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Education and Biodanza

This piece of writing comes from the concluding section of my monograph submitted as part of qualifying as a Biodanza facilitator.

I started off my career as a school teacher of mathematics and science and, as the reader will read in the pages that follow, went on my own journey where I transmuted into a facilitator of transformation. And in taking this journey discovered a life and a system that paralleled my own – Biodanza and Biocentric Education.

1 Stories from the Past.

Now this could really turn into a PhD thesis if I tackle this section with the thoroughness it deserves! Instead I am going to try to make sure that this is a light touch which intends to open up future conversations with interested parties rather than aims to be definitive and extensive. With this in mind the stories will be short and will once again aim to give the reader an understanding of the lived experience that lies behind these ideas.

1.1 Schooldays.

I have talked about asthma and athletics in my early days, but, in the eyes of the teachers, I had another redeeming feature – I could do well in maths! And of course, this was another way I could win affection from my parents through success so by the time I left school I had won several Maths prizes at the annual prizegiving at both primary and high schools, and was top student in the country for the school-leaving Advanced Mathematics matriculation paper.

1.2 Becoming a Teacher.

My journey to the teaching profession reads like a comedy of errors in career guidance. I studied Chemical Engineering at the University of Cape Town mainly because my best friend encouraged me to join him doing the most difficult course at university that was based on mathematics. I later changed direction and became a Science and Mathematics Teacher – mainly because my girlfriend at the time (who became my first wife) used to fall asleep when I told her the highlights of my daily engineering lectures and she was a primary school teacher! I completed my teaching diploma at the Afrikaans medium Stellenbosch University and my first teaching job was at an Afrikaans medium school where I wanted to make sure that I was fluent in Afrikaans.

After my first two years of teaching, I had moved across into the mathematics classroom and headed off to England for a Masters in the Teaching of Mathematics where I became strongly influenced by the work of Caleb Gattegno (‘only awareness is educable’) and David Wheeler (‘on humanising mathematics education’). I returned from this degree determined to make a difference and change the way I taught from the way I had been taught. An autobiographical piece called ‘Rabbits and Moles’[1] talks about this methodology in much greater detail. I stayed another two years at Voortrekker – a period that co-incided with the first unrest in schools in 1976 with the protests against the compulsory learning of Afrikaans and the infamous image of the death of Hector Petersen. As a teacher I was expected to do a period of guard duty at night to protect the school from threats of sabotage.

That was my last year of teaching at Voortrekker and then I was headhunted to teach at an English medium school, Fish Hoek High School, where for the next four years the Headmaster encouraged me to put my teaching ideas into practice. At that stage the crucial guiding features of my practice were that most importantly my students should achieve at least as good marks as they would have achieved if I used traditional teaching methods.

1.3 Moving to the university.

In 1981, I headed off to England to study for another Masters’ degree – this time in Research in Mathematics Education at Cambridge University. On my return in October 1982, I joined the staff of the School of Education at the University of Cape Town where I spent the next 26 years in the field of Didactics, training school mathematics teachers and conducting research in the field of mathematics education.

My brush with politics in 1976 soon gathered momentum at the university in the 80’s and I soon became entangled in the growing political struggle in the country. One of my first moves was to establish an NGO dedicated to improving the quality of the teaching of mathematics in township schools. I appointed one of my recently graduated Honours students to the post of Fellowship holder and soon thereafter he was detained and tortured by the Security Police as he was also the head of the local radical teachers’ organization, WECTU.  My experience of his detention and in subsequent months many of my mathematics students, as well as my increasing first hand familiarity with the realities of township conditions and education, led me to decide to focus my future teaching energies on teaching for change and transformation! How could I re-design my teaching approach to encourage mathematics teachers to contribute to a future non-racial, non-sexist, democratic South Africa?

I decided that the major gap lay between what teachers were espousing and what they were actually doing. For example, I noticed that some of the most radical students were still behaving like fascists in the classroom. In other words, under pressure in the classroom, teachers were defaulting to a place where they lived out their taken-for-granted assumptions and beliefs about teaching and learning and that these beliefs had been fixed at a fairly early age. The consequence was that teachers were mainly only able to see the intelligence of those learners who thought like them or who followed the teacher’s recipe. Those who couldn’t follow the teacher were quickly labeled as being slow or stupid.

At first I tried to influence the teachers through an appeal to their intellect by giving them the latest research findings and presenting what I thought were logical and cogent arguments for change – to no avail. So, as from 1986, I started to develop my own teaching methodology, which foregrounded facilitation and took student teachers straight into the experience of learning so that they could see themselves in action and reflect on their choices. What did their action say about their own personal assumptions and beliefs? I required each student to keep (and submit for marks) a reflective journal in which they recorded their new learnings about themselves as teacher, learner and mathematician.

So this is the teaching facilitation and learning journey that I have been on for the last 26 years[2]. It is a journey that took me on a unique path that often brought me into conflict with my peers. My work was grounded in what was actually happening in the classroom and my sole reason for engagement was to improve the quality of teaching. Rather than impose a theory onto my work, I did the work and then sought a theory that matched this classroom experience. I experimented with different approaches and insisted on reflection and feedback as credible sources of data. At the time of political struggle I tried to hold a position of personal integrity and did not just follow the party line. I decided not to do a PhD as this would distract me – first from my work in schools, and then later on from my second marriage. But I did enter the research field and publish copiously – but in my own manner and in journals that had a greater chance of being read. And my immediate colleagues did not appreciate the maverick in their midst and several went out of their way to try to isolate me and send me to exile.

When local collegial support was lacking, I expanded my work in schools through the Mathematics Education Project which, by the time I resigned as part-time Director in 1994 had a staff of 19. I also expanded my community by attending the annual conference of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education (PME) from 1993 until after I had completed my three year term of office as President in 2008. All this involvement gave me access to a broader group of colleagues with diverse interests who not only became a support group in later years, but also opened up the possibility of new theories and theoretical frameworks for my work[3].

So that’s a brief slice through my interaction with teaching over the years. Perhaps Rolando managed to tap into this passion and history in March 2008 when he invited me to be his guest for that first Didactics weekend in Sao Paulo!

2 Theory of Education – Biology and Education

My biggest struggle as a university academic was getting the academy to accept the value of my work because I could not yet frame it within an a recognized theoretical foundation and discourse. I had no doubt that my approach was working wonders from the overwhelming feedback from students and popularity of my courses. However, this popularity was often dismissed by my main detractors as soft ‘edutainment’ rather than serious work[4].

The breakthrough came in the late 1990’s when I discovered the work of Complexity – initially via an exciting piece of work by a Canadian colleague, Brent Davis[5].  This led me pretty quickly to the Santiago Theory of Cognition (or enactivism) which was based on the work of Maturana and Varela to which I have already referred. The aspect which really resonated with me was the change of our essence from ‘I Think…’ to ‘I Act therefore I am’! This change justified my growing obsession with wanting to see transformation in the classrooms and in the teachers. It made sense to me that the main task of the teacher was not to try to force-feed knowledge into the learner but rather to ‘perturbate’ the learners’ ideas so that they would have to try to make sense of their new confusion. Ideas in complexity move the focus from the rational to the non-rational and follow the ideas of Merleau-Ponty[6] in bringing mind and body back together again[7].

I was able to deepen these insights and ideas several years later when I was fortunate enough to be invited to facilitate a two week programme run by Fritjof Capra[8] at Schumacher College, in England. In this course, Capra focused heavily on modern ideas on complexity and learning and brought Varela and Maturana’s work together with authors such as Prigogine[9] and David Bohm[10].

I have spoken earlier in Section 1.2 about the Master’s Degree in Teaching that I started with a couple of colleagues in 2002 and of the module I offered which focused on the ideas of enactivism which I have been touching on in this dissertation. The degree was a resounding success and soon had the largest annual intake of all the specialized Masters programmes – something which of course led to a new phase of opposition from colleagues in other fields. When our students obtained excellent marks, there were claims that our modules were ‘soft’ but this was silenced when our students came top in other modules run by critical colleagues.

The dissertation process became a nightmare when top students decided they wanted to use enactivist ideas to form the theoretical foundation of their research. We designed a research methodology based on Varela’s second-person research ideas that I have outlined and tried to use in this monograph and added to this the Discipline of Noticing work of a Canadian mathematician colleague, John Mason[11]. I have detailed some of the challenges the students and I faced on their way to getting distinctions for their work in a paper at a Complexity and Education conference in New Orleans[12].

I have laid down a few markers in this section and in the monograph as a whole in an attempt to share some of the journey I have taken to find an acceptable theoretical framework for my work. While it is not uncontested, it does have an international academic base as shown by my receiving a sought after academic researcher rating of C+ from the National Research Foundation  and a period as President of the largest international research community in Mathematics education. I think my journey and its results are relevant to Marcus’s search to find an acceptable theoretical home for Biodanza that would gain it greater acceptance in the world of academia. I believe Biodanza should resist the temptation of aligning itself with the therapeutic benefits of its practice which would push it into the field of Psychology. My own experience suggests that the best home for Biodanza would lie in linking it to Biology roots of the field of Education from an Ecological and Complexity Science perspective. Brent Davis speaks of these approaches as Teaching by Occasioning and Conversing in service of Expanding the Space of the Possible. I believe that Enactivism and the Santiago Theory of Cognition open up possibilities for strengthening arguments for Biodanza (and Biocentric Education as outlined in the next section) to take a central place in global Education.

3 Biocentric Education Conference

At the start of 2011 I started searching the web to find out more about Biocentric education. I discovered that the first European Congress of Biocentric Education was being held in Nantes, France that year and that they would also be offering the first module of an extension course on the topic of Biocentric education. More immediately of interest was the fact that the congress would be addressed by the French philosopher, Edgar Morin, who had apparently long been a strong proponent of Rolando’s ideas of biocentric education. I started exploring Morin’s writings and became totally revitalised and excited as I discovered his passion for education and his immersion and writing about the place of Complexity in the world and particularly in organisations. And when I came across his saying that ‘all learning is to some extent vulnerable to Error and Illusion’ I was able to reformulate my first offering to students in a coherent and sound theoretically grounded way. This led me to attend the Congress which was hosted by the West Biocentric Education Centre in Nantes, France – a centre which had been opened by Rolando in February 2009 – and I also decided to stay on so that I could complete the first module of an extension course on Biocentric Education.

The conference gave the information that Biocentric Education had its origins in Brazil in 1980 and that it is now taught in universities and implemented in schools and rehabilitation centres across South America with the support of communities, institutions and governments. Biocentric education is based on a humanistic approach leading to the construction of a healthier educational process, truly respectful of life.  Biocentric Education is linked to pedagogies  which are focused on  joy, caring, pleasure, affectivity and  desire to learn,  offering  an education which purpose is  “teaching and learning  to live” ..

Education should be represented in its deepest goals. Biocentric Education does not consider intellectual or technological training a priority but considers the development of internal rules to live and not survive prior to intellectual or technological training. Therefore it is essential to stimulate the genetic potentials that constitute the basic structure of identity, participating in updating the vital resources necessary for one’s existence.  Rolando Toro

The aim of the school is to help them learn to live.   Some teachings are not part of the subjects, but allow them to integrate. What is a human being? […] In my view, knowing our human nature is essential.           Edgar Morin

It also foregrounded the importance of affectivity in education by saying that ‘The integration of affectivity in culture and education will help overcome the failures, the subtle violence or disqualifications within the family, the school and society.  Affectivity is the source of multiple intelligences (memory, motivity, language, speech, perception …) and this will allow us to express our humanity in daily life as well as in the future.

Affectivity is the expression of identity. This statement is the theoretical basis of our understanding of emotions. People who have low identity are incapable of loving, they are afraid of difference; their relationships with others are defensive.       Rolando Toro

Our challenge is to accompany the huge fears about the emergence and the construction of affectivity throughout and the benefits and changes it would generate. Edgar Morin[13]

David Postill’s website lists the following in connection with Biocentric education:

Biocentric Education is an idea completely different to anything envisaged by western educational thinkers. Its objective is connection with life, and its methodology is the Vivencia. Of crucial importance is the development of internal rules of life, not intellectual or technological information. It must stimulate the Genetic Potential, the basic structure of Identity, and foreground the Sacredness of Life, the enjoyment of living. The absolute priority is the development of Affectivity and an amplified perception of the expansion of ethical consciousness.

The congress was wonderful in so many ways. Edgar Morin had just turned 90 at the time of the conference. His wordy talk was exactly what one would expect from a philosopher and the English translation was difficult to grasp – especially because there were many who were gathered around the translator. Fortunately I could pick up enough clues to know which part of his work he was talking about so just enjoyed being in the presence of a wise elder.

The Brazilian presenters of the biocentric education module each took a separate day with Ruth Cavalcante including activities such as a vivencia as well as a Freirean dialogue task while Elisa Gonsalves spoke at length about the merits of biocentric education compared to traditional education and ended the day with a vivencia. And as bonus to the Congress we were treated to Guem playing live!

My personal highlight of the congress came in a talk given by another Brazilian, Liliana Viotti, where I unusually burst into tears while listening to her talk. Here was someone who had walked an almost parallel life – following her own path to find methodologies and theories that would back her transformative work as she followed her passion. She talked of her work in organisations and how she had just known she was in the right place when she came to biodanza at a later stage. She also succinctly and beautifully talked about biocentric education in a way that spoke loudly to me. Liliana said that, to her, biocentric education comes from the work of people such as Varela, Maturana, Bohm, Prigogine and Capra as well as Rolando and that Rolando’s gift to the world of biocentric education came with the introduction and creation of the vivencia. In the vivencia, Rolando had presented us with an exquisite exemplar of biocentric education in action! Not only did I feel that my long lonely exile had ended with the shared experience of this wonderful woman and her life story, she also started putting new pieces into the jigsaw of my life and work.

I discovered that Liliana was offering a two module course in France on the topic of the Biocentric Principle in Organisations. The first module in November would be held that same year of 2011 and would be open to all interested parties. However, the second module would only be open to biodanza facilitators or facilitators in training.  Since I had started teaching in the corporate world through the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business in July 2008, I immediately signed on for the facilitator training course back home in South Africa as well as for Liliana’s extension course in France!

3.1 Some Biocentric Education Concerns

So this conference and my subsequent participation in Liliana’s extension course were both major events in my life that liberated me from the exile of my history of involvement in education in South Africa and provided me with an exciting platform and direction for future work.

However, one of the consequences of a life at that stage of 40 years as a teacher and 26 as a Didactics lecturer is that I am constantly looking at the dynamics and effectiveness of the learning experience that is being created for the participants. My presence at this gathering focused on biocentric education and Liliana’s subsequent extension course gave me a wonderful opportunity to reflect on some of my hesitations.

Elisa Gonsalves encapsulated many of my concerns in her passionate presentation on the second day of the extension module on biocentric education. She was very forceful in her approach to the class and was very clear in her mind that the field of biocentric education was entirely the work of Rolando Toro and on many occasions told us that he had chosen to work closely with her on the development of these ideas. Her presentation consisted of a large number of Power Point slides which were filled with tables and dense writing and mainly contained detailed analysis of the strengths of biocentric education in comparison to traditional education. She particularly stressed the issues of affectivity and consciousness and love. She seemed unaware of the irony that, while she spoke for almost three hours, most of the class ended up lying down and sleeping at some stage. The presentation was made even more intriguing because I was sitting next to a close companion of Rolando’s who could not restrain herself from repeatedly uttering things like “no, Rolando never said that” or ‘that’s been taken out of context’.

Most of Elisa’s examples of biocentric education in schools involved the offering of vivencias at strategically timed moments in the school day, and some of my hesitation crystallised when she was unable to answer the question from an Iranian teacher as to how mathematics could be taught in a biocentric way. Elisa’s day ended with a very powerful vivencia.

Ruth Cavalcante’s approach on the first day had been very different although the vivencia still played a crucial central role in her offering. She broadened her own view of biocentric education to focus on three main theoretical Dimensions: the Vivencia experience of Rolando Toro; the Pedagogic experience of Paulo Freire; and the Reflexive imperative of Edgar Morin. She expanded the range of the vivencia to include poetry and writing and the sharing of this work in the vivencia. Her other main example of biocentric education came from Paulo Frere’s work on the use of dialogue in teaching. We were split into three groups and each group was given a stack of cards to be distributed amongst the group – one per person. These cards were then to be placed in the middle of the circle with people sharing why they had placed the cards there. Two of the groups had cards with a picture theme on them and ours contained data about Rolando’s life which, through negotiation and discussion, had to be placed in an appropriate sequence.

The final example I want to give here came in the last module of Liliana’s extension course. We had been divided into groups and each group had been given a specific task. Many of these tasks required the group to read a specific book in the period between modules. Liliana said that she would set aside time for reporting during the second module. At the start of the second module Liliana asked how the task had gone and from the sheepish looks it was clear that few groups had done the required work. However a full day was later set aside and during that time, one individual after another would stand up and apologise for not having read the full book and then proceeded to talk at length about their book. It was clear that there was no time limit given to each presentation and almost all presentations were verbal. At mid-day one of our group asked the question as to how this process could have anything to do with biocentric education, since everything that Liliana has done before had been so beautifully integrated into Life, Nature and Love and we had experienced a whole range of beautiful and meaningful exercises.

Liliana responded that we had moved onto the explication of information and this was different from the vivencial biodanza experience. She related the story as to how Rolando was very insistent on the importance of explication and if an audience was not paying attention or were drowsing, he would get them to stand up so that they would fall over if they were not paying attention.

4 The Challenge of Biocentric Education in Biodanza

As I said earlier, in his January 2013 extension module, Cezar Wagner was very clear that it was crucial to analyse biodanza from both outside and inside so that we continued to learn as we do not know a great deal about what we call the system of biodanza and we know even less about biocentric education. He went on to say that it was important for us to pay attention to the diversity of each group we engage with and adapt our chosen methodology to the needs and culture of the particular group that we are working with. When we adopt Biocentric Principles, Cezar believes we become cosmic creatures and so we have to adjust our methodologies to the field we are entering, and try to find a way of knowing that comes through the heart and not only from logical objects.

These ideas find a strong resonance with my own educational ideas that have been developing over the past forty years and I want to draw on the previous section to make some general comments on the theme of biocentric education and biodanza.

4.1 Beware of the incestuous inner gaze.

I spent some time immersed as a parent in the Waldorf School system based on Rudolf Steiner’s work. At the time of the political unrest in the 80’s there was a strong element of educational expertise to be found in the parent body but this was not utilized – mainly because these parents were not considered to be proper initiates of Steiner thinking. This meant that the only support and new moves to improve the quality of education could come from those who were already inside the system and these same people then became competing guardians of the orthodoxy of Steiner’s words. Yet it was clear that Steiner’s ideas had evolved as he grew older and would have continued evolving if he had lived longer.

I thought of this as Elisa was passing on Rolando’s (now) fixed ideas about biocentric education while the person next to me was contesting the truth as to whether these ideas did in fact represent Rolando’s true thoughts. I have heard similar debates in different international biodanza gatherings – what approach/idea is aligned with what Rolando actually said. My concern here is that I believe Rolando was constantly allowing biodanza to evolve – note the late introduction of a neuro-science based definition and the introduction of his ideas about the numinous unconscious. If we accept Cezar’s statement that we still have so much to learn about biodanza and biocentric education, it will be a restrictive move to try to freeze Rolando’s words and creation and get into arguments about their purity. Biodanza needs to keep evolving and to me this can best be done through allowing it to interact in broader concentric circles while undergoing serious analysis from both outside and within.

4.2 Serious stuff.

The crucial point to make is that whatever activities are offered in the name of biocentric education they must place learning at the heart of the activity. I experienced this problem in the initial stages of the search for educational transformation in the new South Africa. Schools were introduced to ideas of self-discovery and learner centred lessons into schools where the task of the teacher was to be facilitator. So often teachers judged the quality of their lesson by the amount each person was talking and the amount of self-directed ‘play’ that was happening. They seemed less concerned with what was actually being learnt and hence were not in a position to comment whether the activity actually served the learning intent.

In our activities with Freirean dialogue on the biocentric education module, we spent an enormous amount of time discussing where to put our cards and it turned out (when we inevitably ran out of time) that we had placed some cards in incorrect positions (there were correct answers!). During the activity, we were very relaxed and talked and listened to each other (often in smaller sub-groups) but I do not believe that we left the session with deeper understanding of the activity or of Rolando’s life. I think this type of insight could have come in a more directed and less time-inefficient way. In other words we have to carefully align the methodology with the learning intent of the session.

4.3 The Big Split – The Vivencial Dilemma

The vivencia lies at the heart of biodanza and at the heart of biocentric education. And herein lies a big problem! Nearly every biodanza school weekend and extension course seems to have the same general structure – there is a section on theory interspersed with a series of vivencias. The vivencias have a specific structure which involves a conception in the teacher’s mind and preparation before the ‘occasion’ followed by the offering of this vivencia to the class where the class is held in silence under the teacher’s direction. Any reflection on or discussion of the vivencia happens at a later stage and not immediately after or before the vivencia because the vivencia is to be experienced at a cellular rather than an intellectual level.

And it is the vivencia that Liliana says is the exquisite exemplar of biocentric education! Despite the common suggestion that the key to biocentric education is to offer the class a vivencia, I do not believe that the vivencia itself is enough to assure biocentric education is taking place.

In contrast, the theory section of the course/module takes place in a familiar form with the teacher standing at the front of the class giving information to the class for an extended period that can be as long as three hours. Participants generally sit in silence taking detailed notes as to what has been said – sometimes just through an oral presentation, sometimes with the help of Power Point. Elisa’s presentation was in many ways a caricature of the typical format of this Theory presentation. There were many Power Point slides each densely packed with words which were then read out to the group (and translated!). The slides focused on the need for a heart-driven education system where the students were regarded as human beings and not as objects and contrasted traditional teaching methods with biocentric education. And of course the irony was that this was traditional teaching at its worst where students are regarded as blank slates (tabula rosa) whose heads should be filled with knowledge imparted and poured in by the teacher. This theory of Teaching as Instructing which has its roots in Rationalism which foregrounds reason at the expense of embodied knowledge and the heart[14].

And this teaching continued for three hours – no doubt because there was a syllabus to cover – despite people falling asleep. Liliana’s explanation that this is a different phase of explication may be correct and valid in the Biodanza world, but it does not solve the larger educational issue for me. What attempt has been made in structure or intent to make this theoretical input a biocentric educational experience?

As long as this split exists biocentric education will not find a central place in schools – the vivencia is not enough.

4.4 The Shadow Strikes Again

The image of the teacher as imparter of the truth carries with it a lot of Power. That Power is all in the hands of the Teacher – what s/he will cover; how long s/he will speak; when the break will be; how s/he will deal with questions etc. Again I have not experienced this Power being seriously addressed in conversation in the Didactics or teacher facilitation courses I have attended to date. It is again as though Power has been confined to the shadows. The reader will remember Martin Luther King’s comments about Power without Love being abusive and reckless.  I think there is a dimension of this abuse of Power in the way Theory is often presented in biodanza. This is especially true where the teacher chooses means of punishing the students for not listening properly for extended periods; where book reviews are not carefully structured to ensure their educational value; or where the teacher indulges himself/herself in minute details that have little educational value (even Cezar spent an inordinate amount of time trying to remember whether the local community were represented by the Mayor, the Deputy-Mayor or someone else!). Love would come into the equation when  the learner’s pre-knowledge, thoughts and learning style preferences are taken into consideration.

4.5 Romantic Education.

The development of affectivity and identity in schools is a wonderful aim that lies at the centre of biocentric education. However we need to be cautious about taking on a romanticist view of education. In working to make schools more humane and stress the affective possibilities in education, it is still important to address issues of content. The question asked about the challenge of teaching the content of mathematics in schools as a biocentric endeavour to me lies at the very heart of education and needs to be faced directly. It is not enough to invoke the actual vivencia as a way to bring affectivity into the school system if we do not at the same time explore ways of applying biocentric education ideas to the teaching of mathematics (for example). This will be my focus for the rest of this section.

5 The Vivencia as Exquisite Exemplar

The Biodanza session is a ceremony of inner transformation that takes place through the vivencia.                                                                                                                                                                                Rolando Toro

Biodanza allows one to recover the experiential aspect of cognition, to overcome the division between intimate experience and cognition and to modify the idea of knowledge. It’s about linking knowledge with experience, with depth and the totality of our living being.                                                                                               Eugenio Pintor

So Biodanza aims to overcome the split between cognition and experience yet structures its core learning modalities in a way in which this split is strongly present which is sure an anathema to biocentric education! So in this section I want to let go of all established biocentric education practices and instead explore Liliana’s comment that, in the vivencia, Rolando has given us an exquisite example of the possibilities of biocentric education.

We know that the vivencia lies at the heart of biodanza and that it is an experience lived with great intensity by an individual in the here and now. In thinking about the vivencia and the possibilities that a vivencial approach might offer insights to biocentric education, I want to move beyond only considering the structural aspects of the vivencia and instead include the experienced effects of a successful vivencia. To this end I explored this question with a gifted biodanza colleague and teacher and we came up with the following ideas:

5.1 The vivencia itself.

  • A vivencia is designed by the teacher as an opportunity for each person to have a unique inner experience at their own rhythm and according to their own needs. This teaching is in service to the expressed and observed needs of the members of the group.
  • The vivencia creates the maximum possibility for change to happen, but this possibility can only be offered and cannot be insisted upon.
  • Other than the voice of the teacher, the vivencia takes place without words so that the inner experience is foregrounded through movement and music rather than through cognition.
  • Vivencias include play, laughter, games so that warmth and fun are present and this environment allows people to go deeper.
  • The sequence of activities in the vivencia is carefully considered in order to give space for the inner knowing to be progressively grounded.
  • Learning happens in the experience and not through what the teacher says. This means that is experienced rather than memorized or understood.
  • The key essence and identity of each person can be seen in their actions during the vivencia rather than through their words.
  • The vivencia aims to create the possibility for each participant to step more into their essential identity with themselves and in their interactions with others with more confidence, clarity and joy.
  • At the start of each vivencia the group contributes through personal reflection in a Talking circle. This process serves as an important vehicle for the development of self-awareness through reflection and gives the teacher the opportunity to check for coherence between what is said in the circle and what is acted out in the class. The teacher can also use the material that is raised to select a theme and content for the next class.
  • 2 The experience of a ‘good’ vivencia. (I am using the word ‘good’ to indicate that what is described below will not always happen as it depends on the maturity and cohesiveness of the class as well as the progressive work that has been done before this session. So it is inevitably slightly artificial. Nevertheless I want to make an attempt to foreground some factors that might point to an optimal vivencial experience).
  • In a ‘good’ vivencia I am able to build on previous vivencias that have paved the way and go deep inside myself. I can feel that something happens inside me and this brings about a later change in my being. The vivencia lives with me after the session is over and continues to transform me. It’s an embodied cellular experience which, because it happens at this deep level can be revisited at any time in the future.
  • The vivencia brings up old memories. It opens up a closed door of heavy memories that have been shut. It often liberates me without having to go there. I don’t have to understand what has happened but I can feel the liberation.
  • When I have a deep experience in the class, I am left to feel the full effect of the emotion that arises without distraction or interruption. I know that the facilitator is aware as to what is going on, but will not interfere unless I ask for help. S/he knows not to try to save me as this emotion is an essential part of the experience.
  • In the vivencia I feel that I can move between my own individual space and interactions with the group in a seamless way and that my identity of the moment will be respected by each and every member of the group through the feedback process. I feel held by the group with no fear of blame or shame.
  • In a ‘good’ vivencia there are moments when I forget my stories and simply experience a self that is both previously unknown and at the same time utterly me.

There is one additional element to consider that goes back to the Untamed exhibition and the earlier section on Power (see 2.2.6). Cezar Wagner mentioned this in a handout on Identity and Biocentric Principle.

I deeply feel that there is a liberating human essence inside each of us which provides us with the impulse of life and takes us somewhere into the infinite. It is an essence whose origin is not in the ordinary consciousness or any mental representation, but in the roots of our wild animal existence where we live in a raw and undivided world. Here we find a unique possible potential that is repeatedly blocked, repressed, denied and yet always present…

The vivencia gives us this possibility of experiencing some of the early primacy of life as it exists deep within the cells of our memory. The need for silence in this wild interaction is reflected in the following poem[15]:

Weary of all who come with words,

words but no language,

I make my way to the snow-covered island.

The Wild has no words;

unwritten pages spread out in all directions!


But no words.

6 Biocentric Education as a Vivencial Experience.

Each reader will be able to create their own list of features of a ‘good’ vivencia and this list may differ in many respects from the one offered in the previous section. I believe that if we are serious about making a difference in education at all levels, we cannot rely on an actual vivencia to be the only contribution that is offered in the name of biocentric education. We have to begin to explore offering content-laden classes in a biocentric way. In an attempt to add to this discussion, I will use the rest of this section to tease out the relationship that I think exists between some of the work that I have been doing with the basic tenets of biocentric education.

6.1 Teaching mathematics as a Vivencia

One of the most difficult challenges I faced in my career in the field of Mathematics Didactics was the task of taking seriously the need to make sure that the teaching mathematics in schools was not left behind when new approaches were introduced – be they learner-centred or politically transformational or … Too often the mathematicians would try to foreground the purity of their subject and attempt to place it in a separate category that withstood attempts to change its method of teaching. So I think that the question asked at the Biocentric Education extension module ‘how does biocentric education work in the teaching of mathematics’ has to be taken at a serious level that goes beyond including an occasional vivencia in the curriculum.

While teaching an annual course designed to prepare students to teach mathematics in primary schools, I developed a curriculum that gave them the opportunity to face their fears[16]. I later extended this into a short course for adults who have always been scared of maths or have struggled with it, called Second Chance Maths. I currently teach this course as the first module of a course on Basic Numeracy on the Associate in Management programme at the UCT’s Graduate School of Business. I want to focus on a few aspects of this course which I think have dimensions that touch on the vivencial.

Students come to this course with a whole set of deeply felt experiences of mathematics which have impacted on their sense of self-worthiness. School and society unfortunately continue the myth that only intelligent people can do well at mathematics at school so consequently if you struggled at maths it must follow in your mind that you are stupid. In the AIM class of over 50 each year, between 60- 70% of the class come in believing they are stupid and a smaller percentage have been so damaged by past experiences that they freeze when given a problem to solve.

In order to attempt to address this initial condition I carry out a role play where I leave the room and re-enter wearing an academic gown. In my new role as Mr. Smith[17], a tyrant of a teacher, I proceed to give them a maths test and am impatient, loud and rude to those who are struggling. Mr. Smith storms out of the room and I return as myself (without academic gown) and we start talking about the experience. Students identify teachers and parents who have  treated them in a similar way in the past and end up writing letters to this person telling them to stay in the corner during future maths sessions as they want to give themselves an opportunity to discover their own unique talents.

The whole Mr. Smith experience is almost a vivencia on its own where past memories are brought to the surface through the embodied experience of Mr. Smith’s appearance. On one level the space is safe in that the class knows that it is a role play and that they are adults but the cellular memories are invoked during the ‘vivencia’. The opportunity for reflection aids the process of self-awareness and creates the possibility for the student to step into a new identity with great confidence.

Mr. Smith’s creation of a hostile performance-focused and achievement-based environment is very familiar and gradually a new working environment is introduced. This environment is one in which egos are backgrounded as much as possible and everyone works in service to their own and others learning. Students are encouraged to work in an informal way and take personal pleasure at their own insights and growth. The room is filled with free-flowing laughter, communication and deep thinking. Each person takes responsibility for their own learning as well as asking for help when needed. The receiver of this request for help knows that they have to work in feedback and not take over the other’s problem. They ask questions rather than tell. Joining and working in a group requires each person to hold their own space and also be sensitive to that of the group. The teacher’s role is to design tasks and activities that will allow the required knowledge to emerge.

There seem to be many vivencial experiences here despite the obvious difference that this does not take place in silence. An attempt is made to lose issues of blame and shame and each student feels held by teacher and by colleagues. Students are encouraged to develop and use their own inner knowings and experience to solve problems rather than seek external learnt and then memorized solutions. A period of hard work is celebrated with music and dance. At the start of each subsequent lesson there is a space for students to share any insights they have gained from the previous session’s work. All sessions are progressive both in the way that the group is increasingly bonded and also in the way that new topics build on and develop previous content.

The most important biocentric features of this way of teaching is that the environment created foregrounds the learning of each student in a safe and loving way where the teacher and the rest of the group are committed to opening their hearts to each other and to the learning – fully believing in each other’s innate ability and intelligence.

The issue that still remains is how one can teach pure mathematics content in a biocentric way.

I use the example above to introduce Algebra and the use of the unknown ‘x’. Students are given matches and asked to build the following diagrams and then count the number of matches that are necessary to make each diagram. So 4 matches are needed for Figure 1; 7 matches for Figure 2; 10 for Figure 3; etc. They are then asked to write down the number of matchsticks that would be required to make the 10th Figure, and then make the diagram to check their answers.

The interesting feature is not the answer, but rather the way each person got their answer and there are usually at least 6 – 10 different ways. I select some of the most interesting of these methods and name them according to the first name of their creator. Then each members of the class is asked to understand the thinking behind each way and in turn get the answer for the 20th Figure; 50th Figure; 100th Figure and at the end the Xth Figure!

Silence is foregrounded in this activity as each person listens in silence with deep concentration to the person explaining their method of getting the answer. Each person is asked to develop the flexibility to adapt to another person’s way of thinking.

6.2 Canonical Images.

So that was a first attempt to identify some of the ways that the teaching of mathematics might be done in a biocentric way drawing on the vivencia as an exquisite exemplar. However, skeptics are likely to argue that most of what is described in the previous section could be seen to be method- rather than content-driven.

The challenge when introducing a particular concept is to ensure that as much background noise is eliminated as possible so that students can focus on the content. This means that prepared notes or slides that ease anxiety about spelling or resource details help enormously. However, to me the real challenge is to find an activity that lies at the heart of the concept or content that the teacher wants to introduce. The activity has to be designed in such a way that each student doing the activity has no choice but to be working with the core nature of the concept. This can be done at a purely cognitive level, but added gains are achieved when the activity can be based on an embodied experience. One of my teachers called this image of the essence of the core concept, a canonical image. I would like to give two examples.

The first comes from the field of Geometry. Most of the theorems of the circle in Euclidean Geometry can be discovered and internalized by considering the movement of the point of intersection of two lines as they move around the outer points of a line segment. One approach I have used is to show the class a short film of this movement and then give out a large set of useful resources that could be used to recreate the effects of the film on drawing paper. In tackling this task in groups, students have to observe which elements of the tableau remain constant and which change and, in doing this, unavoidably, the theorems of Euclidean Geometry emerge. A powerful variation of this arises when students are asked to become points and lines and move with particular restrictions or rules. The role of the teacher becomes one of facilitating the process in an atmosphere of safe warmth and encouragement.

A second example comes from the challenge I experienced in trying to get the class to understand the difference between acting according to Complicated[18] and Complex[19] paradigms. I wanted to get the learning to move beyond the cognitive knowledge of the paradigms and into the embodied knowing of the way that these paradigms impacted on knowing. I wanted to heighten the awareness that most people react unconsciously to pressure from the place of a Complicated paradigm which is generally far less intelligent and certainly more ego-driven that an complex paradigm.

The task I designed asked the group to team up in pairs and then face each other. Initially I instruct one person to move and the other to mirror their movements exactly in silence for 3 minutes and then to swap over roles. I play music while this happens. Inevitably the response to this task is a huge amount of giggling, disjointed jerky movement, disconnection between the two parties and an ego-dominated behavior where each person is worried whether they did it right or whether they are making a fool of themselves!

After debriefing this experience I point out how they had totally failed in their task of being a mirror and that the demonstrated actions were certainly not what one would expect when standing in front of a mirror. They are asked to repeat the activity with the same partner, but this time they must act as if the whole reason for each person’s existence is to make sure their partner can be the best possible mirror for them. The crucial focus is on the task and not on themselves. They will look stupid and no-one cares. The added challenge is that they must change roles of leading and following in the same dance so that they try to reach a place where no-one knows who is leading and who is following. This is again done to music to symbolize that in complexity in which we work where the environment of context plays a huge role is setting what is possible. The change in quality of presence and focus and relationship between the partners as they work in this eco-space is stunning. The lesson and the image of the differences between complicated and complex actions are now embodied at a cellular level and remain accessible for future retrieval accessible.

Just as in the vivencia this is a clear example of the forms of teaching that are rooted in complexity and ecological science – teaching as both occasioning and conversing[20]. The teacher has designed an ‘occasion’ for students to come together to explore the concept and the nature of that exploration will lead to conversation that will deepen the experience and make the lessons learnt available for future use.

6.3 Business Education.

I was awarded the UCT Distinguished Teacher Award in 2000 – at a time when I was struggling to find my niche in an Education department that was increasingly turning away from classroom challenges as it explored policy and other theoretical interests. My wife’s insistence that I should mark the occasion of the award brought an unexpected new challenge and opportunity. I held a party to thank past-students who had taught me so much and one of them invited me as a follow-up to teach with him on his MBA course at UCT’s Graduate School of Business. This small start had increased by July 2007 to a stage when I was teaching enough hours at the GSB to have to make an arrangement with the Education Department to take a day a week off from my commitments and salary. The following year in July 2008 I took early retirement from the School of Education and have since been teaching on a freelance basis mainly on topics to do with Personal Leadership at UCT’s Graduate School of Business.

In my teaching I now get the opportunity to teach most groups in the range from junior managers to senior executives on at least four full days over an extended period which ranges between 6 months and a year. The work that I do varies according to the class and its needs but has a general direction. On day one, I create a high-energy experience focusing on the way each of us acts at an unconscious level based on our lived experiences of a model drawn from the complicated paradigm where people are seen as machines. This leads to a great deal of Error and Illusion (a la Edgar Morin). The second day changes the focus to Working with Others and we learn to broaden our skills to survive and thrive in a complex world where the other is essential to my existence. We also learn the skills of presence and awareness. Days three and four focus on the ways in which we are triggered by others and by situations according to our lived experiences and we work on learning to take responsibility for this trigger.

This teaching really does have a biocentric facilitating focus and I draw on my own experiences as well as some of the insights and ideas I gained as gifts from Liliana’s class. I can insist on a flat surfaced room and the students sit in chairs in a circle. Sessions start with feedback from students on where they are and what they have been thinking about since last session and the group practices deep listening skills. The day will then follow a general pattern with an activity followed by a reflective self- and group-awareness activity (vivencia).

Since completing the teacher facilitation process I have also been introducing the classes to biodanza via a crafted vivencia that usually focuses on the topic of either Presence or Love and Fear. These vivencias are specific timed to follow the theme of the main teaching of that day so that they deepen the day’s learning at an embodied level. The vivencia will be the first experience of biodanza but they have built up a great deal of trust in me by this time and are also used to operating at the edge of their comfort zone.

For example one recent group consisted of 37 Mining people from around the world (Brazil, Argentine, Mali, Tanzania, Ghana, Namibia, and South Africa) – 24 of them Black. They were coming to the end of an exhausting two week programme which mainly focused on systems thinking.  We had spent the day exploring different ways to work together. We explored the concepts of complexity and the foundations that come from Varela and Maturana, particularly Maturana’s article[21] where he claims that if you want autonomous and coherent behaviour to appear in the other, you need only open a space of love, and intelligence appears there!

So we worked during the day on awareness and the way of working with others and during the afternoon tea break I cleared the room and when they entered the room I offered them a vivencia on the topic of Presencing.

I explained what we were doing and how I was working with Liliana in Brazil on this use of biodanza in organisations. The first dance they stood in their own power and then reached out hands to hold the other and then look the others in the eyes. My enunciation needed to be strong and fierce at the beginning and make the links to the day’s theories. Cezar Wagner says we have to be able to tune the vivencia and its form to the needs and culture of the particular community we are working with. And then we were off with lots of clapping at the end of this first dance to the music Boroto from Congo. Then came a physiological walk to Doctor Jazz with the same reaction – a great release and letting go. By the time Rip It Up came they were ready to shake out all the old pieces. And then we went into breathing dance, fluidity, eutony in pairs, resting on back and finally encounters and the inner work was there.

This is not an easy session for a community such as this who survive by dehumanizing and objectifying the others with whom they work. So they are challenged to hold hands and join together in the circle. However, by the time we get into the presence activities, the magic of biodanza has done its work and my enunciations can be short. The encounter itself is an emotional experience for many as they look each other in the eyes – companions and colleagues with whom they have shared a grueling learning experience.

The picture above shows another group just after their vivencia on a similar theme. The range of comments on their experience was very positive and typified by the following:

Definitely took me out of my comfort zone initially and I felt vulnerable. By the end I realized that I shouldn’t have had preconceived ideas about the activity. I wasn’t the centre of attention and by the end I was enjoying it and finding it liberating. One look really is worth a thousand words.

I have never held so many men’s hands in my life so this was very emotional for me. I was anxious at the start but then truly amazed at how much I enjoyed it.

7 The Way Ahead

These examples only scratch the surface of the challenge that I have taken on of exploring the field of biocentric education in this monography. I hope it is clear from what I have written in this chapter, that I believe that the successful introduction of a vivencial experience into the delivery of subject content will dramatically change the face and nature of all forms of global education. It is an exciting prospect! I have already been on this journey of transformational facilitation and learning for some time but the thoughts and ideas that I have examined in this chapter have inspired me to renew my efforts as a Biodanza facilitator in the world of Business Education and seek colleagues across the world with whom to collaborate. How do we turn the whole experience of education into one which upholds the aims of biocentric education and Teaching as Occasioning and Conversing?

Oriented by complexivist and ecological discourses, teaching and learning seem to be more about expanding the space of the possible and creating the conditions for the emergence of the as-yet unimag­ined, rather than about perpetuating entrenched habits of interpreta­tion. Teaching and learning are not about convergence onto a pre­-existent truth, but about divergence – about broadening what is know­able, doable, and beable. The emphasis is not on what is, but on what might be brought forth. Thus learning comes to be understood as a recursively elaborative process of opening up new spaces of possi­bility by exploring current spaces. In this way, teaching participates in the invention and reinven­tion of itself. Unlike many of the forms that contribute to the struc­tures of our existences, teaching has a say in what it becomes.[22]

So this is the essence of my challenge – how to continue opening up the spaces of possibility for transformational learning where I combine the wisdom of Rolando’s vivencia with my own experience and innovations from life’s work.

[1] See http://web.uct.ac.za/depts/educate/staff/breen-alfredo.pdf

[2] Some of the crucial stepping stones in this journey can be found in the article Marrow-bone Thoughts and Lasting Songs which can be found at http://web.uct.ac.za/depts/educate/download/thinkingclassroom.pdf

[3] See Promising Practices in Teaching and Learning at http://web.uct.ac.za/depts/educate/download/saarmste.pdf

[4] I hear echoes here of Rolando’s experience and his desire to have biodanza accepted by mainstream academia.

[5] Brent Davis (1996 ). Teaching Mathematics: Towards a Sound Alternative.

[6] See Phenomenology of Perception (1962)

[7] See, for example, Maturana and Varela’s book The Embodied Mind

[8] See, in particular, Capra’s books: The Web of Life (1997) and The Hidden Connection: Integrating the biological, cognitive and social dimensions of life into a science of sustainability (2002).

[9] Considered as one of the most significant theoretical physicists of the 20th Century, he contributed innovative and unorthodox ideas to quantum theory, philosophy of mind and neuropsychology. See On Dialogue (1996).

[10]Belgian physical chemist and Nobel Laureate noted for his work on dissipative structurescomplex systems, and irreversibility which led to groundbreaking ideas in self-organising systems..

[11] See Mason (2002) Researching Your Own Practice: The Discipline of Noticing.

[12] Navigating a Complex Supervisory Path through the Complicated Waters of Academia .retrievable at http://www.complexityandeducation.ualberta.ca/conferences/2005/Documents/CSER318BREEN.pdf

[13] In the UNESCO document Seven Complex Questions Necessary for the Education of the Future to be found at http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0011/001177/117740eo.pdf

[14] See Brent Davis (2004). Inventions of Teaching: A Genealogy, pgs. 75 – 82.

[15] Thomas Transtromer, Nobel Prize Poetry 2011

[16] Details of this course can be found at http://web.uct.ac.za/depts/educate/download/pythagfear.pdf

[17] For a full description of Mr. Smith’s appearance, see http://web.uct.ac.za/depts/educate/staff/breen-smith.pdf

[18] A rational dominated paradigm that draws on an ego-driven mechanical model of Newton and Descartes belief of existence through thought (I think therefore I am).

[19] A non-rational ecologically-driven paradigm which links self to other and the environment.

[20] First introduced in section 3.2

[21] The Biology of Love: Love Expands Intelligence.

[22] Brent Davis (2004). Inventions of Teaching: A Genealogy. Page 184.