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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Memorization and Understanding

How have you come to learn things in your life?  Recall the earliest example of learning at home, at school, etc. in your experience.  To memorize something simply means to "commit something to memory" and memory gives us the beautiful, and if you think about it - somewhat strange, capacity to not forget events, experiences, and bits of information.  What kinds of things enhance your ability to remember?  Your senses are a strong component of memory and, for many of us, visual cues burn information/experiences into our mind to the point that you can visualize it all over again many years later.

How great is your capacity to memorize?  Individuals have memorized the Quran, the Bible, the Hidden Words, among other sacred texts.  The capacity to memorize is amazing, especially among youth.  In the Baha'i writings, we are encouraged to memorize prayers and passages from the Sacred text for a multitude of reasons.  In 'A Compilation on Baha'i Education', it is mentioned that "The method of instruction which ye have established, beginning with proofs of the existence of God and the oneness of God, the mission of the Prophets and Messengers and Their teachings, and the wonders of the universe, is highly suitable.  Keep on with this.  It is certain that the confirmations of God will attend you.  It is also highly praiseworthy to memorize the Tablets, divine verses and sacred traditions.  Ye will surely exert every effort in teaching, and in furthering understanding (emphasis added)."  Not only is it suggested that whole sections of Sacred verse be memorized, in another section it states that "...there is no objection to children who are as yet unable to memorize a whole prayer learning certain sentences only."

Baha'u'allah revealed in a Tablet, "The sanctified souls should ponder and meditate in their hearts regarding the methods of teaching.  From the texts of the wondrous, heavenly Scriptures they should memorize phrases and passages bearing on various instances, so that in the course of their speech they may recite divine verses whenever the occasion demandeth it, inasmuch as these holy verses are the most potent elixir, the greatest and mightiest talisman.  So potent is their influence that the hearer will have no cause for vacillation.  I swear by My life!  This Revelation is endowed with such a power that it will act as the lodestone for all nations and kindreds of the earth."  It should be noted that Baha'u'llah is referring to teaching the Baha'i Faith and He is not explicitly making a statement on pedagogy or educational philosophy as it may apply to educational institutions.

However, memorizing the Baha'i writings for the purpose of transforming this world, through action that reflects those writings, provides "the greatest and mightiest talisman."  It is part of the process of attracting ("lodestone") "all nations and kindreds of the earth."  So, perhaps, memorization is important enough to be a part of the educational process in general and the choice of what to memorize is most important.

In relation to the classroom or any educational setting, memorization can be considered a tool to enhance, not replace, understanding.  How many of us have committed to memory something that has been less than meaningful?  How many of us have retained by memory something for an exam (which implies that at least someone else thinks it is meaningful) and then soon forgotten it?

In educational literature you may read the phrase 'rote memorization' or 'rote learning' and it can often be found juxtaposed with 'meaningful learning'.  By adding the word rote, it clarifies that the memorization process to be used is one without contemplation, without connection in one's mind.  Is this the type of memorization that is prescribed in the Baha'i writings?  

In schools, we utilize this strength, especially in primary level education, though we tend to overuse it in the secondary and post-secondary levels.  I recently was involved in a discussion that revealed to me that the other person believed that the act of memorizing anything is good for the development of "learning how to learn".  It reminded me of a long held belief that the mind is much like a muscle and can be improved by repetition.  To those of you who subscribe to using sudoku, crossword puzzles, and the like, I would agree that there is a measure of usefulness to those (other than amusement), but caution anyone who holds the "mind equals muscle" as a central teaching philosophy.

In fact, rote memorization is a common strategy for learning in many schools.  I submit to you this article - "The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching" by Martin Haberman.  The pedagogy of poverty is the general educational practice that has been reinforced in urban schools.  I believe that rote memorization is central to this pedagogy, since it fits with the teacher-centered (dominated) classroom that provides knowledge as opposed to providing opportunities to be empowered by learning.

To close, memorization is powerful and, when used wisely to build a meaningful framework, it can enhance understanding.  However, understanding comes with time, experience, and collaborative environments.  Think of all of your experiences in Baha'i Study Circles (Ruhi courses).  We memorize passages and then go beyond this and understand through collaboration in loving and supportive environments.  It is a joy to be a part of them.  Wouldn't we want our children to experience such joy when learning other things as well?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Language, Learning, and Lodestones

I love language, though I am not a linguistic professional.  I love the arts - especially film and theater, in which I have performed.  Language used by a character reveals much about them - their moral compass, passions, strengths, weaknesses, perception of reality, etc.  Sometimes the language can be crude and downright ugly.  

The strength of language can be understood in this passage, "Beware lest ye shed the blood of any one.  Unsheathe the sword of your tongue from the scabbard of utterance, for therewith ye can conquer the citadels of men's hearts." (Baha'u'llah, 'Epistle to the Son of the Wolf'

So powerful is a word that it is equated with a sword.  This is not the first use of such language.  Take a look at Proverbs 12:18 in the Bible - "Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing."

What kinds of words are 'reckless', when teaching?  Can a wise person use strong language?

When I performed on stage and used certain curses that fit the character, I was not disturbed by the words.  When I watched "Freedom Writers", "25th Hour", and "Goodwill Hunting" (to name a few) for the first time, the strong language fit the characters and didn't shock me.  Do I use this language in my everyday vernacular?  No.  Do I think that it is appropriate to spew such language for effect?  No.  I have watched films and heard everyday people use strong language and, at times, it just doesn't make sense.  But, when a person is deeply in pain (physically or mentally) - a primal scream seems logical.  You may ask - what does this have to do with learning?  Well, a teacher was recently suspended for 18 months for using the book "Freedom Writers' Journal" in class - even after getting 149 approvals out of 150 from parents.  You can read the details here - LINK 

Now, I don't claim to know intimate details of the situation and won't claim who is in the right, but the story is one for us to consider how language can be used to engage students.  I tend, rightly or wrongly, when speaking with someone to begin to blend my accent with theirs.  I believe this is a subconscious way to fit in and empathize.  It doesn't mean that I use the same strong language - but mimicking another (of which I became conscious of it after college) has an effect of opening up the conversation and walls begin to fall (perhaps conquering those citadels?), such that a connection can be made.  Isn't this what some, if not all, teachers do?  They connect (not to be confused with becoming like another student) and are better able to find those 'gems within' or help the student discover those 'gems within' himself/herself.

After reading the link above, you know that the book that the teacher shared with her students was filled with strong language.  It also demonstrates individual transformation and empowerment over the course of the book.  The transformation and empowerment was of individual students in similar life situations as those who were reading it.  The characters in the journal (real students and real journal entries in a class from L.A.) were models of transformation.  

How does the following quote fit with the aforementioned situation?

"A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men.  It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and understanding" - Baha'u'llah, from 'Epistle to the Son of the Wolf'

As Baha'is we are to have seemly conduct.  In the Book of the Covenant, Baha'u'llah states, 
"Verily I say, the tongue is for mentioning what is good, defile it not with unseemly talk.  God hath forgiven what is past.  Henceforward everyone should utter that which is meet and seemly, and should refrain from slander, abuse and whatever causeth sadness in men."  In the same book He states, "We exhort you to fear God, to perform praiseworthy deeds and to do that which is meet and seemly and serveth to exalt your station."

Can strong language, when understood in context, be used to exalt one's station?  Can it be used to transform lives, to connect one's soul to one's true destiny and shake the dust from these shells called 'selves'?  Watch Anis Mojgani (two-time national and recent world slam poetry champion who is also Baha'i) perform his poem 'Shake the Dust'.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film 'Freedom Writers', is one that includes a student reading his journal entry recalling his summer.  He is the boy who begins with "This summer was the worst summer of my short 14 years of life..." - LINK
When watching the film, I thought that this had to be rewritten to increase the drama and make the audience cry.  Well, apparently it was lifted directly from a student's journal (the director stated as such).  These students were transformed and empowered - what more do we want?

I can see many tangents from this topic - the use of language to control, language as a political or power play, language as a divisive tool.  I leave you to take it where it may go in the comments.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Regard Man as a Mine

How many times have you seen the following quote used in relation to education?

Let's look at it in two ways..."as is" and "in context".


Well, I have not only seen it used many times, but use it as a foundational statement for my company.  In regards to my educational philosophy, I make meaning of this statement in light of current constructivist, learner-centered concepts of education.  The first line tells me that an educator shouldn't consider herself as providing gems of knowledge to a student (as if the student is a blank slate), but rather should approach the student as filled with unknown potentials.  These unknown potentials could include knowledge of topics/subjects, understandings of processes, and spiritual qualities such as empathy, humility, and patience (I can expand on these in another blog as critical-thinking qualities as well).
If the educator wishes to improve learning, then she must know as much about these unknown potentials as possible.  Many educators today are investigating and learning about the importance about identifying student's misconceptions/preconceptions.  There is much to be gained in regards to effective teaching when one first learns what the student knows.  But the quote is more meaningful than identifying knowledge.  It helps to remind me that the student before me is not static and has latent transformative (both individual and societal) power within them.  This makes me, as an educator, humble and more collaborative with the student, as opposed to talking down or at him.

The second line in the aforementioned quote, reminds me that this complex process called education is what allows the untapped potential to be identified and then expressed for the benefit of humanity.  What?!  Does that mean that education is NOT a process that creates individuals in a cookie-cutter fashion with knowledge for the sake of a good job or participation in democracy or academic enlightenment?  Well, it surely means to me that the over-arching goal of education is the betterment of humanity - so we cannot use education for mere employment purposes.  How do you interpret the second line?


Click the quote above (or link at the end of this sentence) and you'll be sent to a useful search engine for Baha'i text and an original tablet that contains the quote (Lawh-i-Maqsud, Tablet of Maqsud).  Just prior to the quote is the following...

"Man is the supreme Talisman.  Lack of a proper education hath, however, deprived him of that which he doth inherently possess.  Through a word proceeding out of the mouth of God he was called into being; by one word more he was guided to recognize the Source of his education; by yet another word his station and destiny were safeguarded."

The word 'talisman' is defined as 'something that confers on its bearer supernatural powers'.  What might that mean?  Well, the words that follow the quote may help.  Here are the immediate words following the quote and selected sentences, in order, from the rest of the tablet.  (By the way, you may have noticed that the quotes use masculine forms when referring to individuals - he, his.  That is simply due to the translation from the original language to English - in my humble understanding.  I choose to mix and match in my writing, since English has no useful neutral term.)

"If any man were to meditate on that which the Scriptures, sent down from the heaven of God's holy Will, have revealed, he would readily recognize that their purpose is that all men shall be regarded as one soul, so that the seal bearing the words 'The Kingdom shall be God's' may be stamped on every heart, and the light of Divine bounty, of grace, and mercy may envelop all mankind."

Oneness of humanity becomes a primary purpose of education.  This is in the light of scripture, but, if one acknowledges that all knowledge is linked and compartmentalization of knowledge into subjects (such as biology, chemistry, etc.) is a useful, but artificial, separation of Truth, then the primary purpose of all education is oneness of humanity.  What does the phrase 'oneness of humanity' mean to you?

Later (paragraph 6) it is stated...
"The Great Being saith: O well-beloved ones!  The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers.  Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.  We cherish the hope that the light of justice may shine upon the world and sanctify it from tyranny."

Unity (not uniformity) and the oneness of humanity are inextricably linked concepts.  Are they the same?  I must consider these for another time, but it is interesting to note that in a tablet that contains the aforementioned quote about education has both.  What does it mean, if anything, for how schools are organized?

In paragraph 13, it is stated...
"The Great Being saith:  Blessed and happy is he that ariseth to promote the best interests of the peoples and kindreds of the earth."

This reinforces the framework in which education is to be used.  Students should have a grander perspective of their place and function in society.

And most interesting (paragraphs 17 and 18)...
"At the outset of every endeavour, it is incumbent to look to the end of it.  Of all the arts and sciences, set the children to studying those which will result in advantage to man, will ensure his progress and elevate his rank.  Thus the noisome odours of lawlessness will be dispelled, and thus through the high endeavours of the nation's leaders, all will live cradled, secure and in peace.

The Great Being saith:  The learned of the day must direct the people to acquire those branches of knowledge which are of use, that both the learned themselves and the generality of mankind may derive benefits therefrom.  Such academic pursuits as begin and end in words alone have never been and will never be of any worth."

So, education is not an end, it is a means to an end.  It is the individual's responsibility to have the greater good in mind when pursuing knowledge and that pursuit should lead to action.  Well, I must go now and tend to my non-virtual world.  I hope to meditate on these words and provide a follow-up that is more of my own thoughts as well.  Take care.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Beginning

Today I am starting an open reflection on how the phrase 'Baha'i Education' transforms my reality and becomes a reality.  This is a test, only a test of one person's view.  It is in no way an official view of Baha'i education and does not claim to be the 'right' view.  It is evolving and to foster that evolution through feedback and simply mirroring my own words, this blog has been created.