A teachable spirit and critical thinking

St. John of Kronstadt, in his book, My life in Christ, paints a very intriguing image of what it means to respond to God with the kind of faith that opens ‘the key to God’s treasury’ of enlightenment. He says that this kind of faith dwells in ‘simple, kind, loving hearts’ and is a ‘spiritual mouth‘ freely (and frequently) opening to receive all that God wants to give His children. He goes on to explain that this spiritual mouth is found in the heart, the place where we ‘accept the brightness of heavenly grace.’ The image that comes to my mind is one of baby birds opening their mouths in trust to receive nourishment from their parents. Their trust is reasonable and logical because their eyes are on someone they know cares greatly for them and wants only the best for them. St. John then warns us about another kind of mouth that works against faith and enlightenment, “…do not let your lips be compressed by doubt and unbelief.”

Although St. John is talking about faith and divine knowledge and it may be somewhat of a stretch to apply his words to learning in general, I think the ‘mouths’ he is describing are also present in other learning contexts. There are learners who are teachable – with open and trusting ‘heart mouths‘, and learners who, for a variety of reasons, have tightly compressed lips of doubt and resistance. Learners are always the key decision makers in any learning situation and their decisions about whether or not the learning is worth the effort, whether or not they believe they are capable, and whether or not they decide to keep learning or to quit trying arise from their dispositional ‘mouths’. As teachers we know what a joy it is to nurture the learners with open mouths, and we know that it is an even greater joy to see a learner who is resistant and closed, begin to open and receive.

I’ve been thinking about these ‘dispositional mouths’ and wondering about their relationship to critical thinking. In our culture, the critical thinker seems to bring to mind someone who has those tightly compressed lips, that ‘convince me’ attitude, that ‘I’ve already made up my mind that you’re wrong‘ way of being. However, this isn’t critical thinking. Critical thinking actually requires openness, a willingness to let go of predispositions when enlightenment dawns or new situations arise, a willingness to be transformed in the process of coming to know. Essentially, it is a child-like way of being in the world. All learning is a risk that requires some openness, trust and willingness to embark on the journey. Lips need to be unclenched, arms need to be unfolded.

Therefore, true critical thinkers have open ‘heart-mouths’, not compressed lips of unbelief and doubt. Therefore, people who have already learned to open their ‘heart mouths’ to divine knowledge are potentially very strong critical thinkers.

But just to say that learners need to change their disposition in order to become better critical thinkers is not very helpful. Dispositions are entrenched patterns of behaviour arising from contextual situations often beyond the control of the learner. They take time, patient encouragement, invitational spaces and practical support for new paths of response to emerge. This is what good teachers do best. This is what our good God does with us.

Putting a ‘breath in the box’

I sometimes watch a cooking competition that provides participants with a box of four surprise ingredients and then asks them to create something tasty, beautiful and creative in 30 minutes. I am always amazed at what they are able to do in such a short time with such random ingredients. Recently, however, there was one competitor who was quite frantic throughout the thirty minutes, changing his mind, unsure about sequence, unable to sort through his many ideas and obviously quite anxious. When it came time for the judging, the judge commented on his state of mind while working and said, “We should have put a breath in the box.” He then went on to comment about how his state of mind, or inability to breathe, interfered with his ability to create something that was focused and coherent.

I’ve been thinking about this phrase quite a bit and how it applies so well to educational contexts. We don’t breathe very well in education, we don’t intentionally ‘put a breath in the box’. The tyranny of the urgent, the complexity of the many decisions we are making as teachers, the comprehensiveness of curriculum, and the pressure we put on students to quickly perform and produce with the ingredients we give them can all work against breathing. And what was clear in the competition results is also clear in educational settings. When students aren’t breathing, they aren’t learning, and they aren’t able to accurately represent what they know.

So I am starting to ask myself these questions…Is there a breath in the box for me and my students? Am I aware of my breathing and my students’ breathing? What kinds of breathing are present? Are we breathing deeply in appreciation for all that is possible and present or is our breath more indicative of exhaustion, anxiety and fear? Are there ways we can breathe better throughout the day or semester and not just when the bell goes at the end of the day, or when spring break arrives?

I am convinced that teachers have a lot of control over the breathing in their classrooms. Students usually breathe the way we do. They need us to practice better breathing, model better breathing, create space for better breathing. Mindfulness practices from all wisdom traditions teach us the importance of breath to help us self-regulate or achieve stillness in the midst of chaos, to bring us back to ourselves (because when we are not breathing well we are usually disembodied), to stabilize or anchor our minds, and to become aware of our thoughts while not being caught by our thoughts. This kind of focus is absolutely necessary for deep, focused, meaningful and responsive learning. We may not be able to control many of the conditions that surround us, but we can, with practice and awareness, control our breathing and help our students breathe.

This is the kind of breathing I would hope for my students…

Breaths of stillness and presence, to bring us back to ourselves and our learning.
Breaths of fresh air and anticipation when learning is foreshadowed.
Breaths of exhalation when a need has been met or a challenge is realized.
Breaths that are shared when we realize that some of us are having a harder time breathing.
Breaths of relaxation and quiet after times of intensity.
Breaths of inspiration arising from stillness.
Breaths of excitement and celebration when learning is accomplished.

Breathing is good. Be inspirited.

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