation that how the student experiences the world is the fundamental currency of our exchange as teacher and student, as opposed to the traditional notion that the currency of teaching is knowledge, skills and information. What my insight points to is not the traditional approach of accounting for a teacher performance with students, but instead points to developing a map of experiences that actually accords with the student’s world. But that became clear over more time and continued metamorphosis of my ideas.

Around the same time I was teaching Dale, my lover and I were developing the spiritual dimension of our lovemaking. She was a musician and we also had an extensive ongoing discussion about how important an audience is to the performance of music. More specifically, how the mystical potential of music to move the audience is similar to the experiences that arose out of the spiritual dimensions of sexuality. In the course of this extended conversation I talked with her about several pivotal experiences that I have had as both an audience member and as a performer.

Once when I was in my early twenties I was attending a conference at Portland State University and one of the sessions I attended featured this amazing black woman with elegant streaks of grey in her hair, whose name I cannot recall, who was standing in front of a half empty room, and speaking on a subject that I do not think I was especially interest in. I was seated in the middle of the room but found that she was fascinating. Besides the fascination with her what sticks with me is that at the end of her presentation she went to the back of the room and stood by the door to meet those of us who had heard her presentation.

I thought what she said to me a little odd at the time because she remarked that I was a really great audience. She said how she really appreciated how much energy I put into listening to her and gave her so much to work with. I left the room slightly bewildered because I had never heard of a presenter or performer giving an audience member such a specific compliment. Of course, you always hear musicians talking about how great an audience is, but she was not being the least bit general and she did not say anything even similar to other people whom she talked to before and after me. And she wasn’t flirting, either, her gaze was pure appreciation and moved on without hesitation to the next person in line. Later in life I got similar compliments and even attended some workshops that focused on listening skills so I began to understand that certain ways of paying attention can sometimes be unusually rewarding for all concerned. But, it was in that conversation with my lover that it all came together and I realized that, in fact, I was sometimes being an audience almost as intensely as I was being her lover.

This realization about the value of being audience brought me back to my most cherished memory of being a performer. At the end of my second year at Reed College I was cast to play Laertes in the “15-minute Hamlet” a comic parody of Shakespeare’s classic by Tom Stoppard. This was also the last of only a handful of times that I took a hallucinogenic drug, in this case LSD. The play was being done as the final project for a friend of mine in the Directing class which usually only played one performance on the last Friday of regular classes for the year. But at Reed we have a tradition called Renn Faire that takes place on that weekend at the start of reading week which is a week without classes that precedes final exam week. Renn Faire started out as a Rennaisance Faire back in the sixties or seventies but has since been transformed into a sort of psychedelic celebration of playful indulgence with every kind of whimsical distraction imaginable (or unimaginable depending on how creative the organizers are.) So, we scheduled a special second performance for Saturday afternoon of Renn Faire.

I had not planned on being high while performing, but that’s what happened. It started after a very successful Friday night performance (the one that counted for the director’s grade) at which I was not high. Not long after the play was done and we were heading out into the night I was offered two hits of acid that someone had extra (I made it a policy never to buy drugs, but that did not stop me from using some that were freely offered.) Now, I had only limited experience with hallucinogens and I thought it would be fine to take it since the performance was not until after midday the next day and, surely I would be O.K. taking it and being up a little late that night. What I did not anticipate was a 13 hour trip. When I got home late the next morning I talked it over with my roommate and we figured that first, if I went to sleep there was no way I would wake up in time. Second, if I timed my taking of the other hit just right then it might help me overcome fatigue but probably wouldn’t fully kick in until a little while after the performance. So I took the hit and headed back to the theater. (I let my fellow actors know what was up as we got into costume, so they could respond appropriately if something went awry.)

Then, as we were about to head out to the front lawn where we were planning to perform, it started raining. The director puzzled out how to proceed and decided we would simply move ourselves into the Student Union (S.U.) building and delay the start time to allow for the change in venue. Out on the front lawn a marimba band was just getting rained out, so we ran around announcing that we would shortly be performing in the S.U.

I have never before or since seen the S.U. so packed with human beings. It was wall-to-wall with people on the floor, sitting in chairs, standing on chairs and filling the balconies on either end as well. We had a tiny little space in the middle to work with. Due to the delayed start I was already beginning to feel the effects. Now, consider the situation, there was a seething sea of sweaty college kids who just came in out of the rain after dancing to the happy music of marimba, we’re having to improvise adjustments to all our movement to accommodate these masses of people, including our sword fights plus I am rapidly reaching a hallucinogen induced heightened state of being.

Fortunately, the performance went off flawlessly, neither I nor anyone else missed a line, my sword fight with Hamlet (done with boffo soft swords, by the way) was great and the crowd was ecstatic. Needless to say, so was I. At this point I cannot recall a single detail of the actual performance, but the ecstatic feelings are indelibly etched in my being. I can remember the aftermath in great detail, including the tingling in my lips as the simple logistical challenge of changing out of my costume became a monumental challenge for my blended mental/emotional/physical/spiritual attention. My chemically enhanced intensity rendered me incapable of handling even this very basic task. Fortunately, my friends were able to help me in my time of need and I was spared the necessity of fully grasping all the details of reality for a little while longer. On the whole this was the most utterly ecstatic experience I have ever had. The trip went on for the rest of the day and into the night in an enjoyable way, but as I said, that was the last time I did LSD or anything like it.

For a long time I gave a lot of credit for the intensity of my experience to the drug, but now I have a different view. There was something else, a very important something else, to which the drug merely added a chemical boost. The primary cause of the intensity I experienced was the exchange of energy, the exchange of attention, between the audience and us performers. The feedback between me, as performer, and my audience is very similar to the feedback between lovers, or the feedback between a teacher and student, or the feedback available in any meaningful relationship.

I believe that the conditions in the S.U. that day, the context within which we performed our play, were coincidently ideal to generating an ecstatic relationship between us and our audience. Some aspects of the context were carefully honed to bring that relationship into being (i.e. the script and our rehearsed delivery of it) but there are many other factors that simply arose spontaneously out of the moment (i.e. the rain that drove us all into the S.U. and our ways of adapting our scripted actions to the very cramped “stage” area.) It cannot be argued that we were especially talented performers, nor that the script made it a sure thing. What made it work so well was the synchronicity of the whole, the confluence of individuals in a culture embedded within a society on a planet in which cells aggregated to form the individuals who could be in that space to experience that series of moments in time and have them mean something extraordinary. To say that another way, the experience that I had was significantly affected by the molecular influence of LSD on my brain, it was significantly influenced by my choices the night before, it was significantly altered by the organizational tradition of Renn Faire, it was significantly enhanced by the societal tradition of theatrical performance, and it was significantly determined by the meteorological effect of rainfall. I cannot discount any of these factors in understanding what this experience means to me. All together I have come to refer to this diversity of factors as context.

The realization that the context of my experience had such a profound effect on its quality leads me back to thinking about Dale and his experience of learning to bat. The insight I had at that time was a visualization of the immensity of the contextual factors that contribute to every moment of our experience.

In the view of traditional educational philosophy the challenge of teaching is to create a sufficient teaching performance such that the student, as audience, is moved in some particular way. That movement was traditionally thought of as acquiring units of knowledge, skills and information as a simple replication of the teacher’s performance in some specific, limited way and an accumulation of these performances results in education. If the teacher can bat then the teacher, by some performance moves the student to acquire the ability to bat.

My vision makes a mockery of the traditional approach, especially in light of multiple intelligences and diverse learning styles. Just to assume that we can create an adequate set of knowledge, skills and information is bad enough, multiple intelligences and learning styles then adds the complications of presenting each knowledge, skill, and information in a multitude of ways. Finally, to add insult to injury, by taking my vision seriously we now have to account for a potentially infinite number of other factors for each individual student.

But I have also gained a very clear sense that being in that space with my student was the most natural and simple access to knowing exactly what was needed without having to account for all the details. This sense that there is a simple, natural access to right action completely alters the challenge of teaching. It changes it from a nearly impossible technical challenge into a relationship challenge. The question is not how to create a teaching performance that will invoke, inspire or otherwise cause learning to occur, but how to relate to the student in an appropriately intimate way such that you can share in their journey of life and eventually influence their navigation and cartographic practices.
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