Several years ago I had the experience of moving from an inner city school situated in the South Bronx to a suburban school in the northern part of Pennsylvania. I quickly discovered that the culture of this new school and the personal experiences of my students were vastly different. Because of this, I found, their thinking process was also dissimilar.

To understand my suburban Catholic school students better, I was constantly asking them, “Why do you think that?” and “How did you come up with that idea?” During a class discussion of Abraham (in the Old Testament), I was asked, “How did Abraham die?” To which I responded, “We don’t know.” Puzzled, another student responded, “Wasn’t he shot?” Trying desperately to make some sense of their reasoning, I asked, “Can you tell me more about why you think that?” Another student chimed in, “Wasn’t he shot by a guy named Booth?” “Ah, no” I said. “That man was Abraham Lincoln, not Abraham of the Old Testament.”

Over and over again, as I tried to get a handle on how these students learned and what their thinking was like, I was intrigued by the notion that their inner world was totally alien to me — and I was supposed to be an experienced teacher! They made me be creative, not only in the planning of my lessons, but also by coming up with questions that made them think differently. In short, they challenged me to be a better educator — all because I wanted to understand what was going on inside their heads, their inner world.

The Zeitgeist

I was reminded of this interaction recently when I viewed the video of Sir Ken Robinson’s presentation at Zeitgeist 2012. Zeitgeist is an event sponsored by Google featuring top global thinkers and leaders. Their presentations were filmed in front of a lively and engaged audience and then uploaded on a YouTube channel to engage the entire world.

The word “zeitgeist” means the spirit of the age or spirit of the time and refers to the intellectual fashion or dominant school of thought “which typifies and influences the culture of a period.” (Wikipedia) During this year’s presentations, Zeitgeist speakers focused on The World Around Us: The World We Explore, The World to Watch, The World We Design, Dream, and Build.

The outer and inner worlds

In his talk, Robinson gave us a unique perspective of two distinct worlds in which all humans are members; the outer world and the inner world. Early in his presentation, he observes that our education systems are failing to keep pace with developments in the external world, “which are moving with a tremendous speed and depth of change.” And, he adds, education systems “have never been good at connecting with our inner world.”

In the outer world, the rapid transformation of every aspect of society is now the new normal. Our planet supports seven billion people because of human innovation. New inventions hit the global market on a daily basis. We have the capacity to become (and remain) instantly connected to this fluid way of thought and communication.

This is the world that exists whether or not we choose to exist in it. This is the world filled with facts; it is data driven and always looking for “something better.” We often respond to this constant churn with a “knee jerk” reaction — we are frequently stressed as we cycle through the stimulus/response triggered by the change that is present all around us.

The inner world is something and someplace totally different. In a reflection, Remez Sasson refers “not to the inner world of the mind, but to something beyond it. I am referring to a state of consciousness without thoughts, when one becomes conscious of his real being.”

“Thoughts, and the tendency to follow the senses outwards, towards sense objects, are the obstacles to seeing the bright inner light. [the inner world] It is only when the fog disappears that we can see the landscape. It is only when there are no waves in the lake that we can see the bottom. Making the mind quiet is the way to see the bottom, the base, which is pure Consciousness, our inner world.”

Connecting to the inner world is essential today

Sir Ken Robinson concludes that for us to truly understand the world around us, we need to explore the world within us. This world is characterized by diversity, produces personal energy through creativity and innovation, and is organic in nature.

Parallel this with our educational system, which tends to uphold conformity, compliance, and the status quo. This is the system in which, according to Robinson, 10% of 14- to 19-year olds are on ADDHD medication. They are drugged in order to focus on facts and concepts that others think are important — many of which could change in a 24-hour period.

In our technological world we have, for the first time, the capability to teach students how to use the strengths and passions of their inner world to make the outer world a better place. This is why the experience of art, music, drama, dance and sports education is essential. It is my personal belief that every learner possesses a birthright — the opportunity to reach their potential. It’s why they were created. It is up to adults to help young people make keys for the door of their inner world; to show them how to find the personal energy to address the why’s and the how’s of today’s challenges.

I echo a quote of H.G. Wells, the futurist and science fiction writer: “Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe.” As an educator, how will YOU assist your students explore their inner world? How will YOU get them quiet enough to ask the questions that help them find the inner world and explore the outer world within and around them?

About the author
Sister Geralyn Schmidt, SCC, is the Wide Area Network Coordinator for the Diocese of Harrisburg (PA). In her current position, she is responsible for Professional Development for teachers regarding “all things techy.” She has been a high school tech coordinator and graphics design teacher who's also taught middle grades math and science in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York City.