Daring to be dumb in educational practice and scholarship

Like some of my other posts, I decided to leave this post title without a clarifying subheading. It refers to a suggestion made by Brad Heckman, an educator and specialist in conflict resolution with a background in international peacemaking who now leads an organization that provides conflict mediation training for police working in urban communities. Heckman gave a TEDTalk in 2013 in which he talked about how mindfulness can support healthy, inquiry-based approaches for resolving conflicts. The presentation is impressive, not least because it incorporates Heckman’s art work featuring caricatures of F. Scott Fitzgerald (in a bathtub, with rubber duckies), Nikita Khruschev (chatting on the phone),  and actor Peter Falk (in the role of Columbo, a detective show which ran from the early 1970s for over three decades).


By Margie Korshak Associates-publicity agency-Falk was appearing at an awards dinner in Chicago. – eBay itemphoto frontphoto back, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20745073

The last one might seem a bit inscrutable at first, but the character refers to a key component of Heckman’s approach to mediation. He uses the trench coat-clad character of Columbo, who would “play dumb to catch the crooks” to suggest a posture of inquiry, of uncertainty, in approaching conflict resolution, which he encapsulates in the phrase “dare to be dumb.” Heckman reminds us that in cases where we don’t know the back story, let alone the full emotional content of a situation, we “don’t know what we think we know about parties in conflict.” Considering Heckman’s success in his work, it’s a positive provocation that invites a mindful, thoughtful response.

I love this. The phrase “dare to be dumb” particularly stuck with me because I think it expresses something I try to commit to in my teaching and hope to engender in my upcoming research about the experiences and contributions of adult immigrants in nonprofit education. My study will take an un-knowing posture, as I collaborate with students as co-researchers, experts, designers, writers, and contributors, on how they experience nonprofit education and how it might be different. I’ll be mostly “dumb” in two ways, letting my expertise be only one voice of many in our research circle, and acting as a listener and documenter of the voices and visions of the adult immigrants who agree to be my co-researchers.

This drives at the core of my work and what I hope is a rising change in educational scholarship. I’m increasingly unsatisfied with prefabricated teaching approaches or theory that rests on U.S.-centric, top-down thinking and past successes. What do our students have to say, in their own words? How do our research designs, our ways of teaching, speak for our students or research participants instead of with them? It is indeed daring to be dumb to relinquish power, to let go of expertise, authority, control. With this release, however, deterministic outcomes can be challenged. More new possibilities can emerge. More voices and visions for educational practice and scholarship can emerge.

Thanks, Heckman and Columbo, for that inspiration. Putting on my trench coat now.

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Mindfulness and the music of the world

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
Jiddu Krishnamurti

Tonight, in the biweekly lecture series we have at CUNY, one of our guest speakers told us about mindfulness in education, from teachers accessing the stress reduction techniques derived from Buddhism and reinvigorated as a secular practice nowadays, to the surprisingly but clearly political usage of such techniques to pacify urban students who live a stressful life and get them to “behave in an acceptable way in the classroom” (see this example for more information, sans the political backstory), rather than to create opportunities and collaborative, co-constructed dialogue in which students can critically examine their social environment and address the oppressive and marginalizing forces they experience every day.

In the middle of our guest speaker’s presentation, as he was discussing modern mindfulness, the above quote caught my attention. The quote exemplified the belief of Krishnamurti, a world-famous educator from India (whom I’d never heard of until tonight, unfortunately), that modern existence is riddled with pain, isolation, violence, and suffering, which can be alleviated through reflection on the contents of one’s mind, not through the following of a particular religion or through intellectualizing. I will think more about this, but no matter where I land, the sentence at the top of this page holds a lot of power.

I read it to mean one of two things: either those people who seem normal, adapted, functional in this world have a lot more going on inside that we never see (perhaps we’re blind to it in our own myopia and self-involvement), or else the normal folks I’m referencing, who have internalized the requirements of this violent, darkening planet and figured out how to adjust as its inhabitants, are sicker than the rest of us who can’t accept the screams of kidnapped Yazidi girls, the tears of yet another Black mother whose son never came home, or the silence of dying dolphins in the murky aftermath of the BP oil spill, as our world’s music anymore.

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