Post 19: Education Reinvented in Chicago

Thursday, April, 25, 13 § 1 Comment

While Christian, Zoe and I have been blogging about re-forming school, I’m inspired to report that a writer and educator named Theodore Richards has been doing it for the last couple of years, through a program called the Chicago Wisdom Project.

I first heard about Richards in January 2011, when I met with a widely-known spiritual leader named Matthew Fox. Matt is a former Catholic priest (and bestselling author) who is deeply involved in the movement toward a more life-loving–and less guilt-ridden–human relationship with spirituality.  He’s also a close friend of Aaron Stern, and visiting scholar at the Academy for the Love of Learning, so through Aaron I had the honor to meet with him at a lively community event in a public high school in Oakland.

Over a free community lunch of locally-grown organic food, Matt and I chatted at length about our shared concerns regarding the values and practices of the current educational system. He described his YELLAWE after-school program, which presented a reinvented curriculum and pedagogy for children from some of Oakland’s poorest neighborhoods. At that point, the program was not thriving in Oakland, Matt explained, because the remarkable man who’d been helping him run it had moved to Chicago.

He was talking about Theodore Richards. My research took me elsewhere, however, and i didn’t follow up until last week, when Aaron handed me a book that Richards has just published: Creatively Maladjusted: The Wisdom Education Movement Manifesto (Hiraeth Press, MA).

The term “creatively maladjusted” comes from a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quote: “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” For Richards, this means that salvation is a communal process–not an individual achievement or gift–that we move towards “not by conforming to society…. but by transforming it.” In other words, if we’re going to survive as a species, what needs to be “adjusted” is not so much our selves, but the values and societal structures that, when we abide by them, plunge us towards ecological and economic collapse. Adjusting our schools, of course, is among the top priorities.

Richards isn’t trying to adjust schools directly–he’s humble enough to admit he’s not sure how to approach such a mammoth endeavor–but he is adjusting the way we educate young people through his after-school program in “inner city” Chicago. Rather than help these kids do better in their conventional schools, like many other after-school programs attempt, Richards is offering them an entirely new type of education, called Wisdom Education.

In his book, Richards explains that conventional education systems, which grow out of monastic traditions but were launched en masse following the industrial revolution, operate within a worldview that is mechanistic (students and teachers are like machines, inputting and outputting fragmented bits of information) and capitalistic (heavy focus on competition and individual success). Wisdom Education, in contrast, presents an organic view of teaching and learning, in which teachers and students are creators, rather than in-takers and out-putters, and in which collaboration and communal success replace the long-misapplied story of “survival of the fittest.”

His manifesto goes on to describe six tenets of this “Wisdom Education Movement”:

  1. Creativity and Imagination. No, not simply adding more arts classes, but shifting the actual way teachers and students engage so that  learnings is not information-transmission but an active, expressive process. “To learn anything in a meaningful, profound way requires that we contextualize it and integrate it from our own perspective. This requires imagination.” And learning creatively not only helps people learn better, but can also help students imagine how to “reshape our world.”
  2. Nature. In Wisdom Education, students reconnect deeply to nature so that they understand that nature is not something separate from us–we are nature. Once they begin to realize they are genetically and physically connected to everything else in the universe (not a quick lesson), they cannot help but shift the way they see them selves and the world. Fragmentation gives way to unity, interconnectedness. The natural world (including other people) is no longer a resource to be studied or exploited, but a partner, a fellow traveler.
  3. The Intellect. One might suspect Wisdom Education to not focus so heavily on intellectual development, but the opposite is true. Richards explains: “…while modern education provides our young people with many facts, it does not provide them with the intellectual tools to discern which facts are valuable and which facts we should accept. Our students are neither trained nor encouraged to challenge the ideas that are put before them.” Drawing from the work of Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, Wisdom Education employs a rigorous training (Richards suggests starting with media literacy) that helps young people develop a keen and deep critical consciousness.
  4. The Body. As an alternative to the West’s “radical separation” between mind and body, Wisdom Education calls for a more holistic education that employs activities like meditation, art-making, and martial arts to help young people reconnect to their bodies, and develop a healthier relationship with their body. This new awareness of our physical self  translates into a more receptive mind and healthier relationships with the natural world.
  5.  The Soul. “The soul,” Richards writes, “however one defines it, is as important as any other aspect of the human. We must address our students’ yearning for meaning, their trauma, and their emotions if we are to truly educate them. Wisdom requires not only that we be able to know the world, but to know our selves as well.” Young people strive to answer the question “Who Am I?” and it is society’s responsibility (the “elders,” you might say) to help them develop the tools to find an answer. Wisdom Education draws heavily on the idea of rites of passage, in which young people make a break with who they were before, enter into deep instruction, and then reenter the community as a new person.
  6. Doing. Knowledge is mere cleverness, for good or bad, until it is applied in a conscientious way. In requiring students to undertake projects that help their community, Wisdom Education ensures that young people develop the values and ethics to understand that their success must not come at the detriment of other peoples, or the environment (or their own selves.) Richards explains: “Imagine a poor child from southern Mississippi who goes on to be an executive at British Petroleum. Would society look at him as less successful because he contributes to the construction of his bio-region and his forefathers’ way of life? Probably not.”

I have not yet seen Richards’ Chicago Wisdom Project in action–I hope to make the trip soon–but I am greatly encouraged and inspired by the tenets of the Wisdom Education Movement. Far beyond the tinkering of school reform fads, this movement offers a truly reinvented understanding of how young people learn, and how we can guide a child towards becoming an “educated” person: someone who, by Richards’ succinct definition, “is creative, has a relationship with nature and the body, tries to be healthy of mind and spirit, is intellectually astute and thinks critically, and does something meaningful and useful with all these capacities.”

I plan on taking Thoedore Richards’ five-week online course on Wisdom Education, starting next week. I will report on what I learn in future posts–for now, you can learn more about Theodore Richards and this inspired endeavor at


Post 18: Confessions of an experiential learner

Saturday, April, 13, 13 § Leave a comment

In his post on the voucher system, I enjoyed Seth’s utopian vision of the diverse learning environments that could emerge if every child were backed with no-strings-attached, government funding.

I could imagine children defining their current curiosities (e.g., the history of soccer, cooking, dance, or bicycle repair) and then logging onto a website where they could search a list of funded mentors in their area, as well as be able to find reviews from past learners and parents. The mentor-based, mini-schools would be paired with “real” teachers. The many hard-working, well-trained teachers from our existing moribund education system would be selected by the kids during the off-hours of the mentorship to refine their standard skill-sets of math, English, biology, etc., all tailored towards the context of their mentorship.

The mentorships, paired with the more standard academic subjects, would comprise  a decentralized system of project-based learning. My recent experiences, here in rural India, brought to life some of the benefits and challenges of creating a rich project-based learning environment.

A return to Adharshila

A few weeks ago, I returned to spend three weeks at the creative and chaotic Adharshila Learning Center, which I blogged about last October. I worked primarily with about 20 students in years 6 and 7, building a small biogas plant (biodigester), and renovating some of their solar-powered lighting systems.

These projects were not just about education, but were chosen to address economic and environmental challenges at the school. The biogas project was motivated by the ongoing costs of buying firewood for cooking, using non-sustainably harvested wood. The lighting project was needed because the school’s power from the main grid is limited and unreliable. Over the course of three weeks, the students learned how to build and operate a biodigester and deepen their knowledge of electricity and solar power, while improving their English, math, and science skills.

Assembling the biodigester, installing lights, testing a streetlight

Assembling the biodigester, installing lights, and testing a streetlight

The biodigester project

There are close to 100 students at Adharshila, and the school sits in a heavily deforested, arid location. Currently the school purchases firewood from a nearby town, and cooks most of their meals on several wood-burning stoves. Our biodigester was comprised of a large, sealed tank that could hold a mixture of water and organic matter. Inside the tank, anaerobic bacteria decompose the matter and produce a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide (biogas) that can be used for cooking.

The biodigester only took a day and a half to build, but a number of smaller projects emerged during the process. The children spent several days weighing the amount of firewood used to cook their daily meals, and characterized the various organic waste streams on the campus. “Waste” is scarce at Adharshila; food leftovers go to their three cows, whose dung goes into the school’s organic farm. None of the charts and tables that we found on the gas production from different biomass sources correlated well with locally available materials and the area’s hot temperatures. We therefore embarked on a small experiment to determine what mixture of inputs would be the most economic. The kids built seven mini-digesters with carefully weighed biomass inputs, hoping to get rough estimates for biogas production rates. We reviewed how to measure volume, read measurements (always at eye-level), and stressed the importance of recording observations.

Mini biodigesters, measuring the amount of biogas, and cooking

Mini-biodigesters, measuring the amount of biogas in the main tank, and cooking

It was easy to incorporate the biogas and solar projects into the children’s curriculum. They compiled a long list of new words in English, and practiced responding to questions about biogas and solar in complete sentences. The older students learned how to calculate the volume of a cylinder in order to estimate the gas inside the tank and solve an equation for an unknown variable, while the younger students practiced algebra with decimals.

Some nuances of the approach

Painting a schematic of the solar lighting system

Painting a schematic of the solar lighting system

During both the biogas and solar projects, I’d typically have a group of three to ten students busily working alongside me. It became interesting to note which learners were constantly involved, which ones would show up for spurts of time, and which ones would steer clear of the hands-on activities. During the solar installations we decided to paint descriptions of the systems on adjacent walls. Suddenly there were students offering to help who hadn’t earlier been interested, illustrating how various project components can capture the curiosity of  different children.

I also wondered how the process, rather than the content, attracted the learners’ attentions. Some of the younger kids, whose English and science skills were very basic, as well as one child who was very good at math and science, independently built their own mini-biodigesters.  After spotting their private experiments nestled at the foot of nearby trees, I wondered whether the group process had been too fast or too slow or too participatory for them, not giving them enough space to explore in their own ways.

We all have both natural and conditioned inclinations in the way that we learn. The head teachers were able to caricature tendencies that they had observed in some of the kids. “He is more interested in the intellectual aspects, but much less likely to contribute to the manual work”, or “His attention wanders very quickly if not under constant guidance.” Access to a diversity of projects, especially those that are self-designed, creates the potential of letting young learners discover and cultivate their interests.

What a mentorship can mean for the mentor

The past several weeks gave me the opportunity to re-evaluate my own learning tendencies, as well as my motivations to teach. Experiential learning is a huge personal motivator for me. I love to learn, and I learn best by doing. It has now been almost three years that I have been reading and making design calculations about biodigesters, yet I had not gotten a chance to build one.

The thrill of seeing the biogas tank rise, observing the condensation of water in the gas tube, and just mixing the dung with my hands and pouring it into the tank suddenly brought my book-knowledge to life in a vivid manner, adding a diverse array of details that couldn’t have been revealed through reading or discussion. In addition, co-learning with many curious minds expanded the limits of my own understanding. Every time the children or a teacher would ask me a question, I’d usually be able to come up with a suitable-seeming answer, but then would pause and admit “well, I’ve never done this so I don’t really know – how can we investigate it?”

I was also quickly reminded about the stark contrast between mentorships and class-room teaching. Working with a handful of interested learners is rewarding and fun. Trying to motivate a large group of disinterested ones is another story. Effective classroom teachers are typically both good managers and performers. When I was tasked with getting all of the kids actively involved (when we built the mini-biodigesters, for example), I observed a clear internal conflict. Seeds of frustration arose from wanting the kids to be interested in doing what I wanted them to do, and then becoming angry at myself for being hypocritical. I love being motivated by my own curiosity, so why should I try to get the kids to be otherwise?

Project-based learning and mentorships

Lack of experiential learning opportunities is an unfortunate trait of the classroom-based model of education. The typical curriculum trains us to try to understand reality through a simplified representation, using words, numbers, and pictures. Rich and important details only become revealed once the toy-problems take their places in our complex social and natural environments. However, both experiential and abstract learning are important and complementary. A project-based curriculum creates the opportunity for emphasizing them both.

A decentralized pairing of mentorships with academic skill-building has two additional benefits. It creates the potential for the children to make a self-designed curriculum, and opens the door for passionate learners, like myself, who are turned off by standardized curricula and class-room management, to share our learning journeys with youth.

As I was riding in a bus, returning to Adharshila with solar equipment, two boys engaged me in conversation. It turned out that they were both engineering students in their last year at a local college, and one of them was about to build a mini-biodigester for his final project. When he found out what I had been working on, he began peppering me with questions. I couldn’t help but smile, thinking that a group of 12-year old village kids would have been able to answer most of them. I was happy to know that this engineer would soon get his hands dirty with some experiential learning.

– Christian Casillas  | Project Run in March 2013

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