International Congress on Education
Castel Gandolfo, March 31 – April 2, 2006
Method or methods?
To speak of method basically means to speak of “how”: how will I move in this or that situation that I am working in.
We educators and teachers who are also “technicians” of instruction and teaching, utilize every day, in a more or less conscious way, methods to teach language or mathematics, methods to manage the class and groups, methods to encourage discussion and reasoning, methods to increase creativity or critical reflection; also psychological and social methods for interacting with individuals, groups, in social milieus or other types of contexts.
But facing the question of “how” often implies dealing with two states of mind: looking for security, certainty, and perhaps more recurring, feeling uncertain, not knowing what to do.
We have a great wealth and variety of methodologies at our disposal, which, however, can also disorient us if a comprehensive framework of reference is missing with regard to basic educational activity. In education, method must be coherently integrated in a comprehensive pedagogical vision that explains and justifies it.
In my talk I will try to highlight some methodological aspects by building on ideas from the text of Chiara Lubich that we are examining during these days: it is a contribution that fits into a wider reflection – historical and epistemological – about the meaning and use of method, especially in the field of education.
Along the journey of concept
Methodos – from the Greek, means “way,” “path,” “journey.” Our “how” that we mentioned before is, therefore, a continual and recurring quest for the most effective and coherent “way” to reach a given goal.
Method is historically linked first of all to the problem of acquiring certainty in the field of knowledge. Socrates, for example, alluded to the art of the midwife who brings truth to light: truth which is not the evident and accepted fact, the superficial opinion, the presumption of imposed knowledge (“doxa”). Rather, truth comes to light only from the difficult labor of shared research, creative dialogue, and is based on the humble admission of “not knowing.”
For Plato method is differentiated in two modalities: first of all there are negative rules intended to avoid errors, and then there are positive precepts or heuristic rules aimed at the construction of true knowledge.
We also have doubts every day about what we teach and how the students learn, about what we do and the consequences of our actions in a given context. This twofold problem – utilizing error to create true knowledge and proposing coherent, effective paths – is present from the very beginning in the reflection and practice of educating.
Method lived its golden age at the beginning of modern times; Bacon took up the platonic bipartition with the well-known distinction between pars destruens and pars costruens: an initial liberation from preconceived ideas, errors, prejudices which have a negative influence on our knowledge, followed then by a second moment which, if everything proceeds well, gives us the possibility of taking a step forward in knowledge. In Descarte’s Discourse on Method, one of the founding works of modern thought, importance and value are given to the so-called “positive” rules, which generally derive from the analysis of an exemplary cognitive undertaking. In this dynamic between certainty and uncertainty, between the meaning of the known and secure and the need to seek what is new, what comes to our aid is not so much a theory to adapt or formulas to apply, but exemplary experiences, cognitive pathways, “good practices,” that have demonstrated their effectiveness.
In this particular historical moment appeared the figure of Jan Komensky. The Protestant Reform advanced the need to make instruction available to everyone. The organization of the nascent scholastic institutions required a methodological approach: this led to a new and distinct field of studies in education, that is, method. In fact, to want to teach “everything to everyone” poses the problem of coupling and articulating both teaching and learning in a new way, setting the objective of knowledge which in all dimensions is basically available to every person, in every moment of life.
Humanism and the Renaissance thus gave their most lasting fruit, the birth of a new vision of education which, as Maria Zambiano affirmed some decades ago precisely with regard to method, is similar to the beginning of a new life, a discovery that is not only cognitive but also educatiional, social and existential.
But if we look at the development of European thought, we see that this discovery was soon replaced by another concern, which almost became an obsession: that of reaching certitude with regard to the cognitive act. All of European rationalism – whose most illustrious representative was Kant – is built up around the idea of giving reliable rules to rational knowledge. In a sense, this concern prevented reason from entering into other dimensions, like those that cannot be investigated exclusively from a rational viewpoint: life, meaning, ethics, otherness.
The great German philosopher was perfectly aware of this. After coming up with a scientific “pure reason”, he elaborated a “practical reason” – of the heart and of ethics – and an “aesthetic reason” – of beauty and purpose.
With rationalism, the original and creative thrust of method as total openness (cognitive and not) towards the “being” of things, of human beings, of the world, became rather locked up inside its logical forms and rigorously founded concepts. The thrust towards innovation was replaced by the pursuit of security and anchored to uniformity.
Also in virtue of this specific cognitive attitude too constrained by the pursuit of certainty, we have arrived to a real and true amnesia of the being and profound reasons of knowledge. Could this also be the reason for that sense of being lost, lack of horizons and innovative strategies, that we as educators also perceive? Instead, as educators, we believe that the search for method must be oriented to the discovery of the new, the unprecedented, besides to what is “certain” and “secure.”
At the beginning of the nineteen hundreds, during the crisis of the foundations of rational certitude, another great philosopher started out again from method. Husserl questioned himself about the way to enter into the inner life of man in a way that was rational and that could be shared, the way to open a passageway to the fundamental questions about life, meaning and identity. It was the phenomenological method which in a sense gave way to the new, to the unprecedented.
Then existentialism and personalism developed along this path.
We too, as we said at the beginning, search for the foundations of our formative activities and reflections. Our traveling companions in this quest are Martin Buber with his philosophy of dialogue and the value given to relationship, Emmanuel Levinas with the priority given to the Other; Emmanuel Mounier, with the rediscovery of the person; Edith Stein and many others.
“Pars destruens e costruens”
Chiara Lubich’s text that we are reading is also (but not only!) the account of a journey and, therefore, also of a method. The first step highlights a sort of pars destruens: leave the teachers and follow me. We note that Chiara Lubich begins with a negative, paradoxical reason: the particular educational experience that she proposes as an exemplary model may seem to most people as folly, foolishness. Indeed, it can also be considered as a “non-doctrine, a non-teaching.” We hear the echo of one of the fundamental moments of Western thought, Plato’s well-known seventh letter:
“There neither is nor ever will be a treatise of mine on the subject. For it does not admit of exposition like other branches of knowledge; but after much converse about the matter itself and a life lived together, suddenly a light, as it were, is kindled in one soul by a flame that leaps to it from another, and thereafter sustains itself.”
Chiara Lubich’s reasoning fulfils, in a certain sense, this fundamental platonic lesson. According to her, education is not the transmission of a static teaching, but a “living and animated discourse”; and as she said, “the answer to the needs of life,” “the answer to the questions that people of all times may pose.”
In her experience, the discovery of the Teacher becomes the focus of a “living” hermeneutical principle. This is a discovery that “frees” from dependence, that frees even “from teachers,” and places the person in an active and responsible way at the center of the learning process. This was one of the fundamental themes of pedagogical personalism, from Rosmini to the whole gamut of Catholic pedagogy in the nineteen hundreds. Chiara Lubich profoundly renews this theme, giving to the hermeneutical principle Christ–Truth the inter-subjective and transcendent dimension of the “between,” that we began to define and that Plato himself – as we heard – rooted in communion between people, in inter-subjectivity, we would say today.
We could define the second step, consequent to the first, as a pars costruens: in fact, “complete emptiness” serves to focus on the code of a new way of life, the Gospel.
Nevertheless, we can ask ourselves: are we not running the risk of relapsing into an education that is only the static transmission of the truth?
The next passage explains why this is not so. The pars destruens, in fact, is not described so much as “fear of making a mistake” but, on the contrary, as the condition for a new, personal and fascinating experience of what is true. Only a new and original experience of truth personally lived out can help each one of us to discover how much truth, goodness and beauty are present not only in the Gospel, but also in what Vatican II called “the seeds of the Word in every culture, in every thinker.
Complete emptiness, then, is needed for light. The method indicated offers the possibility of being interiorly illuminated in one’s personal search for truth.
From the “method”… to “methods”
We can say then that in Chiara Lubich’s text we have first of all found a “great method,” which is the re-proposal – original in the context of post modernity – of a fundamental cognitive and existential position that brings people back to dialogue with the Being, with the world, with otherness.
Educators, in particular, can find an anthropological-pedagogical foundation that can help them to come out of the deadlock in educational practice, often drowned out by methods without a soul, concerned only with being “technically effective,” but because they get lost in technicalities they lose all real effectiveness.
Besides this great conceptual and philosophical clearing, on a more pragmatic level, we can single out some positions that address our daily educational actions from the methodological viewpoint. They are coherent consequences on the level of practice.
Priority to relationship
Relationship, we said before, is the indispensable place for every effective educational activity. This holds true also for leaning and it has immediate practical consequences:
- The learning subject is truly and concretely valued, becoming active and participating with all his or her resources;
- The class-group is no longer an “accident” but becomes a resource, acquires educational consistency: learning cooperatives adopt normal didactic practices, time and consideration is given to extra-curricular activities;
- The relationship among educators can be a place of sharing ideas both for planning (this is the basis of interdisciplinary collaboration) and for the evaluation of experiences, results and failures. This potentiates and gives scientific rigor to one’s educational endeavors.
In relationship people are esteemed as goals, whereas the means are relativized (technologies and didactic techniques, books, audiovisuals, programs, schedules….).
As such, the means return to being what they should be: tools in the hands of persons-goals. They will continually be invented or re-invented, and therefore, made more effective.
What each person learns is the fruit of a common endeavor, personally interiorized because each one was encouraged to participate in his or her own “achievement.”
In relationship Truth itself is unveiled as dialogue and as process, continually enriched by the gift of the other.
- Some important dispositions for learning
From all that has been said one basic orientation emerges: it is not possible to seek the truth by storing up books, since truth is not a sum total of notions.
“A good mind is better than a full mind,” Edgar Morin repeats today quoting Montaigne; and we say something similar: put the books away in the attic as a premise for rediscovering the dimension of “being” along with and before that of “knowing” and also of “knowing how to do things.”
Although it may seem to be far from the common understanding of studies, we can see that much research and educational and pedagogical proposals are going in this very direction:
- Prefer method to content;
- Prefer experience to book collecting;
- Prefer attitudes to notions;
Therefore, we see “putting books aside” not so much as a negative action, but as a dynamic methodological principle that sets into motion the knowledge and whole being of a person; this requires a vast range of attitudes and cognitive, volitive, emotional and affective orientations.
- putting aside one’s point of view,
- decentralizing oneself,
- giving in to evidence,
- distancing oneself from personal knowledge, theories and prejudices.
Likewise, it proves to be important:
- to trust the opinion of others;
- to trust in the possibility of resolving conflicts of interpretation;
- to allow oneself to be drawn into unknown or unexplored territories and ways of reasoning;
- to look anew at problems and situations that we believe we already know everything about.
From what has been said, we can better understand the connection between theory and practice. The pedagogical debate on this subject is far from being resolved; but the basic option we can discern from the methodological paradigm of unity is that human beings cannot use intelligence as a faculty that is separated from the rest of their being. One example would be to teach to study not only by studying, but by living and experiencing what one studies; not only with the intellect but also with the heart: by loving.
We give a Gospel content to this word, where love also means discernment, making choices, taking stands, saying “yes” and saying “no.” Love and knowledge lived in this way unify people in themselves and fully potentiate all their faculties. It is not a matter then of giving activities to students alongside or accompanied by studies, but of viewing the quest for knowledge and truth as a total adventure, one that is ethical, existential and aesthetic (the right to beauty!). In this way, the truth lived by educators will turn out to be enormously potentiated through example. Example is especially communicative and humanity, so often stimulated by empty words, seems to be very sensitive to it today.
As we can see, the “great method” produces an infinite number of applicable possibilities, all substantiated by love: no longer a sum total of “techniques”, but an active part of the art of educating, inseparable from the art of loving and knowing.