Some Pedagogy: What Is a Bodhisattva?

Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Photo by Lane Turner / Globe staff

Great article by Sebastian Smee at the Boston Globe site about the new room of Song Dynasty (960 - 1279) artworks now up at the Boston MFA. I decided that I wanted to post the image they used with the article. As I looked at it, I realized it would be fun to explain how I would of employed an image like this when I was teaching World Religions, back in the 90s.

The statue here is of Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Before actually getting into a discussion of what a Bodhisattva is -- an enlightened being who foregoes entry into Nirvana in order to remain in the world to help those who are suffering -- I would ask students to take a couple of minutes to just look at the image and write down what comes to mind. It's doubtful many people would say 'compassion.' As we collect impressions on the board, we might hear words like peaceful, elegant, relaxed, calm -- which are actually just words I just came up. In the class, in real time, someone will always come up with something you hadn't even thought of. No ideas are to be considered illegitimate.

So now we are able to discuss compassion in a way that will be nuanced and expansive. Instead of just memorizing that compassion means to alleviate the suffering of others, students will be forced to think about the relationship between their brainstormed qualities and more typical aspects of altruism.

This kind of pedagogy is called constructivist. Students are constructing meaning or understanding by building on their initial analysis. Their brainstormed ideas create a foundation that can be built upon. They are also like Velcro that the more traditional and scholarly ideas of compassion can stick to. Without this Velcro, the ideas introduced in class about compassion and the Bodhisattva have a good chance of just bouncing off their heads and falling to the floor.

I believe this is the most effective way to promote deep learning, an opinion vigorously not shared by educational conservatives.


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