Hello and warmest greetings from where I live in the Central Kootenay Region , BC Canada.
In late October the colours in my community are remarkable, and the days often sunny and warm- according to our standards … up to 16º C at the high of the afternoon, dipping to a cool 4 to 6º C during the night. All of nature is an inspiration to me, and I find the colours especially engaging.
A few years ago I lived in a house considered old in this part of Canada, it was built in 1894. I came to know it’s long story in the process of shifting it from a spooky looking house to a house that welcomes. Through building a relationship with the house, respectfully considering its past and all who had lived here and contributed to the story, I imagined, step by step, in an emergent fashion, how to creatively shift the house into a new life.
The transformation was a team effort, and my husband worked on how to bring the creative ideas into practical application. I offered practical advice as well, and also encouragement, which was the heart of the issue really. We were transforming an old house into an artistic expression all the while upgrading and caring for the structure.
I offer this story and small peek into a part of my personal life as an invitation to consider that our concepts of what creativity in education means might need a renovation from the inside out. To reimagine a holistic and creative educational experience we need to stand in the centre of our current educational system and look outwards while holding a new understanding of the education of the adolescent that engages them in all of their growing potential.
The connection of creativity to the human being
Creativity, human development, and youth engagement have been the focus and passion of my whole life. I can say this now with a sense of assurance looking back over my life with 40 plus years offering examples of ongoing youth engagement of one kind or another. In these years of designing opportunities and invitations for youth to join in learning and creating community together, I have constantly and naturally leaned into the arts as the foundation of my initiatives.
During my childhood, whether creating patterns of clothing for my dolls, baking with my mom, colouring, playing with my sisters, or spending hours reading ancient Greek myths, I experienced these activities and engagements as natural expressions involved with my growing up into myself. I did not come from an artistic family by any stretch of the imagination. What I did have was lots of outside playtime, a whole neighbourhood to explore, and lots of sisters and neighbours to play with.
In my I forties I choose to pursue a Master of Integrated Arts, which seemed like a natural addition to the eclectic education that I have been engaging with my whole life. From a college diploma in Youth Development in 1979, I started on an informal and formal journey of self education that has supported my learning the arts of listening, hearing, seeing, speaking, reflecting and remembering. I am going to offer a bit of my biography so that you can have an understanding of the ground I stand upon and within, as I offer my thoughts, ideas and even suggestions: over 40 years of ongoing research and study on human development, education and the arts; training in colour therapy; certification in expressive arts; Waldorf high school teacher training; training in improvisation for the classroom; consensus decision making training; principal of a Waldorf School; youth addictions counsellor; clowning; initiator of an independent high school in BC, Canada, and most lately completing a eurythmy training and leading the consciousness study for that same program.
Throughout my life I have found that an integrated artistic expression is a medium perfectly suited to give voice to the interrelated experiences that I have of life. Through artistic exploration and creative expression I have found that I can invite others into an emergent experience of ideas, thoughts and awarenesses that arise from the inside out. This is a very different gesture than a “feeding in” of information, or of giving interesting ideas. It welcomes the inner participation of the person, inviting each of us to explore, connect and create out of ourselves rather to meet an outside directive.
A small story from my past:
In high school, I co-created with my teacher a weekend retreat for my high school’s grade 11 & 12 religious studies classes. This group included many Italian young men that were passionate soccer players… usually guys who mocked everyone except other soccer players. I really can’t remember where the ideas came from for the retreat activities, but we did silent nature walks, holding a question and coming back to the group to share, we did clay work with the theme of “me now” with each person creating a sculpture to represent themselves at this point in their lives. One participant was a regular “disrupter”, and others in the workshop were getting visibly tired of his antics. In the clay experience this young man created a clay clock, and when it was his turn to talk about his piece he said that he knew he was younger in his behaviour and understandings than most of the group, and to be patient with him, he would keep growing up. The group help him in respectful silent, seeing the tears in his eyes. No one spoke and so much was said. This was a rich, surprising and inspiring moment, one that has stayed with me over the many years.
How do we institute an invitational and creative foundation to the pedagogical impulse of adolescent education? I think this requires a revisioning of our notions about how we understand the human being, how we learn, and about the role of our educational systems. Bringing a creative educational approach to our educational systems requires that the people within these systems reflect, review and reeducate themselves about what supports the development of the human being. This is in contrast to the historical role of public education to train and prepare its citizens to enter the workforce. I suggest that our historical educational systems have not been designed to optimize the development potential of youth, and that when we look with an informed and impartial eye we can see that in fact they have done the opposite.
I am remembering a conversation in 2011 with a grade 12 youth (she was about 17 years old) as she was deciding whether she would participate in a TEDx event that I had initiated; she was deciding whether to participate as a speaker or with an artistic installation. This young woman had many thoughts about education, what wasn’t working and what had to change, but she was afraid to give this public voice. She ultimately decided on the artistic installation, and the theme of her work was a response to our TEDx Theme: Through the Crucible: the Pain and Blessing of Conscious Change.
The conversation went roughly like this:
Youth: “At my public high school I am told that I am unique and have something special to bring to the world, yet in grade 12 I have to ask the teacher in front of the class if I can go to use the washroom. I have learnt not to ask questions in class as often youth are ridiculed or made example of for asking them. I usually don’t take risks in my school work as I am told to follow the instructions. If I am edgy in what I write or say, or confront ideas that a teacher has presented, I lose marks. So I am told one thing- you are unique and special, be yourself, and experience another – do what you are told the way you are told, which leaves me feeling vulnerable and afraid to show-up and be myself”.
I have heard many such stories over the years, and from many points of view, including teachers expressing disillusionment over disinterested and unmotivated youth. I wonder how we would change our approach to adolescent education if we considered the human development needs of the age? Many societies are now considering the importance of the development of the young child (newborn to 5), but it seems that our interest stops there. Almost all teacher education programs spend their time on curriculum content related to discrete subject areas or on curriculum delivery methods – the how’s of imparting information or teaching skills. Of course this too is important, but is it really what we want driving our educational impulses?
What Youth Have to Say
I would like to invite a few more youth voices to speak about education, about what is important to them. These youth answered the invitation to present at the TEDx event I organized with the theme of “What Do Youth Need to Thrive”.
In this first example, the youth created this piece on their own. Ana taught herself to play the kalimba, the music you hear throughout the story. Cobi taught herself how to do sand painting, and designed the flow of images to express the story. Sarah wrote the story and narrated it for the TEDx Talk.
I hope that you will take the 9 minutes to watch and listen when you are able, for this purpose I will offer some pieces of the narrative:
“there is not so much a line as a grey space between adulthood and childhood, after you realize that the world is hard and difficult in many ways, but before you lose all hope, naivety and trust in the world. This is a place we float as youth. We are not hardened by the world, but we can also see the flaws. We can also see the possibility of fixing them … we evolved as a race to allow for this, because without it we could not move forward.
We need your wisdom but not ideas because we have our own. We need you to teach us how to help ourselves, to show us how to respect each other, respect our community and respect our home. We don’t want you to tell us, we want you to show us.
Please don’t think that we can’t show you something too. You have the wisdom of years but we have the capacity to see things in a different way, so let us show you.”
Kelby also responded to the call, courageously expressing his story and what he thought we key points in youth being able to thrive:
Here are some excerpts from Kelby’s talk on what it takes to be a thriving youth:
“I believe that I am a thriving youth, but it hasn’t always been this way. I struggled with anxiety, depression, and a lack of general compassion for other people from a young age. As a child I was bullied, I was bigger, louder and more enthusiastic than others which made me a target. They (other youth) sought and succeeded to change me and they succeeded. I dreaded school and ended up in the principal’s office for most of my elementary schooling. My teachers thought I was a nuisance, my parents worried for my future and my peers thought I was a problem child. This lead to a highly unstable environment. Stability is the foundation of a thriving youth:
internal stability: emotions and relationships
external stability: physical things that help you succeed.
We need to nurture these two things into balance. We need the essentials of connections and our physical needs met. The balance is unique to each person, yet is essential. Moving through elementary school and junior high school with the bare minimum, I saw high school as a fresh start. I had friends now yet something was missing. ….. Starting a program with an independent high school with a program with a one on one approach, working at my own pace and group projects, my anxiety started to melt. I found what was missing – connection, I needed to use my own interest to connect with projects.
Connection is the next thing needed after stability:
internal connection: to self
external connection: to the world, nature, family and others.
With physical and emotional stability I could become connected to who I truly was .. and look at little steps to take to become that. I began connecting with my community by volunteering, building positive relationships, becoming my own person. This lead to the what I think is the biggest indicator of a thriving youth- voice. Being stable enough to feel connected, connected enough to stand for something, youth can reach their potential. My call to action is to stand-up for what you believe in …, show interest in others … and have empathy when needed.”
I think that these youth are speaking from the heart of creativity. Each one of them give us clues on how it is awakened and invited. I believe it is important to understand youth development so that we can design creative education in an informed manner .
My Research: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Understanding the Heart in Connection to Learning and Education.
My master of integrated arts research, completed with Athabasca University, Canada’s first university without walls, was focused on the connection of the heart to learning and education.The approach that I used in my interdisciplinary research was postmodern: many truths, plurality of experiences and questioning the concept of rationality as it has been traditionally understood as standing outside and above other views. The theoretical lens that I used was critical pedagogy, as I was interested in the issue of power in activity of teaching and learning.
In my research I asked myself these questions:
How is it we come to know what we know?
Is it our only brain that thinks?
Does the heart have a role in learning? Is the metaphoric heart real?
If our heart is connected to what we are doing, does it affect our learning?
I organized my interdisciplinary research by looking at an understanding of the heart through 4 different “lenses”:
Medical Lens: western medicine, Chinese medicine, anthroposophical medicine and traditional native american understandings
Heart Brain Connection Lens: Emotional Intelligence; the work of Joseph Chilton Pearce on the holographic heart; the science of the heart research from the HeartMath Institute.
Spiritual Lens: Native American view of spirituality; the Anthroposophical view of the heart as an organ of cognition.
Creative Lens: Social Inquiry using Goethean Conversation & Performance Research using group poetry writing with groups of youth and elders.
These 4 lenses created a 5th place which is is a literary and pictorial synthesis of how the 4 lenses “speak” to each other.
The results of this research formed the foundational concepts of an independent high school that I started in Nelson BC in 2007. The high school school has since merged to become part of a K to 12 Distributed Learning Independent School in BC, Canada.
The scope of this paper doesn’t allow a review of all of my research. I do present a short history of western medicine as it has most strongly defined how we view the human being. I also introduce the fairly new science of neurocardiology, touch into HeartMath Institute and their research on coherence, and review the concept of the triune brain and the heart mind connection. With this presentation I am aiming to provide a way for us to approach the question of what it means to awaken the heart of creativity in youth, and why this might be the key to transformational creative education for young people.
A Brief History of Western Medicine
Modern Day Heresy:
What if the heart isn’t just a biological pump? What if it is much much more?
In our human history people have died for the sin of dispute and for the revelations of natural science. Burnt at the stake, tortured and imprisoned, those on the leading edge of science and discovery have always been at risk. Are these events only tales of long ago, times when people were vastly more ignorant, less knowledgeable and intolerant than we are today? Has much changed? Or is it that modern day people believe without question the pronouncements of science the way people used to believe the pronouncements of religious leaders?
One example is the notion that the heart is a biological pump that pumps blood through the body. This is stated as a fact in high school biology books and medical texts. When I have interviewed biologists and medical doctors in regard to heart memory as now proven in neurocardiology, I have been met with a range of mocking disbelief to outright fury.
What does it take to confront a thing that we think we know, something basic and irrefutable? I purpose we have to turn our habitual thinking inside out, and start from a fresh perspective. One step on that path is to look at where our understandings have come from.
A Brief History of Western Medicine ( google slides and also as PDF)
Looking back to where it all started, with the gods and a conception of soul and spirit, to the specialization of modern western medicine, one sees a journey from the whole to the parts. Many incredible and helpful discoveries, practices, understandings were gained along the way, and perhaps something was lost as well.
The Heart Brain Connection
A Short Modern History of Heart Brain Connection
In the early 1900’s Walter Cannon showed that changes in our emotions are followed by changes in heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and digestion that are predictable. Cannon thought that when we are stirred up our sympathetic nervous system gets us ready to fight or run away, and in quieter moments our parasympathetic system calms us down. Cannon assumed that the autonomic nervous system(ANS) and all of the physiological responses of the body followed the brains instructions in response to a certain stimulus. The brain was in control of it all. Then came scientists John and Beatrice Lacey with 20 years of research from 1960 to end of 1970 where they observed that the heart communicated with the brain in ways that deeply influence both our perception of the world and our reaction to it. The Lacey’s noticed early in their research that our ANS and bodily responses did not always listen to the signals, that in fact the heart had it’s own “ideas” that often diverted from what the ANS was directing. The Lacey’s showed that head receives information from the heart and it listens, affecting our behaviour and health.
While research scientists John and Beatrice Lacey were busy doing research in psychophysiology, a small group of neurophysiologists were initiating the discipline of neurocardiology. This discipline has shone light on the nervous system within the heart and how the brain and heart communicate with each other using the nervous system.
Dr. Armour was one of the early neurocardiologists, and he presented his work on the idea of the heart brain in 1991. On the physical level we call the parts of this “heart brain”: neurons, neurotransmitters, proteins and support cells – just like in the brain. Dr. Armour presented that the heart brain can learn, remember, feel and sense. It is the fact that the heart has its own nervous system that is independent of the brain or nervous system that supports this independent function. This independent nervous system is also why we can transplant a heart. Under normal conditions the heart communicates with the brain via the nerve fibers running through the vagus nerve and the spinal column. When a heart is transplanted these nerve fibers don’t reconnect for quite some time– if at all – yet the heart can function in the new body due to it’s own intrinsic nervous system.
So the heart does really have a mind of its own …. What else?
The Heart as a Hormone Gland
The heart was reclassified as a hormone gland in 1983 when the regulation of hormone that affects blood vessels, kidneys, adrenal glands and a whole bunch of regions of the brain was discovered. The heart also secretes oxytocin– the hormone called the love/ bonding hormone. This hormone is now thought to be involved in cognition, tolerance, adaptation, sexual and maternal behaviours, learning of social clues and long lasting bonding. Research has shown that concentrations of oxytocin are as high in the heart as they are in the brain.
The Ancient Greeks thought that thinking and feeling were contrasting aspects of the soul, and are in constant battle for which will be in control. It appears that recent neuroscience research agrees with the ancient Greeks that thinking and feeling are separate, each having their own unique intelligence. Although our heart and brain are hard wired together, there are more neural connectors going from the heart to the brain than the other way around. This would partially explain how it is our emotions have such a powerful affect on our behaviour, attitudes and moment to moment choices. Emotions can bump thoughts out of awareness but thoughts can’t usually do the same to emotions, and those thoughts that are the hardest to get rid of or change are those infused with the greatest degree of emotion.
The heart as an “thinking” organ is supported in the work of the HeartMath Institute, where research is showing that the key to mind/heart integration is in increasing coherence in heart and brain systems. When our heart and brain rhythms are harmonized our highest potentials open up. Vision, listening abilities, reaction times, mental clarity, feeling states and sensitivities are all influenced by our heart-mind connection. This is coherence. IHM is discovering that we can have more conscious control, attaining more coherence within and between our mental and emotional systems that we have realized. This increase of coherence also leads to greater overall harmony and higher functioning in our nervous, cardiovascular, hormonal and immune systems. It seems to me that many ancient cultures realized this via their practices of meditation.
OUR THINKING HEARTS
“The heart is, in fact, a highly complex, self-organized information processing center with its own functional “brain” that communicates with and influences the cranial brain via the nervous system, hormonal system and other pathways. These influences profoundly affect brain function and most of the body’s major organs, and ultimately determine quality of life.”
from: Science of the Heart: Exploring the Role of the Heart in Human Performance
An Overview of Research Conducted by the HeartMath Institute. Compiled by Rollin McCraty, Mike Atkinson and Dana Tomasino. HeartMath Research Center,Institute of HeartMath, Publication No. 01-001. Boulder Creek, CA, 2001.
According to the HeartMath Institute:
Just as we can practice, learn and develop mental or athletic skills, we can train and develop our emotional systems. The heart is connected to our brain and emotional systems and it makes decisions that can and do impact the way our brain perceives and processes information.
The struggle between our intellect and emotional self will not be solved by trying for “mind over emotions”, but by increasing the harmonious balance between the two systems, leading to a synthesis that provides access to our greater potential. Long term studies by Dr. H. Eysenck of London have shown that chronic unmanaged emotional stress is 6X more predictive of cancer than cigarette smoking, cholesterol levels or blood pressure, and is much more available and responsive to intervention.
Our Triune Brain Linked to Heart Intelligence
Our understanding of the brain from a western scientific point of view is very recent:
Neuroscientist Paul MacLean, now deceased, produced papers until 1997 (60 years of doing so) noticed the similarity between the three neural systems in our head and the brain structures of the 3 major animal groupings of evolution: reptilian, old mammalian, and new mammalian. For 50 years he and his staff traced the parallels and were able to show how our human neural system carried within it the blueprint of potential intelligences, abilities and capacities developed during each of these evolutionary epochs. Rather than abandoning a system, nature has built new improved systems on top of the old. New brain developments both correct problems in the old model, and expand the possibilities, highlighting the amazing range of human adaptability.
This part of our brain functions in a habitual, patterned way, and is unable to alter either inherited or learned patterns of behaviour. This, our most ancient brain, can take the physical parts of a learned new skill such as typing, bike riding, driving a car, or the sensory-motor aspects of playing a musical instrument, freeing our new brain to stand outside of the immediate motor action and watch and discover new ways to improve, perfect the performance. The base of this brain’s functioning is a highly developed skill developed to elude predators. This allowed us to become like a chameleon in our social environment, or two-faced, or multi-faced if we feel threatened in any way. The threat does not have to be “real”, just needs to be perceived. These ancient skills of deception can be used by our high neocortex to develop strategies for succeeding in the world of commerce and politics, as one example, because afterwards this higher functioning aspect of the brain can rationalize and make morally respectable (if only to ourselves) what could be quite immoral actions. It is through the alliance of the more highly developed neocortex with this reptilian brain that we learn to lie and deceive. Besides the above survival strategies, our old reptilian brain handles many decisions about our physical well-being or survival, and this occurs beneath our awareness and often in tandem with other parts of our brain.
Old Mammalian Brain (or the emotional-cognitive brain)
Our second neural structure, and is quite similar to that found in all other mammals, as are the behaviours and abilities encoded into it such as our inherited intelligence for nurturing our offspring. This structure surrounds the reptilian brain like a limb, and thus is often called the limbic system. It is also called the emotional-cognitive brain for in this brain nature adds to the reptiles’ limited senses our very developed sense of smell and hearing. These new sensory capacities lift our whole sensory system to a new order of functioning, literally opening up a whole other world to us. Also in this part of the brain is the foundations for all forms of relationships, including our notion that the world is “other” than us, and that we must learn to relate to it.
The term that is used for those tools that we qualitatively evaluate all of our relationships, especially our relationships with each other is emotion. We can now stand outside out sensory-motor brain and use our hands, begin to employ the far more evolved and sophisticated ability/capacity to relate to our world as an object, rather than to respond out of reflexivity to sensation.
Neocortex, New Mammalian (verbal-intellectual brain)
This third brain, the first truly human brain, introduces language and thinking, the ability to stand outside all of the other activities that the brain is involved in and observe these activities objectively,and to consider all factors of diverse situations rather than acting from instinct alone. This part of the brain takes up 5X more space than the reptilian brain and the old mammalian brain combined. It also has upward of 100 billion neurons, and each of these neurons is capable of interacting with some 100 thousand other neurons to form fields of coordinated neural action.
The newest part of the prefrontal lobes are the neocortex, and they are the coordinating or governing capacity of the three parts of the brain: the reptilian sensory/motor; the mammalian emotional; mammalian-rudimentary thinking brain. They are experience-dependent, and fully shaped by the child’s experience of the environment. The caregiver’s emotional state and extent of nurturing and care the child receives can affect the development of the prefrontal lobes right at the cellular level. During the first few years of life these prefrontal lobes develop not so much out of their own inherent capacity, as the older brain systems do, but more through their influence on the unfolding of these older brains. Their main task is to govern each module or lobe of the threefold brain in it sequential unfolding in such a way that each older system forms according to the needs of the prefrontal lobes in their secondary stage of development, during mid-adolescence. Its job is to weave together these 3 older brains into one civilized mind that it may access later, at about the age of 15. This unfolding is the most fragile of all systems in our brain and are critically dependent on earlier development for an appropriate foundation. The emotional nurturing that an adolescent receives at the mid-teenage time serves as a major determinant in the success or failure of this latest opening of intelligence.
There are really no limits to what our 3rd brain can translate- input from the outer world to imagination worlds inside, it is an infinitely wide window of awareness. Our first brain registers past tense only, the second both past and present, the third past, present and future. This part of the brain has an incredible curiosity, and with it we want to expand our awareness and experience.
The ability to imagine, to quest for newness in experience and understanding creates unlimited potential through creative imagination, the foundation of all organized thought and creative intelligence. The medieval Sufi considered imagination the highest human capacity, as did Jacob Boehme, William Blake, Goethe and Rudolf Steiner.
Creative education for the adolescent must include an awareness of the “art of being human” in all of our capacities. This is essentially a creative act, to welcome and accompany the human being on their path of development. To witness, to invite, to protect and encourage them to strengthen their connection to their awakening sense of knowing. To be courageous, to take risks, to dare to imagine, create and do things that have not been created or done before, and especially to encourage them to try and try again, to experience failure as part of the creative act of being human. This will mean that all else must be secondary: all skill acquisition, all intellectual pursuits, all standardized testing and assessment must reorient towards the developing human being. The first task will be to offer the adolescent a learning environment that is suited to their developmental stage which has the same fundamental ingredients as for the young child: role models worth emulating, a safe learning environment which believes in the inherent capacities and goodness of the person, movement in all forms – physical, emotional, intellectual and conceptual.
Our engagement with the adolescent through education is deeply related to our own human development path as adults. It is not a matter of devising new more creative approaches or systems, it is a fundamental shift in seeing the human as being in the process of becoming. When we shift to this creative engagement we may open the wellspring of hope for the future, of a humanity that can create a path forward with creative cooperation of things that will benefit all life on the planet.