Tuesday, July 19, 2022

The Heart Of All True Learning

Imagine a specific color you've never seen before. When I try, I can't do it. I know that there are colors I've never seen, such as those that exist beyond the visible spectrum. Indeed, scientists tell us that many animals that rely on vision, like sighted insects, can see ultra-violet light, which means there is an entire spectrum of color that exist that we cannot see. Likewise, scientists talk of dimensions beyond the three we perceive yet we cannot even conceive of space with four or more.

Our perceptions have evolved to keep us alive long enough to reproduce, which is not the same as saying that they allow us to see the world as it really is. What we perceive is really just a distillation, a simplification, of a far more complex reality into the essentials we require to trigger the instincts, emotions, and thoughts that will, in turn, produce behaviors that are most likely to lead to our survival. We have, for instance, evolved to see tigers as bright red-orange contrasted with black, making them highly visible, warning us to steer clear. To other animals, like those that tend to become their prey, tigers are well camouflaged amidst the greens and shadows of the jungle.

"The mind," writes priest and philosopher Nicholas Malebranche, "does not pay equal attention to everything it perceives. For it applies itself infinitely more to those things that affect it, that modify it, and that penetrate it, than to those that are present to it but do to affect it." In other words, our minds are highly alert to the the orange and black stripes, whereas we, at best, catch the merest glimpse of the spectacular, and irrelevant, neon rainbow that is the hummingbird's plumage.

Our perceptions are our window on the world, but they are also our prisons. And this phenomenon is not limited to the long, slow operations of evolution. Culture also quite effectively blinds us to realities that other cultures perceive quite clearly. The same is true for race or social status or neurotype. As a middle-aged, middle-class, White, neurotypical American male, there are many realities about our world that I simply cannot perceive without making the effort to see the world from the perspective of others who are not like me. What we call privilege is both a window through which I perceive the world, but also a prison that prevents me from fully experiencing life.

Several years ago, I was part of a group of people who were called "liberal White supremacists" by a young Black woman. No, I immediately thought, she is wrong. That's not me. But I kept thinking about what she had said. A few days later I was speaking with teacher-activist, writer, and Teacher Tom's Play Summit presenter Jesse Hagopian. I told him the story then asked, "Am I a liberal White supremacist?" He paused for a moment, considering my perspective, my feelings, but also wanting to honor me with the truth from his perspective as a Black man. He finally replied, "Well, I wouldn't have put it that way." I will likely never be able to see ultra-violet light or four dimensions, but I can now see what this young woman sees. When I share this story with White people, many take offense, but I want them to know that the experience has released me, at least a little, from the prison of my perceptions.

Another play summit presenter Mónica Guzmán, journalist and author of the book I Never Thought of it That Way, proposes "radical curiosity" as the key to the prisons of our perceptions. According to Guzmán, the way to escape our divided world is for each of us to practice turning our judgments into questions and to then listen with the goal of understanding rather than of responding or correcting or arguing. 

This is what stands at the heart of all true learning.

From the time we are born, it's our curiosity, and only our curiosity, that can free us from the prisons of our narrow, incomplete, and limiting perceptions. Of course, there will always be new locked doors to encounter, new limitations to our perceptions, new vistas of emotions and ideas to be opened to us. We will always be searching for keys to our cages, and that, I would assert, is what makes life worth living.

To watch my full interviews with Jesse and Mónica please join us August 13-17 for Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Click here to get your free pass and learn more about all 20 of our incredible sessions with early childhood experts and thought-leaders from around the world. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide. Radical curiosity might be just what we need to change the world!

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