Mary Catherine Bateson
In my work as a musician and music educator, as in the story above, I have discovered that many at first find improvisation particularly intimidating. But it need not be; as Bateson observes, in life we’re improvising all the time without realizing it. It’s to our advantage to become aware of this because, as she says,
we all arrive as strangers at the moments of crisis in our lives, having to improvise responses from previous learning.(1994, p.47)
Much of modern life is organized to avoid the awareness of the fine threads of novelty connecting learned behaviors with acknowledged sponteneity. We are largely unaware of speaking, as we all do, sentences never spoken before, unaware of choreographing the acts of dressing and sitting and entering a room as a depiction of self, of resculpting memory into an appropriate past. This awareness is newly necessary today. Men and women confronting change are never fully prepared for the demands of the moment, but they are strengthened to meet uncertainty if they can claim a history of improvisation and a habit of reflection. (1994, p.6)


As my investigations proceeded, the question of how kinesthetic teaching/learning relates to experiential learning continued to emerge. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to fully investigate this issue, theorists of experiential learning (Dewey) or who espouse learning through experience (von Glasersfeld) seem to have much to say which relates to my questions. This is how I stumbled upon Bateson. Much can be found in her writing on experiential learning which relates to or owes tribute to the work of John Dewey. However, Bateson brings her own fresh perspective to the table and has an elegant simplicity in her way of communicating. The daughter of Margared Mead and Gregory Bateson, she has long been an accomplished writer and anthropologist in her own right. She grew up learning to be comfortable in a wide variety of cultural situations, and has a unique perspective on how culture affects education. The methodology of anthropology is, she explains, observation and participation, but, she says, “I believe that participation and observation are more than just a research methodology”(1994, p.7). For Bateson, this describes how we live and learn in life.
I make a connection between Bateson’s participation/observation, the improvisation/reflection she mentions above, and von Glasersfeld’s construction/reflection processes. Why is improvisation important? Bateson’s statement above is the best articulated argument that I have seen. Knowing how to improvise, and being aware that this is what we are doing, in a safe and comfortable situation, such as a musical piece or a game of frisbee for that matter, can prepare us for life’s inevitable situations of crisis. The skills of improvising, surfing the waves, so to speak, may be critical to our health and strength in such situations. If a purpose of education is to prepare us for our futures, wouldn’t improvisation be a worthwhile thing to include and deliberately cultivate?
Bateson connects nicely with von Glasersfeld’s writings in several other places as well, such as when she says, “we each construct our vision in the flesh of the brain, but even if we’re all looking at the same thing, none are exactly the same”(1994, p.50).
So, like von Glasersfeld, Bateson is saying that we can’t know exactly what another perceives or knows. But, she says, research also shows that we cannot really know even what we ourselves know, a point that Gladwell also makes (see below). And, because as educators this is our condition when we enter a classroom, and furthermore because far more is happening in any given moment that our conscious minds can possibly register, she further points out that, “Not only do we not know what we know, we don’t know what we teach” (1994, p. 42). Humbling words indeed.
There’s one last word from Bateson I’d like to present here, and it relates to the importance of compassion in education, assuming, as Dewey suggests, that the role of teacher is one of a helper. From my perspective this is very rarely discussed, but absolutely vital to a discussion of theories on teaching and learning. Bateson says that “real help does not treat need as the result of irresponsibility or malingering and is generous enough to make it possible to contribute in turn.” (1994, p. 47). This is a call for respect for the dignity of the person one is working with, recognizing that need is a human condition, and that we are not to use it as an opportunity for one-upmanship. Those of us who wish to be called teachers might keep this in mind when a student is struggling to understand something.

Grace Llewellyn
Llewellyn wrote The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education (1981). Building on the theories of unschooling put forth by Holt, Llewellyn’s guide for creating your own authentic education is the basic text recommended for all students in the Clonlara School’s home schooling / self-education program, based in Ann Arbor, MI. I was introduced to the book, when my daughter enrolled at Clonlara after dropping out of our local public high school. The handbook, a “how-to” on self-schooling, encourages learners to take their education into their own hands, avoiding the traditional education trap of passive learning. Through this process, the book also becomes a manual for mindful living; discussing such things as the true agenda for traditional education (providing daycare and creating a class of obedient workers / consumers), the glory of finding what you love and going after it while living in the present moment, and the importance of the vacation. Again, the more I considered kinesthetic teaching/learning, the more it began to cross into areas of experiential learning; Llewellyn advocates self-directed learning through experience.
Unschooling advocate Lewellyn dropped out of teaching middle school English when she realized that schooling interfered with individual students’ abilities to reach their fullest potential. She had another, more personal realization as well:

I had a major struggle; I had a teacher’s certificate and realized for the first time in my life that I was not an educated person. I was this person who had gotten wonderful grades and knew nothing, who had very few skills.(Llewellyn as cited in Kowalke, 2000).

This put Llewellyn on the path of Holt’s unschooling philosophy, which she explains in a direct and respectful tone to the young audience the book is geared towards. This is self-directed, experiential education. Do you like to write? Write for the local paper or start your own. Are you interested in biology? Volunteer with a local vet or garden center. It’s not that you’d have no teachers in your life, it’s that you’d be choosing your own teachers and your own educational setting and mode (one way of accommodating differing intelligence and learning styles--would Gardner and the Dunn’s approve?). This is a renewal, or at least incorporation, of the apprenticeship system. It’s internship which does not wait for the summer between college terms.
Just as Ernst von Glasersfeld reminds us of the distinctions between training and teaching, and between learning and understanding, Llewellyn clarifies the distinction between being schooled and being educated.
As useful as this book may be for a student of life seeking to go it on her own, it could be even more valuable for teachers. How might schools and education change if Llewellyn’s assertions were honestly examined? It’s clear empirically that most people do not embrace the unschooling philosophy, but their own philosophy of education might be strengthened if they openly examine it from a critical perspective, rather than just taking traditional education as a given. For purposes of this study, an important perspective in the philosophy of teaching and learning is that it does not have to happen in schools at all and furthermore, that for some learning without schooling is a healthier path.


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