Tag Archives: biomimetics

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.


Barnett Newman on the Aesthetic Roots of Humanity

“Man’s hand traced the stick through the mud to make a line before he learned to throw the stick as a javelin.”

Mandalic Compass, for Matt, ink and pencil, 2015, by Bonsai Ramey

“Undoubtedly the first man was an artist,” begins a remarkable little speculative essay written in 1947 by Barnett Newman.  It proposes that the aesthetic act of wonder precedes the social and utilitarian acts of animal survival.  The aesthetic experience requires a mind capable of connecting disparate dots, that can render the non-local local, the concealed revealed, that can ask whether “to be or not to be.”  Although historically Newman is remembered as a modernist painter who challenged, and continues to challenge, with his large, minimalist color field paintings, I will always, probably, think of him as the one who wrote “The First Man Was an Artist.”

The essay was published in a periodical called Tiger’s Eye at that time when the home of modern art was shifting from Paris to America. Its power reminds me of that poetic power typical of essays of the past, from writers like Emerson, Stevenson, Montaigne, and Chesterton, which subtly illuminates the limits of analysis.  Chopping things up into little bits may lead one to understand a system and to a kind of wonder, but the analytical process of sizing something up, of measurement by separating something into its constituent elements, cannot grasp meaning.  “The whole is other than the sum of its parts,” as the Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka wrote.  Other is the operative word, commonly misquoted as “greater.”  The whole (whether we’re talking about life or an artwork) has a reality of its own; no cataloguing of parts can ever indicate that reality, and that reality is what I mean by “meaning.”  Nevertheless, it is possible to court this connectivity, to glimpse the whole within one of its parts.  William Irwin Thompson writes that this glimpse is precisely what the sacred is.  In The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light, Thompson writes:

To begin to understand what is going on in the…art of the Upper Paleolithic, we have to escape not only the ethnocentricity of academic male subcultures, but also the limited epistemology of social science.  We have to use the “Imagination” to recover a sense of the sacred. The sacred is the emotional force which connects the part to the whole; the profane or the secular is that which has been broken off from, or has fallen off, its emotional bond to the universe.” (102).

Matt's Mandala Compass

We could replace Thompson’s “Imagination” with “aesthetic sense.” The aesthetic is a connected, sacred, imaginal, intuitive, emotional force.  The modern scientific-material mindset has not done well to encourage the fostering of creative self-reliance and the health of whole systems, tending more toward bottom-linism and banal profit motives.  While it should be no surprise when intuitions are written off as airy ethereal “fluff,” it should be a deep concern that we are in the middle of an aesthetic crisis.

Even with an experience of the sacred, the question is likely to remain for one who thinks in material terms and seeks material proof: what sustains the underlying Celtic knotwork of things on Earth?  It is as unknown today as it has ever been, despite our becoming conscious of ecology and despite our looking to nature for models of how to live, build, and organize, as in the field of biomimetics.  We know it isn’t a substance, but the hard sciences only can deal with experimentally viable phenomena.  This rules out the possibility of science reasoning out the connection between human dreams and termite mounds.  Still, for our own lives, we don’t need to look far into the analogous ways of the wild to be thrown into reverie: why is it you never see a line of ants on a log in gridlock for an accident ahead?  Can the Department of Transportation take its next cue from the ants?  Questions like this are fantastic, practical endeavors for scientific research, and they may be the best hope for restoring a healthy balance between our species and the rest of the world.  This is the gift rationality offers us. But notice that the connectivity is understood by category (how is human infrastructure connected to insect infrastructure)?  How is a part related to another part?  Not, How is a part related to the whole of Nature?  The latter is the question we are all forced to ask today. Rationality reaches its limit.  To get at this question, other means are necessary.  Perhaps we are in the present ecological crisis because we have ceased to make decisions for aesthetic reasons, insisting always on the utilitarian angle.  We must learn to employ that ancient inherited aspect of us which is creative, for the aesthetic act is a byproduct of an intuition of wholes and the urgent desire to express them.

In its earliest flowering, according to Newman, “speech was a poetic outcry rather than a demand for communication.”  It is human to feel deeply, not just to communicate, and the need to express what is uniquely human in us is deep-seated.  It is even more human to become aware that however loudly one may cry out, the source of that expression and the purpose of that expression are one and the same.

“It is important to keep in mind that the necessity for dream is stronger than any utilitarian need.  In the language of science, the necessity for understanding the unknowable comes before any desire to discover the unknown.”

Matt's Mandala Compass Detail

How in control can a creature be?  We are in control in much the same way as a man who builds a bridge as he walks out in space across it.  He floats in the air and is free to hammer in the next board.  He extends the bridge, and he may choose to begin curving its path, but he is confined to build forward, standing on a small walkway.  Therefore, he is far from complete control.  His destiny is determined by the section of the bridge he has just created.