Thank You Robert Coles

I’m working my way through Robert Coles’ beautiful book, The Spiritual Life of Children. It’s a great “Elul” read.  Here are a few of the insights that speak to me as a rabbi and educator with an eye toward the Blog Elul theme for day 15: “learn.”



1. In all child/adult relationships power always resides with the adult. In the introductory chapter of Spiritual Life Coles describes how he systematically deemphasized spirituality and religion for the majority of his career. In reflecting on his younger self he writes, “A shrug of my shoulders (a thought to myself: who will ever know?) and a remark of mine that moved us into quite another realm of discourse– such are the fateful turns in what later gets called ‘research.'” Whether we are researchers or not, the lesson is clear: we see what we want to see. In our interactions with children are we patient or rushed? Do we sincerely listen or do we pretend to listen? Do we give children opportunities to explore ideas or do we shut them down? Children are undeniably and irrepressibly spirited. But as adults we actually do have the power to celebrate their spirit or slowly crush it. The power is ours.

2. It’s natural to seek evidence to confirm our preexisting theory. In differentiating his work from that of James Fowler (who developed a faith development theory based on stage development) Coles critiques the idea of stage development theory noting, “If a child fails to respond to a researcher’s predetermined line of questioning, the researcher is likely to comment on a ‘developmental’ inadequacy.” Coles is saying that, when we have a theory that we whole-heartedly believe in, we begin to interpret the world accordingly. Human beings are meaning making entities. We can’t help the fact that we greet each experience with a myriad of predetermined ideas and beliefs. The more compelling and subtle of these might qualify as “theories”– assumptions about what meaning we’ll find in a given experience. The tricky thing is letting our theories guide us but not letting them define us. If our theories define us then they actually hinder our ability to construct new meanings and insights.

3. Wisdom can’t be acquired in a day. We want to know, we want to understand, and we tend to be inpatient with ourselves and with others when we or they don’t “get it.” Coles reminds researchers that in order to truly understand something, to acquire wisdom, we need to be open to the idea of prolonged encounters. Coles argues that to truly understand a child’s spiritual life takes at least a year of engagement. During his career he interviewed some of his research subjects as many as 25 times. Many of us are quick to trust our instincts and to make snap judgments. Often we’re fairly accurate in our initial assessment, but to acquire true wisdom, we need to slow down and be patient as well as reflective.

4. The best teachers are first and foremost committed to learning. Coles writes, “A good way to initiate… research is to sit down with children, tell them what you want to learn, and then hope that they will become colleagues, instructors, guides.” Too many educators are trapped by the notion that we have to provide the subject matter and represent the voice of mastery. Meanwhile, a lot of lip service is paid to the idea of child- centered education. In a truly child-centered pedagogical framework an interesting possibility emerges– that the adult teacher will actually come to learn important lessons from the child teacher. While we can’t always flip the classroom quite so dramatically, the idea that children are great teachers is one that we need to continually revisit in our classrooms and our schools.

I’m sure many of us have read Robert Coles’ work. What has resonated with others that have had the pleasure?

Checks and Balances

“The marvelous development of science and technics has been counterbalanced on the other side by an appalling lack of wisdom and introspection.”
– Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion, 1937
Technology rocks. Flying machines and all that good stuff. Seriously, if we didn’t live in a web 2.0 (3.0, 4.0 ff.) world, I wouldn’t be writing this. And if I were writing this in an analog world it wouldn’t be called “user generated content.” It would be… I don’t know… a quaint diary entry or something like that. 
We live in an age of texting championshipsrobotics competitions, digital remixing, and a million +1.0 other technologically driven phenomena of which most people of a certain age have 0.0 experience and awareness. By the time I click “publish post” this post will be obsolete. It’s dizzying, awesome, fun, and foundational. Technology is driving the spaceship. 
When Jung, writing in 1937, wrote of an appalling lack of wisdom and introspection, one suspects he knew that, unfortunately, his observation would be eternally relevant. At present, the gap between technological innovation and moral/spiritual life is about as “Grand Canyon” as it ever has been. It seems like technology and morality might even have an inverse relationship:
Technology= fast
Morality/Spirituality= slow
Technology= innovation
Morality/Spirituality= old fashioned
Technology= cool
Morality/Spirituality= rabbi, philosopher, mom
Technology= computer
Morality/Spirituality= mind, heart, soul
Technology, and web 2.0 in particular, are at best, morally and spiritually neutral. Start following #God in Twitter and it’s like stepping into a river of theologically themed currents. Start following #JustinBeiber and… well… it’s sort of the same thing. The point is that technology is a platform/ media. It cares less about the substance and more about the process of communication. It cares less about what you say and more about how you say.0 it. 
As an educator I’m all for technology. I’ve seen, firsthand, how bells and whistles help get kids excited about learning. I’ve typed up rubrics for multimedia assessments and seen the pride and sense of accomplishment that kids have in knowing that they’ve not only demonstrated learning, but created something. 
What resonates for me in Jung’s observation is the need for balance. As technology becomes increasingly savvy, nuanced, responsive, dynamic, and powerful, it seems like “wisdom and introspection” should, at minimum, keep pace. I’d go so far as to say that wisdom and introspection, morality and spirituality, should be driving the ship, rather than computer code. Unfortunately, the “how” of technology– quick, shiny, flashing, highly edited, impersonal– is in direct opposition to the “why” of wisdom and introspection. The latter are slow, reasoned, steady, and in many cases, unchanging (and therefore not dynamic). With the world at my fingertips, it’s hard to justify working through a a difficult problem when all I’ve got to do is Google it. The challenge is compounded by the current political/media world, which daily erodes what little space remains in the public square for thoughtfulness and sincerity. 
As educators we play a vital role in advocating for greater balance between the two extremes that Jung identifies. As educators we are both ambassadors for technology as well as ambassadors for wisdom, introspection, morality, and spirituality. As educators we can embrace the “how” of technology and the “why” of wisdom and introspection with equal enthusiasm. We can challenge our students to advance wise and meaningful causes in new and exciting ways. 
Judaism has long affirmed the need for balance: The six days of work are balanced by a day of rest; our particularly Jewish concerns are balanced by a commitment to universalism; our sense of blessing is balanced by our recognition that the world is unredeemed. Our sense of balance, of dialectical creativity, can serve as a guide in our efforts to make sure that the tension between technological innovation and the commitment to wisdom and everything it implies, remains a vital one in the public square. At present we teeter on the precipice of a complete subjugation of our unique human capacities for reasoned thought and ethical conduct to the “flying machines” of tomorrow. The “new bottles” of technology are only useful if they are filled with the wine, old and new, of wisdom, introspection, and a commitment to the life of the soul.