Zen and the Art of Social Cognitive Theory

In movies and books we can hear the archetype of the zen master giving a student cryptic advice: be one with the (whatever), grasshopper; aim by not aiming; you are trying too hard to achieve the goal. One example of this archetype is present in a book called Zen in the Art of Archery. Written by a German philosophy professor with an interest in mysticism, the book chronicles his time under the guidance of a master zen archer in Japan. My central interest in the book is the teaching of the zen master and the teacher-student relationship.

The Practice of Teaching Zen

In Zen in the Art of Archery (ZAA), there seem to be two main ways the teacher teaches.

One of the ways is through demonstration. Nothing mystical here: the master shows the student how to draw and shoot the bow.

The other way is through what are sometimes called koans. A koan is a like a riddle or paradox intended to break the typical habits of mind the student employs. In ZAA, the master tells the student to be “shot through” by the string, to aim by not aiming, among other advice that sounded cryptic.

Parallels to Teaching in Schools

The first practice, modeling, is frequently employed by teachers in K-12 schools and typically associated with social cognitive theory (SCT). However, I think I’m not alone in observing that many teachers should do it more often than they tend to do. I remember times as a substitute teacher when I worked through examples. “Can you be our real teacher? He never does this!”

Educational researchers with an interest in SCT have theorized and done many studies regarding modeling and they’ve found some subtlety that goes beyond “monkey see, monkey do.” Modeling is broken down into four parts: attention, retention, motivation, and motor reproduction. Modeling works best when students see the model as competent, but there must be a way the student identifies with the model. That means there is such a thing as too competent a model. These days many teacher educators are encouraged to use a slogan: “I do, we do, you do” that neatly sums up modeling.

But there are issues with modeling. Modeling tends to ignore where students are. A teacher can show or demonstrate as many times as they want, students may or may not be able to repeat. Isolated modeling can present the eventual goal, but not necessarily how to get there. Modeling is improved considerably when accompanied with careful descriptions of what the model is thinking while performing the activity (cognitive modeling), but that isn’t always enough support.

Another issue with modeling is that it can rob students of creativity. Students may have their own ideas on how to carry out a complex task, and a model can narrow their focus in a harmful way.

For zen masters the second practice, the use of koans, is intertwined with the first. A koan is intended to help a student get out of their current headspace and get into a new one. The modeling theories in SCT say nothing of koans, of course. However, with careful attention to the element of SCT regarding the importance of attention, I would argue that koans can help a student pay attention to the right thing, or at least to stop paying attention to the wrong thing. If you tell someone to stop thinking about elephants, it’s not likely to work. A koan, on the other hand, might.

But koans and breathing exercises rarely appear in school. There is movement in that direction (contemplative pedagogy and even critical contemplative pedagogy exist as fields of study). Teachers who bring in such techniques may face ridicule for not being serious or rigorous, but mindfulness exercises are becoming more accepted.

But these hardly bridge the gap between the dojo and the classroom. The author of ZAA spent six years under the same master. Students are sent off to the next teacher after only 9 months. The author of ZAA went all the way to Japan and deliberately sought out the master. Students have no such freedom to choose their teachers. Zen practice is religious, public school classrooms cannot promote any religion.

But I take a few challenges for myself from ZAA in spite of the differences between the teaching and learning contexts:

Active learning: How do students improve at a practice, whether it be zen archery or teaching? Practice, of course. Doing, acting. According to some coaching research, there is an inverse relationship between how much a coach talks and how much players improve. If I’m preparing future teachers, they need to be planning instruction, questioning, designing activities, and giving feedback.

Repetition is ok: I generally disdain repetition as sloppy hype or marketing rather than teaching. Yet I appreciate that experience matters. The author of ZAA learned deep and powerful lessons through six years of repetition. I need mantras that serve as reminders of the overall goals of the course so that even if students find what they are doing repetitive and boring the big picture is not out of sight nor out of mind.

Be explicit about the utility of confusion: A zen master may or may not be explicit about the fact that koans are intended to break typical thought patterns. But I rarely if ever tell students the purposes and benefits of getting confused. I never go as far as Bertrand Russell in saying people would rather die than think, but many students struggle with any sort of ambiguity. Maybe if I borrow the trendy phrase “productive struggle” I can get a few more students on board to get through moments of failure.

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