Monthly Archives: September 2014

Workshop by Craig Holdrege: “Thinking Like a Plant”

DSCF1236Workshop with Craig Holdrege at the South Devon Steiner School

“Thinking Like A Plant”

20th September 2014

 On a sunny Saturday in September I joined a group of people gathered in the gardens of the South Devon Steiner school to practice ‘thinking like a plant’. This is a method of studying plants that is a type of phenomenological inquiry and is closely linked to Goethe’s way of Science. Craig Holdrege is a biologist based at The Nature Institute in the US state of New York. This is my summary of the workshop:

Thinking like a plant involves a process of allowing our thinking to become as alive and flexible as nature itself.

 

One aspect of this living form of thinking is cultivating an open ‘receptivity’. Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to this as ‘sauntering’. We do not need a particular focus, other than opening out to the world and watching what catches our attention, without going into great detail. This capacity for receptivity needs to be ‘exercised’, like the practice necessary in learning to play a new musical instrument. In the workshop Craig asked us to ‘saunter’ around the gardens for 10 minutes but he said that an hour would be more appropriate.

 

This practice allows for a slowing down that is almost antithetical in our culture. It develops a presence of mind that notices what comes toward us in life rather than relying on our discerning capacities which lead us to be critical and to judge.

 

There is so much in Nature and in life that we miss, especially when we are overly focused on specifics. Developing the practice of ‘sauntering’ can help us to regain some of what we habitually miss and give us a richer, fuller experience of life.

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The next aspect of the ‘living thinking’ that we were aiming to develop was to focus in on the details of life as exactly as we possibly could. In a circle we described a Hazel leaf, not what we felt or thought about it but what we saw, exactly in front of us. This was to focus us on our exact sense perception. Sauntering leads us out into the world, focusing leads us in. Science today gets lost in the detail but a whole approach to life such as Goethean Science moves back and forth, in and out of detail. Craig stressed that focus is just as important to openness, as if we don’t go into detail then we are not really seeing the world.

 

Through exact sense perception we can take the time to notice and describe details without worrying about understanding them. By doing this the details of relationships also start to emerge, like the contrasting elements that appear when we pay attention to the two very different sides of a leaf. When comparing details insightful ‘aha’ moments emerge as the qualities, expressions and characteristics of the plant begin to reveal themselves.

 

The next aspect of ‘living thinking’ was to deepen our exact sense perception by visualising our experience in our imaginations, Goethe called this Exact Sensorial Imagination. We can re-picture our sense experience of the leaf by remembering exactly how it felt to touch, what its edges looked like, how the veins came out of the stem, the different colours of leaf apparent on both sides, etc etc. We each do this re-picturing process differently. Some people have a type of memory that allows for the ‘whole’ picture to be recreated at once, some people need to work through it and move around it bit by bit.

 

What is profound is that by doing this re-picturing we realise that the plant has left an impression on us. The sensory experience that we can re-create in our imaginations is not fantasy, as long as we stick to what exactly we experienced. This process also shows us what we have missed or not paid attention to. By exercising our exact sensorial imagination we are connecting ourselves and the plant inwardly in a way that we could not achieve otherwise. This builds a mobile plastic inwardness that allows us to perceive the plant more vividly and vibrantly.

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To compare our exact sense perceptions we all passed our leaves around the circle, so that for a short time we could each see and experience everybody’s leaf. If we just take one example of something and base our knowledge upon that it can be very dangerous. It is just one instance, one expression. By comparing and looking at different instances we can notice generalities but we can also notice lots of difference. Henri Bortoft said that this enables us to see parts of life “being themselves differently”. A plant is an activity that brings forth the ‘same’ but always in different ways. The process of a ‘plant’ is a dynamic that brings forth difference. By seeing 20 leaves that were the ‘same’ but ‘different’, as a group we were able to get a sense of quite how dynamic a ‘leaf’ is.

 

We then explored context. We can take something out of its context to focus on it but we must then do our best to reintegrate it back into context. We can look at which bit of the stem the leaf came from, which part of the plant or tree, and what the conditions of its location are, such as sunny or shady, to see how its unique form might be expressing the environment that it is in. By becoming context sensitive we start to see that life is always connected to the context in which it is unfolding.

 

Focusing our attention to life through exact sense perception and opening to it through our imagination and ‘sauntering’, gives us a closeness that we might not have otherwise had. By engaging in a direct relationship with a part of life we naturally start to welcome and feel grateful for its presence.

 

Through practicing a longer study of a tree or a plant we can get a sense of how it is being in the world, not just what is it. This allows us to have a much deeper and richer experience of the world in a way that requires us to be active not passive.

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During the workshop we used drawing exercises to find different ways of experiencing what is there. This allowed us to use drawing as a tool to focus our attention, not to focus on creating a work of art.

 

Craig teaches this method of studying life as a way to get out into the world and out of our head, without losing our heads. He believes that we can grow through the life that we study, to understand more of life.

 

Taking the time and energy to acknowledge the wonders that plants display, and are, to the world can enable us to find a way of knowing that is more appropriate to the plants themselves, rather than just trying to ‘explain’ them through mechanisms.

 

As a teacher, letting people experience and reflect is a good way to engage students in learning. This approach as an educational method is experiential and allows the world to speak for itself, to the student themselves.

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This is a rough description of the “Living Thinking” Tree study that we carried out:

 

  • First impressions –

 

Walk around the tree of your choice and have a first meeting with it. Write down your first impressions of it.

 

  • Exact sense perception – leaf outline – 1

 

Do a ‘negative space’ drawing of a leaf. Instead of drawing an outline, leave the ‘leaf’ white and shade in the edges to re-create the leaf shape.

 

  • Exact sense perception – leaf outline – 2

 

Now draw the leaf outline paying careful attention to what you are exactly seeing, not just drawing your ‘idea’ of the leaf.

 

  • Imagination –

 

Imagine the leaf coming into and out of being. All forms in life come out of movement and by re-tracing that we can come to kind of inner movement.

 

  • Exact sense perception – branch

 

Take a branch and observe from the bottom upwards. Notice the stem, the leaves, the buds, notice how they are joined and related to one and other and how they are arranged.

 

  • Walk around and find different examples of the same tree, notice how the ‘same’ tree is expressing itself differently.

 

  • Repeat all previous exercises with a different type of tree.

 

  • Use Exact Sensorial imagination to bring your sense perceptions to life in your imagination,  either during the observation or at the end of each session or each day.

 

By moving from one tree to another, through the medium of us, the characteristics of different types of trees can be illuminated. For instance, your experience of ‘Oak’ will inform your experience of ‘Birch’.

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“What is Education for?”

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This is a selection of notes that I took at a talk by Craig Holdrege at the South Devon Steiner School last Wednesday. Craig is a biologist, co-founder of the incredible research centre The Nature Institute in New York State, and worked as a Steiner Teacher for over 20years, as well as a Teacher trainer and mentor for Steiner education for many years. His phenomenological approach to researching plants and animals is pioneering a complimentary approach to mainstream science that looks at the whole organism in context. Listening to him speak on the topic of “What is Education for?” illuminated for me a way of teaching that has concern for the whole individual in context.

 

These notes are more of a dictation than a summary and cover most of his talk, so it is quite a long piece of text, but very worth reading if you are interested in education. I will write a follow up blog post to summarise and convey my thoughts.

 

Notes from Craig Holdrege’s talk at the South Devon Steiner School:

“What is Education for?”

17th September 2014

 

Why do we need education?

 

As humans we go through an ongoing process of development that doesn’t just happen biologically. A nurturing environment is required to allow the full development of a human being to take place, for example, if a baby was left all alone at birth it would not survive. We are not born ‘finished’, or fully formed, in the sense that we are not able to look after ourselves from birth. We rely on our living context, our families and our communities to assist our development through childhood and adolescence, until we have physically and socially developed enough to look after ourselves and to independently engage in the world.

 

Education begins from birth. As humans, we are living beings that form in response to our immediate environment, and so all forms of interactions in the world are educative. They in-form, shape and guide our development as an individual, in positive and negative ways. Today we have ‘schooled’ education, taken an idea of education and ‘put’ it in the format of a ‘school’. However, anyone who interacts or works with other people is an educator – and gaining an appropriate education for life does not necessarily involve going to school.

 

To illustrate this Craig used the example of his grandfather. This was a man who he very much respected and always thought of as well educated. After recently reading his grandfather’s memoirs he realised that he had only attended around 2 years of formal schooling. His Grandfather’s life was his education, being part of a family, a community, being immersed in nature, chopping wood, riding horses.

 

What is education for?

 

Mainstream education has become synonymous with preparing children for the ‘workplace’. It has become business driven, preparing for competition, to create individuals that will work to eventually ‘out-compete’ each other. It is mostly centered around short-term, business focused goals such as preparations for University or job training, to compete in the world of work, and societal ‘business’ goals such as how to be a good citizen, in society which itself revolves around business and competition.

 

The three ‘R’s’, reading, writing and arithmetic have always been the basic foundations of education, they create cultural capacities that enable us to be a part of society, but in education today the drive to prepare children for ‘something’ overshadows the possibility of them learning even these most basic capacities. Most mainstream schooling systems are based on testing a wide range of subjects, not just assessing these basic skills. Educators often get frustrated with this model as they experience how this perpetual preparation for assessment gets in the way of real learning.

 

In attracting new students to a school, even in more ‘alternative’ forms of education, rather than proudly promoting the quality of their education, nowadays schools sell their education on proving how successful they are at ‘preparing’ children, often by listing which Universities their students get into.

 

In the process of testing, children are constantly being prepared for something that they are then told they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at. It is a game and it distances the child from the learning process, they are not engaged in anything for its own sake. The children, and young adults at University, are often aware that this style of learning is a game and focus on how to learn and win the game, rather than learning how to learn.

 

John Dewey, the father of experiential education, was a philosopher who also put his ideas on education into practice. He wrote, “When preparation is made the controlling end then the potentialities of the present are sacrificed to a suppositious future”. When our educational aim is to prepare children for what is ‘supposed to come’ next in their future, we prevent them from engaging in a learning experience that allows them to live and thrive in the moment. If there is preparation to be done for a test, as educators we should ask, is it a learning experience? If it is not then it should not be done.

 

One of the biggest hurdles in education is to get away from the focus on preparation. In our Universities we overload students with ‘information’, getting them to memorise an endless stream of facts and bombard them with power point slides at the rate of 100 slides per 100 minutes. It is remarkable how rigid and resistant to change our educational institutions are.

 

The short term goals we prepare children for are actually very little related to life, they prepare for a ‘pseudo future’. If the future is exactly what we prepared for then the ‘future’ is actually just an extension of our past. Engaging with the future involves being present to life as it is occurring right here, right now. As humans we always live in the present moment, and we can never fully predict what that moment will bring. Engaging in the ‘now’, involves learning how to respond to the present moment. This can only be learnt by having engaged in many ‘now’ moments in the past.

 

A fundamental insight of Dewey regarding the process of education is that it should involve engaging meaningfully in the world, engaging in the now, interacting, responding with what we are doing and experiencing in the present moment.

 

How do we allow the ‘real’ future to emerge in the present?

 

We can look at significant events in our own life. How much did we prepare for them? Like key events in history such as the Berlin wall coming down in 1989, often we are not aware of their possibility much before they actually happen. Nobody really understands the dynamics of historical processes, such as quite how the first World War started. Are we prepared for the moment when we meet the person who becomes our life partner? Or the moment we hold our first born child in our arms? We are often not prepared for such dramatic life events but the present moment calls forth something in us that allows us to work with them. Challenging experiences are educative.

 

To enable individuals to become flexible and responsive to life as it unfolds, we need an education that can ‘live’ out of people, rather than allowing people to become a ‘result’ of their education.

 

A question for teachers to students can be; “Who are you? What do you need?”. They are open ended questions that can guide us towards how we serve the individual. These questions do not need to be asked directly and explicitly, but can be held internally as a guide for how we interact with them. The simple intentionality of such an inquiry is very profound.

 

We can ask, why do we feel the students need to learn that? How is it an educative experience? Beyond just abstract information to learn about, how is it a process that engages the whole person? Find at least three reasons, minimum, why it is important for them to be learning that. Teaching something just because it is on the curriculum is not enough.

 

A learning experience is rich and multi-faceted, engaging the student in different ways of experiencing something. We can lead students into a living style of thinking by including history, context, cause, and effect. This encourages a thinking experience, rather than telling them what to think. By focusing on engaging them in a thinking experience the students come out knowing things. The learning has gone through them, not just into them. A person exercises themselves through the challenges we bring. By considering ‘who are you? What do you need?’ we can engage individuals in a process of being who they are and getting to know who they are.

 

When educating for the ‘unknown future’, the real future, it is important that as educators we realise that we are moving and changing too, and push forward to create our own new questions, not just rely on old answers.

 

If we go deeper we realise that there is more to life than meets the eye, we can explore where we don’t know and allow the students to explore where they don’t know. We can find open ended ways for the students to explore, experiment and go places that we have not gone before. We can deal with something like it is a riddle and allow the students to find answers that bring out new questions, quests, that lead us forward into the unknown.

 

The real value of education is allowing students to do what we did not expect or plan for. There is a fearfulness growing around what we let children do and a growing pressure to organise every minute of a child’s time, which can be hard to combat on our own.

 

Technology

 

Today technology places our lives in a set of special conditions – ones which disconnect us from our living context and the processes that are involved in producing the world that we experience. For instance, the experience of warmth from having done work, such as chopping and stacking wood for the fire, is very different to experiencing warmth from having turned on the button to our central heating system.

 

Albert Borgmann is a philosopher of technology who wrote about ‘device culture’, “Devices dissolve the coherent character of the pre-technological world of things.” Technological devices stop our encumbrance and engagement with context, they make life ‘easy’ and ever more ‘skill repellent’. Constraints of time and space become dissolved and encourage a disembodied connectedness with the world. A lot of technological devices are sold as being ‘cool’, this is a bad educative principle that is usually based on money – and is the reality of the world that children are currently engaging in.

 

The disembodied, disconnected dissolution of time and space that technology and devices bring calls for a more concrete engagement in space and time to counter balance the effect, such as creating, making things and directly experiencing nature.

 

Borgmann wrote that we need “commanding presences” in our lives, “focal experiences” from which to learn. A commanding presence involves a seriousness, and a genuineness, an embodiment and disclosure of something in the world that has a rich, deep past, such as an oak tree, the ocean, or a grandfather. Stories are one example of a ‘commanding presence’, we can immerse ourselves in the dynamics of being that live through them.

 

Children need to become rooted in the world and technology does not allow that. We can recognise the usefulness of technology but also lead them to the embodied will that comes from engaging in experience. An activity such as boat building would be an educative experience based around ‘commanding presence’ – the wood, the tools and the action of boat building, working out how to put yourself in relation to the wood and the tool, allows us to be presently engaged in concrete experiences of life that is rich and deep.

 

As educators we can ask ourselves, “How is what I am doing a ‘commanding presence’ for the students?”, This can help us create an educative experience that has multi-faceted, deep meaning.