Good teachers are like sculptors. They subtract to reveal what is already there. Bruce Lee once said: "It's not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential." This is one of the secrets to mastery, yet much of our work lives or school lives are spent on the unessential. Good teachers and good presenters — indeed, good leaders in general — work hard themselves to "hack away at the unessential" to create environments which foster natural engagement, encourage participation and exploration, and in the end lead to simplicity, clarity, and meaning.
In the book Dumbing Us Down, author and award-winning teacher John Taylor Gatto speaks on the importance of community. Real communities, says Gatto, "promote the highest-quality of life possible — lives of engagement and participation." This engagement and participation happens in many unexpected ways, says Gatto, "but it never happens when you've spent more than a decade [just] listening to other people talk and trying to do what they tell you to do, trying to please them after the fashion of schools." Engagement and participation are indeed elements of the highest quality of life in general and learning and teaching in particular, but this does not happen in an environment of fear, compliance, passivity and "just listening." Real meaning requires openness, empathy, and a clear structure which allows for freedom and discovery, including self-discovery.
Inspiration in a Japanese elementary school
The award-winning Children full of Life is a remarkable documentary that should be seen by everyone who is concerned with education. I recommend you take 45-minutes and watch this program today (in five parts on YouTube). It will touch your heart and make you think. It does not matter where you are in the world, this glimpse into a single Japanese elementary school is evocative and illuminating. It may just make you question what education is for in the first place. Kanamori-sensei, the homeroom teacher, is a modern day Master Yoda. As described in part one below, Kanamori-sensei is "kind, tough, and funny."
In this clip you will see 10-year olds make class presentations by standing in front of their classmates and sharing their journal entries. The lessons in honest communication, empathy, and compassion are inspiring. Having lost my own father when I was young, it is nearly impossible to watch this clip (and subsequent clips) without tearing up. A valuable lesson in authenticity and speaking from your heart.
"Good teachers," says Kanamori-sensei, "connect theory with life." In this clip the teacher makes a stand against bullying (some students are being picked on) not by giving a lecture but by some straight talk and getting the students to bring out the truth themselves. At first the students take the easy way out (by blaming others, etc.). The sensei says this is not good enough. "Just pretty words," he says. "You're blaming everyone but yourself!" In the end, by searching inside themselves, the students learn a valuable lesson in personal responsibility, empathy, and compassion. One little girl in particular learned a valuable lesson in compassion by revealing some of her own painful memories (just try to keep a dry eye through this).
In this clip the wise ol' Kanamori-sensei is in the end moved and deeply impressed by the maturity of his 10-year olds. This is a remarkable lesson in team work, responsibility, and speaking up for what is right in order to find a solution that matches the problem.
In this clip one of the students loses his father; it's touching and deeply moving how the class reacts to this news. I lost my own father suddenly in my first year of junior high. I must say, my own experience at school after my father's death was very different than what occurs in this clip. Again, here the devastating news is also a lesson in empathy and compassion for one's fellow human being (and group member). It's also a teachable moment: death is a part of life.
The students again decide on a group project which communicates their empathy from the heart. At the end of the clip the sensei reviews what was important these past two years together: "It is important to make an effort to make yourself understood and to understand others...."
The contents of this short documentary have many lessons (and reminders) for all of us. Additionally, the documentary itself is a good example of pairing down a large topic to a simple story that is able to express the core essence of the larger topic (education) by focusing on the particular.
In the whole scheme of things, two years with a great teacher is a short time. Yet, usually we had even less time than that with those who helped us the most to discover what we had all along inside. Are not the best teachers, then, the ones who recognize the ephemerality of the time they have in each student's life, and instead of trying to fill their heads with as much information as possible, work to create a sense of community through engagement and participation that will help the student go on to learn far more on his/her own than they ever could do in a school? The great master Ueshiba Morihei (O-sensei) touches on a similar theme in his writings: "Instructors can impart only a fraction of the teaching. It is through your own devoted practice that the mysteries of the Art of Peace are brought to life."