“Are you a 21st Century Teacher?” Before I open the e-mail with the come-on subject, I know what it’s going to say. “Are you using the right cool tools to motivate today’s students? Are you on the techno bandwagon or still in the old-curmudgeon-dinosaur-world of yesteryear?” 21st century teaching is the new buzzword and everyone can’t run fast enough to make sure each student is armed with an i-Pad to keep up with today’s world and be prepared for the future.
Meanwhile, here I am in Montreal, having just spent three hours with a room of 60 teachers chanting, singing, slapping their bodies, clapping their hands, moving, dancing and charging the room with an energy powerful enough to light Las Vegas. And then another two hours drawing forth beautiful and evocative sounds from boxes with slabs of wood and metal on them. Followed by a reflection time examining the thinking behind each moment of the day, giving language to and thus, shedding new light on each bodily and heart-felt experience. Not a single machine was plugged into an outlet for the six hours of deep learning— and thus, the day was disqualified by the new 21st century standards.
Amongst my succinct proverb-like summaries of the pedagogical processes at work was this one: “Teach from the body to the body.” As it often is, the first hour of my workshop was taught in complete silence, always an engaging strategy to get people involved at a higher level of attention and interest. The language was gesture, facial cues, movement and body percussion activities, each of which invited a bodily response from the participants. Without words, all patterns needed to be decoded at the synaptic level by each participant, the only way that learning really takes place in the brain. And because the brain is housed in the body, teaching to the body necessarily means teaching to the brain. “21st century techniques” would often have us teach from the machine to the mind, bypassing the body altogether and thus, losing the opportunity to learn at the muscular level, at the synaptic-pattern-perceiving level, at the level of breath and bone and blood and bonding with our fellow learners.
Of course some learning can take place without doing the fox-trot or patting one’s knees rhythmically. These words on a screen can evoke ideas, images, a series of connected thoughts that have the possibility of shaping the way you think. The Youtube clips or menu of Powerpoints on the i-Pad can likewise seep into the synapses and yes, the manipulative powers of the Smart-Board might help create a more flowing, active, dynamic process in the playground of numbers and equations.
But let’s consider the possibility that our fascination with the glitz and gloss of the seductive machine is not a 21st century epiphany, but an outdated 1950’s notion— technological innovation will cure all human ills and deliver us to peace, prosperity and knowledge. And that we have unthinkingly inherited the peculiarly American custom of looking to material things for salvation, putting more faith and investing more money in a new computer than sending a teacher to an Orff workshop.
It’s difficult to write convincingly of this to people who have never seen this kind of body to body, heart to heart, mind to mind work in its full glory. It is a wonder to behold and if we ever found out what real learning and education is, we might fall on our knees like parched desert travelers arriving at the water-hole when encountering this way of teaching. Without you yourself having the experience of the communion of moving bodies, the aesthetic wonder of beautiful sounds made by your own hands in company with others, the extraordinary surprise of simple elements joined artfully together to make complex effects, you simply can’t know the whole of what learning is or might be.
What does the future really require from us? 21st century teachers who have committed themselves to re-learn what 20th century teachers forgot—that the body is an instrument of knowledge, that the heart rules the mind, closing or clogging or opening the neural pathways in direct proportion to the amount of fun and good fellow-feeling in the room, that the mind is not only a pattern–perceiver, but a pattern-maker, most gloriously in the form of art. 21st century children have the same bodies as their Neolithic ancestors, roughly the same brains and one can guess, the same hearts vulnerable to loss, isolation, disconnection as well as the thrill of belonging, genuine joy and deep happiness.
Until education wakes up to all of this at the core of the whole venture, ain’t no machine gonna improve schools one inch. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with some 21st century trees, a flowing river and birds singing in a crisp Fall morning in Montreal.