We encourage parents considering Living Wisdom School to watch the following talks by educator Sir Ken Robinson, in which he eloquently and humorously describes the central problems with education today and proposes solutions that have been implemented with stunning success for more than forty years in the Living Wisdom Schools.
Sir Ken Robinson works with governments, education systems, international agencies, global corporations and some of the world’s leading cultural organizations to unlock the creative energy of people and organizations. He has led national and international projects on creative and cultural education in the UK, Europe, Asia and the United States. Sir Ken Robinson is the most watched speaker in TED’s history. His 2006 talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” (watch below) has been viewed online over 40 million times and seen by an estimated 350 million people in 160 countries.
He has been named as one of Time/Fortune/CNN’s ‘Principal Voices’. He was acclaimed by Fast Company magazine as one of “the world’s elite thinkers on creativity and innovation” and was ranked in the Thinkers50 list of the world’s top business thinkers. In 2003, he received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II for his services to the arts.
His book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything (Penguin/Viking, 2009) is a New York Times bestseller. It has been translated into 23 languages and has sold over a million copies worldwide. His latest book, Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education (Viking, 2015), tackles the critical issue of how to transform the world’s troubled educational systems, and is now available in 15 languages.
Sir Ken was born in Liverpool, UK. He is married to Therese (Lady) Robinson. They have two children, James and Kate, and now live in Los Angeles, California.
We spoke with Ruth Rabin who teaches third grade at Living Wisdom School. All of the photos were taken during a two-hour period on a regular school day about two weeks before the end of the school year. The interviewer was our webmaster and photographer.
Q: Did you always know that you would be a teacher?
Ruth: I think I did. When I was in elementary school I would stay after school and help the teacher erase the blackboard and get the classroom in order. My friends and I would often play teacher, and I loved it.
After college, I worked in France, teaching in a public junior high for a year. Then I worked in Israel for a couple of years, and when I came back I taught for several years at schools in Foster City and Palo Alto.
I loved teaching, but then I got married and left to raise my kids. When my kids grew up, I thought about exploring a new field. I said to a friend, “I wish there were something I loved and that I was really good at.” He said, “There is – it’s teaching.” And I thought, “It’s true, I love teaching.”
I found a job at a school in San Jose where it was wonderful to work with the children, but the school was poorly run. It closed in mid-year, so the kids were left without a school, and the teachers found themselves suddenly without a job.
I had a friend who taught at Living Wisdom School. She said, “Send me your resume and I’ll give it to Helen.” Two weeks later, a position opened in second and third grade, and I was hired. It was a miracle how I landed at this glorious place, after a scary experience losing my job, and it touches me whenever I think about it.
I love this school. It’s a very joyful place. I wish my own children had come here, and that I’d been able to come to a school like this as a child.
I’ll wander into Erica’s second-grade classroom next door, and I’ll look around and think, “Oh my gosh.” And Erica will visit my classroom and say, “Oh my gosh.”
There’s a unique camaraderie and joy with the other teachers. If we have a question – like “How can I set up this lesson so that it will help the students in the best way?” – I can go to any of the teachers, and we’ll work on it with our combined experience and find a solution.
Many amazing things have come out of those conversations. It’s a wonderful aspect of our school culture that the teachers are free to learn from each other and that we can go into the other classrooms and observe.
For the students, there’s an incredible amount of learning that goes on here, with amazing creativity and joy along the way. I love coming to work every day, and I don’t think many people can say that.
Q: One of the things I’ve observed is how you interact with the children. On one occasion, a little girl in your class was afraid to go and get her costume adjusted by the seamstress before the dress rehearsal for the school play. You were counseling her, and you were very attuned to her need and able to help her with compassion and wisdom. I thought it exemplified something I regularly hear the teachers say, that it’s essential to create a relationship with each child, so that you can understand who they are and what their needs are.
Ruth: Yes, absolutely. It’s one of the things I love, the familiarity that you develop with each child here. It’s a relationship of respect and trust. We know each other, and if something’s going on, I’ll know about it, and I can help them.
I’ll say, “I’m noticing that your energy’s a little off. Tell me what’s happening.” Because we know them well enough to recognize when something’s out of their norm.
We’ll talk about whatever the challenge is, instead of ignoring it and assuming that it will just go away, or that their parents will deal with it, or much worse, that we might try to discipline them for their “off” behavior without understanding what’s really going on.
Yesterday, I was saying to the kids, “Some of you haven’t made art for our class poetry book. Come on, let’s get this done!” And one of these little eight-year-old girls said, “You’re really frantic today!” (laughs)
I took a deep breath and said, “Yes, I am, I’m feeling frantic.” And the little girl said, with so much confidence, “Well, don’t worry, we’ll get it done.” I said, “You’re right. I was feeling frenetic.” And it was funny, because they jumped in and said, “We know that word!” They recognized it from our vocabulary lessons.
But she said it so kindly – it wasn’t that she was scolding me, “What’s wrong with you?!” She noticed that I was feeling frantic, and she was free, in this environment, to try to help. It’s a natural part of the school culture to talk about issues that are getting in the way. And this ease of communication has a very positive effect on their development and their learning.
Q: In a traditional school where the children are focused almost entirely on academics, they can sometimes get so much in their heads that they miss the experience of having their hearts educated, which Education for Life says is extremely important at all ages, but especially from six to twelve. Is that something you emphasize? If you’re doing academics, do you find that those attitudes of kindness and cooperation are helping the children in their studies?
Ruth: Without question. I feel that where there’s laughter and joy, there are much greater possibilities for learning. If you walk into any classroom here, you’ll see that the students are working very hard, and the reason there’s so much learning, and the kids are so deeply engaged is because they feel the work is theirs.
We’re constantly adjusting the curriculum to meet each child’s individual needs, so that the learning is always on their level. And because it’s so individually focused, we’re able to raise the bar in a way that each child gets to experience the satisfaction of rising to it. As they discover that they can face a challenge and overcome it, their enthusiasm for learning grows exponentially, and it’s a huge step for their all-around development.
Soon after I came here, a little boy got up at the year-end ceremony and said, “At first it was hard, but now I know that I can always ask for help. And if I need to know how to spell ‘ampersand,’ I can ask.”
They aren’t afraid to ask, because the culture isn’t about who’s best or who’s ahead. “What page are you on? I’m ten pages farther.” That never gets talked about here, because they know that it simply doesn’t matter.
In math, the children are free to ask each other for help, even before they ask me. They’re constantly teaching each other, and they’re learning to solve problems by finding the resources they need.
A child will say, “Can somebody help me?” And you’ll always hear, “I will! I will!” They’re competing to go and help each other, and they discover that teaching is a wonderful way to review what they’ve learned. Imagine how great a child must feel when they can help another child with a math problem.
We’re doing Menu Math, which is very challenging. One of the problems is, “How much is the restaurant bill with an 18 percent tip?” It’s quite advanced for third grade math. We were getting close to the end of math class the other day, and I hadn’t covered the problem, so I said, “Let’s come back to it tomorrow – we don’t have to cover it today.” But one of the girls said, “I know how to do it – my mom showed me.” And she got up and taught the whole class how to calculate an 18-percent tip. It was marvelous, because the kids were going, “Oh, yeah! I get it.”
Then they said, “Ruth, can we go to the board and try to figure it out by ourselves?” And I just had to laugh. I said, “Well – yeah!!” Because I was delighted.
The learning is natural and joyful, because we always monitor their comfort level. I tell them, “Let me know if it’s too easy, because it’ll be boring, or if it’s too hard, because it’ll be frustrating.” And the kids will say, “Ruth, this is a really good comfort level for me. It’s really challenging, but I can do it.”
I had a child in my class who used to say, “This is hard!” And now he’s saying, “This is challenging.” Because he’s learned to work through the challenges and master them. I’ll say, “Is it a good comfort level for you?” And he’ll say, “Yeah, but it’s pretty challenging.”
Or they’ll say, “Ruth, this is too easy.” And I’ll go over and find out if they’ve truly mastered the lesson, and then I’ll move them along, because there’s no point in staying on something they’ve already mastered.
It’s very important that they’re comfortable saying, “This is too hard.” Because it means that they aren’t intimidated by the teacher, and they can ask for help when they’re stuck. In this culture, they don’t have to feel afraid that they’ll be teased if they admit that they’re having trouble.
How much are you going to learn if you’re stuck, and you’re afraid to say to the teacher, “I can’t do it”? It’s the natural thing to say. Why should you pretend to be farther along, when you haven’t built a solid foundation? And these kids completely understand that.
So they monitor their comfort level, and they’re happy to challenge themselves because they know they can get help when they need it. Not because they have to prove that they’re better, but because they’ve learned, over and over, how wonderful it feels to master a challenge.
In every classroom here, the teachers are helping the children understand that the greatest joys come from their own learning, and not from measuring themselves against an artificial standard. It’s why they love the challenge of learning new things, because they enjoy that inner feeling of accomplishment.
We do some very sophisticated language arts learning in our third-grade classroom, and the kids love it. They love the challenge of learning big words. They’ll say, “Ruth, I was reading a book, and it said the guy was ‘cantankerous.’” And I’ll say, “And you knew what it meant!” And they’ll say, “And I knew how to spell it!” (laughs)
There’s such pride in their learning. When I compare the years I taught in several very good, academically oriented schools, I think we have a very rigorous academic program here. Very, very rigorous. But it’s done with love, and with confidence. Because it’s done with very high goals, and realistic expectations.
Q: It sounds different from a typical public school classroom where the teacher has to hustle the students through a state-mandated curriculum on a rigid schedule.
Ruth: My son was bored in public school. He’s quite smart, and his high school teachers were telling me, “If you want to motivate your son, put him in Advanced Placement classes, because they’ll challenge him.”
I said, “But he won’t really learn anything. It will just be more homework, and what he wants is depth.”
He wanted to be able to explore his school subjects in depth, and it wasn’t happening in his school, because it was all about getting through the material on schedule and studying to the test.
I don’t blame the teachers, because they aren’t being given the freedom to truly teach a subject. “We have to get through the chapter. There’s no time for questions. Let’s keep moving. Let’s not go too deep, because you have to be ready for the test.”
It’s very liberating for the teachers and students when you don’t have to teach that way. In social studies the other day, we were talking about the Central Valley of California. The children were looking at a map, and someone said, “What’s the San Andreas Fault?” And all of a sudden the lesson changed to earthquakes and plate tectonics, and we watched some YouTube videos about the science of plate tectonics and earthquakes and the San Andreas Fault.
Then we talked about how we’re living just a few miles from the San Andreas Fault, and we went outside and looked for cracks in the sidewalk and tried to decide if they were created by trees or the earthquakes in this area.
So the lesson shifted from social studies to the geology of the California mountain ranges, and the fact that there are volcanoes in the mountains. And the idea that there are volcanoes in California got them very excited, and it shot off and became a lesson in the science of vulcanology.
As a teacher, having the freedom to take a lesson wherever the children’s natural enthusiasm leads them is marvelous. It makes the learning very real for the children, where it’s not just about looking at the pages of a book – “Oh, there are some mountains in California, and here’s a map and some dry facts.”
If you start with the strange and shocking and exciting fact that there are volcanoes in California, it unfolds naturally into the science of how mountain ranges are formed, and how the earth’s crust is shifting, and what it looks like in California, quite near to where we’re standing.
I feel very blessed to teach in a school where I have the freedom and autonomy to teach in a way that engages the children and gives them a genuine learning experience.
Q: A friend of mine teaches honors chemistry at a high school in Illinois. He’s also the freshman football coach, and his teams have won 39 games in a row. He’s completely at odds with the idea of a state-mandated curriculum. He wrote an article called 10 Ways to Improve Schools Using Coaching Principles, the point of which was that teachers must be free to help the individual child, in the same way that any competent sports coach would do.
Ruth: It’s the only way to bring out the very best in each child. And you need to know the child well enough to know what their best is.
In math class we have a Multiplication Sundae game. As the children gradually master the multiplication table, they earn part of an ice cream sundae. But the key point is that the whole class has to master the table. It’s fine if you know your sixes and sevens, but if the whole class hasn’t got them, they’ll have to help each other.
Q: Do they tutor each other? I read a quote the other day from David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene: “The kids that outdid their peers in the classroom and the kids that went on to become pros in a variety of sports had behavioral traits in common. The kids who went to the top in soccer, for example, they displayed what the scientists called ‘self-regulatory behavior.’ It’s a 12-year-old who’s going up to their trainer and saying, “I think this drill is a little too easy. What is this working on again? Why are we doing this? I think I’m having a problem with this other thing. Can I work on that instead?”
Ruth: Very definitely. They work together. There’s a tremendous amount of partner learning and peer teaching in the classroom. This year’s class learned their multiplication tables perfectly, so at the Multiplication Sundae party they’ll have ice cream with all the trimmings including sprinkles and chocolate chips. But it’s really about the learning experience, and the joy of learning together, and not setting yourself apart from others and competing with them in a shallow way.
Which is not to say that we don’t encourage the ones who can learn really fast. But it’s never a bragging thing, where they’re trying to make the others feel inferior. Never.
It’s taking pride in what you’ve done. It’s being able to say, “I’ve studied hard, and I know this.” Because why should they hide it, even if the others are still working on it?
When we do our multiplication drills, there are three students who can rattle them off without a hitch. They can just shoot them off, and we all know who they are, but there’s no comparing. There’s a feeling that it’s wonderful for them, and we’re proud of them.
Q: The kindergarten teacher, Mahita, talked about how it’s important to praise the children in the right way.
Ruth: Acknowledging them for who they are, and for their accomplishments and their mastery, and not just because they’ve jumped over a stick that you’re holding at some arbitrary height.
There’s a popular idea in education today that you shouldn’t take pride in something you’re good at, because someone else’s feelings might get hurt. But I don’t believe in that idea for a moment. I don’t believe in lowering yourself so that other people won’t feel inferior. I feel that everyone should be proud of their accomplishments, and proud of each other, and very proud of their friends.
When one of the children was assigned her lines for the school play, she received fewer lines than she’d hoped. Her mom told me that her daughter came home and said, “I’m a little disappointed, but my friend got lots of lines, and I’m so proud of her.”
Can you imagine? There was no envy or resentment. She thought, “This is what I have, and it’s really good, but my best friend got this, and I’m so happy for her.”
Q: It’s a principle of the world’s spiritual teachings that our happiness grows as we expand our awareness to include other people’s realities. I would imagine that it’s a hugely important lesson for young children, for their happiness now and in the future.
Ruth: Yes, and it happens a lot in our class, where the kids will go, “Yay! Good for you!”
Q: In the high school where my friend teaches, there’s a requirement that every student has to take chemistry and physics. And of course the result is that those classes get watered-down for the less-qualified students who don’t want to be there in the first place.
Ruth: Nobody expects that in life. If something’s wrong with my car, I’ll take it to a mechanic, instead of thinking I should know how to fix it myself. But in public high schools everyone’s expected to take Advanced Placement courses, and they might not be allowed to excel at what they’re really good at, if it happens to be music, painting, or auto repair, because those things are no longer honored in public school.
Here, it’s about everybody being where they need to be. We’re very careful to observe the children and keep the curriculum individualized and fluid, so that each child can go ahead at their own pace. It’s very clearly understood that the kids need to move at a pace where they’ll be challenged and able to grow and thrive. They might need to move forward or back, and it’s adjusted all the time. I have a second-grader who comes into my math class because he’s able to do third-grade math, and last year there were three second-graders who would come in and join us for math.
Q: I saw a little girl who’s in fourth grade sitting outside at a picnic table reading a book during recess. I asked if I could take her picture, and without turning her head she said very impatiently, “Yes!” It was clear that she did not want to be distracted. I was curious to know what she was reading that was so interesting to her, so I peeked at the book, and it was math.
Ruth: That’s very funny, but it’s not at all uncommon. On Fridays we have math games, and some of the kids will say, “Can we work on Menu Math?” which is a lot harder, just because they love the challenge.
I love it here. And it’s partly because we embrace every aspect of the individual child, including the spiritual.
I’ll occasionally bring in my Jewish culture. In our tradition we have something called a mezuzah. It’s a parchment scroll that’s inscribed with the most important prayer in Judaism, and it can be ornate and fancy, or very simple.
The prayer says, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to affix a mezuzah.” Jewish homes will have a mezuzah on their door, and the reason is so that when you go in and out you’re reminded of how to live your life as a good person. As you go out, it reminds you that this is how you live as a righteous person. And when you come in, you remember to do the right thing – to have integrity, and to think about what you’re doing, and always try to be in alignment with right action.
I explained that to the children, and they made mezuzahs and wrote poems about how they want to live their lives. And when I send them home they’ll roll them up and put them outside their bedroom door.
We also made something called a Chamsa. A Chamsa is a Middle Eastern symbol that’s shared by the Jewish and Islamic cultures. It’s the hand of God that’s offering blessing and protection. We made Chamsas out of heavy copper foil that the children tooled and decorated, and then they wrote poetry about the times when they feel the hand of God.
Q: Is it something you have to nag them to do?
Ruth: Not at all. We talk about what God is, and they write about it in their poetry. What is God to other people? What is God to me? When do they feel that energy? When do they feel that protection? When do they feel that love? Do they feel it when they’re in nature? Do they feel it when they’re with their family? When they’re playing? When they’re laughing? They understand that feeling, and they always know what I’m talking about, because it’s a universal experience, and children live more in their hearts and souls than most adults do.
Q: Do you have children in your class who are new to this school?
Ruth: Yes, we had three new kids who came into our classroom in the middle of the year.
Q: How long did it take them to settle into the culture?
Ruth: One of them has taken a bit longer. He talks about it in his Qualities speech. “I came in, and I had my methods, and I had to learn Ruth’s methods.” (laughs) We had a new boy and two girls this year.
I told the kids, “Remember the girls who came to visit?” And they were all excited, “Are they going to join our class?” I said, “And remember the boy who came? He’s going to be in our class, too.” “Yay!” So there was complete acceptance.
It’s been a really great year. This time of year is always bittersweet, because your connection with the children is so deep, and then they have to leave. I love every class that I’ve had, and every one is very special.
A Conversation with Kindergarten Teacher Mahita Matulich
Q: How did you become a teacher at Living Wisdom School?
Mahita: I first heard of the school about six years ago. I was living in San Ramon, in my spiritual teacher’s ashram, and my roommate invited me to the school’s annual theater production.
I was completely blown away – I could not believe the quality of the performances, and the energy and poise of the children.
Over the next several years I saw the plays on Krishna, Hafiz, and the Dalai Lama. I would watch the plays and leave feeling so moved afterward. I had been studying early childhood education, and then my roommate introduced me to Helen and Gary, and I came on as an intern.
Q: What has it been like to teach kindergarten here?
Mahita: I love teaching here – it’s been a great blessing. But I was surprised by how much energy it took. During my first year, my greatest challenge was to adjust my energy to the needs of the children. The energy that’s required of our teachers is tremendous, especially when you’re working with young children.
I have to be very mindful of my actions, my words, and my interactions with each child. With children of four, five, and six, even the smallest interaction can be very significant for them, especially when it’s coming from their teacher, and it requires that I be very aware.
Q: Have you always wanted to teach? Kabir MacDow, our first-grade teacher, knew practically from the day he was born that he would be a teacher.
Mahita: I’d never really thought about teaching, but I had some very strong ideas about education, based on my own early experiences. My mother is a professor and my grandmother was a teacher, so there was always lots of encouragement in our family to be lifelong learners. But I had no idea that teaching was what God had in store for me.
As a child, I had an incredible kindergarten teacher, and I have vivid memories of my experiences with her. In fact, my first three teachers touched my life profoundly, because they inspired our creativity and joy in learning. As a result I grew up knowing what a tremendous difference it makes for children to have strong teachers in their earliest years.
Q: You mentioned creativity and learning in the same breath. That’s a strong theme in this school, isn’t it, to tie those together?
Mahita: Oh, it’s huge. Last year, a woman said to me during an open house, “How do you get the children to do things?” And I just had to laugh aloud, because it’s so naturally a part of what we’re doing, and I’ve never had to consider how I could motivate the children.
The way the children’s classroom experience is set up, they’re given a tremendous number of opportunities to exercise their creativity, and it really engages them in what they’re doing.
With a math activity, I’ll say, “What kind of math story do you want to write?” Or, “What kind of math story do you want to tell? Do you want to tell it with stuffed animals, or do you want to tell it using math cubes? Or do you want to tell your math story by drawing a picture?”
The emphasis on creativity that is such a major part of our school culture inspires the children to want to participate. They aren’t as likely to resist learning when they’re in a space that welcomes their ideas and their creative energy.
Q: Is it bringing their hearts into the equation, instead of just drilling facts?
Mahita: Yes, it’s bringing the heart, the enthusiasm, and honoring each child by letting them know, “You’re important, and what you value, and your experiences, are important to me.” It’s telling the child that it matters a great deal to me as their teacher how they want to pour their creativity into a project, and how they want to approach their math and other subjects.
Q: Do you interact with the other teachers? Do you feel that you’re part of a team?
Mahita: I do. It’s a little different because I’m working with the youngest children – I have mostly five-year-olds in my classroom, with a few four-years-olds and six-year-olds.
But I’m very inspired by the other teachers. I look up to them, and I know that I can count on them when I need their help. The feeling isn’t so much of a team; it’s more that I know they’re solid, and that they’ll be there. They’re like old trees that I can go sit under and get shade or relief or wisdom, and we can talk about any kind of situation that might arise with a child. If I’m trying to figure out how to help a child have more energy, or if a child is feeling sad, I can ask the teachers what they’ve done in similar situations. It’s a very solid support system.
Q: Did your early education influence the kind of teacher you want to be?
Mahita: As I mentioned, I was lucky to have amazing teachers in kindergarten and first and second grade. And then, after second grade, I became bored and disinterested with public school. I was a very smart child, and I wanted to learn – I wanted to feel engaged, and it wasn’t happening. So when I was in fifth grade my dad took me out of public school and home-schooled me. We were living in Santa Cruz, where there are beautiful redwood forests and beaches, and I spent two years with my father, learning about nature and reading and doing math outdoors. And that early experience has profoundly influenced the way I teach.
After being home-schooled, I skipped sixth grade, then I skipped eighth grade and most of high school, and I finished high school when I was fifteen. I went to a community college, and after getting my degree I spent some time traveling with my spiritual teacher. Then I became very interested in finding a career that would be in alignment with my goal of helping create a more peaceful world.
The experience of being home-schooled by my father showed me how powerful it is when you challenge children in meaningful ways. I feel it’s very important that the children in my classroom are challenged, and that they don’t become disinterested. If I sense that the children are sleepy, or there’s some grumpiness in the room, I’ll change the curriculum and take them outdoors for a nature walk. Seeing the colors of the flowers, and being outside under the sun and sky transforms their day, and they come back indoors with their energy renewed.
I try to incorporate nature into their daily experience, and I try to make sure they have some outside time together, to be among the trees and plants.
Q: You said that you challenge them. Can you talk about that?
Mahita: A very unique feature of this school is that we have an individualized curriculum, so that each child will be learning at his or her own level. It makes a lot of sense, because whether we’re doing math, reading, or writing, every child will be learning somewhat differently.
I feel that my job as an educator is to challenge the children in many ways, and not just academically. I do challenge them academically, of course. And if I see a child who’s accomplishing their math tasks easily, I’ll make sure they’ve really mastered those math skills, and then I’ll need to quickly think of how I can keep challenging them.
In our school, we recognize the importance of creating a relationship of trust with each child, so that the children will feel safe when they’re being challenged to go to the next level with our help. If they think they can’t do it, you’re there to tell them, “I know you can.” And they’ll trust you enough to try, because they know you, and they know you aren’t going to judge them.
I also challenge the children to be their best selves. I have very high standards for them – I expect them to treat each other kindly, and to articulate their words with care, and to practice having consideration for others. I challenge them to learn how to self-regulate – how to choose an appropriate activity to calm their bodies, like deep breathing. Or maybe they need to sit and read a book for a while, until they can get calm and re-join the group.
Self-regulating is a skill that can be very challenging for four-, five-, and six-year-olds. The Education for Life philosophy has helped me understand how to help them manage their energy, and I’ve been inspired also by Bev Bos, a brilliant early childhood educator who believed in giving children a creative curriculum. My teaching has been very influenced by Bev, and by the Conscious Discipline methods we use here at Living Wisdom School.
Conscious Discipline is a set of tools that help children learn the basic things they need to say and do. For example, I will never tell a child, “Say it nicely.” Instead, I’ll give them the exact words: “Say to your friend, ‘Can you please hand me the pencil?’” I’m modeling the sentences the children need to know in order to express themselves effectively, which is a big part of what we’re doing at this age, teaching the children what they should say, and how they should say it.
I believe in Conscious Discipline very strongly, because it’s a beautiful set of tools, and it works. I think it’s wonderful that we’re encouraged here to help the children acquire these essential skills.
Q: It sounds like you’re helping them develop skills that may not be directly related to academics, but will help them be successful in academics – how to master a challenge, and how to succeed in small ways and enjoy their successes.
Mahita: And teaching them to love the challenges, and to feel confident within themselves that if something is challenging, they can do it. It’s about giving them a confidence from within, instead of trying to motivate them by external pressures and external rewards.
I think it’s very important that the children learn how to be intrinsically motivated – that they’re motivated from within themselves to do their best, and not that they’re motivated from outside. It’s why I don’t use sticker charts or reward systems. I’ve read lots of research on this, and I feel it’s best for the children if you can teach them, starting at a very early age, that the best rewards are when they’re able to look at their art or their math and feel very happy about it from inside.
Q: Is there an emphasis on language arts in kindergarten, on helping them learn to read and write?
Mahita: Yes, because developing literacy and language is extremely important for young children. There are many studies on the importance of exposing children to lots of new words, and to environments that are rich in a variety of print materials. They need to be exposed to a great many words for their optimal growth, and it’s why I read lots and lots of stories to them.
Storytelling and story reading play a huge role in the curriculum. I took a course on literacy and language development for young children, and I learned that the children need for you to read slowly, at a pace that’s significantly slower than you’d read to an adult. And it’s because they’re forming a tremendous number of new ideas in their heads at this age, and they’re learning to understand the context of each new word. So I’m very intentional in how I read to my class. I’ll make the voices of the characters in the stories, and in the second part of the year I’ll read lots of poetry to them, and I’ll get them started writing poetry, with some prompts, because it’s very helpful for developing their language and thinking skills.
As far as writing goes, at this age I’ll wait to see when each child is truly ready to start doing their own writing. Some of the children will be ready to start writing words and sentences halfway through the year, and they’ll be very excited. And some will still want you to write out the words for them, which is fine, because they don’t all develop the same skills at the same time. I teach writing on whiteboards instead of paper, because it’s easier to erase and edit when you’re very young and still developing your fine motor skills. And I teach phonics so they can start to recognize the sounds of the letters and work out the sounds of new words.
Language plays a huge role in how the classroom is structured. As I mentioned, I’m very careful about the language I use with the kids. I don’t tell them “Good job!” or “That’s perfect!” or “I really like it.” I stay away from those kinds of value judgments; instead, I’ll try to find out about them, and how they’re feeling and where their energy is. “Tell me about your art. Tell me what you did. Oh, wow, I can see that you put green and blue there. Tell me about that.”
Q: They’re rewarded because you’re interested, and because they can tell you what’s fulfilling them?
Mahita: That’s right. When the children first enter kindergarten, they’ll hold up their art and say, “Do you like it? Did I do it right?” And it might take a month or two, but then they’ll stop asking for approval, and they’ll start saying, “I did a masterpiece, Mahita!” Because they’re telling me how they feel about it rather than asking if it’s right.
Q: Does it affect the way they approach their academic learning?
Mahita: Very definitely, yes. They’re learning a process, and they’re learning to articulate, at a very young age, “This is what I feel, and this is what I need, and these are the tools I can use to calm myself and make myself feel better, and prepare myself to face this challenge.”
I don’t think that any human being can succeed academically, in the deepest, most lasting way and to their full potential, if they aren’t able to self-regulate. As the children navigate high school and college, they’ll face many stressful challenges. And having the tools to calm yourself and self-regulate and know what’s really alive within you will make a big difference.
I teach a high level of math in kindergarten. (laughs) Some people don’t believe me when I say this, but I teach algebraic thinking at this age, and I really try to develop a solid number sense in the children. When they have a solid number sense, what happens is that they’ll breeze through math when they reach fourth and fifth grade, because they’ll have the right understanding, from tangibly working on these things since they were four and five.
Q: You’re giving them content in kindergarten that they’ll be using in fourth and fifth grade?
Mahita: Exactly. For example, I might put on the board: “Ten is the same as five plus what number?” Or “Ten is the same as eight plus what number?”
Q: That’s amazing.
Mahita: And they’re doing it all the time, so it becomes very natural to them. I start teaching these concepts in the first or second week of school. And I do lots of things to make math fun. I have a Math Owl who tells math stories, and I do activities that bring out their natural joy at this age, through storytelling, role playing, improv, and so on.
Q: The Education for Life book suggests that young children are working very much with their feelings, and that they need appropriate learning tools.
Mahita: Yes, exactly. We’re using appropriate tools. We’re using the tools they naturally have. Children at this age play, and if we can incorporate play into what they’re learning, and make it playful for them, then the learning sinks in easily. And we can carefully observe what they’re learning, and what we can do to help them learn even better. I’m always watching them and thinking of what I can bring into the classroom that will help them in their play.
Q: I visited the fourth-grade classroom, and the focus of the children was amazing. I asked a little girl if I could take her picture, and without glancing up from her book she said, “All right.” She absolutely did not want to be distracted from her math book. It was inspiring to see them working in pairs and deeply concentrated on their math. It’s not at all as if they wanted to be someplace else.
Mahita: It’s pretty incredible. I think sometimes I might take it for granted because I’m in the middle of it all the time. But I have five- and six-year-olds who are so dedicated to what they’re doing that they’re completely absorbed, and they’re engaged and excited.
Q: Five-year-olds are notoriously distractable. It’s fascinating to hear that they can be focused.
Mahita: If you can frame an activity for children so that their enthusiasm is alive and they’re fully engaged, the learning happens naturally, and you’re there to support it.
I think it’s only when you don’t frame a lesson or an exploration of ideas properly, that the children are more easily distracted. I’m very, very carefully observing all the time what’s working and what isn’t, and what I need to fix. Maybe there’s a lot of joy around an activity, but maybe the energy is a bit too high. I have to be on my toes, and be ready to adjust to each moment, and stay flexible.
Q: It seems very different from the old-fashioned classroom with the kids sitting in rows, doing the same thing at the same time.
Mahita: I can’t imagine having kids sit at their desks all day, especially at this age. I can’t imagine how it would affect their learning and development. I’m continually problem-solving and adjusting my teaching. I always have a curriculum planned for the next week and month, but if an activity isn’t working, or if it’s taking too long, or if the children are taking it to another level, I will go with that. There’s no doubt that being flexible is a key requirement for being effective as a teacher.
Q: One of the most common complaints among teachers in public schools today is that they have to follow a state-mandated curriculum, and it takes away their flexibility to adjust the curriculum to the needs of the students.
Mahita: At this age, they’re naturally curious. They naturally want to learn, and I feel it’s tragic when a child’s curiosity is shut down in an attempt to deliver some sort of prescribed lesson plan. My hope is that when the children leave here, they’ll feel that they can ask questions and be curious, and cultivate their natural love of learning, and not feel that there’s only one right answer, or that they have to stay quiet instead of asking a question.
I joke that if you come into a kindergarten and it’s too quiet, there’s no way that learning is happening, because the kids are not naturally quiet while they’re learning. Sure, you want a reasonable level of quiet, but I feel that the best times of learning are when the children are excited and talking to each other about what’s going on, or they’re asking each other questions, or they’re asking me questions, so it’s very alive.
Q: Shawn Achor, the author of The Happiness Advantage, found that the most successful Harvard freshmen were not those who spent all their time trying to grind out good grades. The most successful Harvard students were engaged with each other, asking questions and forming study groups. They were social and knew how to get the help they needed. They were the kids who talked about everything, and knew how to enjoy what they were doing, and how to connect with it. And it sounds rather eerily similar to what you’re teaching your kindergarten students. (See the article “The Happiness Advantage in School,” on the LWS website here; included are two fascinating TED talk videos with Shawn Achor.)
Mahita: It’s so important for these kids to learn the skills of cooperating and problem-solving. I wish you could see how they grow throughout the year. At the start of the year there are always a few months where it’s just constant conflict resolution, and constant learning to use the right words, and constantly giving them the sentences and words that will help them be successful.
Then, after a few months, they’ve gained enough skills that I’ll be able to sit and observe them for extended periods during the day, and they’ll be completely, one-hundred percent able to navigate and cooperate. And it’s not because I’ve solved their problems for them, but because I’ve challenged them, “How can you solve that problem?” And they start to become thinkers. “Oh, we both want to play this game, but we want to play it differently, and how can we do that?” Or they start to figure out the right way to ask their friends for help when they need it, and how to make requests of each other, instead of grabbing.
It’s very rewarding to me as a teacher to see the transformation, and to think, “Wow, most adults can’t even do this.” Can you put twelve adults in a room all day, and they’ll get along? Most likely not, and these kids can do it beautifully.
Q: Do you talk to the other teachers about how your students are doing after they leave kindergarten?
Mahita: Definitely, yes. I wrote an email to a parent today, and I said, “As a teacher, you really love these children and care about them, and you can’t just switch it off.” It’s not like it switches off on the weekend, or when you go home. And for me it’s a big deal and very important to talk to the teachers that they’ll be going to, because I want the next teacher to have all of the information that helped me to help each child grow during their kindergarten year. I’ll talk about the reading level they’re on, and what I’ve found that can help the child in a variety of situations, and I’ll let the first-grade teacher know I’m always available if they have questions.
Teaching isn’t just about academics. It’s about having a sense of who each child is, and what’s important to them. And I’ll want to have a conversation with their next teacher about that, too.
With an individualized curriculum, you basically have twelve curriculums going on at the same time. And as teachers our job is to make sure that each child is getting his or her individual needs met every day.
We encourage parents who are considering enrolling their children in Living Wisdom School to watch the film Race to Nowhere, as we feel it makes the best possible argument in favor of the Education for Life approach.
NOTE: The film is available on Netflix, and on YouTube for a rental fee of $3.99. You can watch the trailer on YouTube here, and follow the link in the right column at the start of the trailer (it also appears at the end of the trailer) to rent the film.
Race to Nowhere describes, through segments with parents, educators, and counselors, the terrible toll that the current obsession with grades, test results, and acceptance by prestigious colleges is taking on children and their families. The filmmakers suggest solutions that have been in place in the Living Wisdom Schools for more than 40 years, and that have more than proved their worth.
Our educational approach addresses and effectively resolves all of the issues addressed in the film: the pressures that drive students to cheating and even suicide; the false definitions of success; the myth that an exclusive focus on academics is the fastest path to academic results; the equally false belief that results on standardized tests and volume of homework reflect academic progress; the severe impact of the current obsession with college acceptance on family life and children’s mental, emotional, and physical health.
“When I decided to cut our homework in half, our AP scores went up!” — High school Advanced Placement biology teacher in Race to Nowhere.
The educational philosophy that we follow at Living Wisdom School is called Education for Life (EFL). It’s based on helping children achieve academic and personal success by a balanced development of their personal “Tools of Maturity”: body, feelings, will, and mind.
Mainstream education, with its emphasis on test scores, emphasizes training only one of these childhood developmental tools – the intellect – at the expense of the child’s growth in other areas.
Let’s compare the results of these two very different approaches.
Education for Life and Testing
While Education for Life doesn’t emphasize academic testing for young children, our older students often express an interest in knowing how they are doing academically compared to other students their age.
When the EFL high school applied for accreditation in 2005, the process required the students to take a nationally recognized standardized test, administered annually.
The results have been nothing short of remarkable. Every year the students as a group have placed in the top 10 percent of schools nationwide on average, reaching the top 1 percent on one occasion.
Their SAT scores have been equally impressive, with the average EFL student scoring 1691, compared to the national average of about 1500.
How can EFL students compete so well against students in elite academic schools, when our focus includes significant time spent on the arts, outdoor activities, service projects, and travel?
Current research offers some insights.
The Body and the Intellect
It would seem obvious that a healthy body provides a sound foundation for a healthy mind. Disease, stress, and a lack of hygiene can erode the energy required for focusing the mind and working hard in academics. This relationship was clearly demonstrated by a study from the National Academy of Sciences in 2013:
State-mandated academic achievement testing has had the unintended consequence of reducing opportunities for children to be physically active during the school day and beyond…. Yet little evidence supports the notion that more time allocated to subject matter will translate into better test scores. Indeed, 11 of 14 correlational studies of physical activity during the school day demonstrate a positive relationship to academic performance. Overall, a rapidly growing body of work suggests that time spent engaged in physical activity is related not only to a healthier body but also to a healthier mind.
Feelings and the Intellect
Similarly, the ability to manage one’s feelings constructively can be a tremendous aid for maintaining mental focus in the face of interpersonal tensions or inner turmoil.
The advent of the term “emotional intelligence” in 1995 evoked a wave of research authenticating the importance of social and emotional growth.
A key report by J. Payton et al. surveyed data from 317 studies involving 324,303 students. The authors concluded:
SEL [Social and Emotional Learning] programming improved students’ academic performance by 11 to 17 percentile points across the three reviews, indicating that they offer students a practical educational benefit…. Although some educators argue against implementing this type of holistic programming because it takes valuable time away from core academic material, our findings suggest that SEL programming not only does not detract from academic performance but actually increases students’ performance on standardized tests and grades.
Will Power and Intellect
The connection between will power and the intellect is evident in qualities such as perseverance, concentration, and initiative. In The Willpower Instinct, Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D surveyed the results of over 200 studies.
People who have strong will power are better off – i.e., [they have] better control of their attention, emotions, and actions. They are happier and healthier. Their relationships are more satisfying and last longer. They make more money and go further in their careers. They are better able to manage stress, deal with conflict, and overcome adversity. They live longer. Self-control is a better predictor of academic success than IQ. It’s a stronger determinant of effective leadership than charisma. It’s more important for marital harmony than empathy.
Conclusion and Prediction
It may take a while, but educators are acknowledging that too much one-sided emphasis on the intellect is counterproductive.
Even the “winners” with this approach are adversely affected. In a nationally televised interview in November 2011, an NBC reporter talked with an administrator at Peking University High School in Shanghai, the top school worldwide as measured by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, where the students put in 12 hours of study per day, including weekends. The school administrator lamented:
Test taking is damaging to students’ creativity, critical thinking skills and, in general, China’s ability to compete in the world. It can make students very narrow-minded. In the 21st century, China needs the creative types its education system isn’t producing.
For over 40 years, Education for Life has pioneered an approach that cultivates the child’s intellect without neglecting other important contributors to the student’s academic success, namely the body, feelings, and will.
Modern research shows that the future of education will favor schools that can implement an integrated, holistic approach, along the lines of Education for Life and the Living Wisdom Schools.
MIT graduate Dharmaraj Iyer taught at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California.
Dharmaraj taught math and science for several years at the Living Wisdom Schools at Palo Alto, California and Ananda Village near Nevada City, California. This is his farewell talk to the students, teachers, and parents of Palo Alto LWS, where he taught for six years.
Thank you, children, thank you friends, thank you students, and thank you, Helen and everyone.
I want to start by saying that sun block is a wonderful invention. (laughter) I seem to rediscover it every year – but not right away. (laughter)
Today marks six years to the day that I have been at the school. My first experience of Living Wisdom School was six years ago, at an end-of-year ceremony. And I want to say a little bit about the journey that got me to that place.
I was a graduate student at MIT in computer science, and I had been offered a summer job at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), not too far away. And my main interest in taking the job was so that I could live in the Ananda Community in Mountain View.
I had been a member of Ananda for three years, and I had always wanted to live in a community, but had never been able to until then.
So I moved here. I arrived at the community, and then soon after, in fact on the second day, having started my job, I talked to Asha Praver, who is one of the leaders of the community. And she said, “Have you ever had an interest in teaching children?”
I said, “Well…”
I mean, here I was doing research in Bayesian feedback algorithms for automatic text categorization. And along comes Asha and asks me, “Do you want to teach children?”
And I had to pause and take the question inside, because it was one of those moments when the mind just stops. And I said, “Yes – I would be interested in teaching children.” And it was a moment of inspiration that I acted on, because it felt right.
Later my mind kicked in, and I said, “Well, you know, I’m not as experienced in science as I am in math. I’ve only taken courses in biology and chemistry in high school, and I only did physics through college. So I’m not sure I could teach the science as well.”
And she said, “Well, yes, but you’d be talking to kindergartners about the weather.” (laughter)
And so it was a bit hard to beg out of that. Asha invited me to come to the end-of-year ceremony, which was on Friday. This was 1999. And I was amazed.
I didn’t know any of the children. I didn’t know any of the teachers. I had just arrived here. So I came to the school’s end-of-year ceremony, which we’re having again today.
And I couldn’t believe the teachers, their poise, and their obviously caring nature. But what impressed me even more was the students.
The children, from age five to fourteen, were talking about a special “quality” that the teachers had given them. And I thought it was very inspiring that each child received a certificate of appreciation for a special quality that the teachers saw in them, and that the student had tried hard to develop during the year.
The students’ presence on stage simply bowled me over. Their ability to talk with poise and to give a mature speech, and the feeling that they projected – I was moved to tears a few times, by the sincerity and clarity with which the children spoke. And I said to myself, “I don’t really know the philosophy of this school, but I know that it works.”
Because you can’t fake those qualities. And that’s what made me sign up to teach here.
Now came the process of asking the school if they were interested in hiring me. Asha introduced me to one of the other teachers after the ceremony. She said, “This is Dharmaraj, and he’s interested in teaching at the school.” And this experienced teacher, with appropriate caution, said, “Well, that’s nice.” (laughter) “Many people are interested in teaching at our school, and we don’t necessarily have a whole lot of openings right now, but we’ll keep you in mind. What is your area of expertise?”
I said, “Math, science, and computers.” Her head swiveled sharply, and she lasered-in on me and said, “Really…” (laughter)
And it turned out that both of the science teachers, Sandy and Sonya, would be spending just one more year at the school, before they moved on. So I came just in time.
I visited the school over the summer, during the Selfish Giant theater workshop, and I came into a classroom and saw these beautiful children concentrating on their fantastic artwork. Three of the regular teachers were there, and they were guiding the children, and the children were clearly very enthusiastic and inspired.
I saw a little boy named Max who was deeply focused on his drawing, and I thought, “What a perfect little saint. What would there be to teach these children?! They must certainly teach themselves.” And little Max was working away, until finally he completed his drawing, and then as he finished it, he held it up and gazed at it for a moment in wonder. And then he said, “CLARE I”LL SELL YOU THIS FOR A MILLION DOLLARS!!!!! A MILLION DOLLARS!!!!!” (laughter)
So I thought maybe there was something that we adults could share.
But that day began a long journey of discovery in teaching. My friends would sometimes ask me, “How do you like teaching?” And I would say, “It’s really fun, and it’s really hard.”
It was very hard to have all of these thoughts about math, science, and computer science as I understood them, and then struggle to find ways to make them crystal clear to someone else.
I tended to learn more abstractly, at least in my recent years. And my students didn’t necessarily take to abstraction. They might prefer visual or auditory or written ways of learning. They might like to write about their experience in math, linking their language and mathematical minds together.
While I was still learning how to become a good teacher, Swami Kriyananda told me, “You need to make the abstract concepts clear by concrete examples.” So whenever I would teach science, I would try to give the children a hands-on experience, and concrete examples in their own lives. Because otherwise it was just words and abstract concepts. And that’s very cold and impersonal, and not very interesting and easy to forget.
But the real challenge, as every teacher knows, is not even the content, when you’re first starting out as a teacher. It is what we call “classroom management.” (laughter)
Classroom management, in the beginning, means, as a young teacher, trying not to cry. (laughter)
Then, as you progress, it evolves into trying not to yell. (laughter)
And then finally you get to the point of being able to try to inspire the children through calm, quiet words. For example, I would be doing my job as a teacher and thinking that it was completely impossible, and then I would see the example of one or another of the great teachers we have here. And one of them would just say at the end of an active playtime, very quietly, “Children.” (laughter) And all of the heads, all of the desks, all of the chairs, and all of the pencils in the room would move and point to her. (laughter)
And so I knew it was possible to learn this skill.
During my first year, Helen was my supervising teacher. She trained me throughout the first year I taught in the fifth through seventh grade classrooms.
She was immensely valuable, first of all in her example, of the way she was with the children, and the way she spoke to them. And also she was able to give me feedback, as I would stand up in front of the firing squad and deliver a few things before I went down in flames. And she would give me feedback about what went wrong, and why. She made all it very clear. And she tolerated my many woes.
There was a time, about halfway into the first year, when I said, “Does it get easier?” And she said, “Well, the first three years are awful, but then…” But I couldn’t get past that. “The first three years!!??” Because I was just trying to make it through next week. (laughter)
But of course, it was with a certain relish that I reached the third year and found out she was right.
But what made teaching hard, of course, was not the students. It was me having to face my own self, as we all do. When you ask seven students to do something, and they don’t, what are you going to do? Are you going to cry, yell, or calmly inspire?
That, again, is what makes teaching hard for every one of us. And when it comes to leading anyone, the hardest thing is the way you have to face yourself – and change.
Before I came to LWS, I wasn’t convinced that it was possible to teach in the right way. I didn’t know what the right way was. I knew that some of my own teachers had done it as I grew up, and some of them had not.
And, again, I wasn’t sure how to explain what the right way was. You would always have a gifted person here and there. But I didn’t really know if it was a skill that could be learned, on the whole.
But then I met the wonderful teachers here and watched them through the years. I met Helen and saw the way she taught. I saw all of the teachers, all of them teaching in the right way. And again, I wasn’t even sure what it was, but I knew it was right, because I saw that it worked beautifully, and it felt right. And the children showed it.
Then Gary came, and Ghislaine, and Megan, and I saw that they all taught in the right way, too. And so I began to wonder, “What is it that’s so special about our experience here?” Because it wasn’t only the gifted teachers, and the wonderful students, and the dedicated parents.
I realized that part of the power of our school, and what made it all work, was the Education for Life philosophy. The power of small classroom sizes. The power of circle time. The power of meditation and prayer and chanting. The spiritual lives of the teachers, and the students, and their families. And the plays, through which the children are able to live the life of a great saint, by acting out that life, and experiencing it, and trying to understand it. Because they’re the ones who are going to have to tell the story. And, of course, it is the active blessings of Swami Kriyananda and Paramhansa Yogananda, who are the founders of our educational philosophy.
And these, of course, are all things that some might say, and some do say, “Do these interfere with the students becoming really good at academics?”
And, in fact, as we’ve all come to see, they not only do not interfere, but they support and enhance the academics. First of all, the proof is self-evident in the top-level high schools and universities where our graduates go, and where they thrive. Those who wish get into extremely competitive high schools in this area and outside of the Bay Area.
Our students who can go extremely fast with the academic curriculum are allowed to do so. They take it as fast as we can give it, and we give it as fast as they can take it.
There are students who go into high school placing out of algebra, having completed the entrance exams. They do very well on the standardized tests. This year, Rose placed out of first-year science, and she’s moving right into sophomore biology. They’ve had their poetry published. There are so many outward accomplishments that support the claim that the academics are only enhanced by all of these cross-curricular enrichment programs.
But what of the students who take the curriculum more slowly, at their own pace? I’ve always been glad to say that I have always felt, and I think it’s always true, that the students who need more time are not left behind at LWS. In fact, Keith Devlin, a famous mathematician at Stanford University, visited our school last year, and afterward he said to me, “This is a wonderful school. Do all of your students excel in math?”
I said, “Well, all of the students in the school, through the efforts of the teachers, all of the teachers, may not excel in math, but they all like math.” And he was very impressed, and I was very proud to be able to say it.
Now, Samantha and Sarah are looking at each other. (laughter) But I said it because I felt it was very true. And that was something I could be proud of, and we can all be proud of.
It’s six years later now, and just as I felt the call to move here and start teaching, Dharmini and I feel the call to move on. We have wanted to move to Ananda Village for a number of years, and now finally the time has felt right. She will be working at the Expanding Light guest retreat center, with the guests there, and possibly also working with some students in music. I’ll be teaching in the fourth through sixth grade classroom there, and I’ll help with high school math and computers.
Good-bys are always hard. There’s no shortcut around the sorrow of parting. But this not really a funeral, I’m not dying. In fact, we’re not even moving until July. So we’re going to be here for quite some time, and I’m already planning my first return visit in the fall.
Also, Therese Ducharme, who is taking over the math and science teacher position, was my first choice. And I’m so glad and relieved to pass the torch on to her. I know she’s going to do a magnificent job.
So here we are, at the end of six years, and I’ll just say that I’m very grateful for my time in service to you all here. The teachers are my friends. And my dear students, and all you dear, dedicated parents and friends, it has truly been a tremendous blessing in my life. Thank you.