Sunday, August 22, 2010

Silver Donald Cameron; Beyond the Teapot Theory of Educating and Gross National Happiness

Silver Donald Cameron is one of Canada's most versatile and experienced professional authors. His work includes plays, films, radio and TV scripts, an extensive body of corporate and governmental writing, hundreds of magazine articles and 16 books, including two novels. His non-fiction subjects include history, travel, literature, politics, nature and the environment, community development, ships and the sea, as well as education and public affairs. He produces and hosts a project called The Green Interview.

I interviewed him a few weeks ago for Radio Free School about new ways of educating, with examples from Bhutan where the focus is on Gross National Happiness!

Listen to the show here.

Also, included in this post is a text excerpt from the interview (below). Enjoy!

Your article Beyond The Teapot Theory-pouring out knowledge into empty vessels- do you think there is a significant movement happening now against this way of educating? In magazines like The Times, more and more you are seeing articles talking about the 'dropout economy,' don't bother going to college-because it will not be useful in the new world.

I think that the rising cost of university and the uploading of the cost on to the student has had a really deleterious affect on that whole dimension of the system. But I think most of us do need some form of education but how you get it is kind of the question.

What i am sensing is a lot of disquiet about what i call 'the tea pot theory' in that article in the sense that that is not the way people learn. I think that educational needs have become so diverse and the range of things people do with their lives has become so striving that it is not easy anymore to have a single education system that prepares people for the labour force.

The labor force is not like that anymore - it is very very fragmented the skill sets are quiet sophisticated and very different from one another so this sort of factory system where you push them all through and they get more or less the same education it doesn't fit very well and i think a lot of people are seeing that.

And I think it doesn't fit not only from the point of view of a vocational system but it doesn't fit in terms of the way that people learn, and i think we have learned something about that too; that there is a relatively small part of the population that learns best by sitting inside of a classroom having the information preached to them, or conveyed to them. That is not a very efficient way of learning, and the more effective way of learning always seems to involve hands on activity, community activity engagement with the world out there observation, reflection and then maybe be ready to hear something from an instructor or mentor...

You underlined in your essay Beyond The Teapot Theory "the need for art and mystery in learning" which is something we don't often hear about.

That comes from an actual apprenticeship document in the 19th century Cape Breton Island that the young fellow is "bound to the blacksmith to learn his art and mystery" and the sense that there is art and mystery and that it is something you have to absorb over a long period of time more or less through your pores. Not something we think about very much anymore. We tend to think of it as being a very cut and dry proposition. But learning in a profound sense is not like that.

What I love about that phrase is that it's not just some sort of mechanical skill or technique but a sense of the actively as a holistic kind of thing and the sense of it being a body of knowledge that can only be understood if you know that at heart there is mystery to it. I think that is true with anything that you have set out to learn.

"The liberation of learning"- that is what we need to do. liberate learning from these strict A to B- no deviation.

That's right. One of the things in another mood I would say is that I am not sure there is such as thing as teaching. I am very sure that there is such a thing as learning and that teaching really occurs at the instance of the learner For example if I want to learn how to lay carpets or weaving and you know about it than I may come to you and say, "Please show me how to do this."
This is what we do in every aspect of our lives; the way we do it, you say, "Well, I will sign up for this course because I want to learn about it."

So the emphasis is with you and the primary activity is you learning and the other person is not so much teaching as providing resources intellectual resources and other resources. And I suspect that that is how most learning takes place and this doesn't resemble the paradigm we have.

Gross National Happiness vs gross national product?

I got involved with that because we have had here a wonderful research organization in NS GPI Atlantic -which was working on a genuine progress index for Nova Scotia and is in fact completed. And the kind of core understanding of GPI is the foundation upon which the Bhutanese Gross National Happiness measurements are based.

The basic issue that GNH has dealt with is the sense that important things don't get counted and unimportant things do get counted in our economics process. So for example traditional GNP measures all economic activity and if all economic is increasing then people tend to think we are becoming more prosperous and that is a good thing.

But it doesn't tend to distinguish between economic activity that is positive and economic activity that is negative......We don't have any way of measuring the value of the standing forest. We measure the forest as potential as lumber. We don't value it's absorption of co2. We don't value its control of erosion its impact on the human spirit. It is just strictly lumber that hasn't been cut yet. Well this is obviously nonsense. This is obviously a foolish way to do things.

And underneath all of this is the assumption that somehow multiplying money makes us better of and in fact there is lots of research that that is not true. Simply multiplying money beyond a certain point-I mean there is a point a fairly low level where you have enough to food to eat, good place to stay, clothes etc. Once you have that, more money doesn't add proportionately more happiness. In fact the more prosperous we become in the Western world the more the indicators of unhappiness have tended to arise-like in family breakdown and divorce, suicide and drug use- these are diseases of prosperity.

And so understanding all that the king of Bhutan said years and years ago the Gross National Product (GNP) is not as important as Gross National Happiness (GNH).

They didn't really pursue that in a scientific and systematic way until fairly recently and then they said, "What are the elements of GNH and how can we measure them?" They started to look at the factors and talking about the things that normally don't get measure and they developed a whole set of metrics based on the GNH there.

Then the next thing they said was, "Okay. If we now understand that if there are things that make us happy and other things that don't make us happy and they are not the way that things are conventionally supposed to go in the Western world, how do we organize the school system so that young people are trained to think of their role in the world from a GNH point of view not the GNP point of view?"

So they had a whole conference last December and they brought together educators holistic educators alternative educators, spiritual leaders from 16 countries and it was an astonishing experience because these educators took a day and a half and basically asked what would the product of a GNH system look like?

What kind of a person would that be? And they said, "Okay- so there is the objective we would need to pursue."

That night the government adopted that. "The government has accepted our recommendations that these should be the objectives. Would you now please tell us how to get there?"

And the conference players considered that question-how you would have to train teachers, principals.. the government has convened a meeting of all the senior educators in the country to start the process of training in GNH education. and plans to train every teacher in the country.

How is that reflected in the people that come out of this process?

What you wind up with is young people that have a great respect for the environment and who think of the environment as an integral part of their decision making in their personal life they have a great regard of the traditional wisdom of the tradition of the country very conscious of the fact that they are people in society. That their role in society is to function with people- not in competition; they understand themselves to be in society and also understand that they can progress as individuals only if people around them are also progressing.

And it will be very different from the kind of graduates we will produce who tend to think in terms of personal success, high degrees of consumption not too much attention to the environmental impact of what you do. If we flip a lot of the attitudes that we have in the west on their heads and you wind up with the Bhutanese attitude.


Wendy Priesnitz said...

Love this! Don interviewed me about homeschooling for an article in Homemakers magazine - oh, about 20-ish years ago. I loved his perspective then too (originating from homeschooling his own). Thanks for posting it.

rfs said...

@Wendy-thanks for the comment. Yes he has been involved with alternative education and homeschooling since having his own children-starting with 'the school in the barn,' back in the 60s.

Anonymous said...

Will Gross national happiness be able to provide jobs? If so what kind of jobs?

Lee said...

I think what Bhutan is doing is completely inspiring!

rfs said...

@lee -Keep an eye opened for Silver Donald Cameron's interview with the primer minister of Bhutan. Also he is producing a documentary.

rfs said...

Nic Marks: The Happy Planet Index | Video on
Nic Marks asks why we measure a nation's success by its productivity -- instead of by the happiness and well-being of its people. He introduces the Happy Planet Index, which tracks national well-being against resource use (because a happy life doesn't have to cost the earth).

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