Taking the Lid Off Learning

(the following is an excerpt from an interview with Aaron Stern)

What does it mean to “Take the lid off learning”?

Let me speak a little bit about this taking the lid off learning and how it lives in myself; and then we can look at it from the perspective of a system, such as the state of a public school system, for example. How it lives in me is there is a moment when I become curious about something; something captures my interest or attention, and I don’t just mean intellectual curiosity. I would call it whole body curiosity. I lean forward; I’m engaged. What is this? And in that moment, I need to have the freedom and the sovereignty and the support to step forward into it. There are religious edicts or parental edicts or educational edicts, or all kinds of things that are occupying my mind, colonizing my mind, that are telling me, don’t go there. It’s not within the accepted norm. If I accept that I may just simply collapse back and accept the norm and stay within the range of that norm; then I actually lose an opportunity to learn something that is deeply pertinent to my own journey. And if I do that I’m betraying my own soul. That’s how it feels to me. My own impetus to become fully expressed as a human being. That’s what’s at stake.

When I think about taking the lid off learning, it’s about taking off all the artifices and all of the convention and all the stuff. It’s not that it doesn’t have value, but it’s history. I first learned this at a conservatory of music, which is a conservatory of history. Oddly enough, music, this living art form, is preoccupied with conserving the past. It’s like a museum of music. And that’s when we first began to understand the degree to which we actually stop ourselves from moving toward what captivates us; our hearts desires, our longings, and we condition our responses through all of that and we collapse, frankly. There is so much at stake because if I follow that, there’s a good chance there might be others who are trying to follow it toward something similar.

What’s at stake if we don’t take the lid off learning?

I believe, and I feel, that innovation is at stake. Creativity and newness is getting lost in the shuffle. So, taking the lid off learning for me actually means creating the conditions by which I can follow that destiny and follow my aliveness, my vitality. Now if I try to bring that into the context of a school system, let’s just say I want to point toward our Teacher Renewal program, which is one of our flagship programs at the Academy. That program has been going on for a really long time. It was one of the first things I did; my little daughter, Jessica. I mean, she’s not little now; she’s 44 and has four kids. She once was a little girl. And to me she’s still a little bit of a little girl. She came with me and assisted me in Boulder, Colorado when I was first experimenting with one of our programs. And it’s what we call the Impulse Exercise, which was my attempt to try to find a way to bring people into a direct experience and practice really of taking the lid off learning, which of course is different for each person. It has different characteristics because we’re all different and we all have different relationships to what I was just talking about with respect to taking the lid off learning. And different responses to forces of suppression, let’s say, and different responses to support. We’re all different. And we can get into the epistemology of all of that and what we believe about why we’re so different, but we’re not going to go there right now.

What I learned through the teacher renewal work that started back then, in 1991. Is something that sits now at the core of our Teacher Renewal program here in Santa Fe. And basically, awareness is key. In our Teacher Renewal work, we bring teachers into awareness based practices that help them to see the water they’re swimming in. And by that, we’re beginning to take the lead off learning. Because as soon as you begin to see it you begin to adjust.

What do you mean by awareness?

Here is example of what I am talking about, we self-correct if we notice; we align with our deeper understanding and wisdoms. This wisdom is always knocking at the door waiting for us to create the space to come into being. So that’s what happens with teachers in a classroom when we’re taking the lid off learning; we’re knocking at the door; we’re creating opportunities for them to notice and see and self-adjust in relationship to their task of being teachers; in relationship to what they actually are seeing in children, rather than these curriculum deliveries that they’re supposed to be making. Then the important moment happens where they have the agency, the support and the courage really to step up in the school to the administration and say, actually I need to do it differently and I’m going to take the stand for that here.

That’s the moment where taking the lid off learning can either die and create more suffering and more hopelessness and despair. Or it can actually lead to transformation. And lead to the transformation of the environment in which the teacher actually is operating. Right now, in our Teacher Renewal program, we’ve developed a lot of capacity in teachers to see and notice and to awaken to taking the lid off learning. And we are at the stage in our work right now where the superintendent of public schools, the assistant superintendent, two principals and two cohorts of teachers, one from a middle school one from a high school, are working together in a pilot project to see how far the administration and the faculty and the principals can together be part of finding the solution to shaping the hierarchy, reshaping it in relationship to the emerging creativity of the teacher.

We don’t know how far it will go. We just don’t know and frankly I don’t know how far public schools as we know them today are going to be able to go, because right now they’re not alive. They’re not living, vibrant, emergent. They’re not the spirit of learning. They’re the spirit of curriculum delivery and testing, which is not the same thing. You know my dear friend and colleague and our visiting scholar at the Academy, Matthew Fox, always likes to say, that learning is to education what spirituality is to religion.

And you know, learning is the most powerful thing we do. Think of children. There’s just no lid on a child’s learning. They wake up in the morning and they look up and they see this hand and they’re like, what is that? You know, if they had words for it, that’s what they’re doing. They’re in wonder. And they’re following wonder. And what’s more powerful than that? It’s intrinsic motivation squared.