The following article is based on a speech given by the author in November, 2007, at the “English Week”, an annual international conference of English language teachers at Steiner Schools held in Altenberg, Germany. The conference theme was “Building Communities of Learners in Waldorf Education”.
Notes to the Theme of “Building a Community of Learners”
Robert McNeer, Italy
Robert McNeer (Italy), educator, actor and director, is co-founder of “La Luna nel Pozzo” (“The Moon in the Well”) a resident cultural center in Puglia, Italy for theatrical research and human development, which offers a studio space for rehearsals and a stone amphitheatre for presentation. A newly-planted forest there will be mature in 40 years time. www.la-luna-nel-pozzo.com,
Learning and unlearning
The empty alms bowl
“Learning to clown is, first of all, unlearning.”
First, some terms. How will we define “learners”? What is learning? Or, to turn it around for teachers, what do we want to teach? I thought about this a few years ago, when my daughter’s teacher called us in to talk. Angel has some visual-spatial difficulties, due to her hydrocephalus at birth, which makes it hard for her to organize symbols on a page, which of course greatly affects her writing abilities. Her teacher is challenged by the enormous difference between Angel’s development in this regard, and that of the other 10 children in her class. The school has no money for a tutor, and Angel’s teacher called us in, to ask us what our expectations were: what did we expect Angel to actually learn in school? I’d never thought of the question so bluntly, but immediately knew the answer. “Just please don’t take her curiosity away,” I replied.
I propose here to define “learning” as the natural fruit of a sustaining curiosity. ‘What if…?’ is the question that sustains both education and art. We ‘entertain a thought,’ as the beautiful English expression has it. I think the best artist is a hungry artist, whose ‘results’ are but stimuli to more research. This enlivens an ever-opening awareness, an ever-renewed beginning: “Zen mind, beginner’s mind,” as the expression has it—the end is the beginning. Likewise the teacher: the “teacher” must also be a “learner,” that is, informed by a sustaining curiosity, otherwise nothing is living.
If learning is an open-ended curiosity, this implies that a “community of learners” will tend to expand, and I think this is the case. Albert Einstein spoke of infinite interdependence as the one overarching truth of the universe. I think we often intuit this truth as children. Angel is not very good at writing words on paper, but she is brilliant at composing them as poetry. Here is a poem which she dictated at age 5:
Morning shines in the sky,
Like it wanted to tell you something.
Shine, morning, shine!
I was looking for something that shines!
If you think of your own childhood, surely you remember similar moments of total connection with nature. Watching wood smoke disappear into a star-filled sky, waves washing over your still body at the shore, noticing that the moon accompanies you as you walk… these are common illuminations in childhood. It is rarer, I think, for adults to have these experiences, and to do so generally involves “unlearning”: that is, the peeling-off of layers of goal-oriented behaviour. For that reason I often use exercises in my workshops which gently “soften” the will, while stimulating the imagination, in order to encourage a meditative, expansive state.
“Ritual is the way in which a society survives.”
Another question which I’d like to explore here is that of ritual; specifically, what Peter Brook, in his book There Are No Secrets speaks of as “living”-- as opposed to “deadly”-- tradition. Brook writes:
Generally speaking, we can conclude that tradition, in the sense we use the term, means ‘frozen.’ It is a frozen form, more or less obsolete, reproduced through automatism. …one must realize that this form may be the absolute obstacle to life, which is formless… The form is necessary, yet it…is like a living plant that opens up, lasts its time, wilts, then yields its place to another plant. (transcript of a workshop given in Paris, March 1991)
How to reconcile this deadly form with the vital ritual which is the life-blood of society, according to the Balinese actor Tapa Sudana? Working in theatre, one is constantly, if unconsciously, confronted with questions of ritual. While performing the same role in the same play hundreds of times, as I did as with the Wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood,” the question of how to keep the ritual of repeated performance alive became a matter of survival, and I think the answer I eventually hit upon could be of interest to you as teachers, ‘performing’ as you do, in your classrooms, day in and day out. I found it essential to enter the play with an open question: one which I could only answer together with that day’s audience. The nature of the question didn’t seem to matter; it could be anything -‘What purpose does hunger serve in our striving to evolve?’ is one I remember, ‘What is the minimum force my voice needs to clearly reach that man leaning on the wall?’ another. With time, I learned that the question need not be expressed - or expressible - in words: a questioning state was enough. This state changes the quality of my voice, of my physical presence onstage, and the audience, given the minimum of proper listening conditions, can sense these changes.
Love, allowing the other to be a legitimate other, is the only emotion which expands intelligence.
Humberto Maturana (1987)
As a facilitator (following Vivian Gladwell of the clown school “Nose to Nose,” I use the term ‘facilitator’ rather than ‘teacher,’ emphasizing the shared nature of learning: I don’t actually ‘teach,’ but rather I ‘facilitate learning’), as a facilitator it is crucial that I encourage an environment of extremely acute, non-judgemental observation. Again, this is akin to theatre. In theatre, the gaze of the audience creates a ritual space. Why ritual? Not for frozen, coded behaviour, but simply for heightened attention, for the collective consciousness that the moment is fleeting. Like Peter Brook’s living plant, the moment becomes precious to us in that we recognize that it will soon wilt and die. This collective consciousness I call ritual attention:
‘Rite,’ from Latin ‘ritus,’ and, further back, from proto Indo-European ‘to count, number,’ in a larger sense, to ‘give value to’. ‘Arithmetic’ and ‘rhythm’ come from this root. This heightened awareness reminds me of the Sufi saying: “close, non-judgemental observation is the highest form of love.” This led me to look up another word: ‘Reverence,’ from proto Indo-European, ‘wer: to be, or become aware of,’ also old English ‘waer: aware, cautious’, hence, English: ‘wary’. So, in theatre’s ritual gaze, we’re ‘becoming aware of’ the ‘value’ of that which we witness. This resonates for me, as the theatrical space, like that of the classroom, is a highly-charged one. It is, or should be, an incredibly nurturing environment, in which one is encouraged to take risks; a space which offers the potential of a state of grace, in rhythm with the world as it manifests.
Our field of attention in the theatre/workshop/classroom serves as a magnifying glass to life. I’m extremely interested in the implications of the ‘fine-grain’ or ‘high-resolution’ observation which occurs in that environment, because I feel it sustains a non-violent outlook. I think that when you see life in that detail, it is impossible to violate it, impossible to wreak violence upon it. Why? Because, paradoxically, the “object” of your attention is no longer an object to you, the observer. Why not? Simply because you are seeing it too closely. The subject occupies your full field of vision: there is no ‘ground’. Fine-tuning your observational skills enough to enjoy the subtle shadows of meaning passing over the clown´s face as she simply picks up a blanket, is an act of love, in the above Sufi definition. And this is how theatre can also serve as an instrument of peace.
This is, by the way, the way our children love us, when they’re small: by observing us this closely, and, mirror neurons being what they are, children mimic what they see. They can do this, brilliantly, because they have no experience: they are innocent of opinion—their mirror is unclouded. In theatre we have the opportunity to re-enter this state, but we have some unlearning to do: we must abandon our opinions, clean our mirror, find our way back to a kind of second innocence.
This open, listening quality gives our actions a strength which is beyond that of our own ego. For the gaze of the others – often enough cause of much embarrassment and shame in our childhood – can actually become a support to us. Knowing that I’m not alone, I can risk more – there are others to protect me. This I love in theatre: that this intimate realization takes place, and can only take place, in ‘public,’ where the empathetic gaze of the audience resonates with my personal experience through laughter, tears, through the rustling of awakening recognition, and especially through listening silence. If you, the teacher, can act in the faith that the students’ gaze can teach you, you are inviting them into a ritual circle of attention which is bigger than the sum of its parts. I understand in the Wolof language the word for ‘griot,’ or ‘storyteller,’ translates as ‘he who engenders a circle.’ That circle of attention can actually re-define you, not for eternity, but through that precious spark which is the present moment, as manifested through you.
This is difficult for me to verbalize, but it is very clear and simple (though not always easy) in the work. It’s not easy, because it requires a renunciation of ego. And the goal is often not obvious to the learner, because we have not been trained to renounce our ego, but rather to eliminate problems, to actively find the right answer. Anyone who’s ever stood on stage, knows the difficulty of simply being in front of the audience, without doing anything. But unlearning doing is crucial to the process. As in Vipassana meditation, simply observing a phenomenon actually changes it, with no further action on my part.
“The teacher offers an empty alms bowl”
When, as teachers, we can simply witness fully what is actually there, a precious miracle occurs, quietly and profoundly. Then there is no more teacher and learner, but a community, in the presence of learning. Participating in Vivian Gladwell’s clown facilitation course, it has become very clear to me that the work is good, when I, the facilitator, am going through the same process as is the learner. The honesty, the sincere attention to the present moment, which I require of the learner, are exactly the qualities which I must bring. I must free myself of any hidden agenda. It is only as a clean, polished mirror that I can offer the learner a true portrait of herself. If I can do so, then the relationship is strong, not because I’m strong, but because the relationship is true to the interdependent nature of the universe. The ‘empty alms bowl’ comes from the Buddhist image of the mendicant monk.
The alms bowl is not just for taking, but for offering an empty space. It was only after I finished building it, that I realized that the stone amphitheatre at our cultural center is a kind of alms bowl, offering, simply, a space in which to be observed, lovingly, in the Sufi definition of love. I remember Vivian saying once that clowning is fundamentally about seeing, and being seen. Peekaboo! I see you! How beautiful that this simple game, the first game we learn as children, contains such a profound lesson. The theatre and the classroom offer us a ritual space, a magnifying glass where seeing and being seen are simple gestures of love, expanding our intelligence. I think it is here that learning communities are built.
P. Brook, There Are No Secrets (London: Reed Consumer Books, Ltd., 1993), 50-53.
Vivian Gladwell, from the documentary film on the “Nose to Nose” clown pedagogical work, to be viewed online at www.nosetonose.info
H. Maturana and F. Varela, The Tree of Knowledge (Boston: Shambala Press, 1987), quoted in Peter Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, Betty Sue Flowers, Presence: Exploring Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society (London: Nicholas Brealey, 2005), 197.
Quotes of Tapa Sudana and Angel McNeer are from conversations with the author.
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