Two questions come to mind when approaching the topic of transformative education. What is the purpose of education? And what is the role of Purpose in education?
Addressing the first question, we face the reality that the primary role of the current system of education in Canada is to train young people to become participants within the economic system. As Grace Lee Boggs says, like cogs in a machine.
Students are categorized into rankings based on their performance on an endless number of standardized tests. High performing students are placed in ‘academic’ classes, and if they can afford it, typically find their way to university. Here they often choose fields of study that they expect will get them a ‘good job’, as understood by parents and society – typically defined by the level of salary and social status it’s associated with; also termed the ‘professional’ field e.g. doctor, lawyer, accountant. The students who are identified as being low performing on these tests are often placed in ‘applied’ streams, gearing them towards the workforce rather than Post-Secondary education. But again, the ideal is to find a ‘good job’ that will gain them a steady income, and job security, or at the very least something to cover their monthly expenses once they are out of school.
Both options have a clear outcome: prepare young people to become participants of the economic system.
Some racialized students, especially young black men, instead of experiencing either of the above, are being funnelled into the school-to-prison pipeline. The depth of this experience is outside of the scope of this article; however it’s important to mention that racialized students have the additional challenge of navigating through an education system that is still largely Eurocentric and lacking in cultural relevancy. This causes disengagement in students, as a great portion of the curriculum is irrelevant to their lived experiences and cultures.
For many racialized families, the purpose of education is to learn how to conform and succeed within a world of white normalcy. The education system is an entry point into becoming an active participant in the economic system ruled also by white normalcy and privilege. (Get the “right” job, and try to blend in.)
Our youth are inheriting an Earth that has been severely damaged by generations upon generations of violence, destruction, war, genocide, and abuse on physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, political, social, and environmental levels.
This destruction of the planet, and our violence upon each other is a reflection of the destruction and violence that exists inside each of us. It’s a legacy, which we have inherited from generations of hate carried on by blind following, and fueled by ignorance.
The outer world is a macrocosm of our inner worlds, and vice versa. Like mirrors, facing one another, the closer you get to the centre, the deeper it goes. Like fractal patterns, in each individual part is the essence of the whole. The amount of unconsciousness that is, and has been, running rampant in the world, is a reflection of our own inner unconsciousness.
Many of us spend much of our youth and adult years feeling that we are not being heard or seen. That what we have to say doesn’t matter. This teaches us to not trust ourselves; that we are wrong in some way. This internalized self-doubt turns into self-hate, to the point where we grow to doubt our own true worth. This feeling of un-worthiness becomes subconscious and all-pervasive, and eventually, destructive.
Internalized self-hate is an epidemic. Deep feelings of un-worthiness develop into self-destructive behaviors when we are unconscious of our inner workings. The uncomfortable truth is that we have forgotten how to love ourselves. Shamed into discounting our inner truths, we have become disconnected from ourselves, forgetting who we are.
Our capitalist society and school systems create further disconnection by promoting competition between individuals as opposed to collective cooperation. This adds to feelings of isolation, and sets the stage for the violence felt on the inner level to become projected manifestations of violence on the outer level. Although an in-depth exploration of this is outside of the scope of this article, it points to a narrative around mental health, which is missing in our current education system.
We need to wake up out of unconsciousness and move into awareness. Our education systems can be the conduit for this work. Through education people can learn, evolve – but our education system also needs to evolve to accommodate for the much needed change.
This brings us to the second question: what is the role of Purpose in education? In other words, what is the role of the education system in helping young people find purpose in their lives? What is the role of the education system in terms of teaching young people about knowledge of self, your own personal purpose, your passion, and true fulfillment in life?
Wouldn’t it be poignant, given the kind of world that our youth are inheriting at this particular point in time, if the purpose of education was to instill our youth with a sense of Purpose, to help them create change for a future generation?
How do we make that happen? What needs to shift in terms of the purpose of education?
Education needs to be less of a vehicle for streamlining young people into the economic system, and more of a vehicle for inspiring young minds and hearts, expanding their awareness into themselves and out to the world around them, helping them to deepen into their sense of purpose.
Unfortunately our current education system is slow to change. It is built on a model of rigid bureaucracy with roots in the 18th century. It is archaic, and steeped in ways of knowing that lack the flexibility required to adequately meet the needs of evolving generations.
What we need instead is an education system that is inclusive of narratives relevant to the context of youth here and now. We need a curriculum that provides engaging ways for students to interact in meaningful ways with their own knowledge of self, and avenues to understand the many ways that the self interacts with broader society in its complexities, intersectionalities, and layers. Connecting the Micro to the Macro.
This can be achieved through creative inner self-reflection and expression, combined with innovative, engaging narratives of history from culturally relevant contexts.
Our school system needs a pedagogy that provides a holistic view on the human experience. Understanding that a whole human is a combination of the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. And spiritual meant not as religion, but a personal sense of being interconnected with all.
Holistic human education should also include teachings that shed light on the importance of individual healing, as a necessary step in the journey of the collective healing of human society; as well as the significance of being grounded in the present moment. This reinforces the importance of the deep inter-connectedness of the relationship between the micro and the macro, and the here and now.
How can we start making these transformations in the education system on a practical level?
Art. Through art.
Ken Robinson describes art as a vehicle for feeling fully alive, meanwhile our education system tends to shut our youth down and put them to sleep. Through art, there is an incredible opportunity to engage young people in meaningful explorations of self, of notions like purpose, and voice.
Arts-based education has proven to be an effective and accessible tool, which provides an important entry point for transforming education. In Toronto over the past decade there has been an upsurgence of arts-based education initiatives that is transforming the experience of education for young people.
Grassroots organizations like Lost Lyrics use arts-based education to build a bridge between the streets and the classroom.  Institutions like the Royal Conservatory of Music pair artist educators with classroom teachers to teach curricular materials in school through the arts with their Learning Through the Arts program. Educators all over Canada have begun to use artistic mediums such as poetry, photography, media arts, dance, movement, music, theatre, visual arts, etc. to engage learners in critical dialogue about social issues, history, philosophy, even sciences and math. Culturally relevant pedagogies within arts-based education include using Hip-Hop Culture as a tool to engage young people in critical dialogue, a movement popularly termed HipHop Education or HipHopEd.
Over the past nine years, in my own arts education practice I have focused on using Spoken Word Poetry as a tool for engaging young people in explorations of Identity and Social Constructs and Social Justice. My practice centers around guiding young people to create spoken word poetry based on a system called the ICT – Identify, Connect, and Take a Stand. I will briefly explain this process below.
First, students are given the freedom to identify a topic that is based on either an element of their own personal identity (race, gender, family, being a student, etc) or a social issue that they care about.
There are two levels of connection: (1) Micro: Connecting their chosen topic to their own personal lives and narratives (day-to-day personal experiences). (2) Macro: Connecting their topic to wider social contexts (history, politics, social issues, social justice, social norms and patterns, etc).
Take a Stand
The final step is to make a declaration about your topic, and voice your truth.
With this simple formula, paired with guidance around the technical elements and historical context of the art form of Spoken Word poetry, students are assigned to each create their own Spoken Word poem.
The results over the years have been astounding. I have witnessed hundreds of youth, when given the opportunity to express their deeper truths, take the dive and come out transformed.
Such an experience provides a platform for youth to be heard and witnessed in their truths in a way that is rare within educational spaces. It creates a feeling of community and closeness within the classroom, building camaraderie between classmates, feelings of validation, moments of healing, deep self-reflection, and authentic emotional release
Some students have said that the assignment of exploring the question of identity in connection to wider social issues through spoken word poetry has helped them to connect much more deeply to their own sense of personal purpose, even more so than an entire year in Careers class.
These moments highlight the potential of using the arts to bring much needed transformation to our education system. Arts-based education is an opportunity to transform our education system to incorporate meaningful exploration of self, purpose, and change.
We need more meaningful collaborations between artists and teachers, which is one step towards a much deeper journey of transforming the core values of our education system.
At the core, what we really need is a holistic revamping of the purpose of education, and an integration of the whole human into the educational experience. Art is, and can be, a powerful conduit for this change.
We need to move past a system of education that is preoccupied with intellectualizing, memorizing and regurgitating facts presented by a narrow view of the past. Instead of pressuring our young people to find a place to become a complacent participant in an economic system that is failing, we need to move education more firmly into a place of grounding in the present moment to help prepare our young people for the future; and inspire them to become agents of much needed change.
The youth are the future. We need an education system that will give them the skills to create a world that is healthier than the one we inherited. This means a shift in paradigm, of priority, a shift in the purpose of education to include the exploration of our inner true purpose in the experience of education.
Some may say that this is too tall of an order for our schools, or that it’s a job for the parents. But why shouldn’t our schools be the place to help young people understand who they are? Teaching them not only how to think but how to know. How to feel alive. How to find and pursue true happiness, fulfillment, balance in life, inner peace.
Our world is at a very critical point in time. It is time to wake up. It is time to evolve. Change is necessary for our collective survival as a species. It is within the self that we must first learn to face these truths, and it is also within the self that we must address them. Our schools have the potential to become spaces of critical self-reflection, innovation, and incubators of collective transformation. The time to transform the purpose of education is now. The future of our youth and the fate of countless generations that will follow depend on it.
© 2015 The Real Sun
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The Real Sun is an artist and educator with a deep dedication to social justice and healing. She has been teaching for 9 years combining arts based education, in particular spoken word poetry, with explorations of identity, social constructs, and critical analysis. The Real Sun is trained in the field of integrated healing practices including psychotherapy, bio-energetic therapy, and energy healing. As a poet, singer/songwriter, and musician she expresses her creativity through spoken word and acoustic soul music.
Art, Education, Healing, Social Justice are the pillars and foundation of everything The Real Sun does, is, and creates. She views each one of these elements as necessary components for creating positive and sustainable social change. The Real Sun is a resident of the Jane-Finch community in Toronto, and was originally born in Anyang, Korea.
 Grace Lee Boggs, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century (Berkeley: University of California Press)
 “Inner Worlds, Outer Worlds,” Documentary. <http://www.innerworldsmovie.com>
 “Changing Education Paradigms,” Lecture by Ken Robinson, <http://youtu.be/zDZFcDGpL4U>
 Example of Hip-Hop Education initiatives in Toronto: Remix to Re-Education: A Hip-Hop Curriculum Resource Guide for Educators with Social Justice Activities, Don’t Believe the Hype, UNITY Charity, #HipHopEd #HipHopEdTO
 Evaluative feedback from Grade 10 Students at University of Toronto Schools in December 2014 after an 8-session unit on Spoken Word Poetry in connection to Identity and Social Constructs, using the ICT format.