12 September 2018

What is Elementary in Elementary School?

Access to Optimal States of Mind is More Elementary Than Literacy

If we assume that elementary school is supposed to provide children with the most important lessons for successful participation in the world, then it is pretty safe to say that in the vast majority of our schools the following are considered the most basic possible lessons: use of language, reading/writing, mathematics, science, and electronic media (i.e. computers). 
Lessons in the "literate" use of our bodies, our emotions, music, art, and experiences of nature seem to be optional. 
But I suggest that all of these literacies, even the optional ones, are not truly the foundations of successful participation in the world. 
All of these literacies are built on the same foundation.
And all life forms share the same foundation for successful participation in the world; optimal states of mind

Optimal states of mind are not merely favorable activities in a brain, as might be supposed from the common misguided assumptions that mind and body are separate things and minds are only associated with brains. 
Minds are literally what perceives, thinks, wills and acts, regardless of which parts of a being are involved in those functions and even the lowliest life forms must do those things in order to be alive. 
Individual slime mold cells spread hither and yon across a forest floor respond to diminishing food supplies by aggregating into a multicellular pseudo-pod; a behavior which shows that even without a brain this "simple" life form perceives it's environment and then goes through a "thought" process that results in having the will to take appropriate action in response.

While this is probably an over-simplification of the technical details of the behaviors of slime molds, scientists have convincingly shown that, as a fundamental criteria of their being alive, all life forms engage in cognition, the ongoing process of adaptively changing mind states, with or without brains*.

The components of optimal states of mind in humans are the truly elementary lessons that children need to be taught to achieve in order to successfully participate in the world.

Optimal states of mind are more elementary than all literacies because they are the legacy of life itself not merely our latest human variation on the theme. 
Therefore, nearly all elementary schools, today, would do well to re-think what they do and how because, unfortunately, the current organization of elementary schools into dictatorial classrooms often hinders more than it helps in the process of discovering and mapping reliable routes of access to optimal states of mind. 

Changing Elementary School

My general suggestions for change in elementary schools are to
  1. put attitude first and 
  2. teach the new 3R's of respect, responsibility, and resourcefulness.
The first suggestion is about shifting our personal priorities to reflect what's truly important (regardless of our role in the school system.) 
We have to start with our own attitude about education and how we make decisions about it because only from our own commitment to the process of learning are we going to inspire others to learn, as well. 

The second suggestion is about how to make a shift from simply managing the behaviors that we assume will cause an education (a notoriously inconsistent method) to leading people to more fully engage with the world (which, if successful, coincidently results in educated people almost every time). The new 3R's are a translation of the six components of optimal states of mind from psychological research terms into the universal language of virtues.
The six components of optimal states of mind are; ordering consciousness, increasing cognitive complexity, articulating purpose, encouraging optimism, promoting cooperation, and enhancing individual or collective agency.

Respect is about seeing people or situations again (re-, again; -spect, to see). 
When we are being respectful we make it a habit to take a different perspective, especially to see other people's points of view, before we make decisions or take actions that might affect them. 
A proper practice of respect provides robust opportunities for developing cognitive complexity and optimism. 

Responsibility is about expanding our ability to respond (respons-, to respond; -ibility, ability). 
It is not reasonable to expect that our habitual ways of responding are capable of gracefully and appropriately handling every situation that we will encounter from now on, therefore we need to continuously expand our repetiore. 
A proper practice of responsibility provides robust opportunities for developing cognitive order and agency. 

Resourcefulness is about being full of our source again. 
Two important sources that we should be full of are the Earth as our material source and the Mystery (aka. God, Allah, Goddess, etc.) as our ultimate source. 
A proper practice of resourcefulness provides robust opportunities for developing purpose and cooperation.

Changing Relationships, Not Infrastructure in Elementary Schools

Implementing these suggestions does not require immediate changes to the infrastructure of schools, although if they are widely implemented I would expect that the infrastructure would change eventually. 
What is required is a transformation of the hidden curriculum
We need to change the interactions between the brains and the policies that guide teacher and student behavior in classrooms. 
Both of these suggestions are compatible with nearly all kinds of classroom arrangements, many forms of testing, and most leadership and management styles. 
Despite my mentioning that the Mystery is a worthwhile source, it is not necessary to invoke any particular belief tradition, therefore these suggestions are compatible with secular institutions. 

What Elementary School Would You Choose?

Which education will express the new 3R's better: 
  • exclusively subjecting children to the schooling traditions invented within the last 150-200 years and the high technology for delivering maximum knowledge, skills and information invented in the last few decades, 
  • reinforcing the biological programming inherited from the entire history of life itself that will prepare them to be successful no matter what learning resources are available (including the latest schools and technologies)? 
If we can make the subtle shift to elementary education that maps a diversity of routes to optimal state of mind using any and all forms of literacy, then our children will be taught the only lesson that is ultimately worth learning.

Here is a classic essay by Jerry Mintz on how to tell if your child might need an alternative elementary school.

*References: the book Web of Life by Fritjof Capra for further information on cognition as a defining feature of all life and Ilya Prigione's Order Out of Chaos Chapter V, Section 5 or Steven Johnson's book Emergence on the behavior of slime molds in the Introduction and Chapter 5. (Back to text)

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