Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Education of the Heart

Originally posted on May 31, 2012

I like this phrase. It’s a chapter heading if not a book title I’ll use. The Dalai Lama used it in a recent book, just noted on another blog post today. But his book—really, quite good—reminds me that there is a pedagogy, an art of education, a way to bring minds forward towards the achievement of these values.

The Dalai Lama and others have approached this from the perspective of what the individual can do alone. The idea of there being a method for teams learning these skills together may be too advanced. In general, committees work off of the lowest common denominator. They’re hobbled by the weakest link. But committees generally work form an individualistic perspective—what are the “opinions” of each party?

Instead, there is another way that is aligned with what I call “action exploration.” It is a combination of teamwork and experiential learning, and it doesn’t assume a priori that there is any “answer” or “best way.” It opens to more creative responses that may not be perfect, but it is good enough, and satisfies all the players. Or it’s a response constructed together that no one had anticipated ahead of time.

We must not underestimate the previously relatively ignored powers of collaboration, the soft power of people encouraging each other, shifting from competing to collaborating, from the illusion of “being right” to offering ideas, along with a willingness to modify them based on feedback. It’s not a group in the sense of several “patients” in “therapy” with a “therapist.” That’s too one-down, disempowered, turning towards the knowledge of the authority, and curiously separated, rather than truly integrated. (Yes, it tries to be a group, but this set up is hobbled by the artificiality of its foundation, which is to focus on how each individual is neurotic and how to fix it. There’s no group project here.)

In action explorations, there is a collaborative effort. It might be focused for a while on the plight of an individual (e.g., in therapy); but also it can be focused on a situation faced by a group or class or collective, as in sociodrama. It could be a real social problem in the present or an anticipated difficulty. Sociodrama can be used to explore the past and to better understand a wide range of situations, adding a layer of psychological understanding to merely knowing “the facts” historically. (After all, different parties attend to different facts and give them different interpretations! What is victory for some is a cheating-generated defeat. In real life, folks don’t play by “rules” that guarantee fairness.)

A key point here is that action explorations combine experiential learning and collaborative learning; and the latter—collaboration—includes all the emotional issues in the social field—people supporting each other and feeling supported in turn. (These factors are tremendously important and should not be taken for granted!!) In ideally constructed collaborative learning, people encourage each other, play with, give feedback, apologize, forgive, express positive intentions to value feelings and good relations, express positive  expectations, and engage in other interpersonal maneuvers.

Truly collaborative learning contrasts with the hyper-individualistic and even competitive ethos of much schooling in Western cultures—and other cultures, too. So it hasn’t been obvious until recently.

I must emphasize the power of the synthesis of experiential learning, learning by doing, action explorations, and small group rather than competitive individual efforts. Each element, experiential learning and collaborating with others, builds on the other. In addition, there are innumerable techniques and side-principles, as well as a wide open breadth of subjects.

So I’d add these two procedural elements to the curriculum of the education of the heart, and recognize that together they offer a kind of creativity development, an unlearning of old and rather deep habits that no longer serve (if they ever did), and a more socially engaged form of re-learning of more adaptive responses. The part that is creative is that the learning often doesn’t have answers figured out by anyone else ahead of time. Sometimes indeed there are no answers, only a clarification of the issues or needs involved and a negotiation as to how best to have everyone feel that the solution seems fair. (Indeed, there are some contexts where there are “right” answers—but what must be realized is the variety and preponderance of situations in which the idea that there is or should be a “right” answer is a misleading illusion.).

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