From the Director
Mr. Centers’ Page
Kona Pacific Public Charter School Executive Director Phil Centers has been involved in education for forty years as both a teacher, school leader, and parent. This page shares aspects of his educational philosophy, as well as ideas for parents and students to explore during this time when the learning process is being shared at home in unprecedented new ways.
Beginnings - A Caring Adult in the Life of a Child
For some of us, it all begins with a single human being who cares about us and touches our life and changes it forever. For me, this was (along with my parents) Mrs. Stoffregan. There are still some lucky people out there who had Mrs. Stoffregan as their 6th grade teacher at Bond Hill Elementary School in Cincinnati, Ohio sometime between the 1940s and 1971, when she retired. She was my teacher just at the end of her career. Mrs. Stoffregan was a master teacher who made learning truly come alive for us. I graduated from her class as both a lifelong learner, and also knowing that I would be a teacher someday myself, following in the footsteps of my beloved teacher.
So much of what we are able to do in life depends on our attitude, or mindset. Research indicates that there are two basic mindsets human beings can have: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is characterized by the attitude, “Who I am right now is good enough.” It basically means that, at least in this moment, I’m not teachable because my mind is made up, or fixed. It’s understandable why we would settle into a fixed mindset. It is extraordinarily difficult to grow up, to move through the journey of childhood into adulthood, and we are fortunate to be able to arrange the thousands of things in our lives, by the time we become adults and have to take care of ourselves and possibly also a family, into an order that makes sense and serves us well enough. How much more difficult is it to have a growth mindset as children or adults, to take everything that comes our way as opportunities to become better: better students, better athletes or scholars or artists or workers, better human beings. With everything on our plates as adults, how hard to be open to becoming even more mature, to continue growing inwardly our whole lives, to take nothing for granted, to look at everything with fresh eyes (the eyes of a child).
What’s fascinating is that our mindset can change in different situations. One situation will touch something in me and open my heart, mind and will to new learning. I feel the magic of life I felt as a child. Another situation will touch me and I will pull in and close up. Maybe something of the trauma I experienced at some point in my life has been triggered, and it doesn’t feel safe to venture out into new experiences, on new adventures of learning. Human beings are incredibly complex and they do not reveal their secrets easily, even to their conscious selves.
The photo shows Michael Jordan surrounded by three members of the infamous Detroit Pistons "Bad Boys" team. If one didn’t know Michael, it might seem like he was being teamed up on (yes!), even bullied (that, too!). But look at that concentration in his eyes. He sees the three opponents near him, exactly where their hands are. He sees the basket, he sees his four teammates only covered by two opponents, and he is intent on getting that ball in his hand through the hoop one way or another. In the recent documentary, “The Last Dance”, Michael’s growth mindset is revealed in detail. Michael really loved a challenge, especially the challenge of becoming the best basketball player in the world, perhaps of all time. This is an inspiration for all of us to be open to new growth in each opportunity life offers.
Three of the greatest insights into the modern educational process for every human being came from the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, a contemporary of the founder of Waldorf Education, Rudolf Steiner. Vygotsky discovered that human beings have a "learning zone” (much like Michael Jordan being "in the zone”!), which Vygotsky called the Zone of Proximal Development (known as the ZPD), meaning that we learn based on what is near, or “proximal”, to us, namely our past learning successes. The zone of learning / ZPD is in between what we have already mastered, or internalized (the second of Vygotsky’s insights), and the vast, perhaps infinite, field of things we have not yet learned, mastered, and internalized. For the student to master the next portion of that infinite field of potential, the teacher must put a frame, or scaffold (the third of Vygotsky’s insights), around a small section of it, much like we would put a scaffold around a building site until the building is constructed and strong enough to stand on its own.
As teachers we scaffold new learning until it becomes mastered by our students. If a teacher teaches things the students already have internalized, boredom results unless the students have a growth mindset and they see the experience as an opportunity to practice, or strengthen, what they already know. If the students are exposed without proper scaffolding to new material, frustration results, again unless the students have a growth mindset and they see the experience as a taste of what is out there to master. So we are always progressing, as long as we are students / lifelong learners, from the foundation of all that we have already learned and mastered, through the ZPD / learning zone, into the vast realm of new learning. We transform the not-yet-learned into the learned through scaffolding and eventual internalization, or mastery.
The photo of the natural crater pool in Hawaii shows an example of nature’s scaffolding. The open ocean might be too much for new swimmers. The protected pool gathers enough of the surf, including crashing waves, to provide an exciting yet safe learning experience for new and experienced swimmers, balanced perfectly between previous learning (being immersed in water) and the vast ocean stretching to the horizon.
Sometimes even after we’ve learned something beyond any shadow of a doubt, we’re required to let go of what we think we know in order to learn new things. In other words, paradoxically, what’s “proximal” (near to us, things we’ve already learned) can keep our learning stuck at our current level of understanding if we stay too close to it. So we need to learn how not to know even what we know!
For instance, take this photo. Does it look like cracker jacks? Can you believe this is the surface of the Sun? “From the summit of 10,000-foot Haleakala in Hawaii, 93 million miles away from the sun, the National Science Foundation's Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope has delivered [December 10, 2019] its first look at our mass of incandescent gas, with never-before-seen detail. In the highest-resolution image of the sun's surface ever captured, features as small as 18 miles across are visible for the first time. The churning plasma of our nearest star resembles cellularlike formations, each one about the size of the US state of Texas. The Inouye Solar Telescope allows scientists a look at features on the sun that are three times smaller than anything visible before now.”
The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget captured this truth of the human learning process in insights that complement, yet challenge, Vygotsky’s. Piaget suggested that for new learning to take place the teacher must create “disequilibrium” in their students, shake up what the students think they already know in order to allow room for new learning to enter. If the students trust the teacher, then they will allow this disequilibrium to take place, which may be uncomfortable because by nature it is outside of the comfort zone, but which may also be exciting, depending on the mindset of the students at the time. If disequilibrium is accepted through trust in the teacher, the students will “accommodate”, or tolerate, new learning to enter into their already set interior landscape. Once they’ve lived with the new learning long enough, they “assimilate” the new learning into the framework of their total learning landscape. At this point they reach a state of “new equilibrium”. This process repeats itself endlessly as long as we are alive and learning.
The Adventure of
Humanity has only scratched the surface of what there is to know, and how we might go about learning it. What surprises await us in the greatest of all journeys, the adventure of learning! Is it possible, in the hidden nature of the universe, to travel across distances measured in incomprehensible years of light that seem to flow, as time, in only one direction? A true scientist would say, who knows?! And the greatest scientist so far claimed that our imagination, which can envision much more than we can prove or even comprehend logically at this point in our evolution, is more important than knowledge, or what we are certain about.
It is our privilege to work with our students in this process of discovery. My students and I over the years have discovered, among many amazing things, the "net of squares" in math, the four exponential infinitely repeating mathematical sequences, and the theoretical existence of the 119th and 120th elements - the edge and center of a black hole. And these were discovered using simple Waldorf and Einsteinian, Vygotskian and Piagetian methods of probing, imagining, discovering, and learning. We are glad to be together with you on this journey!