Category Archives: Education

Show, Don’t Tell: Using Biomimicry to Instill a Growth Mindset

“Show the readers everything, tell them nothing.”  – Ernest Hemingway

“In my view, nothing’s ever given away.  I believe to advance that you must pay.” – Young Fathers


A series of hoses or a series of stems? A fountain or a flower at the top? Stems/hoses by Zack, flowers/fountains by Jen.

Translating literally to “expedient” and roughly to “skill in means,” the Buddhist concept of upaya offers a space to think through the dilemmas of engagement in education.  To be a teacher, adapting one’s message for one’s audience is of enormous importance.  If the task of the teacher is to deepen curiosity and galvanize students in a process of flourishing, then the teacher must act as often as possible with skillful means, since flourishing, like transformation, is hard won and entails the challenge of leaving behind old ways of thinking and being.  The concept of upaya seems to me related to the literary technique commonly boiled down to “show, don’t tell.”  The teacher cannot just tell students to be good, respectful, or open-minded.  He must show how to be open-minded, and the fruit of his actions should justify why it is good to be open-minded.

Imagine you are a teacher smitten with Carol Dweck’s idea that human thinking patterns can be put into two distinct categories when it comes to growth: fixed mindset and growth mindset.  The first sees abilities as fixed, inborn; the second believes that their abilities can be cultivated.  One of the central themes Dweck uses to distinguish the two perceptual frameworks is how we deal with failure.  You want the students to get it in their nerves that failure is not just something they had best learn to accept: it is inevitable, necessary.  You want to instill a growth mindset, to move people toward their potential rather than hold them in their helplessness, but you can feel the difficulty in making the case convincing.  Likely, no great inner revolutions will be caused simply by telling students about the concepts.  “Clarity, clarity, surely clarity is the most beautiful thing in the world,” George Oppen wrote.  Perhaps a supremely clear conceptualization could inspire the consciousness necessary to initiate a blossoming of awareness; but then a few students will be daydreaming, a few others will be absent, and if you only tell them, only once, you will have already lost some of them.  More likely, it will not be sufficient for transformation to rely solely on verbal communication.  In fact, students are very sophisticated and actively engaged in posture detection.  It is too easy to read the right books and too cheap to repeat what they say.  Students want a teacher, not an actor, and a real teacher is one who actually houses the knowledge being imparted.

To show, the teacher must construct means to knowledge and transformation that have built into them the ideas they wish to impart.  As an example, to show the concept of growth mindset, we could design a project based on the idea of biomimicry.  If the idea of a helicopter’s mechanism for flight, its blades, can be seen as derivative of a maple seed, which by its subtle construction guarantees flight, a humbler, less overblown idea of human achievement could be adopted.  Since the fixed mindset is founded on a common misunderstanding about how talent occurs in people (they just are that way), then exposure to examples of biomimicry could counter the false belief.  In the same way that spectacular human inventions seem made by an elite of geniuses, each in a league of their own, the fixed mindset comes from the misbegotten notion that a given talent is a natural, prepossessed characteristic of the one exemplifying it (i.e. in a league of their own).  The Oxford dictionary states that to “invent” is to “create or design (something that has not existed before); be the originator of.”  We have the idea that inventors do their work “out of thin air.”  Biomimicry challenges that definition.  It suggests that many human inventions correspond to models in nature.  If we wish to acquire or develop a talent, as students we need to exercise a similar challenge to the elitism that suggests we do not have what it takes.  Such talents have doubtless been cultivated with long hours of practice by people who may now appear as gods, be treated as gods, and even live like gods, but they are, in the end, only people.

Below is the Young Fathers’ music video for “In My View” that came out this week (their much awaited album, Cocoa Sugar, due for release March 9).  Filled with penetrative gazes, flashy costumes, mysterious conversations, and emotional upheavals, the viewer struggles to discern a unifying narrative.  Then, at the 2:20 minute mark, the narrative comes together with a couple of words.  Upaya in fine dress.


The Disembodiment of Knowledge

Thinking about Media with Socrates and McLuhan

“Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior.”    – Marshall McLuhan

A gradual externalization of human knowledge began with the advent of written language, the first alphabets arising around the 3rd millennium BC, and the old Latin alphabet around the 2nd century BC.  Invented smack in the middle of a world thriving on oral traditions, alphabets gave humans a revolutionary tool for sharing and preserving information, knowledge, and wisdom.  This new vehicle for human thought seriously influenced not just how we communicated and documented our world, but it  changed the ways that we understand and respond to reality.  The brilliant and prolific writer, Marshall McLuhan, known best for his memorable statement “the medium is the message,” commented on how the invention of writing laid the foundation for our modern mode of thinking:

“Western history was shaped for some three thousand years by the introduction of the phonetic [alphabet] .… Rationality and logic came to depend on the presentation of connected and sequential facts or concepts.”

The advent of writing also relieved individuals of what was likely an ongoing and challenging task—that of memorizing and internalizing all of their stories, myths, rituals, poetry, recipes, and inter-generational knowledge.  What once only travelled by means of memory and the tongue, now could be written down and spread across great distances, enduring the test of time with acutely consistent messages.   Socrates spoke of this transition, and Plato wrote of it.  However, these two thinkers were not quite so keen on the convenience of writing, but rather wary of its effects on man.

“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder.”

In Plato’s writing entitled Phaedrus, Socrates claimed that his true teachings would never in fact be transposed into writing, but spoken only.  So, can we say that we know anything of (the already very elusive) Socrates?   He feared the disembodiment of learning which he believed came with writing, including the loss of context, intonation, and response.  Still, it proceeded thus onward with the invention of the printing press, the telegraph, the photograph, and so on to the virtual age, each technological medium bringing with it great strides for the collective human thought-pool.

With such elaborate conveniences, however, one must wonder which muscles of ours have been allowed to rest, and to what atrophy?

Living alongside the Internet, for example, we today need remember little because Google will always recall it for us at a moment’s notice.  Nothing need be internalized or set to memory because it’s already stored in the mind of the global village, in the external memory of our collective consciousness.  McLuhan, who referred to these inventions as extension of man — a reaching outward, beyond oneself.  He was aware of and wary of this disembodiment, and yet he knew that this was the direction into which humans would need and choose to venture.   (And indeed we have–from living through online avatars, to visiting art museums via robots, to the Voyager space probes–humanity has created a multitude of extensions of our selves and species which enable us to reach further and with greater and more creative facility out into the universe.)

We expand adventurously outward into the universe with our tools as our tightropes.  Alan Watts once said that we “…are a focal point where the universe is becoming conscious of itself.”  From this perspective, our man-made extensions only reveal an ongoing natural  progression of extensions and connectedness between us and the universe.   Whitman, in his epic Song of Myself reminded us that we are “not contain’d between [our] hat and boots.”

Still, what other effects are included in this abundance of extensions?   Socrates went on to describe the burden of too much information:

“And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.”

Mocking Bird, 2009, graphite drawing by Jennifer Ramey

Many of us have so little time today to spend in quality research of a topic in order to really understand it.  So we trust various news sources, reporters, writers, or journalists to garner for us information synthesized into an understanding.  And this sates many of our hunger pains or the social pressures to stay “informed.”  Yet these are second hand opinions, often from perspectives containing ulterior motives.   If we are seeking to learn online, the distractions alone can turn many sincere pursuits of knowledge into scenarios of kids in candy stores.

So, how we learn about the world around us is a tricky and mysterious process.  We learn whether or not we intend to.  One thing is certain, as McLuhan points out:

“Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior.”

Education specialists suggest that educators and learners need to bridge the gap between theory and practice—that is, to practice what is referred to as Experience Based Education.  We need more opportunities to practice and have experiences with a body of knowledge in order to effectively transform it into useful insight or wisdom.  We must embody it:  try it on, touch it, maneuver it.   If we try to build knowledge with bits of information which are housed—to varying degrees—outside our heads and out of our hands, it becomes significantly harder to synthesize these bits into meaningful, larger ideas, projects, or movements.

This synthesis produces all of humanity’s great emergent art forms and includes the alchemy necessary for making meaning in, improving, and contributing to our world.  Maria Popova, an articulator of interdisciplinary thought and a prolific author, writes:

“In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces and build new castles.”

Our memories and experiences are qualitative and exponential “castles” which continuously build upon themselves.  Though it’s wonderfully exciting to live vicariously through film and sitcom and bloggers and vloggers, it is essential to remember that they cannot earn for us our experience or or make for us our art.  And though it is convenient to allow our technology to temporarily remember for us our stories, recipes, quotes, and poems, we must keep in mind that it cannot earn for us our wisdom.

Showing Promise

Egg grown in a Tree
ink, 2015, Bonsai Ramey

A student puts off his final essay till the night before it’s due.  The stakes are high.  Four pages and 10% of his final grade for the course are on the line.  The deadline looms guillotine-like above his head, and this motivates him.  He gets his grade back soon and proclaims to his peers, “I don’t know how I got a 95% on my paper; I pulled it out of my butt the night before!”  What’s notable about this common scenario, putting aside his rectal storage site, is that this 95% is viewed as a major shortcoming of the teacher and a buckling of the high standard of quality he or she is known or supposed to maintain.

Let’s assume for the moment that while this is true, it is not entirely true.  Perhaps a second reading of the situation would ask, Why is the student not more impressed by himself, his transcendent nature, and what he was able to do with a few long, intense hours of focused, guillotine-dreading time?  He has produced not just passable work; the work is good.  It shows PROMISE.

We say of someone showing potential that he shows promise, exhibiting an aptitude or skill early in its flowering.  Why do we use the word “promise”?  Because, however nascent in its development, the potential culmination of the skill is perceptible.  Because, like promising something will come to pass, those who show promise would lift themselves above their current orbit merely by staying their present course.  Every person is a becoming, but that person who shows promise in a given capacity can consider himself promised a privileged position, a sacred earning, a gift, a power, merely by holding to the path along which he already finds himself.  This is special, for noticing the path means already some part of the conflict about life has been overcome.  A unifying direction has become visible from the chaos, a means to trump entropy, to “contribute a verse.”  As Walt Whitman wrote:

O me! O life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?


That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.