Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Constructivist and Buddhist Visions of Education

A man walking along a highroad sees a great river, its near bank dangerous and frightening, its far bank safe. He collects sticks and foliage, makes a raft, paddles across the river, and reaches the other shore. Now suppose that, after he reaches the other shore, he takes the raft and puts it on his head wherever he goes. Would he be using the raft in an appropriate way? No, a reasonable man will realize that the raft has been very useful to him in crossing the river and arriving safely on the other shore, but that once he has arrived, it is proper to leave the raft behind and walk on without it. This is using the raft appropriately.

In the same way, all truths should be used to cross over; they should not be held on to once you have arrived. You should let go of even the most profound insight on the most wholesome teaching; all the more so, unwholesome teachings.

--The Buddha

I am not an expert on Buddhism, but I have some experience with the way Buddhist concepts are taught in Tibetan and Theravadan traditions. I’ve spent more than a thousand hours over the last half-decade in meditation retreat (which isn’t that much from a Buddhist perspective). So here are some thoughts about the differences between Buddhist and western constructivist visions of education.

From a constructivist perspective, drawing primarily but not only from Dewey, education is viewed as a continuous and connected process. Every new thing that is learned is supposed to connect to and build upon what was learned before. In this way, one gains a sense of the interconnections of knowledge and a broad understanding of the world instead of a set of relatively unrelated facts and practices that don’t relate to each other very well. It’s a “big picture” view of knowledge, and at every moment the best teachers should be thinking of how what a student learns now draws on what came before and helps lead into what will come next. It’s a vision of education that stresses the relationship between “who” someone is and “what” someone learns in an effort to integrate the myriad habits one learns as a part of a development of a broader integrated self.

In a basic sense Buddhist approaches to education do the same thing. But their vision is more of a long path that one travels over, leaving the past behind in some sense. As I understand it, the word “meditation” is a very limited translation for the way Buddhists understand the myriad practices of self-transformation this can include. One way I have heard Buddhist teachers interpret this word is as “wearing out.”

In my experience, concepts in Buddhism are usually meant to be “worn out” in this way. A simple concept like that of “no self” is provided to novices in an extremely simplistic form. Anyone who’s read any Dewey will think “are these people stupid, or what?” And then, at the next level, you realize that they gave this initial framing in a manner they feel like novices can get some limited handle on. At the next level, in my experience, they’ll often say something like, “well, that’s not really true, exactly.”

Another way to think about what is happening here might be a transition across different and often quite distinct paradigms of understanding. Students “wear out” early forms of understanding, and then are led (or simply find themselves through the practice of meditation) in other paradigms. There seems to me sometimes to be something of a Kuhnian sense, here, in which the kinds of questions that are relevant at one level (e.g., is there a self or not?) are really not the kind of questions that are that relevant at the next level. Or, the words just take on pretty fundamentally different meanings, so the same question isn’t really the same question.

(Seemingly simple Buddhist scriptures seem to become increasingly layered with fundamentally different meanings over time, and one begins to see that they were much more carefully and artfully constructed than one realized at the beginning. A single text can actually become something of a different text entirely for people at different levels, and one realizes that the text was planting seeds of future interpretations even in the early interpretations.)

This may be one way to understand the “raft” metaphor in the Buddha’s words, above. Whereas in constructivist learning, the metaphor is more one of slowly tinkering with building an enormous, fluid, interrelated transportation machine, in Buddhism one is constantly discarding old ways of thinking in favor of new ways of thinking.

There are this kind of “phase” transitions in western education as well. But even in transitions between different ways of understanding in science (e.g., from materials as solid to materials as made up of atoms) there is generally an attempt to build a coherent bridge between both perspectives.

One explanation of the difference between these perspectives might stress the fact that the goal of Buddhism is not conceptual understanding but instead self-transformation. The fact is that they don’t really care about concepts. The aim is the development of a new kind of person, someone, in fact, who increasingly doesn’t think in abstract “concepts” at all (or at least, doesn’t need to).

But I’m not sure this distinction holds up so well when one remembers that Dewey was very focused on the ways in which conceptual understandings become taken up as “habits” that transform the way one sees the world. In other words, they lose the status as (only) abstractions and instead become practices for understanding.

I wonder if there is anything to learn from this contrast, since both approaches share quite similar understandings of how human beings are constructed on a basic level. Given my limited expertise in Buddhism, it’s possible I’ve misdrawn it, here, and I’d be interested in hearing if there’s anyone else out there who may be able to frame this better. And I'll probably understand it differently in a couple of years myself . . . . One of the fun things about being on a blog is the opportunity to put these kind of “think pieces” out there without having to do six months of research :)


James Horn said...

Thanks for this post, Aaron. If I may also take a roll down the hill, I would suggest that if Dewey were alive today, he would be very much in the middle of the new research in neurophenomenology that suggests that the consciousness we give such prominence to is actually something much more tenuous. In fact, natural philosophers/scientists like Francisco Varela, himself a practicing Buddhist while he lived, concluded not long before his death that what we call conscious states are complex, though temporal, neuronal ensembles whose configurations are determined by embodied biological and language structures that are in constant interaction (structurally coupled) within an environment. This kind of permanent embodied temporalism, if you will, seems to be represented in the many paradoxes that are part of the Buddhist tradition.

Varela, by the way, was insistent in his search for a "middle way," one based on the complementarity of Western scientific and Eastern religious traditions. He and Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch wrote a ground-breaking book, I think, called The Embodied Mind on the subject. It seems to me that the substance and stance of that book would have been very different had it not been for Dewey's Reflex Arc argument that blew a few hole in the walls that science had built up between the past, the present, and the future.

A. G. Rud said...

I forwarded Jim's comment to Jim Garrison, and he stated that Jim Horn is right on! (So is Aaron).

Aaron Schutz said...

Yes, I agree that Jim is on target about Dewey.

His post made me realize there is another aspect of this argument that I forgot to discuss.

Dewey and other progressives were deeply concerned about the cultural "lag" problem. This is the tendency for cultural constructs to stick around (in individuals, in societies) long after they have lost usefulness given the realities of a changing environment.

Elsewhere I have argued that the "lag" problem explains why Dewey argued for social practices that seemed unworkable on a large scale. He hoped we'd figure out solutions to the workability issue. If we taught people practices that pointed, however temporarily, in a different direction, then we'd reduce our chance of getting to something resembling the kind of society he wished.

Part of what is interesting about the Buddhist approach, and that has always been a bit disconcerting to me, is that they don't really care whether they point you in the "wrong" direction to some extent at the beginning. They are not trying to build an enormous edifice in the same manner. Instead, they expect you to "wear out" simplistic paradigms as you move slowly to more sophisticated ones. So it doesn't matter so much if someone has bad habits in a range of ways.

For example, the organization I currently sit with doesn't really care whether you sit correctly at the beginning or not. Their (I think accurate) assumption is that if you sit long enough, you'll eventually just figure it out. You will "wear out" your bad sitting habits. Furthermore, the practice itself (if you are doing it correctly--wearing it out correctly) "rewards" sitting correctly. You can practice better if you sit upright for a complex range of reasons that are only slowly becoming clear to me.

Of course, Dewey spoke specifically about posture in Democracy and Education and elsewhere because of his engagement with Alexander and the Alexander Method. Dewey's understanding of how one learns posture is quite different, and fits within his very different vision of integrated learning.

[It has taken me about six years to learn how to sit up mostly straight--e.g., to learn in an embodied sense what "authentically" counts as sitting "straight." And I still tend to lean forward a bit too far.)

(I'm sure I'm exaggerating more subtle differences between Dewey and Buddhists for effect, here)