How do you know when your students have learned? This is a question that both delights and vexes teachers (and when I write “teacher,” I have in mind Lǎoshī, a word that in my Taiwanese culture connotes an honorable vocation). In recent decades of academia’s preoccupation with “measuring learning outcomes,” the question has become more vexing than delight. I have been extremely fortunate to have a lifelong career teaching and leading in institutions committed to authentic, transformative learning; institutions in which teachers still leap up with passion and curiosity to think about this question, with delight. What distinguishes a progressive, liberal arts education of today is this commitment to transformative learning, a commitment to educating the whole person.
My teaching philosophy co-evolved with the mentorship of my colleagues in my first academic appointment, which was at The Evergreen State College over twenty years ago. As a young educator/artist/scholar, my mentors Anne Fischel, Laurie Meeker, Therese Saliba, Angela Gilliam, and many others, helped me become a “guide by the side, rather than a sage on the stage.” I learned how to be a co-learner. I learned from reading and teaching Paolo Freire, Augusto Boal, bell hooks, and many others that learning activates the whole person—body, mind and spirit—in a labor of love. We are all learners and teachers, sometimes the leader and sometimes the follower, in the dance of education. We dance to a multi-voiced choir, tuned to the keys of mindful listening; collective inquiry; rigorous play; collaborative dialogue; delight in difference; and critical, yet compassionate reflection.
Since then, other great teachers have accompanied me on my life-long learning path that has taken a twist in the direction of understanding and undoing colonialism and its legacy. M. Jacqui Alexander, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, and Marie Battiste are just a few educational philosophers who I need to acknowledge for their groundbreaking work in decolonizing education. As an interdisciplinary artist for whom teaching and creative practice are equally important and interdependent, I also must name artists and social change practitioners who have played an equally important role in shaping my teaching philosophy and praxis. John O’Neal’s work with Free Southern Theater and the story circle process is central not only to my teaching, but also my community arts practice. Liz Lerman showed us all how to embrace big questions such as, “who gets to dance?”, and to allow these questions to lead us into a whole field of arts that explore social status, class difference, access and disabilities, and cultural heritage.
These few examples reflect my deep conviction that knowledge-making is never the doing of a sole individual mind. Knowledge-making is a collective, relational process. In a culture that so highly values individuality, artists, poets, dancers, media activists, musicians—all types of creatives—need to cultivate the relational, social, and ecological dimensions of our identities. Especially in this moment of ecological and social crisis, we need to nurture what Mitch Thomashow calls “ecological identity,” an awareness of self in relationship with the bigger "we"—the communities and collectives to which we are accountable and to which we belong. Educating the whole person, in my view, means trusting the learner to take charge of their own learning, to lead us educators on their path to liberation, to know when to ask for our help in their struggle to connect or reconnect with their communities and mentors.