Copyright 2017 by T.J. Seitz
Every morning, before class, my co-worker or I post a daily warm-up activity for our students.
The exercises are usually reflective or analytical in nature. They generally comprise of brain teasers, puzzles, financial literacy and hypothetical- opinion based questions.
We oversee a two-year computer careers course at an area vocational high school.
The purpose of the prompts is multifaceted.
They help enrich and prepare students for some of the challenges they may face during the day’s lessons.
Diagnosing and resolving technology issues often requires logic, perseverance and ingenuity. Proactively aligning a student’s thought processes with some or all of those aspects can make it easier for them to work on simulation and practical lab assignments afterwards.
The answers to many warm-up questions are often opened-ended and require more than a simple response.
Writing is a form of applied learning. To improve proficiency, it must be performed regularly. Writing can also help students articulate their thoughts, knowledge and feelings.
Warm-ups are a tangible way to integrate other, non-technical subjects, such as social studies and business into the program.
Employers desire qualified job-seekers who are capable of thinking independently and possess universal skills. Examples of this expectation include the ability to follow directions, make ethical decisions, manage a budget and getting along with others.
Exposing our students to situations where computers and technology are not the primary focus can help them comprehend and prepare for some of the challenges they may face in the workplace.
I have read a number of books and articles on Buddhism during the last few years. My wife introduced me to its practices while she was learning Tai-Chi.
Koans are questions or statements used to assess the progress of a Chan or Zen Buddhist student. They usually involve a riddle of some sort that can evolve into an enduring back and forth conversation or are just intended for solitary contemplation.
One classic example of a koan is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
The intent of koans is not always apparent or immediate. When used properly, koans work like a catalyst that can assist a person in achieving moments of enlightenment or understanding.
While a practitioner concentrates their attention on a koan, their mind is stilled.
Discursive thoughts are calmed. Circumstances are created within their psyches that encourage spontaneity to emanate and flow.
Clear thinking can lead to revelation. Things are noticed that might be overlooked otherwise. Solutions to existing predicaments become more apparent during those instances. Relevant questions may also arise that warrant further consideration.
There is no right or wrong answers to a koan but they do require lots of time, receptiveness to change and a willingness to expand upon one’s existing beliefs.
I’ve been wondering for a while what would happen if I used a koan-like question for a daily warm-up. I wanted to know if the kids would respond appropriately or would they miss the point?
One morning I gave it a shot and asked, “What is the Buddha nature of a computer?”
My coworker was leery about the question. He thought that only a handful of people would actually understand it. I believe that most of them actually did.
A few kids were confused at first but took the time to ask me for some guidance.
One student inquired, “Is this a riddle?”
I replied, “It could be.”
Another told me, “I don’t understand the question. What’s the answer?”
I assured him, “There’s no specific answer to the question. Just write down the first thing that pops into your head.”
As expected a few individuals just copied their responses from Wikipedia or regurgitated something they thought I wanted them to say, but most did what was expected.
In the end, I was very impressed. A majority of the forty-two responses were thoughtful and ranged from literal to profound.
About a third of the comments alluded to computer hardware and/or software being the source of a computer’s Buddha nature. The most popular of these observations referred to the CPU, OS and motherboard.
The CPU or central processing unit is the brains of a computer. It’s where the calculations are made for carrying out the instructions of a computer program.
An OS or operating system is the special software program that manages both hardware and application resources on a computer. I would say an operating system makes a computer self-aware in a roundabout way.
A motherboard is the part of a computer where everything plugs into. It’s a computer’s nervous system.
The next set of responses acknowledged ignorance, which is not easy for an adult, let alone a teenager. Instead of acting like they understood the question and making up a nonsense answer, some kids responded with honest statements such as:
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know.”
“I couldn’t tell you.”
There is wisdom in being able to admit one’s ignorance. It’s nice to know that some of my students are mature enough to do that instead of avoiding the truth.
I also think that even when someone doesn’t initially understand something, a spark is ignited so that over time they can revisit the idea and develop it further when they are ready.
A third type of comment the kids made was more observant and introspective in nature. I felt like those statements were both unrehearsed and authentic.
One student wrote, “We can mold and enlighten the computer, and it does the same of us.”
This person believes that a computer’s Buddha nature within the interdependence that exists between a user and a computer. Both rely on and reciprocate to each other. The computer programmer installs software or stores data on the computer and the computer shares information or performs functions for the programmer.
Both a junior and senior said, “Its connection to cyberspace would give it omnipotent consciousness. “
I think that the young men who made this statement equate omnipotence with enlightenment. They felt that a computer’s Buddha nature is derived from its connection to the internet where a seemingly infinite amount of information and knowledge can be acquired.
A third teen proclaimed, “It’s not alive or a sentient being, so it cannot have a Buddha nature.”
He believes that something must be alive and perceive itself to have a Buddha nature. Since computers are not living creatures or capable of self-awareness, in his opinion, he feels that they do not possess a Buddha nature.
My three favorite answers to the question were from students that I least expected them from.
A quiet, unremarkable kid, who seems more interested in playing the card game Magic or Dungeon’s and Dragons than doing his classwork declared, “It has no Buddha nature because if it had Buddha nature it would no longer be a computer anymore.”
Another way to rephrase what he said is, “If the computer had Buddha nature it would be enlightened and if the computer was enlightened it would no longer be a computer, it would be a Buddha.”
R (the class clown, who came to school dressed as a hybrid version of Heath Ledger and James Holmes’ Joker last Halloween) noted, “If you rub it’s belly it will give you good luck.”
Despite his unnerving costume choice, R’s comment was lighthearted and grounded. He was being truthful and not trying to overthink his answer or impress anyone with deep, lofty sounding thoughts.
I was nearly floored by the statement made by a seriously autistic kid who’s enrolled in our course.
The sixteen-year-old spends most of his class time surfing the internet; reading video game reviews and Wikipedia entries.
He is difficult to communicate with because he rarely talks to anyone and when he does, he is not easy to understand because he talks so fast. The boy also gets very short tempered and jittery when people, including teachers, enter his personal space. His idiosyncrasies make his peers uncomfortable so they avoid him when possible, which seems to suit him fine.
The teen only completes assignments that he feels like doing and appears to be the least bit bothered by all the work he leaves unfinished (regardless of all the assistance he’s offered by school staff and the threats made by his parent).
His reaction to the daily warm up was, “I’ve never heard of a Buddha nature.”
Immediately after reading his reply I thought, “Was his response genuine and something he actually thought up on his own or did he just copy it from an internet website he remembered?”
I then wondered, “Is there more to this kid than his appearance?”
He’s never given me or my co-worker any indication that he does more than repeat information he’s found searching the internet.
As far as we know though, the student could be a Buddha in disguise.
In the end the assignment probably made more of an impression on me than my students. All they want is full credit for attempting the assignment in an appropriate manner.
You never know though, maybe something stuck with one or two of them and they will remember more or explore the idea further in the future.