Connecting Thinking & Doing

I find the categorisation of people into ‘thinkers’ and ‘doers’ rubbish: depending on the context, you can be damned or praised for being either. More significantly, the separation diverts us from dealing with a more important question of how thoughts and actions are inevitably, even if inexplicably, related.

According to cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Philosophy in the Fleshto live as a human being is to live as an ’embodied mind’. Given that the subtitle of their book is The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, they vociferously argue that

… there is no Cartesian dualistic person, with a mind separate from and independent of the body, sharing exactly the same disembodied transcendent reason with everyone else, and capable of knowing everything about his or her mind simply by self-reflection. Rather, the mind is inherently embodied, reason is shaped by the body and since most though is unconscious, the mind cannot be known simply by self-reflection. 

Embodied Thinking & ‘Philosophy In Schools’ Approach

Much of my ‘thinking about  thinking’ has been influenced by my work with the Association of Philosophy in Schools trainers in my home state of Western Australia, in particular with Dr Felicity Haynes (UWA) and Professor Stephan Millett (Curtin University). In the UK, the movement is run by  SAPERE,  the Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education.

As I experienced it, the concept of a ‘community of enquiry’ was an effective way of bringing students together to cultivate the art of questioning. In 2003 and 2004, I created  ‘Drama and Philosophy’  workshops within the context of the arts centre in which I worked with Dr Laura D’Olimpio. Laura later wrote about our approach

We started the workshops with a series of problem-solving activities and get-to-know-you games centred on the notion of questioning. Questions are crucial to the thoughtful mind; many philosophers would argue that they are even more important than the answers, as Howard Gardner (2004) argues. To ask questions is important as a practical tool that assists us in life: it is the way we process information, discover new information, and expose any problems with arguments or ideas. To introduce this topic to the children, we showed a series of images that were taken from the Wearable Arts Festival, which is held annually in Nelson, New Zealand. The Wearable Arts display their entries in a theatrical, fashion-show production that incorporates music, lighting and choreography. Prizes are given for the best creations. We asked the children to think of any questions, besides ‘What is it?’, that they would ask about the object or to the object. The intention behind this activity is to generate lots of different kinds of questions, not to answer them. We shall see that some of these questions may have answers and some may not, and some may have many answers.

Philosophically Artistic

The ‘community of inquiry’ approach permeated every part of our work. For instance, instead of setting students to ‘make up a scene’ I ‘strategically intervened’ in their creative process by  using different swatches of coloured cloth ‘on the floor’ as a way of embodying conscious thought. I wanted  young people to link their artistic decisions as actors and designers with their narrative organising of a situation. In contrast to Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats  ‘thinking game’ which ascribes characteristics to particular colours,  I ‘coached’ students through a series of improvisations to question ‘what happened next’ when they stood on a particular colour.

The children’s used my questions to discover  the attributes which the colours suggested to them within the evolving narrative: the symbolic value of colour was ‘unfixed’, representing both external environments and the internalised moods for the actor.

Arts & The Creation of MInd

While we often acknowledge how the arts foster well-being, emotional resilience and personal expression, it is less common to highlight, as Elliot Eisner does, how the arts make a distinctive contribution to

the development of thinking skills in the context of an art form, the expression and communication of distinctive forms of meaning, meaning that only artistically crafted forms can convey, and the ability to undergo forms of experience that are at once moving and touching, experiences of a consummatory nature, experiences that are treasured for their intrinsic value…  To be able to think about teaching as an artful undertaking, to conceive of learning as having aesthetic features, to regard the design of an educational environment as an artistic task – these ways of thinking about some of the commonplaces of education could have profound consequences for redesigning the practice of teaching and reconceiving the context in which teaching occurs.

An aesthetic framework calls on us to pay attention to relationships, to be flexible in our purposing, shaping form to create expressive content, to exercise the imagination and master the ability to transform qualities of experience into speech and text. This is highly challenging to achieve. But,  as Eisner concludes, the pay-off for viewing the world from such a perspective enables us to experience joy.

Joy is not a term that is used much in the context of education, but if the arts are about anything, they are about how they make you feel in their presence – when you know how to read their form. The arts, when experienced in the fullness of our emotional life, are about becoming alive.