Freeing Expressions: Letting the Real Flowers Bloom

 

An Invitation

The following article deals with freeing expressions.  We share it with you, because we know that you, like many other teachers, administrators and educationists, truly care for the children you work with.  You, like us, want children to be happy, to be creative, to find joy and meaning in life, to feel sensitive to the world around them, to grow self-confident, to build relationships, to become initiators (leaders without followers).  But you, like us, are frustrated with the current model of education as schooling.  Maybe you feel it is robbing children of these qualities and opportunities; perhaps you are concerned that schools are disconnected from the ‘real’ world; or maybe you are bothered by how school competition affects children’s friendships and self-esteem.  Whatever the reason, you simply know that you are not satisfied or happy with the way schools are today.

 

In this light, from our common platform of care and concern, we share this article to invite you to explore a possibility through the concept and process of expressions.  We should state at the outset that the following is not a model: it is not the universal answer to be replicated blindly in every place in the world.  Rather, it is a possibility — an idea and process to be uncovered, using our imaginations and experiences, from our unique contexts.  We ask therefore that you read this article as an invitation to converse together about how we might heal our selves and our children by regenerating our expressions.

 

What Are Expressions? : Basic Convictions

Our understanding of expressions builds upon a simple understanding of human beings:  Each person is an intricate web or history of experiences, stories and relationships, which forms the ‘essence’ of the person and the basis for his/her learning. Such a web/history is never stagnant or final; it changes with new experiences, stories and relationships.  Expressions — actions, reflections and dialogues — are integral to these webs.  They are the ways by which we understand, nurture and share our relationships with nature, with our cultures, with our wisdom traditions and our languages, and with each other.  Expressions stitch the social fabric by fostering vital linkages of trust, love and interdependence; while on the individual level, the diversity of expressions utilize and enhance multiple learning styles, wisdoms, intelligences, and talents.  Examples of expressions include paintings, team games, music, planting and harvesting, embroidery, poetry, pottery, dance, nature walks, weaving, festivals, drama…

 

What Makes Expressions Different from Extra-Curricular Activities or Child-Centered Education?

At this point, some of you may be saying, “Well, this is nothing new.  We have cultural shows and poetry week.  We play games in our school and celebrate festivals.  We practice child-centered education.  What makes expressions different from the extra-curricular activities or special programs that exist in my school?” 

 

First, there is no type or method of comparison in a process of expressions.  This means no labels, no ranks, no tests, no grades, no measures, no competition, no punishments, no rewards — in short, no mechanism for distinguishing between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, or ‘better’ and ‘worse’, and no incentive for fear, dishonesty, or for tearing individuals’ insides or the social fabric.

 

However, this does not mean that all expressions are ‘equal’, since of course all people are not ‘equal’, their stories and experiences are not equal – in the plastic sense of the term as ‘sameness’ or ‘uniformity’; in other words, expressions are incommensurable.  Nor is a culture of silence and dull acceptance imposed through expressions, where everything is ‘good’ and no one should say anything to anyone about their expressions.  Quite to the contrary, the elimination of comparison means that no one individual or institution controls expressions or the value of expressions.  Instead, each of us contributes to conversations about our and others’ expressions. The bases of such conversations are genuine caring, diversity, respect and a desire to learn and grow together and to enrich each other’s expressions.  Such conversations are dynamic and ongoing and stand in stark contrast to the cut-downs, hurtful behavior and false arrogance that occur via competition and comparison. 

 

Second, expressions have no spatial or temporal limitations.  They do not have to occur in schools, under the authority of an expert/professional, in a fixed amount of time.  Indeed, they rarely, if ever, emerge in such a context.  Unlike most ‘child-centered education’, expressions cannot be manipulated to serve a set of objectives to teach addition or spelling or chemistry.  Expressions are not schooling in sheep’s clothing. 

 

Third, expressions are honest, they come from the heart.  They are faithful to one’s experiences and convictions — in short, to one’s life and inner self.  Expressions cannot be induced by external authorities, by the desire for reward or the fear of punishment.  Their motivation lies in feelings of connectedness and honesty to the self, to each other, and to the world we live in.  What takes priority in expressions is not the technical product (of the play, the poem, the pot, etc.), but rather the people and their processes of creation and discovery — whenever, wherever or however they happen.

 

Exposing Plastic Flowers vs. Regenerating Real Flowers

Another way to understand how/why expressions are different is by using an analogy: What makes real flowers different from plastic flowers?  Plastic flowers are said to be a man-made improvement on nature.  Synthetic and artificial, they are perfect.  They do not wither or fall apart.  They can appear anywhere at any time.  And though they may not have the fragrances, textures, or brilliance of real flowers, they are totally free.  They do not need soil, water, sunlight, betterflies, bees or birds.  A plastic flower can last for a million years.  But in that time, it will never be able to produce another flower of its kind.

 

The difference between real flowers and plastic flowers is the difference between expressions and what occurs in modern institutions like schools, or factories, political parties, television, etc.  It is the difference between real people and plastic people.  The former has life-energy, diversity, uniqueness, vulnerability and honesty.  It is rooted to soils, both natural and cultural, from which it is nurtured and which it in turn nourishes.  Therefore, it is not free, in the plastic sense.  But it is freeing.  Real flowers, like real expressions and people, are connected to the world around them; they cannot live without it.  And even in their death, there is life.  By spreading their seeds, they are able to regenerate into new forms, contexts and spaces.  Their freedom lies in connection, conviction and commitment.

 

Sadly, modern schooling, along with a ubiquitous mass media and consumer culture, has ensured that plastic dominates much of our lives today.  Children’s naturally open, vibrant, life-affirming expressions are consistently being replaced with narrow, synthetic, lifeless outputs, usually in the name of Education for All and Total Literacy, or human rights and democracy.  Creativity today means consumerism: buying the readymade, plastic ‘expressions’ produced by others, whether in the form of cartoon characters, compact discs, or fast food.  And in this PlastiCity, the trappings of specialization and professionalism further institutionalize the human spirit and expressions.

 

What Can We Do?: Concrete Processes

To challenge the production of plastic flower and regenerate real flowers, in all of our lives, expressions are essential.  They have the potential not only to heal us, but also to protect us from the contamination of the plastic.  This possibility makes more sense if we examine some concrete ideas for regenerating expressions with children in their first three years of school.  For example:

-         Acting, dancing and drumming spring to mind as expressions common to almost all cultures.  Both are infused with the energy and creativity that comes with dynamic, whole-body, multi-sensory movement.  Children could work together in small groups or with partners to explore dancing and drumming, or similar kinds of expressions, which are interesting to them and which connect to their specific places. 

-         These groups and partnerships would be self-organizing; that is, they would emerge from children’s natural curiosity and motivation, instead of being dictated from above.  They may also involve the creation of learning webs (interactions with many different peoples and spaces), which would only enhance the quality and depth of expressions. 

-         Individual and group apprenticeships with parents and local community members, such as farmers, woodworkers, ironsmiths, potters, weavers, etc., could also be made available to children in these first three years.  Such apprenticeships would involve spending considerable amounts of time outside of school, so that children could be where the souls of expressions find their real homes.

-         Expressions, of course, require redefining the roles of teachers, administrators, and even parents, particularly in current urban settings.  ‘Unlearning’ workshops with these groups would be an integral part of this role redefinition.  Unlike traditional workshops, which cram information and/or wield punishments and rewards to change behavior, these unlearning workshops would emphasize uncovering and rediscovering one’s own expressions. Not only would these groups thus be able to understand the significance of real expressions in our lives, but it would also deepen one’s sensitivities towards children’s search for their expressions.

 

A Reminder

What we are proposing here is not a model.  Models are plastic; they apply schooling’s logic of indoctrination and blind following, and are therefore inherently disrespectful of expressions.  Rather, the spirit of expression asks us to search, to converse, to discover what we feel makes sense: Is what we are doing to express life really being true to life in the process?  Are we respecting the diversity, color and spirit of the oral world? the natural world? the spiritual world?  Do we feel a sense of balance and the natural limits of life in our expressions, or do we feel overloaded and unnatural (as curricula often does)?  In short: what is plastic and what is real in what we do/how we live?

 

While we believe that exploring expressions could lead to a number of diverse processes with children, their parents, teachers, and communities, we feel it is important to not compromise on the basic convictions described above.  Just like one cannot mix together plastic flowers with real flowers, expressions can not be added on to ‘regular’ school, as an ‘activity’ children do from 9 am to 12 pm, twice a week.  And although the experiment need not be limited to the first three years (though these are probably the years most likely to be open to such a process), it will need to replace the existing school program in these years to be true to these convictions.  Without such a solid commitment, it be near impossible for children to heal and protect themselves from plasticity and bloom into the real flowers they are.

 

[If you have a good example that you have personally done, please send it to mfasheh@fas.harvard.edu

We will eventually collect all the examples in a book.  Thank you.]