The #1 Question Parents Ask About Living Wisdom School

Kindergarten teacher Suryani Nelson talks with her students before the End of Year Ceremony in Spring 2023 at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, CA
Kindergarten teacher Suryani Nelson talks with her students before the End of Year Ceremony in Spring 2023 at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, CA.

By Helen Purcell, Director
Living Wisdom School of Palo Alto

Living Wisdom School director Helen purcell
Helen Purcell

Confronted with the whole-child curriculum at Living Wisdom School, parents often wonder if getting to know each child individually and helping them develop their unique strengths may waste time that could be better spent on academics.

The short answer is that in the fifty years since the first Living Wisdom School opened its doors, we have found that the exact opposite is true: that learning becomes far more efficient when we bring the whole child into the process.

Here are some of the reasons this is so.

  1. Many schools today operate under a mandate to “teach to the test.” But a one-size-fits-all, rigidly scheduled curriculum leaves perhaps a third of the students challenged appropriately, while a third find themselves struggling, and another third are under-challenged and bored. Large, impersonal classes and a rigid curriculum leave a significant portion of the students frustrated or idle, creating a breeding ground for discipline problems and disengagement, both of which interfere with learning.
  2. When we teach the children individually, each at his or her own level of ability and pace, school becomes a place where the children can enjoy success experiences every day. As they realize that they are understood and that they are able to succeed, they begin to enjoy their schoolwork and become enthusiastically engaged. A happy fringe benefit is that discipline problems virtually disappear.
  3. In a Living Wisdom classroom, the teacher’s first priority is to gain a deep understanding of the individual child, so that they will be able to guide the child appropriately, according to their unique learning styles, interests, and abilities.

A classroom where each child experiences the joy of overcoming challenges and succeeding every day becomes an engaging learning environment for all. It is why visitors to our school are amazed to see children of every age, from kindergarten to eighth grade, enjoyably absorbed in their schoolwork. They see students of all ages working together in small groups, not bored or inciting each other to mischief, but happily engaged in what they are doing, because they find joy in accepting challenges that they stand a good chance of mastering.

  1. There is no bullying at Living Wisdom School. From the first day of kindergarten until they graduate, the teachers are continuously monitoring the children’s interactions. When they observe contractive behaviors, they immediately step in. The teachers are experienced in helping children resolve their conflicts realistically and harmoniously. A school and classroom environment where each child feels safe, acknowledged, and loved is a wholesome incubator for learning.
  2. We approach learning in a spirit of joyous adventure and discovery. We hold high values and are eager to expose the children to academics in ways that they can individually relate to, and that will inspire and engage them for all their lives. We approach books and media by carefully unpacking the positive, uplifting messages behind whatever human suffering is described. We avoid those that offer a cynical response to life.

 An All-Round Education Engages the Whole Child

Parents sometimes ask: “While it seems wonderful to address all sides of a child’s nature at school, doesn’t it place their future success at risk?”

There seems to be a widespread assumption today that school should be only for the brain, and that everything else should be set aside during school hours and addressed elsewhere. This assumption holds that if we focus on training the children’s brains, we can assume that they will be happy and successful at some future point in their lives, after they have acquired financial security, material goods, and social status. But a strong and growing body of evidence, which we will discuss shortly, has clearly shown that the opposite is true – that happy people are much more likely to be successful in whatever they attempt.

The Five Dimensions of a Child

We humans have been gifted with five instruments through which we can perceive and interact with the world: body, feelings, will, mind, and soul. Science today is increasingly discovering how these five instruments are inextricably linked, and how a deficiency or malfunction in one is bound to compromise the healthy functioning of the others. For example, researchers have found that the brain and heart function more efficiently in the presence of calm, harmonious, expansive feelings such as love, kindness, and compassion. When the Institute of Heartmath taught heart-harmonizing methods to students in a Washington, DC public school, their test scores improved significantly. Many similar findings are described in our book Happiness & Success at School: A Magnificent Synergy.

Let us consider some simple examples.

Body

When the body is unwell, we feel less able and eager to attack our challenges, because the supply of energy to our brain, willpower, and feelings is diminished. Conversely, when the body is healthy, we feel wonderful, and we have abundant energy and enthusiasm to greet our life’s tests.

Feeling

Similarly, if our feelings are compromised – if we are sad, depressed, resentful, or feel unrecognized and unloved – we will be less able to bring our full energy, enthusiasm, and willingness to meet our challenges.

Will Power

If our will power is compromised, due to a lack of strong desire, confidence, or proper training, we will be unable to bring our full energy and volition to our activities.

Mind and Soul

In fifty-plus years in the Living Wisdom Schools, we have seen that children who are healthy, happy, cheerful, enthusiastic, confident, focused, and strong-minded are best equipped to learn at the peak of their individual ability.

Each Child Is Unique: We Must Teach to the Individual

Our philosophy of education is based on an understanding that every child is unique. Each child brings an individual blend of strengths to school that demand appropriate consideration – as the following stories illustrate.

There was a boy in the original Living Wisdom School who had an uncanny, almost intuitive gift for understanding how tools and machinery worked. Unfortunately, he was little interested in the standard school curriculum. Instead of forcing him to learn in a way that was alien and unpalatable to him, the teachers worked with his strengths. They created learning challenges that engaged his mechanical skills and his interest in learning how things worked. As a result, he began to have a happier experience of school.

When he realized that the teachers understood him, and that they were on his side, he was open and receptive when they introduced him to math problems and other lessons that were related to his interests. The boy grew up to be a highly paid, in-demand metalworker and welder.

Middle school teacher Gary McSweeney helps a student with math.
The keys to learning and academic engagement at Living Wisdom School are individual instruction, and challenging each student daily at his/her own level. In math class, the teachers and math aides review every problem with the students to ensure that they understand fundamental concepts and are not simply “studying to the test.”

A young girl in our school dreaded math class, because she associated it with many past failures. Year after year at her former school she had fallen hopelessly behind in math.

When she came to LWS, the teachers worked with her at her own level. Very carefully, they gave her math lessons and assignments that she stood a good chance of “winning.” In this way, math gradually became associated with positive experiences. In the compassionate, loving school environment, her classmates celebrated her successes. She spent so much time working on math with her teacher and the math aides that her book became frayed at the edges and looked very “lived-in.”

Her story has a happy ending – while she didn’t become a world-class mathematician, she was successful in a college major where math was a strong prerequisite: genetics. Best of all, she gained tremendous self-confidence from having defeated the math bogeyman and conquering her fears in a way that was fun, engaging, and personally rewarding.

How Do Our Graduates Perform After They Leave Our School?

A strong proof of our methods is how our students fare in high school, college, and career. Before we look at some broad trends, here are two recent anecdotal examples.

<em>Living Wisdom School graduate Hadley Sheppard earned a PhD in Genetics and works for a major scientific database firm in London, UK.</em>
Living Wisdom School graduate Hadley Sheppard earned a PhD in Genetics and works for an international genetics database firm in London, UK.

One of our graduates, Krishav Gandhi, is now a senior in our Living Wisdom High School. We recently learned that Krishav qualified as a semifinalist for the National Merit Scholarship Program. Just 1% of high school seniors achieve National Merit semifinalist status. Of this group, 95% will attain finalist standing, and half will receive a National Merit Scholarship.

In spring 2023, another graduating senior in our high school scored a perfect 1600 on her college boards. To understand what this says about the quality of instruction and guidance at the school, of the 7 million college-bound high school seniors who take the SATs annually, just one in every 7,000 (0.1%) scores a perfect 1600.

Are these rare exceptions? Of course. Perhaps a better measure of our approach is our graduates’ average high school GPA, which hovers around 3.85. Also worth noting are our graduates’ successes in college and beyond. (See the links below.)

But first, an explanation is in order. Unlike many schools today, we are not focused on training our students to “test and forget” what they learn. We are intent on giving them a solid foundation in the knowledge and problem-solving strengths to find solutions and be competent and successful in high school, college, career, and life. We discover and nurture their unique talents and enthusiasms, and we show them how to bring their best to everything they do. The result is that they do very well when they leave us.

The “Disaster Factor” in Schools Today

In most schools today, the total lack of instruction in life skills has resulted in an epidemic of disconnection, alienation, estrangement, sadness, loneliness, and bitterness – with the unfortunate result that many young people feel deeply betrayed and lash out in rebellion through drugs, violence, cynicism, and self-harm.

The problem is too serious to be lightly dismissed – “Oh well, young people have always managed to land on their feet – life will be their teacher!” Even if our children are not inclined to rebel – how will it help them to keep daily company with those who are?

Rather than toss the dice with our children’s future, it is our strong conviction that we should do everything in our power to offer them a better way.

When we started our schools a little more than 50 years ago, we realized that the solution to the deficiencies of modern “deaducation” was actually close at hand. The question we needed to address was not “How can we force our children to get good grades so that they will be happy and successful in some misty distant future, after they have achieved wealth and status?”

Instead, the questions we asked – and answered – were:

  • “How can we work with our students, by understanding their unique skills and what motivates them individually?”
  • “Once we have gotten to know them, how can we give them the wisdom, maturity, and life skills to be happy and highly successful now, so that they will stand an excellent chance of succeeding at every stage of their lives?”

Education Reform – Baby Steps at the University Level

At America’s elite universities, a new movement has begun to acknowledge the problems in education, and to take tentative steps toward finding solutions.

  • At Yale, students can now take a course called Life Worth Living.
  • Notre Dame offers students a course called God and the Good Life.
  • Harvard offers an online course called Managing Happiness. The in-person version of the course has been astonishingly successful.

Harvard’s Positive Psychology 1504, taught by Professor Tal Ben-Shahar Ph.D., will enter the books as the most popular course in the history of Harvard University.

In the spring of 2006, over 1400 Harvard students enrolled in both Positive Psychology 1504 and Ben-Shahar’s Psychology of Leadership course.

Positive Psychology 1504 consists of 22 lectures lasting around 75 minutes each, with a guest lecture on humor by Harvard graduate and professor Shawn Achor [author of the bestselling book The Happiness Advantage]. The course’s focus is on the psychological aspects of life fulfillment and examines empathy, friendship, love, achievement, creativity, spirituality, happiness, and humor. (From positivepsychology.com.)

  • At Stanford, Fred Luskin and Carole Pertofsky teach a happiness course that they created in response to a number of student suicides.

It’s gratifying to see that neuroscientists, social scientists, psychologists, and educators have begun to understand how vitally important happiness is to success in school, career, and life.

But when we view these developments against the backdrop of history, we find that the principles have been known for a very long time.

Ancient Principles for Success & Happiness

Wise people in all ages have given us the keys to a happy, successful life. The first principle is that happiness increases when we live “expansively” – that is, when we use our five human instruments of body, heart, will, mind, and soul in ways that bring us greater health, love, strength, wisdom, and joy, instead of their opposites.

This is our goal for the children at Living Wisdom School – to create an environment where they can thrive in each of the five dimensions of their being.

While academics are an extremely important part of a child’s life arsenal, researchers at America’s great universities are finding that people who are happy, healthy, emotionally stable, mentally focused, and strong-willed are most likely to succeed at school.

Former second grade teacher Kshama Kellogg helps a boy understand a math problem.
Happiness and academics go hand in hand at Living Wisdom School. Former second grade teacher Kshama Kellogg helps Milan understand a math problem. (Kshama is now the director of Living Wisdom High School of Palo Alto.)

A pioneer in the field is Shawn Achor, mentioned earlier as a guest lecturer in Harvard’s Positive Psychology 1504 course. Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, forever changed how we understand the link between happiness and success.

As a graduate student at Harvard, Achor served as a proctor, a role that required him to have hundreds of conversations with incoming freshmen over cups of Starbucks coffee.

Achor soon noticed a surprising difference between the students who thrived and those who struggled. The most successful Harvard freshmen were not, as he had expected, the ones who buried themselves in the library stacks, determined to grind out good grades. They were the students who were happiest and who were most socially engaged. They were enthusiastic. They formed study groups, asked questions, and approached their studies in a spirit of joyous discovery.

Achor’s research revolutionized how he understood the relationship between success and happiness. It seems that our traditional assumptions are wrong. Happiness is not something we can expect to enjoy after we have gained a measure of financial security and status. Instead, the people who are most likely to succeed in life are those who know how to be happily engaged in the present moments of their lives. Achor now consults with corporations to help them create happy success cultures at work.

What Stanford and Harvard Can Learn from Living Wisdom School

While these findings are promising, it is worth noting that the first Living Wisdom School predated the present faint stirrings by a century.

On March 22, 1917, a young monk in India named Swami Yogananda started a school for boys. In his book, Autobiography of a Yogi, published in 1946, he wrote:

“The ideal of an all-sided education for youth had always been close to my heart. I saw clearly the arid results of ordinary instruction, aimed only at the development of body and intellect. Moral and spiritual values, without whose appreciation no man can approach happiness, were yet lacking in the formal curriculum. I determined to found a school where young boys could develop to the full stature of manhood. My first step in that direction was made with seven children at Dihika, a small country site in Bengal.

A generous land grant from a private donor enabled Yogananda to transfer the school to Ranchi, Bihar, where it flourished beyond expectations.

At the end of the first year at Ranchi, applications for admission reached two thousand. But the school, which at that time was solely residential, could accommodate only about one hundred. Instruction for day students was soon added.

Yogananda called his institution a “How to Live School.” Central to the curriculum were skills that enabled the students to be happy and successful. He taught them to meditate and to cultivate positive, inclusive attitudes – life skills that, a century later, are exerting a powerful appeal for unprecedented numbers of Harvard students.

When Yogananda came to America in 1920, he started a second How to Live School, but it failed – not because the children were unhappy, but as he put it, because parents in the 1920s weren’t prepared for his ideas. India had offered more fertile soil, in a culture where instruction in the art of happiness is considered an indispensable part of a well-rounded education.

Fifty-four years later, in 1971, an American disciple of Yogananda’s, Swami Kriyananda, started a How to Live School in Nevada City, California. The school flourished, because the time was right. The first school has since spawned other schools in America, Europe, and India, under a new name, Living Wisdom Schools, and a new philosophical banner, Education for Life.

Education for Life in Action

A shining example of the way we incorporate an Education for Life in the curriculum is our annual all-school Theater Magic performance, where each student plays a role in producing a professional-quality theater event based on the life of a great soul who has blessed the earth by his or her presence.

Subjects of past Theater Magic productions have included the Dalai Lama, Joan of Arc, the goddess Quan Yin, Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Moses, Rabiah (a famous Indian woman saint), Martin Luther King, Jr., St. Francis, George Washington Carver, St. Bernadette of Lourdes, and botanist Luther Burbank.

Students act in a play about the life of renowned botanist Luther Burbank at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto.
Theater participation teaches priceless lessons in self-confidence, projection, concentration, and cooperation, among many other important life skills. A scene from the Spring 2023 Theater Magic production, on the life of the renowned American botanist Luther Burbank.

In twenty-two years of plays, we have found theater to be a powerful medium for bringing history to life in a personally engaging way that stays with the students.

It has been inspiring to witness how the students benefit personally. Theater not only teaches them vivid lessons in history, geography, political science, literature, music, and dance – it offers them opportunities to develop high-value life skills. The children learn to take responsibility and use good judgment, and they develop skills in self-confidence, leadership, cooperation, self-control, and perseverance.

They learn to project their presence through their voice and bearing, and to speak clearly while being respectful of their listeners – for example, waiting for the laughter or applause to fade before resuming their spoken lines.

Teacher Suryani Nelson's kindergarten students take a bow after the 2023 Theater Magic production at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, CA.
Teacher Suryani Nelson’s kindergarten students take a bow after the 2023 Theater Magic production at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, CA.

They learn breathing and self-regulation methods to calm feelings of fear or over-excitement. They experience the fulfillment of supporting each other through the challenges of preparing and performing. Finally, they experience the rich satisfaction and pride of pulling together a project of profound beauty, meaning, and inspiration. The plays draw rave reviews from parents and guests.

We should not forget to mention the many lessons they learn about the joys of cooperation and social engagement.

This is Character Development at its finest. By portraying exemplary lives, history becomes both real and inspiring. Many of our graduates have told us how the skills they developed through Theater Magic helped them be successful in high school, college, and career.

The experience of mounting an event of deep significance every year from kindergarten to graduation is unique in education today. It is a perfect example of how life skills and the academic curriculum can, and should, be melded together.

“What kind of education enables people to be happy and successful throughout their lives, and not just in some far-off, imagined better future?”

The research is clear, and it is growing: people who know how to be happy and successful in the present are more likely to be successful in every moment of their lives.

Love & Success in the Classroom

Science teacher Lana Steuck’s highly engaged third-graders created a popular exhibit for the 2023 LWS Science Fair. Click photo to enlarge.

by George Beinhorn

Recently, I visited the Palo Alto Living Wisdom School in my role as the school’s web manager, to video a pair of talks by the school’s principal, Helen Purcell, and longtime middle school teacher and present school administrator Gary McSweeney.

There’s a strong, growing interest in Living Wisdom School among parents, which is wonderful and reason for rejoicing. Yet Helen and Gary lamented that, too often, parents lose sight of the benefits of an Education for Life and choose a school that feels comfortably traditional and familiar instead.

The sad irony is that traditions are evolving wholesale today in every major field of human endeavor, and most schools are only beginning to catch on.

Since approximately 1900, every significant invention has been based on a growing awareness that the fundamental reality of creation is energy. Think of the marvels of modern technology, and the vast array of devices that aid us in our work and at home. To claim that these changes have taken us backward would label us as unrepentant Luddites.

In education, too, there is a new understanding that each student’s success in school depends to a very large extent on how wisely and sensitively the teachers are able to work with the unique energetic qualities of the individual child.

Happiness & Success at School –
What Did “Traditional” Education Actually Look Like?

In ancient Greece and Rome and throughout the Dark Ages, Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Enlightenment, and in Asia since ancient times, schools have been divided into the approximate equivalents of our modern elementary school, middle and high school, and college, corresponding to ages 6-12, 12-18, and 18-24.

Educational methods were adapted to the needs of children during each stage of their development, as the primary focus naturally shifted from the body (Pre-K and K), to the feelings (grades 1-6), will power (grades 7-12), and mind (college). Because class sizes were smaller and the grades were often mixed, the teachers were able to get to know the students and work with them individually, often over many years.

It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century that government officials and manufacturers decided that schools should be run like assembly lines to train children to be good laborers and factory managers. Thus, math, science and practical subjects such as wood shop, metal shop, and auto mechanics were to be given highest priority, and other matters, such as the child’s emotional, moral, and spiritual development, were to be eliminated from the classroom, as it was assumed these areas would be adequately addressed at home.

The result of this system is the public school system of today, with its large class sizes, government-mandated, one-size-fits-all curriculum, and heavy emphasis on academics to the exclusion of almost everything else.

The mission of the Living Wisdom Schools is to rescue children from this system, whose weaknesses have become abundantly clear, in the form of pandemic bullying, an alarming number of student suicides, and children rebelling and acting out their frustrations with drugs and violence. Programs such as the disastrous “No Child Left Behind,” which force every child into the same rigid curriculum, have left one-third of the students struggling, one-third more or less keeping up, and another third bored out of their minds.

The Highly Efficient Classroom

Over their 50-year history, the Living Wisdom Schools have demonstrated that educating the whole child – body, heart, mind, and spirit – far from neglecting the children’s intellectual development, actually achieves the opposite effect. By engaging the whole child in the learning process, vast reserves of energy and enthusiasm are released to fuel the highest accomplishment, leading to exceptional test scores and high school and college grades. (See the Addendum below.) Because the children are happy and fulfilled, distracting discipline problems are few, bullying is nonexistent, and learning is more efficient than in “traditional” classrooms.

The changes brought by the new awareness of energy are not confined to the Living Wisdom Schools. As hinted earlier, they are sweeping the globe. Education for Life very deliberately prepares children to live effectively in this rapidly changing new energy-aware world.

Happiness & Success in Academia

At Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and other elite schools today, admissions officers are no longer looking only at applicants’ high school grades and SAT scores; they are also weighing individual qualities of emotional balance, enthusiasm, engagement, happiness, and an expansive ability to empathize, communicate, and cooperate – all of which are important predictors of school and life success.

Happiness, Success, & the Science of Positive Feelings

Science is confirming what the Living Wisdom Schools long ago discovered about the intimate links between happiness and success.

Scientists at the Institute of HeartMath™ Research Center (IHM) in Boulder Creek, California have studied the effects of positive feelings such as love, cooperation, compassion, and kindness on our bodies and brains. Their research supports the notion that it’s important for children’s school success that they learn to “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and don’t mess with Mister In-Between.” The IHM research is described in The HeartMath Solution by Doc Childre and Howard Martin (HarperSanFrancisco 1999), as well as in research papers on the organization’s website, www.heartmath.org.

Here are some of the IHM findings:

  1. The heart and brain communicate continually through the nervous system, thus the heart’s powerful positive or negative, harmonizing or disruptive messages are carried instantly to the brain, where they either enhance or interfere with our ability to remain cool and concentrate. (The heart is the body’s most powerful oscillator, sending out electrical signals roughly 60 times as strong as those emitted by the brain.)
  2. Harmonious feelings enhance mental focus, calmness, health, performance, intuition, and the frequency of spiritual feelings. They increase relaxation and alpha-wave output in the brain associated with a calm, meditative state, and synchronize heart-rhythm patterns, respiratory rhythms, and blood pressure oscillations.
Chart showing heart rate variability in positive and negative emotions (courtesy of Heartmath Institute)
Heart rate variability in positive and negative emotions (courtesy of IHM). Click to enlarge.

When scientists from the Institute of HeartMath taught simple methods for harmonizing the heart’s feelings to school children in the greater Washington, DC area, the children’s test scores rose dramatically.

In the Living Wisdom Schools, the teachers lead the students in practicing heart-harmonizing methods daily. In the classroom and on the playground, the teachers pay constant, close attention to the quality of the children’s interactions. The teachers are trained to nurture a harmonious, safe, expansive school environment that is optimized for happiness, learning, and success.

Happiness and Success at Harvard

During Shawn Achor’s time as a Harvard graduate student, he served as a proctor, a role that required him to have hundreds of conversations with Harvard freshmen over Starbucks coffee.

Achor, a psychology major, soon noticed a trait that set the most successful students apart. It was an insight that, in time, would completely overturn his previous assumptions about success.

He realized that the Harvard freshmen who were most likely to excel were not those who buried themselves in the library stacks, grimly determined to grind out good grades. The most successful students were the happiest and most socially engaged. They interacted with their peers, formed study groups, continually asked questions, and approached their studies in a spirit of joyous adventure. They were connected, engaged with their work, and were skilled communicators.

Achor is the author of an influential book, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work.

Shawn Achor ended up teaching the most popular course at Harvard, on the principles of positive psychology. Today, he applies his findings about the link between happiness and success to help corporate executives advance their careers and transform their companies’ cultures.

Achor realized that when it comes to success and happiness, our traditional assumptions are backwards. Most people assume that they will be happy after they’ve achieved material success. Yet Achor found that the opposite is true – that people who are happy, here and now, are the most likely to succeed.

Happiness and the Brain

Shawn Achor’s findings confirm a discovery by neuroscientists that people with high levels of activity in the prefrontal cortex of their brains – the brain area where happy attitudes, positive expectations, will power, and the ability to form and persevere in achieving long-term goals are localized – are more successful in their lives than those with weaker prefrontal cortex activation.

Neurophysiologist Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, is one of the world’s foremost experts on the prefrontal cortex. When Davidson studied the brain patterns of college students, he found that those with higher levels of prefrontal cortex activation were uniformly better at setting and achieving goals and had fewer problems with drugs and alcohol, compared to students with lower prefrontal activity.

To put it differently, our brains are wired so that happiness and success go together. The qualities that are essential for success – will power, planning, and perseverance – are localized in the same brain area where upbeat, happy attitudes reside. The very structure of our brains tells us that happiness and success are inseparable.

When Davidson and his team studied Tibetan monks living in India, they tested one elderly monk, a lifelong meditator, whose scores on left-prefrontal-cortex activation were the highest they had ever seen, reflecting the tremendous positive energy and joy his practices had brought him. At Living Wisdom School, the children are led in brief daily periods of meditation, using ancient meditation techniques that are designed to relax the body, uplift the feelings, calmly focus attention, and direct energy to the prefrontal cortex. The children find these practices extremely helpful to keep their outlook positive and cheerful while meeting daily challenges and while preparing for tests.

Shawn Achor would confirm that the happiness principle is not only valid for Harvard students but for successful people in all fields. The traditional expectation that happiness is a reward that we can expect to enjoy after we’ve achieved success, defined as a good job, a beautiful home, an impressive income, a trophy spouse, and a shiny car, was simply wrong. The most successful people are those who are happy from the outset – thus the title of Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage.

If you were to ask school administrators to name the most important factor for school success, many would probably say, “Good study habits.” But a mounting body of evidence suggests that this is only one part of the school success equation, albeit an important one.

The Living Wisdom Schools have shown that the best determinants of school success more closely resemble Shawn Achor’s findings: a happy learning environment, permeated by a spirit of joyful exploration, where each child can be challenged at his or her own pace.

Happiness & Success at Google

When Google decided, 15 years after its founding, to re-examine its practice of hiring only job candidates with outstanding grades from top-tier universities, they were surprised to find that technical knowledge was eighth among the factors that predicted success in a high-tech business environment. The first seven were all “soft skills,” such as the ability to empathize, cooperate, and contribute harmoniously. A follow-up study found that Google’s most successful research teams were composed of people who shared qualities of inclusion, respect, and caring.

Happiness & Success in Sports

In the former age of matter-awareness, which ended at approximately the time Albert Einstein announced that the underlying reality of matter is energy, rigid forms and solid matter were thought to be the ultimate reality of creation.

Thus, in sports training, the needs of the individual were subordinated to rigid, one-size-fits-all methods. Today, in the dawning age of energy-awareness, young coaches and athletes are achieving unprecedented success with methods that put individual happiness and success first.

This should not be surprising, since we perform best when we’re doing something we love. And we all love experiencing success at our own level – as happens daily for each child at Living Wisdom School.

Example: Tony Holler was an honors chemistry teacher and track and football coach for thirty years at Plainfield North High School in the greater Chicago area. When Tony transitioned his teams from old-style coaching methods to practices that emphasized the efficient use of energy and were short, fast, and fun, his teams won the state 4×100 event, the prestige event in track and field, four of the next six years. In the same period, his football teams, similarly coached with short, efficient practices in a spirit of fun, won 44 games and lost 3.

Happiness & Success in the Military

Click to enlarge.

Consider the U.S.S. Benfold, a destroyer that scored bottom-scraping performance ratings under a succession of captains who ruled with a rigid, top-down, micromanaging style in which the crew members were viewed as soulless drones whose purpose was to advance the officers’ careers, and deviations from the Navy’s rules and norms were considered anathema.

Then a miracle occurred, when a forward thinking young captain, D. Michael Abrashoff, took over Benfold and put energy-based principles in place. Abrashoff was convinced that the key to turning the ship around would be the happiness and success of each crew member. He talked with each of Benfold’s 300 sailors and gave them freedom to do whatever it would take to improve their departments, even if it meant bending the Navy’s rules. The result: within months, Benfold was beating the Navy’s best ships in at-sea trials. Abrashoff recorded his experiences in a deeply inspiring bestselling book, It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy.

At Living Wisdom School the teachers have long experience helping each child succeed daily at his or her own level. The result is a very happy school “ship” where the children are enthusiastically engrossed in meeting their academic and personal challenges. After Captain Abashoff transformed Benfold, other ships‘ officers and crews were soon seeking any excuse to visit the ship for the pleasure of spending time in its positive, dynamic, happy atmosphere.

If you are seeking a school for your child, why not arrange a visit to Living Wisdom School? We’re sure you’ll love your time here, as so many other parents have in the thirty-three years of our school’s existence. You can use the Contact form, or give us a call at 650-462-8150. We look forward to welcoming you to our school and giving you a tour of the campus.

Captain Abrashoff’s Operating Principles

1. See the culture through the eyes of the individual.

2. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

3. Discipline and motivation skyrocket when people believe they are doing something important, and they’re given the freedom to do it well.

4. Listen aggressively.

School Choice

In today’s fast-paced, energy-driven world, it’s clear that children’s prospects for a happy, successful life depend far more on their present, daily experiences of happiness and success at school, than on rigid adherence to a set of impersonal, assembly-line educational practices from the past.

 


About the Author: George Beinhorn graduated from Stanford University (BA 1964, MA 1966). He has published seven books in the last decade, including the following titles which are based on the 50-year experience of the Living Wisdom Schools (the links are to web pages where you can read the chapters or download a PDF).

Head & Heart: How a Balanced Education Nurtures Happy Children Who Excel in School & Life. Based on the experience of the Living Wisdom Schools.

Happiness & Success at School – A Magnificent Synergy: Answering parents’ questions about the surprising links between happiness and high performance in the classroom.

Happiness & Success in High School: Educating Teenagers for Life: Answering parents’ questions about the surprising links between happiness and high performance in the classroom. How positive feelings and individual attention nurture success in high school, college, and for all of life. Based on the experience of Living Wisdom High School in Palo Alto, California.

 


Addendum: Does Individual Attention Support Academic Excellence? High School Grades Tell the Story

Parents often question whether devoting time to individual attention doesn’t somehow steal energy from the academic subjects. But the EFL teachers have found the opposite to be true.

Grades

We present these academic results by graduates of the K-8 Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California as evidence of the validity of the Education for Life approach to learning.

We invited Palo Alto LWS graduates (2011-2014) to share their high school and college grade-point averages. The Palo Alto school has 70-75 students in nine grades, K-8. On average, 4-8 students graduate per year; thus these 20 responses over four years are representative.

Presentation High (San Jose) 4.7
Mountain View High 4.5
Los Altos High 4.5
Harker School (San Jose) 4.18
Carlmont High (Belmont) 4.1
Summit Prep (Redwood City) 4.1
Loyola Marymount University (Los Angeles) 4.1
Los Altos High 4.0
Menlo College Prep (Menlo Park) 4.0
Mid-Peninsula High (Menlo Park) 4.0
Palo Alto High 4.0
Harker School (San Jose) 3.9
Woodside Priory School, Bowdoin College 3.825
Menlo College Prep 3.706
San Lorenzo High 3.7
Gunn High (Palo Alto) 3.6
Gunn High, Cornell University 3.5
Summit Prep (Redwood City) 3.5
Bay High School (San Francisco) 3.23
Mid-Peninsula High (Menlo Park) 2.7

 

LWS graduates’ average high school GPA (2011-18): 3.85

 

LWS alumni have graduated from these high schools:

Bay School in San Francisco Carlmont High School
Everest High School Gunn High School
Harker School Los Altos High School
Menlo College Prep Menlo-Atherton High School
Mid-Peninsula High School Mountain View High School
Palo Alto High School Pinewood School
Presentation High School San Lorenzo High School
Summit Prep High School Woodside Priory

LWS alumni have graduated from these colleges:

Bowdoin College Brooks Institute of Photography
Cal Poly Columbia University
Cornell University Dominican University
Dublin University, Ireland Georgetown University
Humboldt State University London College, UK
Loyola Marymount University New York University
Oberlin College Portland State University
San Francisco Art Institute San Francisco Conservatory of Music
Santa Clara University School of Visual Arts, New York
Stanford University UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, UC Santa Barbara
University of Bremen, Germany University of Michigan
University of San Francisco University of Washington (Ross School of Business)

 

LWS graduates’ college majors:

Anthropology Art
Computer Science Culinary Arts
Economics Education
Engineering Film
Genetics Library Science
Marketing Mathematics
Medicine Music
Photography

Recent Living Wisdom High School Graduates Received Their Degrees:

Cal Poly (Psychology)

Chapman University (Computer Science, Cyber-Security)

San Jose State University (Marine Biology)

Santa Clara University (Political Science; Pre-Law)

UC San Diego (Psychology)

Graduates of Living Wisdom High School in Palo Alto have been accepted (2018-2021):

Bard College at Simon’s Rock Boston College
Cal Poly Chapman University
Lewis & Clark College Muhlenberg College
New York University Redlands University
Saint Mary’s College San Jose State University
Santa Clara University Sarah Lawrence College
Simon Fraser University UC Davis
UC San Diego University of Puget Sound
University of San Francisco University of the Pacific
Whittier College Willamette University

Test Scores

Living Wisdom High School (Nevada City, California) Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) Score Averages 2004-2021

LWHS Average National Average Above National Average
Language Arts 640 533 +20%
Mathematics 608 527 +15%
Total 1248 1060 +18%

We also assess our high school students’ progress using the Iowa Test of Educational Development. Over the past two years, our students have shown an average gain of 14 percentile points in comparison to other students their age.

 

The Curriculum at Living Wisdom School

 

The keys to academic engagement at Living Wisdom School are individual instruction, and challenging each student daily at their own level. Former middle-school teacher Gary McSweeney helps an eight-grader with a math assignment.

by Nitai Deranja, Co-Founder of Education for Life and the Living Wisdom Schools

A question parents often ask us is: “What is the curriculum like in the Living Wisdom Schools?”

I believe a better question would be, “How does Education for Life improve upon the curriculum that has been offered in schools for at least the last hundred years?”

We are living in an age that values mass production and standardization. It’s a way of thinking that began with the Industrial Revolution, when factory owners realized that they could produce goods in mass quantities much more efficiently by adopting assembly-line manufacturing methods.

The new approach worked well for making cars, refrigerators, and other products. So well, in fact, that when government officials met with leading educators to decide upon the best way to prepare workers for the prosperous new manufacturing age, they decided that schools should be operated as efficient, standardized assembly lines for educating factory workers, engineers, and business leaders.

Teachers, too, came to be seen as assembly line workers, tasked with repeating a fixed set of lessons that would move the “product” – the students – efficiently through the system. To facilitate the process, the teachers’ tasks were detailed in curriculum frameworks under which public schools were required to operate – and still do today.

Nitai Deranja, founder of the first Living Wisdom School
Nitai Deranja, Co-Founder of Education for Life and the Living Wisdom Schools

The problem with this approach is that children are not cars. Anyone who spends time with children quickly realizes that each child is unique, with highly individual gifts and enthusiasms, and that attempts to standardize their education will, at best, be stifling.

Instead of cultivating a rich flowering of creative talents that could prepare the children to be successful and help solve the problems besetting our planet today, we now graduate students who excel at memorizing just enough material to pass the standardized tests.

Education for Life pursues an entirely different approach. It shifts the emphasis from a fixed series of rigidly prescribed lessons, to address the interests, enthusiasms, and ever-changing needs of the individual student.

Education for Life requires that the teachers form a close bond with each child, so that they will be able to identify the child’s unique gifts and devise an individualized approach to the curriculum that will build on the child’s natural enthusiasm, while giving them daily experiences of mastery at their level.

Education for Life in Action

I’ll share a brief example. A parent reported that her four-year-old boy wept bitterly every morning as she prepared to bring him to school. In a conference with his teacher, the mother noted that her son had expressed a strong interest in music.

The parents and the teacher decided to create a music unit for the boy. The following day, the boy’s tears vanished, as he realized that school was a place where his needs would be recognized and supported. Encouraged to express his enthusiasm for music, he soon began to find joy in other aspects of the curriculum and school activities as well.

Does Individual Attention Fuel Academic Excellence?

Parents often question whether devoting time to individual attention doesn’t somehow steal energy from the academic subjects. But the EFL teachers have found the exact opposite to be true.

Consider our graduates’ high school grades – see Happiness, Success, and Education for Life: Grades Tell the Story.” Consider also the following sampling of test scores from our high school.

Living Wisdom High School Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) Score Averages 2004-2021

LWHS Average National Average Above National Average
Language Arts 640 533 +20%
Mathematics 608 527 +15%
Total 1248 1060 +18%

We additionally assess our high school students’ progress using the Iowa Test of Educational Development. Over the past two years, our students have shown an average gain of 14 percentile points in comparison to other students their age.

In an Education for Life Classroom, Discipline Problems Are Few

Because the children feel individually supported and engaged, there is an atmosphere of intense, sincere enthusiasm for the curriculum. Thus discipline problems virtually disappear, and the instruction is far more efficient than in a classroom with a standardized, lockstep curriculum.

A New Vision for the Curriculum

In Education for Life, we have re-named the traditional subjects to emphasize their relationship to the students’ personal interests. Instead of dividing them into seemingly unrelated silos of History, Language Arts, Science, English, etc., EFL arranges the same subjects under broad titles that emphasize the interconnectedness of knowledge.

For an in-depth discussion of the six curriculum areas, I invite you to browse “The Curriculum,” from Education for Life, the book on which our schools’ philosophy is based. A brief summary:

1. “Our Earth – Our Universe”

“The Sciences” conjures images of test tubes in a laboratory rather than the wonders of nature. “Our Earth – Our Universe” covers everything now taught under “the sciences,” but includes a suggestion of the orderliness of the universe; an appreciation for the ecological balance of planetary life; and a sense of awe before the universal mysteries, which, as Einstein said, is the essence of great scientific discovery.

“Our Earth – Our Universe” includes physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, general science, botany, geology, and anatomy.

2. Personal Development

Personal Development nurtures each child’s growth in three areas: physical, mental, and spiritual. Personal Development fosters the students’ ability to set and achieve personal goals, as well as personal qualities of perseverance, self-control, and joyful self-discipline. Subjects that foster growth in Personal Development:

Physical education Sports
Health and hygiene Mental skills such as concentration, memory development and organization
Mathematics computation skills Beginning reading skills
Spelling Any subject matter involving memorization
Long-term projects Learning new tasks such as handwriting, CPR, typing, etc.
Developing and using positive qualities such as gratitude, contentment, honesty, servicefulness, and responsibility. (This list could be unending.)

3. Self-Expression and Communication

This category includes, for example, mathematics and grammar, both of which can help the students develop mental clarity. Also included are subjects such as how to develop creativity, and how to be differently creative in a variety of fields. Subjects might include those listed below, as well as instruction in how to develop more mundane but perennially useful skills such as carpentry, or salesmanship. Subjects that foster growth in Self-expression and Communication:

Mathematics Writing mechanics
Creative writing Interpretive dance
Music composition Music interpretation
Computer programming Creative problem solving
Engineering The use of the voice as a means of self-expression in singing and speaking
Public speaking How to develop creativity
Visual arts Drama
Vocabulary development

4. Understanding People

“Understanding People” encourages personal expansion through opening ourselves to learn about the experiences and perspectives of others. A primary focus is on learning about what human beings everywhere want most deeply from life, and what leads to lasting happiness for oneself and others. Subjects that foster growth in Understanding People include:

The study of other cultures, their customs and beliefs Foreign languages
History Geography
Psychology World religions
The study of the lives of great people Travel to other locations

5. Cooperation

“Cooperation” encourages personal expansion by learning how to cultivate harmonious relations with others. The children are given many opportunities to practice the attitudes and skills that contribute to an experience of interpersonal harmony – for example, mental flexibility, a willingness to compromise, and respect for other people’s realities. Subjects that foster growth in Cooperation:

The human realities of political science, economics and business Supportive leadership
Listening skills Etiquette
Historical people and events in which cooperation played an important part

6. Wholeness

Fourth- and fifth-grade teacher Craig Kellogg helps a student during a rehearsal of the annual all-school Theater Magic play at Living Wisdom School.

This curriculum area focuses not on a single aspect of personal or academic development, but on the many ways the various areas work together, each enhancing the development of the whole. Subjects that foster growth in Wholeness:

Music Meditation and other centering techniques
Art Literature
Philosophy Religion
Nature studies

The Curriculum as a Cornerstone of an Education for Life

Education for Life is deeply concerned with helping each student find purpose and meaning during their time at school, and in their later lives. Thus the teachers are granted the freedom to introduce each curriculum category in a way that will help the individual student make a personal connection to the subject.

In Education for Life, our goal for the curriculum is not to dictate what must happen in the classroom during every hour of every day of the school year, but to provide an outline that allows the teachers and students to create a unique school experience that will enrich each child with wisdom, enthusiasm, engagement, proud accomplishment, and joy.

In the first fifty years of the Living Wisdom Schools, we have found that this approach produces excellent results, more efficiently and effectively than the older assembly-line system.

How I Discovered Education for Life Principles While Teaching in a Public High School

A conversation with Living Wisdom School Director Helen Purcell

Helen Purcell has served for more than 20 years as Director of the K-8 Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California. Throughout her career in education she has taught language arts at the elementary, high school, and university undergraduate levels.

Q: Our subject today is your life in education — what you’ve learned as a teacher, and the experiences that persuaded you that it might be possible to help young people in better ways.

First Principles

Helen Purcell, Director, Living Wisdom School
Helen Purcell, Director, Living Wisdom School f

Helen: As part of my studies in earning my credential, I student taught an English course at Santa Monica City College, and among the discoveries I made in that first teaching assignment was that the relationship between the student and teacher is golden.

There was a young man in the class who was extremely bright, but he confided, “I’m not sure I should be taking your class because I’ve been living on a Pacific island for many years, and I hardly know how to speak English anymore.”

I said, “I can tell by the way you’re speaking that you’ll do just fine, so hang in there, and I’ll help you.”

As it turned out, he didn’t need much help, but because I had been so willing to help him, he was wonderfully supportive of what I was doing, and it made me powerfully aware of the importance of the relationship between the student and teacher.

I then taught for several years at a community college near Chico, California. It was in a remote rural area, and it drew many adults who were wanting to have an experience of college for the first time, as well as young people who were just stepping out into the world.

Because it was such a diverse group, I quickly realized that regardless of the subject you’re teaching, you are always teaching to the individual, and you need to consider their individual needs, which may be very different from your own, because if you ignore those differences, you’ll absolutely miss your goal of helping them, with their unique histories and their particular talents and graces.

This is a bedrock principle of the Living Wisdom Schools, where we are profoundly focused on getting to know each student so that we can help them move forward in the best way, starting where they are.

After teaching for several years at Chico, I taught at the University of Portland, and then at a community college in Oregon. I then decided to earn a high school teaching credential, because I felt that it would open a realm of teaching that was extremely interesting to me, and that had always been very dear to my heart. I knew that adolescence is an extremely important period in a young person’s life, and I felt that there were better approaches to preparing teenagers than the common practices in high schools at the time.

The Magic of Mixed Classes

The first high school where I taught was in a suburb of Portland, Oregon. Most of the students came from white middle-class families, and some were just waiting to leave school and get a job, while others were planning to enroll at a community college or a state university, and a handful had higher aspirations.

I taught a combined class that included freshmen and sophomore students, and it was a wonderful experience, not least because the freshmen were learning social skills from the sophomores, and it reduced the behavior problems in my class. I realized that the school had been extremely wise in combining the classes, because a great deal of learning was being transmitted between the age groups, completely aside from what they were learning from me.

Being able to count on the students to help each other was a revelation, and I spent a lot of time thinking about that approach and incorporating it into my teaching. The camaraderie between teacher and students and student and student infused the entire learning process.

In the Living Wisdom Schools, we find that it works extremely well to have mixed classes where students of different grades and ages are learning together, because it creates a sense of responsibility in the older students that helps them develop a mature, inclusive outlook, and it helps the younger students both socially and academically.

It also showed me the wonderful sense of family that can develop in a classroom where mixed ages are learning together, even in a high school with 2000 students.

Growing Together

The high school administrators had been inspired to divide the school population into smaller elements, so that the same students would be learning together for the first two years. It made the transition to high school easier for the freshman, and it allowed the teachers to form closer bonds with and between the students. The older students developed a mentoring relationship with the younger ones.

The administrators were also intent on facilitating communication between the teachers, so that there would never be a student who was having trouble in math, for example, that I wouldn’t know about it, even though I was teaching English. To that end, the high school administrators gave the teachers time to get together once a week to discuss what was working for each of the students, and a staff psychologist would come to the meetings to offer his insights as needed.

This is another extremely strong feature of the Living Wisdom Schools, that the teachers are constantly talking with each other so that we are all intimately aware of what’s going on with every single student in the school.

Being Real

Another lesson I learned while teaching in both college and high school was that the more human and real you are with the students, the less distance there will be between you, and that there’s a quality of naturalness and friendship that is absolutely essential for a teacher to have, if you want to be as effective as possible.

When I was in graduate school, we were never taught how to form a unique relationship with each student, yet it was one of the most priceless lessons I gleaned from my years teaching in high school and college.

In my credential program we were taught about the sociological characteristics of various cultural groups, and so on, but they failed to teach us the most important thing of all, which is how to help the individual student, regardless of the class size.

One of the first things I did to humanize the classroom environment and turn it into an incubator of good energy and open communication was to arrange the desks in a semi-circle instead of in rows. It meant that even though I remained the guiding presence, I was no longer the visual center, and because the students were facing each other it encouraged communication.

One Student, One Voice

I made a special point of encouraging each student to have a voice, and that isn’t something that happens unless the teacher actively encourages it. In most classes, you have the academic superstars who will be engaged and will talk a lot, and you’ll have kids who are natural communicators who’ll enjoy speaking up, but you’ll also have lots of quiet ones — and you must find a way to reach them and give them the energy they deserve.

Going Deeper

At about the time I began teaching high school, our founder published Education for Life: Preparing Children to Meet Today’s Challenges, and I was thrilled to discover that he had put words to many of the lessons I was learning, and that he had built on those ideas and taken them even farther and deeper.

He suggested that, as a cornerstone of our educational philosophy, we should ask the most fundamental question of all: “What is the point of our lives?”

The answer that he offered was: “What all people are seeking, behind the colorful multiplicity of their stated motives, is to experience greater happiness, and to avoid suffering.”

For high school students and for younger and olderstudents as well, finding their own, unique way to be happy will never be exclusively about getting good grades. It needs to include the whole child and all of the ways they are uniquely relating to their lives and to the world. One of the major steps toward learning to be happy and mature is to learn to relate to the realities of others.

When you can help young students acquire those very important interpersonal skills, it changes everything, because being able to relate affects the child’s ability to be happy and to do their best in school.

We Grow at Our Own Level

It wasn’t long before I began to notice that when the students felt that they were being seen and valued and included, the kids who weren’t among the academic superstars began to shine.

When they entered my classroom, they quickly realized that the school equation had changed, and while I don’t think they were always consciously aware of it, I made it a bedrock principle that I wanted to give them a great experience of school, and help them know how valued they were.

One of the ways I invited their participation was by asking the kids to give me their feedback at the end of the year.

I said, “What did you like during the year? What worked for you, and what would you suggest I could do differently that would work better for you?”

They could choose to write their thoughts, but because we were easy with each other by the end of the year, many of them chose to share their impressions verbally.

I would say, “Everything you tell me will be valuable, so go ahead and say it.”

There was a girl in one of my classes who was autistic, and she had two areas that she loved — she knew all about Star Wars and the Bible. So I made her our go-to person whenever we needed information in those areas. It came up surprisingly often, and nobody ever teased or harassed her, whereas she had been treated brutally in the past.

After class, she was afraid to walk down the hall alone, so I would take her arm and we would walk together. In my class she had a special place.

Unlike her other courses, she didn’t need an aide in my classroom, because she had learned to be more independent. I made whatever accommodations I could for her, but she felt thoroughly accepted, because the truth is that the other kids had learned to accept and value her. When I asked for their feedback at the end of the year, the autistic girl spoke up and said, “This is just the best class!”

When one young man in my senior class raised his hand, I said, “I’m so glad you want to contribute, because we don’t hear your voice often enough.” I said, “I know from reading your work that you have good ideas.”

He said, “I would never speak up in any of my other classes.” And when I asked why, he said, “Because no one makes fun of anybody in this class, and in my other classes I wouldn’t get out more than two or three words before somebody would be putting me down.”

I said, “Is that true?” And the whole  class nodded, yes, and it broke my heart, because I sadly realized that in four years he had never experienced the kind of acceptance that empowers kids to grow freely and go far.

Celebrating Successes

Teaching in a public high school, I had many experiences that showed me the worth of the principles we practice every day in our Living Wisdom Schools, and how powerfully those principles can affect the students’ experience of school, and how they free them to do their best, academically and personally.

A prime example of how we recognize our students’ growth is the Qualities Ceremony during our year-end celebration. The teachers honor each student with a positive quality that they have developed over the previous nine months, a quality that reflects greater maturity.

For a child who genuinely understands right and wrong, for example, it might be the quality of Justice. Or it might be Friendship, Kindness, Courage, or any other quality you would wish for the child to develop as part of becoming a confident, happy person. Then at the End of the Year ceremony, the child – even the youngest ones – will say a few words about their quality – how they understand it, how they worked on it, and how they feel about it

I was still teaching in public high school when I decided to start celebrating the students’ successes at the end of the year with a quality. I asked the office staff to help me print the beautiful certificates, and they got into the spirit of it, too.

I gave my students individual qualities of Courage, Joy, and so on. Then, at the final class of the year, I explained what I was doing, and I handed them their certificates.

I vividly remember giving one girl the quality of Delight, and how vehemently she protested — “This isn’t true!”

I said, “But it is! You are absolutely delightful. I always love having you in my class.”

She said, “No, no! This is not true! I am not always delightful.”

I said, “Wait a second, I’m not saying that you’re always delightful. This is saying that you are mostly delightful, and even if you have your off-days, as we all do, I see you as delightful.”

I asked the class, “Am I right? Is she delightful?” And they shouted, “Yes, yes! You are!” And I could see that she was having to take that quality into herself and accept it as a defining part of who she was.

Of course, it was absolutely true, because from the moment she came into the class she had a way of making everything lighter and happier and funnier, and a way of including everybody and being responsive — all of the qualities that make a wonderful member of the community and a wonderful learner.

Later, as I reflected on that first informal Qualities Ceremony, I thought, “It’s such a simple thing, and it took so little time and effort on my part, but I think it was life-changing for her…and for who knows how many others.”

Does Education for Life Work?

Now, some people might say, “These are soft skills, and they are not what’s going to get you through life,” but I would disagree very heartily, because everything I’ve learned as an Education for Life teacher tells me that when you approach children in a way that acknowledges them as whole persons and in their deepest essence as shining souls, they respond beautifully. This became the spirit behind every encounter I had with a new student. My first thought was always, “This is a shining soul.” We must acknowledge them as a unique light, and our job is to help them shine ever more brightly.

And how can we do that?

When a teacher is holding that thought uppermost in every encounter with a student, it gets communicated both subtly and overtly. Then the student feels that their experience of school is much deeper, and more personal.

When I was a little girl, the teacher would give us gold stars for good behavior or for penmanship. It was a formal system of external rewards. You can have a reward system in an Education for Life school, but it will take on a very different meaning, because it’s all about the individual relationship with each child.

One child needs to learn to believe in herself, and another needs to learn to respect and believe in others. Whatever the lesson is, it’s always individual.

I believe this is another major point in favor of our system of education. It’s so real, because it’s based on helping them where they really are, and according to their own nature.

At the big high school where I taught, I was able to accomplish a great deal by teaching to the individual students in my classroom, and yet there were outside forces wanting us to march along in orderly rows.

There was a young girl in my class who was very popular and well-liked. She was a cheerleader and part of the homecoming queen’s court, and she was also very bright. At the same time, her whole life was geared toward getting a super grade-point average and going to a great college. Because she was measuring her success entirely by grades, she didn’t get nearly as much out of my class as the other kids.

For her final exam she wrote an essay which was okay but not great, and after a great deal of careful thought, I gave her a B-plus for the course, although I knew she would be disappointed. And, sure enough, she came to me and said, “I need an A! Why didn’t you give me an A?”

I explained that an A is something you earn by going beyond simply regurgitating the information — it indicates that you’ve engaged with the subject, that you’ve taken it in and made it part of your awareness in a creative way.

But she wasn’t convinced, and I wasn’t surprised when I got a call from her father.

I felt a great deal of regret for her, not for the B grade, but because the other kids had grown so much more, each at their level.

Education for (Real) Life

Our class included students from typical middle-class families and others who had come to America as refugees and immigrants. We were discussing immigration one day, and a boy from a white middle-class family made a negative remark about Asian people who were seeking refuge in this country and taking jobs, and so on.

There was a girl from Laos in the class, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, where am I going to go with this?” But before I could say a word, the Laotian girl spoke up, which was remarkable in itself, because she had never spoken in class.

She said, “For your information, I am a refugee, and I have as much right to be here as you do!” The boy stammered out a response, but the class came together and confronted him with the flaws in his reasoning.

I was so proud of her, that she had felt free and courageous enough to take him on. She said, “By the way, if you go back far enough, you’re an immigrant, too!”

I believe that the freedom to engage with real-life issues is at the core of an Education for Life, because true education isn’t only about mastering information, it’s about mastering how you want to live your life, and how you can be a good person, and how you can be part of a family and part of a workforce.

Of course, it takes a great deal of hard work to master a professional field, but in the end I believe a successful life comes down to certain universal and indispensable principles — that if you want to be truly successful, you have to be honest with others and with yourself, and you have to value others and search for the highest in yourself and others and behave accordingly.

And when you fall down, you have to be able to pick yourself up and try again. And if somebody else falls, you don’t gang up on them, but you go over and say, “Let me help you.”

We see that behavior in our school every day, because the culture is based so completely on being able to tune in to each other’s reality. If a child skins a knee, everybody runs over to help. They use the tools we’ve given them. And then the teachers will come over, and the children will make way, because there’s tremendous respect that’s based on the caring and love the teachers have for the children.

I marvel at the good fortune of the children in this school, because they’re allowed to be who they are, and they are given every opportunity and support to grow into their own fullest nature.

The children in our school are very individual, and they will need this or that kind of special help. And while they don’t always live up to their highest potential, their highest is what we’re always holding out to them.

If children get into it with one another, as they will, we guide them to understand, “That person’s reality is different from mine, and it isn’t necessarily bad.” And in that way they learn to navigate even very nuanced situations on their own.

The teachers have earned the students’ respect, so they are able to involve themselves at a deep level with them, because they are honest with them, and they love them.

If a child feels loved and seen by someone in authority, the defenses around the heart go down, and then that child can take any kind of correction, because s/he knows that it’s offered by a friend who wants to help.

Creating a Safe School Environment of Growth and Joy

Q: I’ve been struck by the atmosphere in the school, and how it seems to harmonize lots of things.

Helen: I couldn’t agree more. When I started teaching here twenty-odd years ago, I met with a group of parents who wanted to learn more about the school. Afterward, a woman stayed behind. She said, “I have a confession. I’m not a parent, and I don’t have a child for your school. I’m a spy.” Of course, she got my attention.

She continued, “I’m a psychologist, working on my PhD, and I used your school as part of my research, but I need you to know that your school is very different from other schools.”

She said, “When I came through the gate I felt a change in the energy, and I didn’t know exactly what it was. But then I saw the children walking between classes, and every single child had a smile on his or her face.”

She said, “Then I understood where the mysterious energy came from. It’s because you have happy children.”

I said, “Well, that’s the truth. The children who are in our school are basically really, really happy.” And she said, “You have no idea what it’s like, by comparison, to go into some of these other schools.”

“Oh, I do,” I said – “from the children who come here from those schools. They share their experiences – the lack of freedom, the bullying, the cliques, the competition, the stress.”

I believe that when you look at children as souls, and not merely as personalities, it instantly deepens and expands the relationship. When you visit the classrooms here, it strikes you that the students aren’t afraid. There will be times when they aren’t able to rise to the highest level they could, but the overarching truth is that they are essentially loved, and when you take fear out of the equation, almost anything is possible.

Encouraging High Aspirations

A keystone of our philosophy is a principle that we call “directional relativity.” The idea is that everyone in the world is looking for happiness and freedom from suffering, and the only way we can get there is by working with ourselves exactly as we are, right now. So we’re all moving in the same direction, toward greater happiness and freedom, but we’re going forward at our own pace, starting from the unique place where we are.

I don’t think I could go into a classroom and be an effective teacher without having that principle in mind, that you’re always looking at the individual child and very clearly understanding where they are, and then you’re imagining where they can go, and you’re helping them go forward in that direction.

So there’s a sense of directional progress but without a fixed timeline, and you’re always tuning into the individual child and evaluating their points of readiness.

A child takes a test, and they’re upset about their grade. We don’t see that as a bad thing, because it signals that they want to improve. So the teacher will give them lots of encouragement and support. “I love the fact that you want to do better!”

It’s the idea that we’re always wanting to move forward, starting where we are, at the level of our own abilities, without the slightest sense of being judged, and we communicate that security to the children through our expectations, our language, and our support. So it all works together in the child’s favor, and when you can communicate that sense of support and faith and promise, there’s no telling how far the child can go.

Two Testimonials from Parents with Nine Years’ Experience of Living Wisdom School

Audio: Jack and Esther Dieckmann (mp3, 5 min 10 sec)

Edited Transcripts:

Jack Dieckmann serves as Associate Director of Curriculum at the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE). Jack completed his doctorate in mathematics education at Stanford in 2009. He is also an instructor in methods and language courses in the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP). He has worked as a public high school math teacher, a professional developer, and an education research associate.

Jack: Good morning. We’re the parents of Joseph, who’s a student at Living Wisdom High School. We’ve been with Living Wisdom for more than nine years, and our daughter now attends the K-8 Palo Alto Living Wisdom School.

Given that my professional field is education, I spent a great deal of time trying to find the right school for Joseph – I visited and studied a wide variety of schools, and I interviewed the people, and I shadowed and observed.

And then I came across this jewel of a school, Living Wisdom School of Palo Alto, and I couldn’t believe it. I really could not believe that such a school existed, because I had never seen anything like it, and I had never encountered a school like this one in my work in education.

We enrolled Joseph at LWS for his first year with Kshama as his first-grade teacher, and it was fantastic. I couldn’t believe that I could leave my child, the most precious thing in my life, leave him there and feel totally confident that he would be loved, supported, and that he was going to grow and be nurtured. And I’ve had that feeling all the way through, including his time at Living Wisdom High School, where I know that I’m leaving him in good hands, and that he’s not only going to be challenged with a rigorous curriculum, but he’s also going to add meaning to his life.

Public schools do their best, but as a parent who taught math in public high school I know that they are large systems, and that the learning is very often first and foremost about how to obey rules, how to follow, how to be passive, and how to do the homework that’s handed to them. And the poor students do the best they can, but there’s no sense of agency or active learning or finding their place in the world, or finding meaning in what they’re doing. Adolescence in particular is such a difficult time, and those are exactly the kinds of questions they should be asking.

Living Wisdom offers a unique program that I wish all students everywhere could benefit from, because they’re giving the individual student a chance to understand who they are in relation to their world, and not just be sort of college-ready.

That’s a big term now, “college-ready.” But many students, even those who go on to college, and even those who get good college grades, don’t know why they’re there, and they don’t know the horizon they’re moving toward, because they’re just following the rules.

I’m very happy to say that our experience of Living Wisdom School has been the opposite – that we are not raising a passive rule-follower, but somebody who is trying to understand his place in the world, his purpose in the world, and who’s very actively contributing to that purpose.

 

Esther Peralez-Dieckmann has over 25 years of experience in workforce and economic development, human services, and policy advocacy. A well-known community leader, she has earned numerous distinctions for her work and leadership on behalf of women, children, and families. She currently is Executive Director of Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence in San Jose.

Esther: I feel that the approach they take at Living Wisdom is very practical, because everybody wants their child to be loved, to be safe, and to want to go to school. And we haven’t had any issues with our children not wanting to go to school, because they’ve been very excited every day about coming to Living Wisdom.

When it comes to how we educate our children, my stance is practical, too, because everybody wants their child to get a good job someday and be very happy in their work. And as somebody with nearly thirty years’ experience in the public, private, and non-governmental sectors, one of the first things I look for, and that we need in the workforce, is people who can think critically, people with empathy, people who understand the needs of others and that know how to work with other people, and that can deal with adversity.

You need lots of personal skills to have a good career and to stay in a good job, and I feel those are among the skills my kids have picked up at Living Wisdom, including the ability to know yourself, to be loved and appreciated for your differences and for all the things you are, and to have the chance to explore figuring out who you are, what you love, and what’s your passion. And all of the steps, all of the activities, and all of the outings at Living Wisdom have been carefully designed to accomplish just that.

I’ve been thinking about resource allocation, because we all know that the economy isn’t great right now, and organizations and businesses are dealing with severely limited resources.

I’m thinking of when we took the Living Wisdom School students on a camping trip to the Malakoff Diggins in the foothills of the Sierra. At one point, it felt like we might run out of food – we were close to civilization, so it’s not as if we were endangering the children, but we were there for three days and we had to keep an eye on the supplies. I was very impressed by how the kids pitched right in and cooked and did the dishes, and generally accepted the situation and cheerfully helped out. And when I look back over the nine years we’ve been with Living Wisdom, I realize that all of those activities and experiences have had a tremendous relevance for helping our children learn to thrive in the real world, and that there isn’t a price you can put on them.

So if you’re looking at Living Wisdom as an option, I can say that you really must look at the total educational experience, and how you can raise children who’ll never want to stop learning. Because that’s really the way to advance in a career – always eager to learn while loving the process and knowing how to think of others. We’re trying to solve the problems that are affecting our world, and we urgently need thinkers like the students that are coming through Living Wisdom.

Questions Parents Ask About Middle School at LWS

Middle school teacher Gary McSweeney helps a student in math.

A conversation with LWS middle school teacher, founding board member, and parent Gary McSweeney

Q: What questions do parents typically ask about the middle school grades?

Gary: We’re asked about academics, of course, and specifically math, and then they might ask how it works to combine the three middle school grades, as we’ve done.

I learned recently that the Palo Alto Unified School District decided to do away with separate advanced math classes, and to begin combining the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders in a single math class.

I’m guessing they’d seen research that indicated the older model wasn’t working all that well, where you’re separating the advanced students from the others. It was particularly interesting to me because we’ve been combining the grade levels in math, science, and language arts for more than forty-five years.

Our experience is that with any cross-section of students, regardless of their grade level, you’ll have kids who seem to be able to absorb the subject almost by osmosis, and kids who can get it if you explain it to them, and kids who struggle. And of course they all need to be helped at their own level. So the teacher’s work doesn’t really change when the classes are combined.

Today I’ve just come from a math tutorial with two eighth-graders and a sixth-grader, and it was clear that the same concepts applied across levels. It was a simple question that involved the algebraic method, but whether you’re in seventh grade or doing postgraduate math, you’re still applying the algebraic method but at deeper levels.

Our school director, Helen Purcell, grew up in a family with nine kids. Her father was an attorney, and he would always pose a question for discussion at the dinner table. It worked out very naturally, because the younger kids would listen and learn, and the in-between kids would chime in occasionally, and the older kids would lead the discussion.

It’s the same synergy in our classrooms, where the kids will be helping other kids, and the teachers and aides will be walking around and working with the individual students, and the students who are a little reticent will be listening in on the conversation.

One of the greatest benefits we’ve seen for the children is that it helps their relationship to math. Our kids, by and large, have a very positive and wholesome relationship to math because of our approach. It works because it’s highly individualized, and we’re helping them become engaged at their own level, which is always very individual. And I don’t think it would matter if there were college seniors among them, working at their level.

The larger issue is, are they relating to math, or are they just hoping the class will be over?

Beyond individual instruction, we find that when the kids help each other, it benefits them both. The kids are constantly helping each other, and it’s been shown that when you explain a concept to someone, it helps you interiorize and absorb the material, especially when you know the person and you care about them.

Maybe they’ve grasped a concept, and a friend will raise a hand and they’ll go over and explain it. And whether the child who asked for help gets it right away is almost secondary, because by explaining it the first child has a chance to become more clear on the concept. So that’s just one more way the learning is deeper when you combine classes, apart from the teachers working with each student at their own pace.

Q: Do you have math aides and assistants?

Gary: We’ve always had them. This year we had Tandava and Ruchi and Diana’s grandmother, and it’s been a wonderful experience for the kids. When you have someone like Tandava helping the kids, with a degree in symbolic systems from Stanford and experience working at Google, and a great deal of enthusiasm for teaching, it’s completely amazing for the kids.

We’ve been fortunate to have very good math assistants over the years. I’m thinking of Richard Fouquet who had degrees from Stanford and Harvard, and Eric Munro who retired from the tech industry and graduated from MIT.

Teaching math at LWS takes lots of intuition and a personal touch, because you’re forming a relationship with the child and learning what works best for them. At Living Wisdom there’s less emphasis on the curriculum and more on the person – it’s about the teacher’s ability to reach the individual student in the way that will be most meaningful and helpful for them.

When schools talk about education today, it’s usually about how many of the teachers have advanced degrees, or the wonderful textbooks, or the online features. But I don’t think those are anywhere nearly as important as being able to answer a simple question, “Who is this child?”

How are the children able to relate to their teacher, and what is the school environment like? Those are the most important questions, and at Living Wisdom School we offer a wholesome environment where the kids can be relaxed and receptive.

Watch Gary answer parents’ questions during an LWS open house (50 minutes). Gary talks to prospective parents during the LWS Open House on February 1, 2020. The open house was attended by approximately 50 parents. After an introductory talk by school director Helen Purcell, the parents went to the various classrooms for Q&A’s with the teachers. In the video, Gary talks with parents of children of middle school age.

Q: The median high school grade point average of the LWS graduates over the last five or six years has been 3.85, so something seems to be working.

Gary: That’s another question parents ask – how will the students do when they leave our school? It’s why we track their high school grades after they leave us. The LWS alumni often come back to visit, and we ask them, “How’s it going for you at Saint Francis or Harker or Menlo?” We find that they are very well prepared, because they know the material and they’re thriving socially.

We’re extremely pleased that they do very well in their personal interviews, and that the high school counselors tell us how impressed they are by these young kids who demonstrate so much natural centeredness and self-possession and poise.

I feel that too much of education today is concerned with superficial things – the excessive focus on absorbing information today is very far from what kids truly need.

Q: There seem to be fewer discipline problems and classroom control issues at LWS than in other schools. Can you comment on that? Do the kids rebel when they don’t feel that the teachers understand them?

Gary: We were talking about this recently among the teachers. At our End of Year Celebration each child receives a quality, and then they stand up and give a short talk about the quality, and at the end of the ceremony the eighth graders give their graduation speeches.

We’ve held the ceremony for thirty years, and it’s one of the most inspiring events of the year. But we were speculating, half-seriously, about what would happen if a student stood up and went on a rant against the school. But I expressed the thought, “There isn’t a pent-up energy here that’s waiting to explode, because there isn’t an adversarial dynamic between the teachers and the children.”

The children are encouraged to think for themselves and voice differing opinions as a necessary part of their learning. If they say, “I don’t believe in God,” they are free to express their ideas and think them through, because we don’t shrink from facing the big issues.

It’s true that we don’t have a lot of the usual discipline problems, and I think it’s because we reach out to each child and motivate them individually. If you’re learning at your own level, it means that you’re having success experiences every single day at school, and it’s a very enjoyable experience, so you’ll want more, and you’ll be channeling your energies into the work because you enjoy that feeling.

Of course, what I’m saying is tempered by twenty years of working in the trenches as a teacher. Because you can’t hold out bright shiny ideas that aren’t related to what the students are actually experiencing day by day. You have to be very real, and it’s why we hire teachers who are capable of having a real relationship with the kids, a relationship that makes the child feel that they’re being seen. And as a welcome side-effect it eliminates a lot of the discipline issues.

Our founder had a significant dream that became the guiding impetus for the book Education for Life. He saw a group of teenagers lounging around, looking surly, and he talked to them about how the adults in their lives weren’t giving them anything to be hopeful about. So he wrote Education for Life to help teachers and parents reach kids and give them reasons to be positive and hopeful about life.

In a recommendation letter that I wrote for the high school applications of one of our graduates, I said, “You should consider this student, because she is very bright. She has real gifts, and her thinking is outside of the box. She’s very creative and able to come up with fresh perspectives. I marvel at her abilities. Many times I’ve thought that she is the definition of what a good school would be looking for, a student who is engaged and who thinks for herself.”

She needed some discipline, but I think we’ve proved that you can offer it in a way that doesn’t get the students’ backs up, because they know that you’re genuinely on their side.

When you can give them discipline with kindness, it frees up tremendous energy. We aren’t stressing the kids; we’re trying to work with them, encourage them, and inspire them. We would rather help the kids get to a point where they will show initiative of their own accord because they’ve discovered what they enjoy and what they really want. It’s far more effective to educate the child from the inside out, instead of from the top down or from the outside in.

Q: We talked earlier about how the students help each other in math class. Do you feel it’s a key to the success of the school? I remember helping my friends with math in high school, and what a happy experience it was.

Gary: Parents sometimes have trouble getting their heads around how our math class works, and I can understand why.

We go straight into math first thing in the morning after a brief Circle Time, and I don’t lecture during math class, because we’re all working independently. Everyone is sitting at a desk or a table working on math, and if they have a question we’ll go over and help them, or we’ll ask them to come over.

The ability to work independently, with complete focus, requires a great deal of inner motivation on the part of the students, and it’s why we spend so much time working with them individually. Because once you have that personal energy and enthusiasm flowing, you’ll have lots of successes that you can celebrate, so it becomes a self-feeding cycle that breeds motivation and initiative.

Math instruction is is entirely focused on the needs of the individual child at Living Wisdom School.

Some of the kids are unbelievably advanced in math, and others really struggle. One of the kids in my class was struggling in math this morning, and when he finally solved the problem we celebrated it. And the reason it can happen is that I’m free to work with him and make sure he’s having those success experiences, because I don’t have to answer to an administration: “Why is he behind in math? Why aren’t you making him keep up with where everybody else is?”

His parents told me that he’d been tested and that it was a brain issue – his brain simply doesn’t process math, so it’s like a foreign language to him. But I’ve never thought for one moment, “Oh, he’ll never be good in math.”

We had a student who didn’t feel that she was very good in math, and I kept telling her, “No, I think you are good, you just haven’t realized it.” And now she’s getting a PhD in genetics, which requires heavy math skills, and she has mastered them.

We give them the tools to be okay with themselves, and to be very real and work with themselves starting exactly where they are. And it’s something we don’t just talk about. We live it every day, because it works – making your own progress, helping the other kids, and feeling good about it. I see it all the time, how when you work with the kids at their own level, there are countless moments where the light will go on, “Wow, yeah, I know how to do it!” – whether it’s math, guitar, drama, sports, or language arts.

I’m talking about math because parents nearly always ask about it, but the principles are equally true in history or language arts or personal development. “Wow, I’m learning how to make friends.”

After morning Circle and just before math, we meditate briefly, and I doubt that any of the children would be able to say very much about what they’re getting out of it. But I’ve seen over the years that it serves them very well. When they meet life’s tests, they’ll be able to look back and remember, “I was able to focus and get calm and see things from a more solution-oriented perspective.”

It’s not just a mental exercise, it’s an experience of learning to get control of the energy in their body, heart, and brain. And it helps them gain access to inner mental resources that will be there for them the rest of their lives. I don’t have any illusions that they’ll all become lifelong meditators, but when we meditate briefly together in the morning there’s a tangible power in the room, of calmness, focus, and joy.

Q: I’ve observed that the kids know how to be very serious and concentrated. It’s amazing to see the kindergarteners and  first, second, third, or fourth graders being really serious and intent about what’s going on, and in the next moment they’re laughing and happy. But they seem happy when they’re laughing and happy also about being serious.

I watched a fourth-grade girl reading a book at a table in the courtyard during morning recess. She looked completely absorbed, and I was curious to know what kind of book was capturing so much of her attention. I had my camera, and I said, “Can I take your picture?” She said, “Okay,” and immediately turned back to the book, as if she didn’t want to be distracted for a second. And I looked over her shoulder and saw that she was studying math.

It seems quite a testimonial for the school, that the kids can be both serious and happy. Because you can tell the parents, “We have a happy school,” and what are they going to do with that? It may be a completely foreign concept to them, or they might form the wrong impression, imagining that you’re indulging the kids, just letting them play.

Gary: It’s very unfortunate that it’s so foreign in education now. On the other hand, there are lots of forward-looking companies where cooperation and happiness have become a major part of the cultural goals, and where people are living these principles. And that’s what we have at our school, including the culture among the teachers.

Joseph Chilton Pearce, an author whom I greatly admire, said that when you’re dealing with children, you have to be what you’re saying. You can tell them to be good, but you have to model the behavior for them. So our faculty spend a great deal of time cooperating on being models for the kids, and it helps that we genuinely enjoy each other’s company.

There’s a spirit that you can feel when you walk onto the campus. It’s harmonious and joyful. We have the usual issues, of course. For example, putting on the play is a very intense experience for everyone, and this year we had just one dress rehearsal after seven weeks of intense preparation, before we had to pull the plug because of COVID-19. And that’s a subject that we’ll revisit with the kids, because it’s full of lessons about real life. And even though the kids may be young, there’s a soul there, and you can’t just brush these things aside, because the kids need to learn about life by talking about what’s going on.

I’ve had some very interesting conversations with five-year-olds here. And you might think that we’ve been asked virtually every question a child could possibly come up with, but there’s one group of kids that will always surprise you with something new and fresh, and that’s the teenagers. They will invariably find a way to come at it from a new direction, and maybe the ideas are wacky, but often they’ll be very fresh and insightful.

I’ll give an assignment, and I’ll find myself asking a student, “Where did you come up with the idea to do it that way?” [Laughs] But then I’ll have to admit, “Okay, it works.”

It’s a wonderful environment. My son attended LWS from kindergarten to graduation, and he’s in India now, developing Living Wisdom Schools. As part of his work, he’s been visiting other schools, and he tells me that these principles are showing up all over the world today.

There are principles that schools are tapping into everywhere, but the advantage that we have here is that when you have an entire faculty that’s dedicated to working in this philosophical space all of the time, something very special can happen, where you are no longer just a good teacher who happens to listen to their students, but there are lots of great teachers all around you. So you develop a faculty and a community and a school environment that are all supporting these methods, and you begin to see something extraordinary.

Q: The middle school students are at the age when they’re starting to flex their willpower. And how do you deal with that energy? Parents send their child here for six hours a day, and how are the teachers finding ways to help the kids express their willpower in positive ways?

Gary: I’ve given this a lot of thought. Because whatever you’re doing, you’re going to have to learn to set boundaries, and with the middle schoolers it often translates to something as simple as telling them, “Come on, guys, when you walk in the door you’re in silence – no, I mean silent!

They’re going to need a certain amount of discipline to be able to weed out the distractions in their life and accomplish their goals,

One of the most interesting things I’ve experienced as a teacher is that I’ll set a firm boundary for a child, and maybe I’ll go home and wonder, “Gosh, did I go too far?” But invariably the next day the child will be right next to me during morning walk, because they feel safe. And maybe it’s a cliché in education and parenting, but there is no avoiding the fact that the kids need you to set boundaries for them.

When you set fair boundaries, and it’s done in a spirit of love, it nearly always works. And if it doesn’t seem to be working today, it does work in the longer term. We find that when the kids come back to visit they tell us how grateful they are for what they received at LWS.

Gary has taught middle school at LWS for 20 years.

Helen, our school director, also teaches language arts, and she has the students’ respect. Doug, our science teacher, rarely raises his voice, and whenever he says the slightest thing in the way of correction, I’ll revisit it with the kids. I’ll say, “You guys, Doug never says anything.” And because they know it’s true, they’ll correct their behavior, because they realize they’ve stepped over the line.

The need for correction is an integral part of our process, certainly in the upper grades. Because otherwise the kids just feel adrift, and it doesn’t serve them.

Great teachers – whether they are school teachers, sports coaches, drama directors, or spiritual teachers – discipline the people who can receive it. And those working under them love them for it.

I find that when it’s given in a spirit of kindness, it’s essential. I’ll say, “You have to put out more energy. You don’t have your homework.” And the kids will push you, because that’s what teenagers do – they want to know where the boundaries are.

I think of Steve Jobs, who was famous for his creative discipline that made so many contributions to Apple’s success. Bruno, our music teacher, is relaxed and cordial in his manner, but he’s super-dedicated to his craft, and the same is true of Claudia on recorder and keyboard, Rose in drama, and Helen in language arts.

We hire teachers who are serious and who have high expectations. Our fourth and fifth grade teacher, Craig Kellogg, is right on top of the kids when it comes to practicing good sportsmanship, or putting out energy in math, or being neat in their work.

The kids have to learn that there will be a need for an appropriate amount of discipline in everything they do. And it doesn’t have to be oppressive or depressing, because the trade-off is that when you develop self-control it’s very empowering, and it opens doors to success experiences that come with a significant amount of joy.

You can’t just tell every kid, “Oh, you’re empowered, let me give you a trophy.” That model doesn’t work. In truth, it’s good to include people, but you have to be real and let them know, “You can do better.” Because it’s what will serve them.

Q: You see kids blossoming at the school, and maybe they haven’t blossomed before, or maybe they are naturally upbeat and positive about everything. I’m thinking of a boy who graduated last year, and who did well at everything – sports, guitar, academics, theater, friendships. I see lots of kids here who are excelling in whatever they’re doing, and I get the feeling it’s because they’re in touch with the nature of who they are at their core, and they recognize what’s needed to achieve something in their own way and feel the glow of success. I’m assuming from what you’ve said that you don’t just try to help them develop those qualities in math class, but that you’re watching them on the playground and all the time.

Gary: There’s a term we use in Education for Life, “specific gravity.” And Gaurav, the boy you mentioned, is a very good example. He had initiative, and it didn’t matter what challenges he might be facing, he would always try his best. His whole family is structured that way. It’s an amazing family, very happy and wonderfully generous of heart. His sister graduated this year, and another sister is coming along in middle school.

We have a student now who, if you put a challenge before her, you know she’s going to rise to the challenge, and it doesn’t matter what it is. And maybe she doesn’t have the natural outward bubbliness that some of the other children have, but when she sees a challenge she meets it, because she likes the feeling of accomplishment.

There’s another girl who has a hard time accepting any sort of praise, even though her results are most impressive. She’s always driving, driving, driving. And you have to work with the child’s individual nature, and try to help them discover a little joy in the mix.

We only get the kids for a few years, and we try to guide and encourage them and show them what’s possible. As opposed to just helping them claw their way to a good grade point average in a culture where it’s all about the numbers – the grades and test scores, and admission to prestigious school X. And of course those are good things, because doing well in school is good, and exercising will power to excel in school is good.

But there’s an entire separate side to the education equation, where you’re looking at whether the child is happy. Because when you can bring the whole child to school, so to speak, you find that they all have tremendously important tools that will help them succeed as students and persons, beyond just warehousing facts in their brains.

The high school acceptance counselors always ask us how a child has been able to react to criticism or setbacks. It’s a classic question that they ask. And some of the kids frankly haven’t had a setback, so we don’t always know how to answer. But some kids have had big challenges. And the point is, one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to evaluating a child’s potential and helping them. Some kids will come in with a heavy load, while some are more or less able to breeze through, and some will exercise their initiative from day one, and other kids won’t. So, again, you have to work with the individual child, and you have to build a relationship with them so you’ll know where the gaps are and what will work best for the child as you’re helping them develop their unique strengths.

Q: I’ve noticed that the children here aren’t overly concerned with trying to conform to an image. When I observed in Ruth’s third-grade class, I noticed that there was a group of girls who were close friends, yet they were very unique and different. One seldom smiled and was serious all the time, and one was always bubbling with laughter, and the third was somewhere between. It was interesting that there didn’t seem to be any sort of student-run culture where a child is always feeling pressured to fit a certain mold, for fear of being excluded.

Third-grade friends pose for a photo taken by second-grade teacher Kshama Kellogg.

Gary: No, you’re allowed to be yourself at Living Wisdom School, and it sometimes means that the individual child may be a bit of a curmudgeon, always thinking serious thoughts, and some are naturally bubbly and every day is amazing.

Of course they do change over time. A child can go through lots of changes if we have them for the full nine years, because they’ll be dealing with life’s challenges, and it’s part of an education for life, too. At LWS that’s part of what school is about for them. Parents will ask us, “What math book are you using?” Or “How do you teach three grades at once?” And those are important questions, but it’s ultimately about how well we’re working with the energy of the kids.

There’s a lot of interest in the middle school this year, with a waiting list, so we have several shadow students, and I talked to two of them at the end of their shadow days.

I said, “So what do you think of the school?” And one of them said, “All the kids are so happy here. It’s really unusual.” Because he hadn’t seen that in his school experience. The other child used the word “open.” She said, “Everyone is so open.”

One of the shadow students was running around with the kids as if she’d been here forever, and I assumed that she knew them. She was playing and laughing and hugging the kids, and I asked her, “Do you know these girls from your neighborhood?” “Never met them!” But she was wide open. And at our school there’s not this consciousness of constantly measuring people, “Oh, you’re just a shadow student.” There’s a deep acceptance that is really quite amazing, and it’s been there from the first days of the school.

Q: In many schools there seems to be a culture of power, where if you have the power of prestige or the power of being really smart, or the power of belonging to an inner circle, or from a wealthy family, you’re accepted, but if you aren’t, you’re nobody and you’re excluded and maybe mocked and shunned. “Maybe I’m not a jock, but I’m smart.” You have these categories, and you have to defend your self-definition and be really good at something or else you’re sort of a shadow person, like a mole.

Gary: It’s sad. After talking with prospective parents, our director, Helen, has often remarked  that the bullying issue is not small in the school culture today. Many parents tell us, “Well, he’s been bullied.” And it’s not just a bit of teasing, it’s really nasty. And that ties into exactly what you’re saying, that it’s about power, or feeling un-empowered and turning into a bully to get power. And it’s very sad.

Our practices on exclusiveness are very clear, and we go a very long way beyond just giving them lip service, as some schools do. Every one of the teachers is constantly modeling inclusiveness, and if they see it’s not happening, or if there’s the slightest hint of exclusion, they address it immediately, on the spot. Because we take it very seriously, and we put real effort into it.

Q: I’ve heard many stories about how a teacher will notice something negative going on, whether it’s a tiny hint of bullying, or a kid in a bad mood, or someone saying something hurtful, and they’re all over it right away, starting in kindergarten.

Gary: Oh yes. And our kindergarten teacher, Lilavati, is very gifted and sensitive that way. We give it a lot of attention in our faculty meetings – “Have you noticed so and so this year?” “Oh, yeah, and what can we do about that?” “Well, I’ll see him on the playground.” Because among the teachers it’s all hands on deck, like an extended family of teachers each of whom might have different connections with the kids, and maybe someone can reach a particular kid, so they’ll reach out to them and respond, even if they aren’t the child’s classroom teacher.

Q: On the issue of test-taking, it seems artificial to study to the test, because it implies that you’re going to stay up late and ace the test, but then it’s gone. And I’ve observed in the middle school classroom during math that there appears to be a culture where each child is immersing in a subject not only because the school has an individual approach to teaching, but because of the approach to math specifically, which is that you’re constantly reviewing with the individual child and insisting and ensuring that they get a sound understanding of the principles at every step of the way.

Gary: The question of depth came up recently during the pandemic. Some of the kids will say, because we’re teaching remotely and the school is shut down, “Oh, I went online and did some math.” And maybe they’re watching some videos from Khan, and I have no complaint about Khan, but if I’m doing math online I’m naturally going to go to the problems I know how to do, and I’m going to avoid the harder word problems about percentages because I don’t like word problems.

The student said, “I haven’t been doing the math textbook or the curriculum, I’ve just been online.” And I said, “My experience is that when you do that you just end up jumping around.” And he said, “You know, that’s right, I was kind of jumping around.”

There’s a superficiality in education now, where you’re skimming the surface, touching all the right buttons, because you’re being dragged along with one eye on the mandated curriculum and the other eye on tests and grades. And every math teacher I’ve met feels this way. But what it neglects is the student’s need to understand the principles and concepts in depth. Have you actually mastered them, or are you just gliding over the surface? Because if you’re just skating over the surface it’s bound to catch up with you.

Any book you’re using, whether it’s CPM or Envision or Singapore, will help you build a solid foundation in math, just as when you’re learning guitar or keyboard and you want to learn the basics thoroughly and soundly – finger placement, chords, etc. And in math, too, you have to build a solid foundation, because there are no shortcuts.

In any good math curriculum, you need to keep circling back so the students are constantly getting exposed to the underlying concepts.

Math and science volunteer and Harvard and Stanford graduate Richard Fouquet had a long, successful career as an engineer and flight manual publisher.

I may allow the students to go forward for a while, even though I know they haven’t fully mastered the concepts, because in our school they will always get a chance to fill in the gaps, instead of being dragged along by an externally mandated schedule. At some point, the gaps in their understanding will begin to show, and it might be a humbling experience to realize that, wow, I never really got it.

A student asked me why he needed to do proofs if he knew the answer. I said, “Don’t take my word for it. Go talk to our math aides, Eric or Richard.” Richard went to Harvard and Stanford, and Eric went to MIT. And sure enough, they gave him the same answer: “Proofs are good.” Because it isn’t only about getting the right answer, it’s knowing how to get the answer, which is the more valuable skill.

And that’s what math is ultimately about. It’s training the brain to think clearly, and to analyze things and come up with answers. Those are skills you can apply in any area. Computers can do math a lot faster than we can, but it’s about developing clear thinking and logic. The ability to solve any kind of problem is as important as being able to jump straight to the answer.

We have a student who can go straight to the right answer, because he’s very gifted. But it doesn’t really work at Living Wisdom. And in language arts, too, if you’re wanting to analyze a poem or write an essay with originality and spark, you can’t just check off the five bullet points and say, “I got the answer.” We want them to experience depth in everything.

Q: You mentioned Hazie, who graduated from LWS and now teaches math at the Living Wisdom High School. When he was twenty, he had basically exhausted what the American universities could teach him in math, so he had to go to Germany where they’re more advanced in math education. And now he’s come back after a long time away, because he said that he was getting along fine academically in those other school environments, but he realized that he had started to become depressed because he was accepting other people’s standards of behavior and values. And in his mind, he had to refresh the principles that had made him happy at Living Wisdom. He was in graduate school in Germany when he had that crisis of faith, and he decided to return and become a teacher at LWHS.

Gary: He recently said something interesting. He said that kids nowadays are asking their teachers, “What do I need to do to get an A in your class?” And he never answers that question, because we’re here to learn math and master principles. It’s not about following the steps to get an A – that doesn’t fly at Living Wisdom, because we all know that it doesn’t work in life.

When we had him as a student, Hazie was so precocious in math that the only way I could help him was basically to tell him to be a bit neater in his work. That was about the only help he needed. But he’s very grounded, perhaps because he’s also been active in martial arts for twenty-three years, so he has a great deal of inner discipline, and he says that the students have to learn the math foundations. Which is a very healthy approach, because there are no shortcuts in life.

Hazie (2nd from left) at a beach outing with Living Wisdom High School students. LWHS principal Kshama is 3rd from right.

Q: Kids who are as smart as Hazie can sometimes become isolated at school, but he never was at Living Wisdom. When I interviewed him, he told stories about being very socially connected all the way through school, even though he was often a great deal smarter than anybody else in math.

Gary: He was part of an interesting class that included several other very advanced math students. He had two buddies in particular, and they were rowdy and did wacky things. And after those three left, another group of three came, and now there’s another threesome. A professor at Stanford was the world’s leading expert on groups of three. [Laughs]

There are many teachers today in other school systems who essentially are Education for Life teachers, whether they call it that or not. Most of us have had an EFL teacher at some time in our lives. My high school history teacher didn’t have a great delivery, and he wasn’t there to please us or be funny, but I remember him for his fairness, and the respect we had for him, because he was deeply engaged with his subject and he made it alive for us.

I remember my geometry teacher who was so kind, even though he was a former Marine drill sergeant. And maybe you’d think he would have been a terror – you picture a drill sergeant yelling at the recruits. But he was so gentle. “Mr. McSweeney, you fell into the latrine on that one!” You know, “Let me show you where you made your mistake.” [Laughs] He was so nice, and I still love geometry as a result. I’m less fond of algebra, possibly because my two algebra teachers were like drill sergeants, always yelling.

I think education is gradually coming back to its senses, where teachers and administrators and parents have started to understand that you can’t just educate one part of the child for thirteen years and expect them to be happy and successful and well-prepared for life.

One of our LWS parents is applying to Nueva School for her child’s high school, and we  asked her, “Oh, what’s that like?” She thought about it, and she said, “You know, they do a lot of the same things Living Wisdom does. They don’t give letter grades anymore, and they emphasize the individual approach.” And as she ran down the list of the similarities, I was thinking, “Well, that’s good.” They’re positioning themselves as a cutting-edge school, and we’re hearing about many other schools that are trying to be more humane.

Lots of schools went off the rails for a while with test scores and grades, and even UC is thinking of doing away with the SAT, or making it optional. And that’s no small thing, because it will have major repercussions.

The cynical side of me is thinking that education today is basically an industry, with powerful players that include the testing services and the textbook and test-prep course and book publishers. So there’s an element of greed to it. But parents can override that in a heartbeat by switching their vision. “I’m not putting my child on those cold and inhuman rails, I’m choosing a well-rounded school.” And if enough parents do that, the market will respond.

Q: I’m friends with an honors chemistry teacher in Illinois. who’s also a very successful track and field coach. He retired recently, and he has strong views about how education took a wrong turn, to the point where he felt that he had to become an advocate for the students, Because he saw that education was basically creating unhappiness concentration camps for thousands of kids, partly because everybody was so intimidated by the prevailing idea that success will come for kids at some indefinite point in the future if you made them suffer horribly now.

As a result there’s this ridiculous thinking that every child has to get into Harvard, or else they’re a failure. It’s extremely polarized thinking, and it’s so unrealistic that it’s heartwarming to hear that people are waking up and coming out of that hypnosis.

Gary: I think they’re trying to. It may be unrealistic to expect that the education mainstream will suddenly change. But there is a grassroots movement that seems to be leading to a shake-up, because people are looking for alternatives. Many of the kids at our school are really bright, so it’s not as if they couldn’t cut it in a mainstream school. But the parents have very carefully chosen not to do that. “I don’t want that competition for my child. I want my child to do well. I want them to learn the basics and excel, but I don’t need them to be indoctrinated with the wrong self-image: ‘I’m so great, I got an A in science and I’m going to make lots of money and be happy when I grow up.’” And all the attitudes that go along with that kind of thinking.

Q: There are some LWS parents with impressive credentials – they include tech industry executives and Stanford professors who’ve brought their children to Living Wisdom because they want them to have a balanced education.

Gary: We have friends in the School of Education at Stanford, and they applaud what we’re doing. Jack Dieckman told me, “What’s really important when a kid graduates from middle school is their relationship with math – how do they feel about math?” It’s not, “Are they doing geometry? Are they doing algebra?” It’s how they feel about their math ability. And if it’s intact, you’ve done well.

You do have to plan for the longer term. I mentioned the student who hated math, who’s now getting her PhD in genetics. Some kids struggle until after high school, and then the light goes on.

A teacher wrote a letter to the editor of a local newspaper. She said, “I’m very sorry that I’m going to have to give up teaching. It’s been my whole career, and I love teaching. I love seeing the students, but this pressure to give standardized testing is taking all the fun out of it for me, and I can no longer teach.” She was a kindergarten teacher, and she was horrified that they are giving timed standardized tests to kindergarteners.

Q: They aren’t letting them have recess because it’s time away from math. It’s insane.

Gary: Well, again, there’s a huge profit motive when you get into that system, with the standardized tests and the textbook industry. So it’s not brain surgery to see where the impetus is coming from to keep that system going. There’s an industry around standardized testing, and when you start talking about how each child has unique gifts, I can’t imagine how you’re going to monetize that, but I’m sure they’ll try to figure out a way. [Laughs]

The book Education for Life begins with the question, “What do you want for your child?” And you might say, “Well, I want them to receive a good education.” And then the author asks, “What is a good education?” And he talks about how it includes questions of values, and how the child will grow as a person, and how this completely unbalanced view has come in, where it’s entirely about academics.

Because what you want them to become is people who tell the truth, who have integrity, who know how to work as part of a team.

When Google looked at the personal qualities of their most successful employees, they found that the most successful employees and research teams expressed qualities of cooperation, the ability to listen, the ability to change when proven wrong. And way down in eighth place on the list were STEM skills. (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.)

They discovered that success at Google depends very strongly on the values we’re emphasizing in EFL. And I think the proof is in the power that the kids have when they get to high school. My son did very well in navigating high school and finding his way.

When our graduates leave college, we don’t want them to be thinking, “Wow, I got all these good grades, but I’m so poorly prepared for this job!” Because they don’t have the skills that Project Aristotle discovered people need to be successful at a company like Google.

Q: When I talked with your son recently, he said that when he graduated from St. Francis High School he knew everybody in the student body. So he was socially very well-adjusted.

Aryavan and Ishani McSweeney

Gary: [Laughs] When he went to his first dance, he didn’t know anybody, so he went out on the dance floor and met one kid, and she had a couple of friends, and the next thing you know fifty of them were dancing together. He ended up becoming the student body vice president and hosting a radio talk show.

He wanted to be involved in theater, but he didn’t get the part, so he said, “I’ll do tech.” And that’s pure EFL, where you learn to be resilient and optimize your options and resources. He ended up studying film, and it became his livelihood. But most important, he just kept putting out energy. In his freshman year he got cut from the soccer team, but he went out again sophomore year and made the JVs. And through it all, by being resilient and always finding opportunities, he had a lot of fun and he’s been very successful.

Q: You can hear it in his voice, which is strong and centered and aware of other people’s realities. You sense that there’s an ability to navigate any environment he’s in.

Gary: I would say you’re describing the typical LWS graduate. There’s a self-possession. There’s an ability to deal with life that is palpable when you meet these kids regardless of their grade level. I’ve been involved in the middle school for twenty years, and when I meet the kids from the other Living Wisdom Schools, they all have this awareness. They’re aware of others and they’re aware of situations and how to deal with them maturely and objectively.

Q: People in education don’t always visualize what they’re going to accomplish with the standardized curriculum and the tests. Because what kind of people are they trying to graduate? They’re going to graduate millions of people who are good in math, okay, and millions of people who know how to manipulate the system of the academic world. And when they leave school, you find them doing lots of things where math and STEM might not be the focal point.

Your son is making films very successfully in India, and he’s helping start EFL schools there. But you also have graduates like a young man who works at Motley Fool, a leading financial research and consulting company, and he’s one of their senior counselors because he’s a financial wizard. And then you have the person who’s doing genetics research, and you have Hazie who’s in love with math, to the extent that he was doing extremely abstract advanced math that didn’t have anything to do with the real world, but he loved it because it was his nature.

And who’s to say that any one of those people is not successful? And who’s to say that the geneticist was a failure because she wasn’t good at math initially? But she saw that she had to learn it, and she had the foundation of personal qualities that allowed her to solve the problem and succeed.

Gary: We give them a foundation that serves them very well as they go along, and when life throws curves at them they know how to cope. That’s what any parent would want for their child. That’s what a true education is. Are you ready to deal with what life is going to throw at you?

It goes back to when Yogananda laid out the principles for an Education for Life that will train you to be successful in your human relationships and your work, with all of the emotions and feelings and willpower and self-control that are required, and that we emphasize from a very young age.

Q: Your life is going to put you in those situations, in school and after, and if you aren’t trained to deal with them, they’re going to smack you and maybe you’re going to be spinning. But these kids know how to navigate the situations their lives might put them in.

And as Aryavan and Hazie described in my talks with them, when they got in those situations they could look back and remember, “I know how to be happy, and here are the qualities I need to manifest right now. I need to manage this with a little kindness, or a little inner strength, or a little resistance or perseverance.” And if you’re working with your academic skills at Google, you’re going to need those life skills. Otherwise, just the ability to be a computing machine isn’t going to get you through, if that’s all you’ve got, and it’s going to isolate you very quickly, because you won’t know how to get along with people.

Well, thank you, Gary, it’s been interesting. I hope it will help parents understand what their kids will experience at Living Wisdom School.