A Revolution That Could Transform Education?
In early July I embarked on a year-long journey of my Learning & Design Program at Peabody’s Graduate School of Education. Four weeks later I completed my first two courses: Learning In & Out of the Classroom and Diversity & Equity in Education.
For my graduate Capstone project (think of this as my thesis), I’ll be working on a “problem” for about a year. To spark our imaginations before arriving on campus, my professor tasked everyone in my cohort with choosing a potential problem to address. Luckily for me, I had already identified an issue within the American educational system that I was eager to explore. It was outlined in my statement of purpose:
Adults (presume they) understand how to train studious high-achieving, high-ranking students, yet the rigid expectations of universities historically favor financially stable and racially homogenous families. But in a growing multicultural and diverse national community, how are classrooms promoting open-minded and critically thinking learners who engage in challenging conversations to promote radical empathy? How can I transform the current social climate to adopt the philosophy that a “successful” education is not quantified by arbitrary numbers but instead measured over the course of a lifetime?
And with a bit more thought, I got here.
BURNING MAN: A REVOLUTION THAT COULD TRANSFORM EDUCATION?
As the world becomes more interdependent, cultivating compassion is a moral and a practical imperative. It is also a spiritual one. Practicing compassion is the truest expression of our common humanity and a deep source of happiness in ourselves and others. In schools, as elsewhere, compassion has to be practiced, not preached (Creative Schools, pg.139).
INSPIRATION / MOTIVATION
Beginning to tackle questions about othering/belonging in the classroom invited personal reflection: how many counter narratives were erased from my elementary school curriculum? My ponderings led me to my fourth-grade social studies class. For 60+ years, California’s state curriculum required students to research and replicate one of the charming, historical Missions. I vaguely remember how my textbook romanticized the Padres as generous and spiritual mentors for indigenous communities. Because my comprehension of the material was measured on my miniature model of the Mission, no deeper context underlying the fraught relationship between the colonizers and the colonized was mentioned. My limited knowledge of California Missions that supported my sugar cube and Popsicle stick structure neglected to recognize the irreversible harm inflicted on Native American culture, from harsh punishment to debilitating disease.
What if teachers intentionally reframed the lesson from a dominant narrative of unprecedented progress towards one of overlooked hardship and radical empathy? I believe that ignorance and indifference threaten America’s increasingly rich demographic mix will be reflected in the country's future leaders.
PROBLEM FINDING STATEMENT
In a growing multicultural and diverse national community, how are classrooms promoting open-minded and critically thinking learners who engage in challenging conversations to promote radical empathy? How can I transform the current social climate to adopt the philosophy that a “successful” education is not quantified by arbitrary numbers but instead measured over the course of a lifetime?
WHAT IS EMPATHY? (as defined by Dr. Galloway)
Empathy – the ability to comprehend and share feelings of another – is the foundation of a human-centered design process; by deeply understanding people we are better able to design for them. To empathize, we follow three steps: immerse, observe, and engage.
Dr. Galloway's graphic exemplifies the importance of empathy in the human-design process.
WHY BURNING MAN?
(other than the INCREDIBLE fact that Dr. J Boogie Bubble Wrap is a Playa name GIVEN TO a 60+ years-young anthropology professor!!!)
When I applied to the Learning and Design Program, I had recently recognized what a driving force in my life would be; what it had to be: facilitating experiences that would teach people how to be more compassionate human beings.
My *ding*-lightbulb-moment wasn’t immediate. For almost 3 years my curiosity about Burning Man has simmered.
[A silicone-sanded desert] + [100,000 strangers] + [49-sq-miles dripping with creativity and innovation]
= an experience in which I would be honored to participate.
But I didn’t make the connection between my Burning Man fascination and my potential Capstone Project until recently. I was trying to think of spaces outside the classroom where genuine empathy and inclusion were already ritual. This brainstorm sparked my mind’s leap from school to Burning Man.
Many of my close friends have experienced Burning Man so I had hoped to attend in August 2020, then this August, now August 2022? Imagine the collective healing, after a global pandemic of disease and isolation and hate, to gather with humans to celebrate life...gives my goosebumps.
Co-Founder Larry Harvey reflected on the Burning Man ethos and constructed the following 10 principles:
Radical Inclusion: Anyone welcome to attend Burning Man. No prerequisites exist for participation in the community.
Gifting: Burners practice gift-giving and do not expect something of equal value in return.
Decommodification: The community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising.
Radical Self-reliance:Individuals are encouraged to discover and rely on their inner resources.
Radical Self-expression:No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine how self-expression is “gifted” to others.
Communal Effort: Burners celebrate creative cooperation and collaboration (social connections, works of art, and welcoming public spaces).
Civic Responsibility:Those who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and delegate civic responsibilities to community members.
Leaving No Trace: The Burning Man Project is committed to respecting the environment. After each Burn, participants ensure that there is no MOOP – Matter Out of Place – and that the space is left in a better state than when it was found.
Participation: Burners believe that (individual and societal) transformative change can only occur through deeply personal participation. They achieve being – the process of “opening the heart” – through work, play, and real-world actions.
Immediacy: Immediate experience is recognized as the most treasured touchstone of the 10 Principles. Through interpersonal engagement Burners overcome barriers that stand between humans and subsequently confront their inner self, the reality of others, and the importance of participation in society. No metaphysical idea can substitute for actual experience.
...AND THE CONNECTION BETWEEN THE TWO?
There are so many; way more than I had initially thought, honestly. I cannot think of a better way to directly compare Burning Man principles to educational principles than to follow in Dr. Ken Robinson’s footsteps. I’m currently reading Dr. Robinson’s book Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. Filled with anecdotes, innovative research, and case histories, Creative Schools argues for radical transformations in America’s troubled educational system.
Dr. Robinson contends that educators should begin by asking what students should know and be able to do as a result of their education. He outlines 8 educational competencies that fall into 4 basic purposes of education: to engage, to enable, to enact, and to empower (detailed in chapter 5, The Art of Teaching).
Curiosity: the ability to inquire about and explore how the world works.
Creativity: the ability to generate new ideas and apply them to a greater sense of purpose.
Criticism: the ability to analyze information and concepts and to develop reasoned arguments and judgements.
Communication: the ability to express ideas and emotions clearly and confidently through multiple mediums.
Collaboration: the ability to learn as groups, not only in groups.
Compassion: the ability to empathize with others and to act accordingly.
Composure: the ability to connect with the inner life of feeling and develop a sense of personal harmony and balance.
Citizenship: the ability to engage constructively with society and to participate in the processes that sustain it.
Then I did some math:
COMMUNAL EFFORT (Burning Man principle) + CREATIVITY (educational competency)
= DESIGN-THINKING [The Maker Movement (Dougherty); Making Through Lens of Culture and Power (Vossoughi et al); Burning Man at Google (Turner)]
RADICAL INCLUSION (Burning Man principle) + COLLABORATION (educational competency)
= STRENGTHS-BASED LEARNING DESIGN [(Noticing Learner’s Strengths (Rogoff); Impact of Immersion: A Case Study of Burning Man and its Implications for Audience Engagement (Reisfeld Shafter)]
These two equations prove that the [Burning Man] + [educational experience] have deeply transformational (and widely untouched) potential.
Over the next 10 months I will delve into the historically untapped potential of blending idealistic Burning Man communal principles with creative learning environments. I’m looking forward to sharing my progress with you along the way.