Composing a Life, a book written by Mary Catherine Bateson, explores the artistic achievement of four of her successful friends, as well as her own life as a writer, researcher, and anthropologist. Through studying the life histories of her friends, she discovers that composing a life is possible in the midst of confusion, failures, and other discontinuities. Composing a life requires a sense of purpose, a commitment to creative collaboration, and a realization that being nurtured and supported promotes individual growth and fulfillment.
As a follow up, I listened to her On Being interview with Krista Tippett posted on August 3, 2017. While absorbing her wisdom, I was thinking about how her anthropological insights apply to schooling in the 21st Century. The title of her book, Composing a Life, seems like an appropriate metaphor for how we should think about a school’s purpose. As educators, our shared goal might be to get to know our students, guide them through learning ideas we value and believe are important to becoming a conscientious citizen, and help them compose their future selves. In this context, I think compose is such a beautiful word. They are the artist forming a piece of art which is their life. We could think of ourselves as their mentor or teacher, giving them feedback on their work of art as it evolves over time. Bateson says this as she responds to a question about what composing a life means to her.
And I was looking for a metaphor that would allow them to realize that the effort they were making to work out a new kind of women’s role was creative, that it as an art form.
While some may read this connection and think it’s an unrealistic idea of what school is or what it should be, I see it as inspiration, an idea to work towards or an image of what to become.
Because our complex, interconnected world shifts and changes around every corner, educators are being called to reimagine school. Over the past 10-15 years, many educational thinkers are challenging us to reconsider our purpose, structures, practices, and policies. We have experiential learning, project-based learning, blended learning, the flipped classroom, online learning and degrees, changes in assessment practice, and many more. Schools are embracing some of these ideas but strongly resisting experimenting with most of them, especially schools that hang on to “older ways” of teaching and learning. Will those schools become obsolete?
I mean I think we now live with constant change. And so they’re onstage without a script.
Schools, in the face of government or parent pressures, are sometimes reluctant to write their own script on how to best meet the learning needs of their students. We (schools) need to be thoughtful and bold in our approach to adapt to the societal and global changes we face. Ultimately, our responsibility is to prepare our students to fully function in the world they will inherit. Here again Bateson gives some probing insights into how we might think about our purpose.
I like to think of men and women as artists of their own lives, working with what comes to hand through accident or talent to compose and recompose a pattern in time that expresses who they are and what they believe in, making meaning even as they are studying and working and raising children, creating and recreating themselves. (Tippett is reading this from Bateson’s writing.)
So how can we help our students become artists of their own lives and less victims of a society that pressures them to conform to a set of expectations. How do we help students into discovering what is possible, what their life’s work is meant to be?
In Bateson’s imagination, she conjures up the image of homemaking. Tippett asks her to explain what homemaking means to her. She says:
Well, creating an environment in which learning is possible. And that is what a home is. I mean that is what we want the homes that we give to our children to be–places where they grow in many, many different ways. They learn how to connect with other people, They learn how to care for others. They learn particular skills. They learn their own capacities and how to trust other people and how to trust themselves. They learn what respect is.
What a powerful way to think about school, equating schooling to her definition of homemaking. There are so many parallels. How many times have you spoken with colleagues about what school could or should be? It probably sounded a lot like how Bateson describes homemaking. What is striking about this image is that it doesn’t describe school (home) as a place where students learn content and facts. They learn about themselves as human beings. Of course content and facts are an important ingredient in learning, but they are not essential. The essential learnings are more about being a respectful, cooperative, caring, and risk-taking human with well-developed social and emotional skills.
(See a previous Center for Teaching post titled, What qualities make for an ideal school or classroom, if you want to learn more.)
I found myself very interested in her views of cooperation versus competition. She is clearly a proponent of collaboration as a means to grow and change, even while recognizing that competition has played a central role in our evolutionary success. She says:
Yes, and that very often major accelerations of change came out when a group of people got together and learned together and dared to think new thoughts and then pass them on. And the point is that the evolutionary part of that was in the relationships between the members of those small groups, feeding off of each other’s imagination and insights and wisdom and then spreading them out in the society, going forward.
Reflecting on her views, I can’t help but think about teacher teams. Whether we use a professional learning community structure or some other team structure in school, we need to commit to making time for teachers to work on collaborative teams, move from isolation to collaboration. When teachers learn together, play together, and create together, they become a source of productive, positive change in their school. As a result, school becomes a more vibrant place for students to learn.
Reflecting on the Book of Job, Bateson says this:
And then God says, “Look. Just look. Realize how beautiful it is, how complicated it is–the wonder of Creation.” And wake up.
Let’s develop a sense of wonder about school, about the possibilities for what school should be for all students. We need to tap into our creative energy, reimagining some of our expectations and practices, so that schooling is like Bateson’s view of homemaking.