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Shifting the Classroom Paradigm

Shifting the Classroom Paradigm

Just a warning, the next paragraph WILL NOT contain anything NEW or a REVELATION, but bear with me.  I promise there’s a point.

According to WebMD, “The heart is a muscular organ about the size of a fist, located just behind and slightly left of the breastbone.   The heart pumps blood through the network of arteries and veins called the cardiovascular system.”

“The heart has four chambers”

    “The right atrium receives blood . . . and pumps it . . .”

    “The right ventricle . . . pumps it to the lungs . . .”

    “The left atrium receives . . . and pumps it . . .”
    “The left ventricle pumps . . .”

It’s pretty clear that WebMD and the probably the rest of us, would agree that the “heart is a pump”.  I always have.  It’s the engine that drives the body.  The heart delivers nutrients and oxygen to all parts of our body.  The heart is the general. The heart is the mechanism that initiates our survival. Our life. No heart beat, no life.

But, that paradigm is all wrong.

I came across this counter-intuitive idea in Dan Barber’s amazing book, The Third Plate. (Shameless plug, Dan graciously took part in an #edbookchat on Twitter in July 2014.You can find the archive here).

Barber puts forth the thinking of Rudolph Steiner.  As a teacher and medical professional, Steiner insists “that in order for human beings to improve and make true progress, they needed to understand that the heart is not a pump.”  The heart is not a pump? Huh? How is that possible? And what does it have to do with true, human progress?

According to Steiner, science “sees the heart as a pump that pumps blood through the body. Now there is nothing more absurd than believing this, for the heart has nothing to do with pumping the blood.”  

Nothing to do with pumping blood? Then what’s it doing if isn’t pumping blood?  Of course, the heart pumps blood. I’m still confused.

It wasn’t until Barber put forth the following thinking that I began to understand Steiner’s point. Barber says:

    “For one thing, when blood enters the heart, it is traveling at the same speed as when it exits. It slows down as it heads to the smaller capillaries to transfer nutrients, then moves to the venous system, a highway of larger and larger veins that eventually lead back to the heart. As it approaches, the blood speeds up again. The heart acts more like a dam at this point, trapping the blood and holding it in its chambers until they’re filled”.

So, the heart is a dam? Not a pump? Then why does the heart “pulse”?  Where does that all too familiar rhythmic beat come from?

According to Steiner, the heart’s primary role is “The circulation of the blood. Through its rhythmic pulsations—its systole and diastole—the heart responds to what takes place in the circulation of the blood. It is the blood that drives the heart and not the other way around.” The heart doesn’t pump the blood. The blood pumps the heart.”

What, wait? Blood pumps the heart? That doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

Well Barber clarifies this paradigm shift by clearly articulating what the heart does do:

    “It listens. It’s the body’s primary sensory organ, and it acts like a conductor, controlling the rhythms of cellular management. A scientist might call this maintaining homeostasis.  Either way, the idea is that the heart serves at the pleasure of the cells, not the other way around.”

It listens. The heart isn’t the engine. It isn’t in charge.  The heart is a sensory organ. All of this thinking takes me back to Steiner’s larger point, “to improve and make true progress”.  

That’s when I realized that this paradigm impacts the classroom. What kind of heart do you view yourself as a teacher?  Are you the pump? The engine? Pushing blood out to the cells. Delivering nutrients?  

If students are our “cells”, do we do as Steiner suggests, and “listen” and act as a “sensory organ” or do we behave like the traditional “pump”?  

This shift in how we see our work in the classroom is profound. Instead of acting as a mechanism of delivering, what if EACH OF US truly understood our role as a sensory organ. That our function is to listen to the needs of our cells and provide what they need in the moment. Being the response, instead of the driving force. Imagine the potential power of students being heard and having an opportunity to get what each of them needs.

The heart doesn’t make this decision independent of the body’s cells. In fact it only makes these decisions after the cells communicate what they need.  It’s why your heart is still beating fast and hard after you’ve gone up a flight of stairs. The increased heart rate is in RESPONSE to the need of the cells. The cells need oxygen. Waste needs to be removed the blood stream. These stimuli are the mechanisms that force the heart to act.

In order for each of us, our entire society, to “make true progress”, it’s essential that we see our existence as a cell.  That our needs are met through the all-listening, all-encompassing societal institutions. How do our human-constructed institutions listen to and respond to the needs of its constituents?  I would postulate that many of the broken institutions and societal ills can be contributed because we know no one is listening. That our institutions act as pumps, forcibly and reliably delivering the same thing, day after day.

Imagine the ripples if our classrooms reflected and modeled this attitude of responsive and empathy.

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