Lessons from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on the importance of engagement

One of the Cambridge learner attributes is ‘engaged.’ Robert Pirsig’s book ‘Zen and the art of Motorcycle maintenance’ has a lot to say about high quality engagement, indeed the main idea he presents is that this is the secret to a fulfilled life.  What lessons does this hold for schools?

According to Pirsig being engaged is a necessary condition for excellence. The feeling of being a subject separate from an object disappears when we are profoundly absorbed in what we are doing. Pirsig uses the term ‘quality’ to describe an experience that he likens to the original meaning of the ancient Greek concept of arête. Roughly translated, arête is the act of living up to one’s full potential through engagement, virtue, and wisdom.

Individuals can most easily find quality in areas of their passions and talents. Examples might include solving a mathematical problem, overcoming technical or business challenges, making a team work well together or diagnosing and treating illness. For others creating art or music, experiencing the improved well-being of others through service or climbing a new technical route on a mountain might be the stimulus. Sportspeople sometimes refer to the experience of engaged effortless perfection as ‘flow’ or ‘being in the zone.’

Those who live a life of quality strive for arête in all they do and realize their full potential in the process. Helping individuals to do this, in my opinion, is what distinguishes the truly excellent schools and teachers. While it is difficult to maintain arête in all of life’s challenges, I believe it is possible to nurture habits and approaches to learning that support it.

The opposite of this high-quality experience– poor engagement is what Pirsig describes as a gumption trap. Pirsig gives the example of a friend who loves riding his motorbike and has high-quality experiences doing so, but he gets very upset and impatient when it breaks down. He does not have the mindset and values needed to engage with motorcycle maintenance and he will never solve the problem until he accepts this and deals with his values.

Being in a gumption trap becomes a big problem when a lack of engagement becomes our default state of living. We go through the motions of living and experience tolerable boredom at best. We work on automatic. For many people, this becomes the default state of their working lives. Psychologists sometimes call this learned helplessness and it is becoming endemic in the modern world. We need to help young people understand when they are in a gumption trap and how to get out.

What are the implications for schools? Here are some ideas:

In the words of Chris Watkins, have a learning rather than a performance orientation where the focus is on learning well rather than looking good. This is inherently more engaging and will also improve academic results.

Focus on understanding values as these are the basis for character. While almost every school and educational organisation identifies character traits that it wants to develop, many struggle with making these real in the day-to-day lives of learners, teachers and parents.

At Cambridge International, we talk about the learner attributes of being confident, responsible, reflective, innovative and engaged. In order to mean anything these must be modelled by teachers, form the basis for all approaches to teaching and learning and be embedded in school practice. Parents need to learn to understand and support them. See the Guide to Developing the Cambridge Learner Attributes for ideas

Students need to develop metacognitive self-awareness and self-regulation so they are able to see when they are getting into a gumption trap and know how to get out of it.

Excellence requires persistence and purposeful practice but it also requires inspiration, challenge and ambition. Too often expectations for students are too low. In the words of Kurt Hahn: “There is more in us than we know. If we can be made to see it, perhaps for the rest of our lives we will be unwilling to settle for less.”

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