Three Important TED Talks by Sir Ken Robinson

We encourage parents considering Living Wisdom School to watch the following talks by educator Sir Ken Robinson, in which he eloquently and humorously describes the central problems with education today and proposes solutions that have been implemented with stunning success for more than forty years in the Living Wisdom Schools.

Sir Ken Robinson works with governments, education systems, international agencies, global corporations and some of the world’s leading cultural organizations to unlock the creative energy of people and organizations. He has led national and international projects on creative and cultural education in the UK, Europe, Asia and the United States. Sir Ken Robinson is the most watched speaker in TED’s history. His 2006 talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” (watch below) has been viewed online over 40 million times and seen by an estimated 350 million people in 160 countries.

He has been named as one of Time/Fortune/CNN’s ‘Principal Voices’. He was acclaimed by Fast Company magazine as one of “the world’s elite thinkers on creativity and innovation” and was ranked in the Thinkers50 list of the world’s top business thinkers.  In 2003, he received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II for his services to the arts.

His book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything (Penguin/Viking, 2009) is a New York Times bestseller. It has been translated into 23 languages and has sold over a million copies worldwide. His latest book, Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education (Viking, 2015), tackles the critical issue of how to transform the world’s troubled educational systems, and is now available in 15 languages.

Sir Ken was born in Liverpool, UK. He is married to Therese (Lady) Robinson. They have two children, James and Kate, and now live in Los Angeles, California.

Do Schools Kill Creativity?


Bring On the Learning Revolution


How to Escape Education’s Death Valley

A Visit to 3rd Grade at Living Wisdom School

Ruth helps the third-grade girls with a difficult Menu Math problem.
Ruth helps the girls with a difficult Menu Math problem. Click photos to enlarge.

We spoke with Ruth Rabin who teaches third grade at Living Wisdom School. All of the photos were taken during a two-hour period on a regular school day about two weeks before the end of the school year. The interviewer was our webmaster and photographer.

Q: Did you always know that you would be a teacher?

Ruth: I think I did. When I was in elementary school I would stay after school and help the teacher erase the blackboard and get the classroom in order. My friends and I would often play teacher, and I loved it.

After college, I worked in France, teaching in a public junior high for a year. Then I worked in Israel for a couple of years, and when I came back I taught for several years at schools in Foster City and Palo Alto.

I loved teaching, but then I got married and left to raise my kids. When my kids grew up, I thought about exploring a new field. I said to a friend, “I wish there were something I loved and that I was really good at.” He said, “There is – it’s teaching.” And I thought, “It’s true, I love teaching.”

I found a job at a school in San Jose where it was wonderful to work with the children, but the school was poorly run. It closed in mid-year, so the kids were left without a school, and the teachers found themselves suddenly without a job.

I had a friend who taught at Living Wisdom School. She said, “Send me your resume and I’ll give it to Helen.” Two weeks later, a position opened in second and third grade, and I was hired. It was a miracle how I landed at this glorious place, after a scary experience losing my job, and it touches me whenever I think about it.

I love this school. It’s a very joyful place. I wish my own children had come here, and that I’d been able to come to a school like this as a child.

I’ll wander into Erica’s second-grade classroom next door, and I’ll look around and think, “Oh my gosh.” And Erica will visit my classroom and say, “Oh my gosh.”

There’s a unique camaraderie and joy with the other teachers. If we have a question – like “How can I set up this lesson so that it will help the students in the best way?” – I can go to any of the teachers, and we’ll work on it with our combined experience and find a solution.

Many amazing things have come out of those conversations. It’s a wonderful aspect of our school culture that the teachers are free to learn from each other and that we can go into the other classrooms and observe.

For the students, there’s an incredible amount of learning that goes on here, with amazing creativity and joy along the way. I love coming to work every day, and I don’t think many people can say that.

Q: One of the things I’ve observed is how you interact with the children. On one occasion, a little girl in your class was afraid to go and get her costume adjusted by the seamstress before the dress rehearsal for the school play. You were counseling her, and you were very attuned to her need and able to help her with compassion and wisdom. I thought it exemplified something I regularly hear the teachers say, that it’s essential to create a relationship with each child, so that you can understand who they are and what their needs are.

Ruth: Yes, absolutely. It’s one of the things I love, the familiarity that you develop with each child here. It’s a relationship of respect and trust. We know each other, and if something’s going on, I’ll know about it, and I can help them.

I’ll say, “I’m noticing that your energy’s a little off. Tell me what’s happening.” Because we know them well enough to recognize when something’s out of their norm.

DSC_7518-EditWe’ll talk about whatever the challenge is, instead of ignoring it and assuming that it will just go away, or that their parents will deal with it, or much worse, that we might try to discipline them for their “off” behavior without understanding what’s really going on.

Yesterday, I was saying to the kids, “Some of you haven’t made art for our class poetry book. Come on, let’s get this done!” And one of these little eight-year-old girls said, “You’re really frantic today!” (laughs)

I took a deep breath and said, “Yes, I am, I’m feeling frantic.” And the little girl said, with so much confidence, “Well, don’t worry, we’ll get it done.” I said, “You’re right. I was feeling frenetic.” And it was funny, because they jumped in and said, “We know that word!” They recognized it from our vocabulary lessons.

But she said it so kindly – it wasn’t that she was scolding me, “What’s wrong with you?!” She noticed that I was feeling frantic, and she was free, in this environment, to try to help. It’s a natural part of the school culture to talk about issues that are getting in the way. And this ease of communication has a very positive effect on their development and their learning.

Q: In a traditional school where the children are focused almost entirely on academics, they can sometimes get so much in their heads that they miss the experience of having their hearts educated, which Education for Life says is extremely important at all ages, but especially from six to twelve. Is that something you emphasize? If you’re doing academics, do you find that those attitudes of kindness and cooperation are helping the children in their studies?

Ruth: Without question. I feel that where there’s laughter and joy, there are much greater possibilities for learning. If you walk into any classroom here, you’ll see that the students are working very hard, and the reason there’s so much learning, and the kids are so deeply engaged is because they feel the work is theirs.

DSC_7676_00003We’re constantly adjusting the curriculum to meet each child’s individual needs, so that the learning is always on their level. And because it’s so individually focused, we’re able to raise the bar in a way that each child gets to experience the satisfaction of rising to it. As they discover that they can face a challenge and overcome it, their enthusiasm for learning grows exponentially, and it’s a huge step for their all-around development.

Soon after I came here, a little boy got up at the year-end ceremony and said, “At first it was hard, but now I know that I can always ask for help. And if I need to know how to spell ‘ampersand,’ I can ask.”

They aren’t afraid to ask, because the culture isn’t about who’s best or who’s ahead. “What page are you on? I’m ten pages farther.” That never gets talked about here, because they know that it simply doesn’t matter.

In math, the children are free to ask each other for help, even before they ask me. They’re constantly teaching each other, and they’re learning to solve problems by finding the resources they need.

A child will say, “Can somebody help me?” And you’ll always hear, “I will! I will!” They’re competing to go and help each other, and they discover that teaching is a wonderful way to review what they’ve learned. Imagine how great a child must feel when they can help another child with a math problem.

The girl on the right asked the other girl for help with a math concept. The other student immediately came over and helped her.
The girl on the right asked for help with a math concept. The other student spontaneously came over and tutored her.

We’re doing Menu Math, which is very challenging. One of the problems is, “How much is the restaurant bill with an 18 percent tip?” It’s quite advanced for third grade math. We were getting close to the end of math class the other day, and I hadn’t covered the problem, so I said, “Let’s come back to it tomorrow – we don’t have to cover it today.” But one of the girls said, “I know how to do it – my mom showed me.” And she got up and taught the whole class how to calculate an 18-percent tip. It was marvelous, because the kids were going, “Oh, yeah! I get it.”

Then they said, “Ruth, can we go to the board and try to figure it out by ourselves?” And I just had to laugh. I said, “Well – yeah!!” Because I was delighted.

The learning is natural and joyful, because we always monitor their comfort level. I tell them, “Let me know if it’s too easy, because it’ll be boring, or if it’s too hard, because it’ll be frustrating.” And the kids will say, “Ruth, this is a really good comfort level for me. It’s really challenging, but I can do it.”

 I had a child in my class who used to say, “This is hard!” And now he’s saying, “This is challenging.” Because he’s learned to work through the challenges and master them. I’ll say, “Is it a good comfort level for you?” And he’ll say, “Yeah, but it’s pretty challenging.”

Or they’ll say, “Ruth, this is too easy.” And I’ll go over and find out if they’ve truly mastered the lesson, and then I’ll move them along, because there’s no point in staying on something they’ve already mastered.

It’s very important that they’re comfortable saying, “This is too hard.” Because it means that they aren’t intimidated by the teacher, and they can ask for help when they’re stuck. In this culture, they don’t have to feel afraid that they’ll be teased if they admit that they’re having trouble.

How much are you going to learn if you’re stuck, and you’re afraid to say to the teacher, “I can’t do it”? It’s the natural thing to say. Why should you pretend to be farther along, when you haven’t built a solid foundation? And these kids completely understand that.

So they monitor their comfort level, and they’re happy to challenge themselves because they know they can get help when they need it. Not because they have to prove that they’re better, but because they’ve learned, over and over, how wonderful it feels to master a challenge.

In every classroom here, the teachers are helping the children understand that the greatest joys come from their own learning, and not from measuring themselves against an artificial standard. It’s why they love the challenge of learning new things, because they enjoy that inner feeling of accomplishment.

We do some very sophisticated language arts learning in our third-grade classroom, and the kids love it. They love the challenge of learning big words. They’ll say, “Ruth, I was reading a book, and it said the guy was ‘cantankerous.’” And I’ll say, “And you knew what it meant!” And they’ll say, “And I knew how to spell it!” (laughs)

Language Arts prepares the children at LWS to organize their thoughts and express themselves clearly in all of their subjects.
Language Arts prepares the children at LWS to organize their thoughts and express themselves clearly in all their subjects.

There’s such pride in their learning. When I compare the years I taught in several very good, academically oriented schools, I think we have a very rigorous academic program here. Very, very rigorous. But it’s done with love, and with confidence. Because it’s done with very high goals, and realistic expectations.

Q:  It sounds different from a typical public school classroom where the teacher has to hustle the students through a state-mandated curriculum on a rigid schedule.

Ruth: My son was bored in public school. He’s quite smart, and his high school teachers were telling me, “If you want to motivate your son, put him in Advanced Placement classes, because they’ll challenge him.”

I said, “But he won’t really learn anything. It will just be more homework, and what he wants is depth.”

He wanted to be able to explore his school subjects in depth, and it wasn’t happening in his school, because it was all about getting through the material on schedule and studying to the test.

I don’t blame the teachers, because they aren’t being given the freedom to truly teach a subject. “We have to get through the chapter. There’s no time for questions. Let’s keep moving. Let’s not go too deep, because you have to be ready for the test.”

It’s very liberating for the teachers and students when you don’t have to teach that way. In social studies the other day, we were talking about the Central Valley of California. The children were looking at a map, and someone said, “What’s the San Andreas Fault?” And all of a sudden the lesson changed to earthquakes and plate tectonics, and we watched some YouTube videos about the science of plate tectonics and earthquakes and the San Andreas Fault.

Then we talked about how we’re living just a few miles from the San Andreas Fault, and we went outside and looked for cracks in the sidewalk and tried to decide if they were created by trees or the earthquakes in this area.

So the lesson shifted from social studies to the geology of the California mountain ranges, and the fact that there are volcanoes in the mountains. And the idea that there are volcanoes in California got them very excited, and it shot off and became a lesson in the science of vulcanology.

LWS teaches the children how to overcome challenges with calm, focused attention.
At LWS the children learn to overcome academic challenges with deep, focused interest.

As a teacher, having the freedom to take a lesson wherever the children’s natural enthusiasm leads them is marvelous. It makes the learning very real for the children, where it’s not just about looking at the pages of a book – “Oh, there are some mountains in California, and here’s a map and some dry facts.”

If you start with the strange and shocking and exciting fact that there are volcanoes in California, it unfolds naturally into the science of how mountain ranges are formed, and how the earth’s crust is shifting, and what it looks like in California, quite near to where we’re standing.

I feel very blessed to teach in a school where I have the freedom and autonomy to teach in a way that engages the children and gives them a genuine learning experience.

Q: A friend of mine teaches honors chemistry at a high school in Illinois. He’s also the freshman football coach, and his teams have won 39 games in a row. He’s completely at odds with the idea of a state-mandated curriculum. He wrote an article called 10 Ways to Improve Schools Using Coaching Principles, the point of which was that teachers must be free to help the individual child, in the same way that any competent sports coach would do.

Ruth: It’s the only way to bring out the very best in each child. And you need to know the child well enough to know what their best is.

In math class we have a Multiplication Sundae game. As the children gradually master the multiplication table, they earn part of an ice cream sundae. But the key point is that the whole class has to master the table. It’s fine if you know your sixes and sevens, but if the whole class hasn’t got them, they’ll have to help each other.

The kids celebrate Multiplication Sundae. Because every child mastered the multiplication tables, they got sundaes with all the extras.
The kids celebrate with their Multiplication Sundaes. Because every child in the class mastered the multiplication tables, they received sundaes with all the extras.

Q:  Do they tutor each other? I read a quote the other day from David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene: “The kids that outdid their peers in the classroom and the kids that went on to become pros in a variety of sports had behavioral traits in common. The kids who went to the top in soccer, for example, they displayed what the scientists called ‘self-regulatory behavior.’ It’s a 12-year-old who’s going up to their trainer and saying, “I think this drill is a little too easy. What is this working on again? Why are we doing this? I think I’m having a problem with this other thing. Can I work on that instead?”

Ruth: Very definitely. They work together. There’s a tremendous amount of partner learning and peer teaching in the classroom. This year’s class learned their multiplication tables perfectly, so at the Multiplication Sundae party they’ll have ice cream with all the trimmings including sprinkles and chocolate chips. But it’s really about the learning experience, and the joy of learning together, and not setting yourself apart from others and competing with them in a shallow way.

Which is not to say that we don’t encourage the ones who can learn really fast. But it’s never a bragging thing, where they’re trying to make the others feel inferior. Never.

It’s taking pride in what you’ve done. It’s being able to say, “I’ve studied hard, and I know this.” Because why should they hide it, even if the others are still working on it?

When we do our multiplication drills, there are three students who can rattle them off without a hitch. They can just shoot them off, and we all know who they are, but there’s no comparing. There’s a feeling that it’s wonderful for them, and we’re proud of them.

Q:  The kindergarten teacher, Mahita, talked about how it’s important to praise the children in the right way.

Ruth: Acknowledging them for who they are, and for their accomplishments and their mastery, and not just because they’ve jumped over a stick that you’re holding at some arbitrary height.

There’s a popular idea in education today that you shouldn’t take pride in something you’re good at, because someone else’s feelings might get hurt. But I don’t believe in that idea for a moment. I don’t believe in lowering yourself so that other people won’t feel inferior. I feel that everyone should be proud of their accomplishments, and proud of each other, and very proud of their friends.

When one of the children was assigned her lines for the school play, she received fewer lines than she’d hoped. Her mom told me that her daughter came home and said, “I’m a little disappointed, but my friend got lots of lines, and I’m so proud of her.”

Can you imagine? There was no envy or resentment. She thought, “This is what I have, and it’s really good, but my best friend got this, and I’m so happy for her.”

Wow! We solved the math problem!
Yay! We solved the math problem!

Q:  It’s a principle of the world’s spiritual teachings that our happiness grows as we expand our awareness to include other people’s realities. I would imagine that it’s a hugely important lesson for young children, for their happiness now and in the future.

Ruth: Yes, and it happens a lot in our class, where the kids will go, “Yay! Good for you!”

Q:  In the high school where my friend teaches, there’s a requirement that every student has to take chemistry and physics. And of course the result is that those classes get watered-down for the less-qualified students who don’t want to be there in the first place.

Ruth: Nobody expects that in life. If something’s wrong with my car, I’ll take it to a mechanic, instead of thinking I should know how to fix it myself. But in public high schools everyone’s expected to take Advanced Placement courses, and they might not be allowed to excel at what they’re really good at, if it happens to be music, painting, or auto repair, because those things are no longer honored in public school.

DSC_7468-EditHere, it’s about everybody being where they need to be. We’re very careful to observe the children and keep the curriculum individualized and fluid, so that each child can go ahead at their own pace. It’s very clearly understood that the kids need to move at a pace where they’ll be challenged and able to grow and thrive. They might need to move forward or back, and it’s adjusted all the time. I have a second-grader who comes into my math class because he’s able to do third-grade math, and last year there were three second-graders who would come in and join us for math.

Q: I saw a little girl who’s in fourth grade sitting outside at a picnic table reading a book during recess. I asked if I could take her picture, and without turning her head she said very impatiently, “Yes!” It was clear that she did not want to be distracted. I was curious to know what she was reading that was so interesting to her, so I peeked at the book, and it was math.

Ruth: That’s very funny, but it’s not at all uncommon. On Fridays we have math games, and some of the kids will say, “Can we work on Menu Math?” which is a lot harder, just because they love the challenge.

I love it here. And it’s partly because we embrace every aspect of the individual child, including the spiritual.

I’ll occasionally bring in my Jewish culture. In our tradition we have something called a mezuzah. It’s a parchment scroll that’s inscribed with the most important prayer in Judaism, and it can be ornate and fancy, or very simple.

The prayer says, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to affix a mezuzah.” Jewish homes will have a mezuzah on their door, and the reason is so that when you go in and out you’re reminded of how to live your life as a good person. As you go out, it reminds you that this is how you live as a righteous person. And when you come in, you remember to do the right thing – to have integrity, and to think about what you’re doing, and always try to be in alignment with right action.

I explained that to the children, and they made mezuzahs and wrote poems about how they want to live their lives. And when I send them home they’ll roll them up and put them outside their bedroom door.

Art plays a major role in the curriculum at LWS and has broad ramifications. The heart, not the mind, empowers a child to tell right from wrong, and to pursue their academic subjects with deep curiosity and enthusiasm. Alice is a talented young artist.
Alice is a talented young artist. Art plays a major role in the curriculum at LWS and has broad ramifications. An expansive heart, not the rational mind, is the faculty that enables a child to tell right from wrong, and to pursue academic subjects with curiosity and enthusiasm.

We also made something called a Chamsa. A Chamsa is a Middle Eastern symbol that’s shared by the Jewish and Islamic cultures. It’s the hand of God that’s offering blessing and protection. We made Chamsas out of heavy copper foil that the children tooled and decorated, and then they wrote poetry about the times when they feel the hand of God.

Q: Is it something you have to nag them to do?

Ruth: Not at all. We talk about what God is, and they write about it in their poetry. What is God to other people? What is God to me? When do they feel that energy? When do they feel that protection? When do they feel that love? Do they feel it when they’re in nature? Do they feel it when they’re with their family? When they’re playing? When they’re laughing? They understand that feeling, and they always know what I’m talking about, because it’s a universal experience, and children live more in their hearts and souls than most adults do.

Q:  Do you have children in your class who are new to this school?

Ruth: Yes, we had three new kids who came into our classroom in the middle of the year.

Q: How long did it take them to settle into the culture?

Ruth: One of them has taken a bit longer. He talks about it in his Qualities speech. “I came in, and I had my methods, and I had to learn Ruth’s methods.” (laughs) We had a new boy and two girls this year.

I told the kids, “Remember the girls who came to visit?” And they were all excited, “Are they going to join our class?” I said, “And remember the boy who came? He’s going to be in our class, too.” “Yay!” So there was complete acceptance.

It’s been a really great year. This time of year is always bittersweet, because your connection with the children is so deep, and then they have to leave. I love every class that I’ve had, and every one is very special.

Ruth greets Bella and checks her homework.




First Steps at Living Wisdom School

A Conversation with Kindergarten Teacher Mahita Matulich

Teacher Mahita Matulich reads to the kindergarten children at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto
Click photos to enlarge.

Q:  How did you become a teacher at Living Wisdom School?

Mahita:  I first heard of the school about six years ago. I was living in San Ramon, in my spiritual teacher’s ashram, and my roommate invited me to the school’s annual theater production.

I was completely blown away – I could not believe the quality of the performances, and the energy and poise of the children.

Over the next several years I saw the plays on Krishna, Hafiz, and the Dalai Lama. I would watch the plays and leave feeling so moved afterward. I had been studying early childhood education, and then my roommate introduced me to Helen and Gary, and I came on as an intern.

Q:  What has it been like to teach kindergarten here?

Mahita:  I love teaching here – it’s been a great blessing. But I was surprised by how much energy it took. During my first year, my greatest challenge was to adjust my energy to the needs of the children. The energy that’s required of our teachers is tremendous, especially when you’re working with young children.


I have to be very mindful of my actions, my words, and my interactions with each child. With children of four, five, and six, even the smallest interaction can be very significant for them, especially when it’s coming from their teacher, and it requires that I be very aware.

Q:  Have you always wanted to teach? Kabir MacDow, our first-grade teacher, knew practically from the day he was born that he would be a teacher.

Mahita:  I’d never really thought about teaching, but I had some very strong ideas about education, based on my own early experiences. My mother is a professor and my grandmother was a teacher, so there was always lots of encouragement in our family to be lifelong learners. But I had no idea that teaching was what God had in store for me.

As a child, I had an incredible kindergarten teacher, and I have vivid memories of my experiences with her. In fact, my first three teachers touched my life profoundly, because they inspired our creativity and joy in learning. As a result I grew up knowing what a tremendous difference it makes for children to have strong teachers in their earliest years.

Q:  You mentioned creativity and learning in the same breath. That’s a strong theme in this school, isn’t it, to tie those together?

Mahita:  Oh, it’s huge. Last year, a woman said to me during an open house, “How do you get the children to do things?” And I just had to laugh aloud, because it’s so naturally a part of what we’re doing, and I’ve never had to consider how I could motivate the children.


The way the children’s classroom experience is set up, they’re given a tremendous number of opportunities to exercise their creativity, and it really engages them in what they’re doing.

With a math activity, I’ll say, “What kind of math story do you want to write?” Or, “What kind of math story do you want to tell? Do you want to tell it with stuffed animals, or do you want to tell it using math cubes? Or do you want to tell your math story by drawing a picture?”

The emphasis on creativity that is such a major part of our school culture inspires the children to want to participate. They aren’t as likely to resist learning when they’re in a space that welcomes their ideas and their creative energy.

Q:  Is it bringing their hearts into the equation, instead of just drilling facts?

Mahita:  Yes, it’s bringing the heart, the enthusiasm, and honoring each child by letting them know, “You’re important, and what you value, and your experiences, are important to me.” It’s telling the child that it matters a great deal to me as their teacher how they want to pour their creativity into a project, and how they want to approach their math and other subjects.

Q:  Do you interact with the other teachers? Do you feel that you’re part of a team?

Mahita:  I do. It’s a little different because I’m working with the youngest children – I have mostly five-year-olds in my classroom, with a few four-years-olds and six-year-olds.

But I’m very inspired by the other teachers. I look up to them, and I know that I can count on them when I need their help. The feeling isn’t so much of a team; it’s more that I know they’re solid, and that they’ll be there. They’re like old trees that I can go sit under and get shade or relief or wisdom, and we can talk about any kind of situation that might arise with a child. If I’m trying to figure out how to help a child have more energy, or if a child is feeling sad, I can ask the teachers what they’ve done in similar situations. It’s a very solid support system.

Q:  Did your early education influence the kind of teacher you want to be?

Mahita:  As I mentioned, I was lucky to have amazing teachers in kindergarten and first and second grade. And then, after second grade, I became bored and disinterested with public school. I was a very smart child, and I wanted to learn – I wanted to feel engaged, and it wasn’t happening. So when I was in fifth grade my dad took me out of public school and home-schooled me. We were living in Santa Cruz, where there are beautiful redwood forests and beaches, and I spent two years with my father, learning about nature and reading and doing math outdoors. And that early experience has profoundly influenced the way I teach.

After being home-schooled, I skipped sixth grade, then I skipped eighth grade and most of high school, and I finished high school when I was fifteen. I went to a community college, and after getting my degree I spent some time traveling with my spiritual teacher. Then I became very interested in finding a career that would be in alignment with my goal of helping create a more peaceful world.

The experience of being home-schooled by my father showed me how powerful it is when you challenge children in meaningful ways. I feel it’s very important that the children in my classroom are challenged, and that they don’t become disinterested. If I sense that the children are sleepy, or there’s some grumpiness in the room, I’ll change the curriculum and take them outdoors for a nature walk. Seeing the colors of the flowers, and being outside under the sun and sky transforms their day, and they come back indoors with their energy renewed.

I try to incorporate nature into their daily experience, and I try to make sure they have some outside time together, to be among the trees and plants.

Q:  You said that you challenge them. Can you talk about that?

Mahita:  A very unique feature of this school is that we have an individualized curriculum, so that each child will be learning at his or her own level. It makes a lot of sense, because whether we’re doing math, reading, or writing, every child will be learning somewhat differently.

I feel that my job as an educator is to challenge the children in many ways, and not just academically. I do challenge them academically, of course. And if I see a child who’s accomplishing their math tasks easily, I’ll make sure they’ve really mastered those math skills, and then I’ll need to quickly think of how I can keep challenging them.


In our school, we recognize the importance of creating a relationship of trust with each child, so that the children will feel safe when they’re being challenged to go to the next level with our help. If they think they can’t do it, you’re there to tell them, “I know you can.” And they’ll trust you enough to try, because they know you, and they know you aren’t going to judge them.

I also challenge the children to be their best selves. I have very high standards for them – I expect them to treat each other kindly, and to articulate their words with care, and to practice having consideration for others. I challenge them to learn how to self-regulate – how to choose an appropriate activity to calm their bodies, like deep breathing. Or maybe they need to sit and read a book for a while, until they can get calm and re-join the group.

Self-regulating is a skill that can be very challenging for four-, five-, and six-year-olds. The Education for Life philosophy has helped me understand how to help them manage their energy, and I’ve been inspired also by Bev Bos, a brilliant early childhood educator who believed in giving children a creative curriculum. My teaching has been very influenced by Bev, and by the Conscious Discipline methods we use here at Living Wisdom School.

Conscious Discipline is a set of tools that help children learn the basic things they need to say and do. For example, I will never tell a child, “Say it nicely.” Instead, I’ll give them the exact words:  “Say to your friend, ‘Can you please hand me the pencil?’” I’m modeling the sentences the children need to know in order to express themselves effectively, which is a big part of what we’re doing at this age, teaching the children what they should say, and how they should say it.

I believe in Conscious Discipline very strongly, because it’s a beautiful set of tools, and it works. I think it’s wonderful that we’re encouraged here to help the children acquire these essential skills.


Q:  It sounds like you’re helping them develop skills that may not be directly related to academics, but will help them be successful in academics – how to master a challenge, and how to succeed in small ways and enjoy their successes.

Mahita:  And teaching them to love the challenges, and to feel confident within themselves that if something is challenging, they can do it. It’s about giving them a confidence from within, instead of trying to motivate them by external pressures and external rewards.

I think it’s very important that the children learn how to be intrinsically motivated – that they’re motivated from within themselves to do their best, and not that they’re motivated from outside. It’s why I don’t use sticker charts or reward systems. I’ve read lots of research on this, and I feel it’s best for the children if you can teach them, starting at a very early age, that the best rewards are when they’re able to look at their art or their math and feel very happy about it from inside.

Q:  Is there an emphasis on language arts in kindergarten, on helping them learn to read and write?

Mahita:  Yes, because developing literacy and language is extremely important for young children. There are many studies on the importance of exposing children to lots of new words, and to environments that are rich in a variety of print materials. They need to be exposed to a great many words for their optimal growth, and it’s why I read lots and lots of stories to them.

Storytelling and story reading play a huge role in the curriculum. I took a course on literacy and language development for young children, and I learned that the children need for you to read slowly, at a pace that’s significantly slower than you’d read to an adult. And it’s because they’re forming a tremendous number of new ideas in their heads at this age, and they’re learning to understand the context of each new word. So I’m very intentional in how I read to my class. I’ll make the voices of the characters in the stories, and in the second part of the year I’ll read lots of poetry to them, and I’ll get them started writing poetry, with some prompts, because it’s very helpful for developing their language and thinking skills.

As far as writing goes, at this age I’ll wait to see when each child is truly ready to start doing their own writing. Some of the children will be ready to start writing words and sentences halfway through the year, and they’ll be very excited. And some will still want you to write out the words for them, which is fine, because they don’t all develop the same skills at the same time. I teach writing on whiteboards instead of paper, because it’s easier to erase and edit when you’re very young and still developing your fine motor skills. And I teach phonics so they can start to recognize the sounds of the letters and work out the sounds of new words.

Language plays a huge role in how the classroom is structured. As I mentioned, I’m very careful about the language I use with the kids. I don’t tell them “Good job!” or “That’s perfect!” or “I really like it.” I stay away from those kinds of value judgments; instead, I’ll try to find out about them, and how they’re feeling and where their energy is. “Tell me about your art. Tell me what you did. Oh, wow, I can see that you put green and blue there. Tell me about that.”

Q:  They’re rewarded because you’re interested, and because they can tell you what’s fulfilling them?

Mahita:  That’s right. When the children first enter kindergarten, they’ll hold up their art and say, “Do you like it? Did I do it right?” And it might take a month or two, but then they’ll stop asking for approval, and they’ll start saying, “I did a masterpiece, Mahita!” Because they’re telling me how they feel about it rather than asking if it’s right.

Q:  Does it affect the way they approach their academic learning?

Mahita:  Very definitely, yes. They’re learning a process, and they’re learning to articulate, at a very young age, “This is what I feel, and this is what I need, and these are the tools I can use to calm myself and make myself feel better, and prepare myself to face this challenge.”

DSC_7378_00264_v1I don’t think that any human being can succeed academically, in the deepest, most lasting way and to their full potential, if they aren’t able to self-regulate. As the children navigate high school and college, they’ll face many stressful challenges. And having the tools to calm yourself and self-regulate and know what’s really alive within you will make a big difference.

I teach a high level of math in kindergarten. (laughs) Some people don’t believe me when I say this, but I teach algebraic thinking at this age, and I really try to develop a solid number sense in the children. When they have a solid number sense, what happens is that they’ll breeze through math when they reach fourth and fifth grade, because they’ll have the right understanding, from tangibly working on these things since they were four and five.

Q:  You’re giving them content in kindergarten that they’ll be using in fourth and fifth grade?

Mahita:  Exactly. For example, I might put on the board:  “Ten is the same as five plus what number?” Or “Ten is the same as eight plus what number?”

Q:  That’s amazing.

Mahita:  And they’re doing it all the time, so it becomes very natural to them. I start teaching these concepts in the first or second week of school. And I do lots of things to make math fun. I have a Math Owl who tells math stories, and I do activities that bring out their natural joy at this age, through storytelling, role playing, improv, and so on.

Q:  The Education for Life book suggests that young children are working very much with their feelings, and that they need appropriate learning tools.

Mahita:  Yes, exactly. We’re using appropriate tools. We’re using the tools they naturally have. Children at this age play, and if we can incorporate play into what they’re learning, and make it playful for them, then the learning sinks in easily. And we can carefully observe what they’re learning, and what we can do to help them learn even better. I’m always watching them and thinking of what I can bring into the classroom that will help them in their play.

Q:  I visited the fourth-grade classroom, and the focus of the children was amazing. I asked a little girl if I could take her picture, and without glancing up from her book she said, “All right.” She absolutely did not want to be distracted from her math book. It was inspiring to see them working in pairs and deeply concentrated on their math. It’s not at all as if they wanted to be someplace else.

Mahita:  It’s pretty incredible. I think sometimes I might take it for granted because I’m in the middle of it all the time. But I have five- and six-year-olds who are so dedicated to what they’re doing that they’re completely absorbed, and they’re engaged and excited.

Q:  Five-year-olds are notoriously distractable. It’s fascinating to hear that they can be focused.

Mahita:  If you can frame an activity for children so that their enthusiasm is alive and they’re fully engaged, the learning happens naturally, and you’re there to support it.

I think it’s only when you don’t frame a lesson or an exploration of ideas properly, that the children are more easily distracted. I’m very, very carefully observing all the time what’s working and what isn’t, and what I need to fix. Maybe there’s a lot of joy around an activity, but maybe the energy is a bit too high. I have to be on my toes, and be ready to adjust to each moment, and stay flexible.

Q:  It seems very different from the old-fashioned classroom with the kids sitting in rows, doing the same thing at the same time.

Mahita:  I can’t imagine having kids sit at their desks all day, especially at this age. I can’t imagine how it would affect their learning and development. I’m continually problem-solving and adjusting my teaching. I always have a curriculum planned for the next week and month, but if an activity isn’t working, or if it’s taking too long, or if the children are taking it to another level, I will go with that. There’s no doubt that being flexible is a key requirement for being effective as a teacher.

Q:  One of the most common complaints among teachers in public schools today is that they have to follow a state-mandated curriculum, and it takes away their flexibility to adjust the curriculum to the needs of the students.

Mahita:  At this age, they’re naturally curious. They naturally want to learn, and I feel it’s tragic when a child’s curiosity is shut down in an attempt to deliver some sort of prescribed lesson plan. My hope is that when the children leave here, they’ll feel that they can ask questions and be curious, and cultivate their natural love of learning, and not feel that there’s only one right answer, or that they have to stay quiet instead of asking a question.

DSC_7313_00211_v1I joke that if you come into a kindergarten and it’s too quiet, there’s no way that learning is happening, because the kids are not naturally quiet while they’re learning. Sure, you want a reasonable level of quiet, but I feel that the best times of learning are when the children are excited and talking to each other about what’s going on, or they’re asking each other questions, or they’re asking me questions, so it’s very alive.

Q:  Shawn Achor, the author of The Happiness Advantage, found that the most successful Harvard freshmen were not those who spent all their time trying to grind out good grades. The most successful Harvard students were engaged with each other, asking questions and forming study groups. They were social and knew how to get the help they needed. They were the kids who talked about everything, and knew how to enjoy what they were doing, and how to connect with it. And it sounds rather eerily similar to what you’re teaching your kindergarten students. (See the article “The Happiness Advantage in School,” on the LWS website here; included are two fascinating TED talk videos with Shawn Achor.)

Mahita:  It’s so important for these kids to learn the skills of cooperating and problem-solving. I wish you could see how they grow throughout the year. At the start of the year there are always a few months where it’s just constant conflict resolution, and constant learning to use the right words, and constantly giving them the sentences and words that will help them be successful.

Then, after a few months, they’ve gained enough skills that I’ll be able to sit and observe them for extended periods during the day, and they’ll be completely, one-hundred percent able to navigate and cooperate. And it’s not because I’ve solved their problems for them, but because I’ve challenged them, “How can you solve that problem?” And they start to become thinkers. “Oh, we both want to play this game, but we want to play it differently, and how can we do that?” Or they start to figure out the right way to ask their friends for help when they need it, and how to make requests of each other, instead of grabbing.

It’s very rewarding to me as a teacher to see the transformation, and to think, “Wow, most adults can’t even do this.” Can you put twelve adults in a room all day, and they’ll get along? Most likely not, and these kids can do it beautifully.

Q:  Do you talk to the other teachers about how your students are doing after they leave kindergarten?

Mahita:  Definitely, yes. I wrote an email to a parent today, and I said, “As a teacher, you really love these children and care about them, and you can’t just switch it off.” It’s not like it switches off on the weekend, or when you go home. And for me it’s a big deal and very important to talk to the teachers that they’ll be going to, because I want the next teacher to have all of the information that helped me to help each child grow during their kindergarten year. I’ll talk about the reading level they’re on, and what I’ve found that can help the child in a variety of situations, and I’ll let the first-grade teacher know I’m always available if they have questions.

Teaching isn’t just about academics. It’s about having a sense of who each child is, and what’s important to them. And I’ll want to have a conversation with their next teacher about that, too.

With an individualized curriculum, you basically have twelve curriculums going on at the same time. And as teachers our job is to make sure that each child is getting his or her individual needs met every day.




Race to Nowhere: The Best Advertisement for LWS

We encourage parents who are considering enrolling their children in Living Wisdom School to watch the film Race to Nowhere, as we feel it makes the best possible argument in favor of the Education for Life approach.

NOTE: The film is available on Netflix, and on YouTube for a rental fee of $3.99. You can watch the trailer on YouTube here, and follow the link in the right column at the start of the trailer (it also appears at the end of the trailer) to rent the film.

Race to Nowhere describes, through segments with parents, educators, and counselors, the terrible toll that the current obsession with grades, test results, and acceptance by prestigious colleges is taking on children and their families. The filmmakers suggest solutions that have been in place in the Living Wisdom Schools for more than 40 years, and that have more than proved their worth.

Our educational approach addresses and effectively resolves all of the issues addressed in the film: the pressures that drive students to cheating and even suicide; the false definitions of success; the myth that an exclusive focus on academics is the fastest path to academic results; the equally false belief that results on standardized tests and volume of homework reflect academic progress; the severe impact of the current obsession with college acceptance on family life and children’s mental, emotional, and physical health.

“When I decided to cut our homework in half, our AP scores went up!” — High school Advanced Placement biology teacher in Race to Nowhere.

Science at Living Wisdom School — A Conversation with teacher Doug Andrews

Doug Andrews has taught science at LWS for 10 years. Doug has a degree in biology from the University of California at Santa Cruz. He recalls, “I was in a PhD program for biochemistry. I had wanted to go to medical school, but I had three small kids, and I was a single parent.

doug-andrews“I was working at the molecular level, researching drug transport across membranes, and I realized that what I liked best was working with people, which was my motivation for wanting to go to medical school. I was looking for a more meaningful way to be useful in the world, and it’s how I eventually ended up at LWS.”

Doug spoke with George Beinhorn, a LWS staff member who serves as our webmaster, editor, writer, and photographer.

GB: Good morning, Doug. I had a long conversation recently with our school’s newest teacher, Kabir MacDow, who has worked in education for over 40 years. Kabir believes the principles we practice in the classroom at LWS make learning more efficient. As an example of inefficient learning, Kabir described how children in some public schools in India attend school six days from morning to mid-afternoon, and after years they come out unable even  to read well. In part, he believes it’s because the teachers are focused on rote memorization, but partly it’s also because they aren’t trained to bring out children’s enthusiasm for learning.

At LWS, we sometimes talk about educating children’s consciousness. And I believe it’s an unfortunate word, because it’s abstract and doesn’t clearly say what it means. It’s unfortunate, because if we look at the nuts and bolts of what happens classroom here, it’s inspiring.

Education for Life is based on the idea that we have five human tools for interacting with the world: our body, feelings, will, mind, and soul. And Kabir’s point is that learning becomes much more efficient when we address all five tools, instead of limiting our focus to the mind alone.

Science teacher Doug Andrews has the class excited about biology.
Science teacher Doug Andrews has the kids excited about biology.

A child is a tightly integrated system, and if you confine yourself to improving the mind, it’s like  tuning the carburetor on your car when the tires are flat and the fuel pump is broken. But if you include the peripheral tools when you educate children, you find that it greatly enhances their ability to learn, because you’re bringing more energy to the process – the enthusiasm of the heart, the deep interest of the mind which improves mental focus, and the natural energy of body, heart and soul.

So by drawing in all aspects of the child, you’re making a major contribution to their academic readiness.

Doug: That’s it. That’s everything. You’re refining the tools that contribute to learning. And it becomes especially clear in science that how you teach makes a huge difference.

The way science is taught in schools is often very uninspiring. Obviously, there are good teachers who are able to make science interesting. But what they’re doing individually, at LWS we’re doing philosophically across all our grades and academic disciplines.

First, we take into account that children in the K-8 grades are nearly all in the age group of 6 to 12. And these are the critical “feeling years” of a child’s development. The feelings years are extremely important in a child’s growth, because they set the stage for the child’s character, for their ability to know right from wrong, and for their ability to be enthusiastic about learning. And if you want to get the best out of the student in academics, it’s critical to bring out their enthusiasm, their energy, and their natural ability to love.

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

In science, it matters only very secondarily if a child in 5th grade knows about atomic structure. But if he/she is highly enthusiastic about some aspect of science, and if the teacher can tap that enthusiasm and guide it creatively and rigorously, the child will learn to love science, and he or she will develop a love of the scientific method.

That’s the most important aspect of science education. I may not be able to hold all the details of my particular branch of science in my brain. But if I know the basic principles and how to find the information I need, and if I have a natural enthusiasm that makes me curious about finding the answers, I’m three-quarters of the way toward being a successful scientist.

I feel this is the best thing I can give the students, because enthusiasm is the motor that drives academic success. And it’s what parents continually tell me they respect about science at LWS. At our year-end ceremony, parents unfailingly tell me, “We want to thank you, because our child says that science is her favorite subject. And when we ask her what field she wants to study, it’s always, ‘I want to study science.’”

GB: The parents approach you and tell you that?

Doug: Oh, totally. Totally. And all of the work I do is directed toward the single goal of making sure the kids love science when they leave for the next grade.

I don’t put the students on a rigid program to finish X pages in X time, because that approach sucks all the life out of science. It really is of no particular value at all. I’m completely okay with the idea of finding our way through the academic curriculum by making science something that we can explore with energy and enthusiasm.

In the end, they learn more, retain more, and become more interested and more adept at applying the scientific method.

In the younger grades, for example, I may start a conversation with the kids about “things that fly.” I’ll ask them, “What flies? Tell me some things that fly. It doesn’t matter if it’s alive or if it’s a machine. It doesn’t matter if it’s coming from outer space. Whatever it is, let’s talk about things that fly.”

If you find that this particular group loves the idea of airplanes, well, airplanes have a lot of science in them. There are lots of things you can look at with airplanes, in terms of the shape of the wings, the shape of the propellers, wind currents, lift, and so on. We can build model airplanes and compare the designs and try to understand how they work, and why one works better than the others. And that’s science.

I can then go back and ask them, “What else flies?” And we might end up talking about butterflies. So we’ll take a day trip to Natural Bridges to see the butterflies in season. And we’ll study the life cycle of butterflies. So we’re following their enthusiasm and bringing in science as a way to understand how the natural world works. Child with Bubble, Living Wisdom School, Palo Alto, California

Bubbles fly, and bubbles are fun, and we can figure out which kind of solution yields the best bubbles, and why. We can make solutions and compare them, and then we’ll look at the science of why it works. And when we get to the level where we’re opening the book and drawing on the chalkboard and talking about the science, it’s a whole lot more fun because their enthusiasm is high.

I don’t know how most science teachers survive, when they’re required to follow an externally dictated curriculum. Bless them if they’re able to do it and make it interesting.

But Kabir is right. The philosophy that we’re privileged to work with here allows us to be scientists working together, which is a much deeper approach that pays big dividends in learning.

I remember, as a kid, going shopping and seeing my teacher, and not feeling that I could go up to them and say “Hi.” But when I run into our kids outside of school, they’ll often come up and talk. And that’s because we’re enthusiastic about having fun doing science together.

What I look for in the children’s science fair projects is the level of challenge in the experiment, the presentation, and how well they conducted the experiment. (See 2015 LWS Science Fair photos.)

GB: Are you working with each of the students individually on their projects in school?

Doug: I do. And the way it works is that, between the two classes, I have 40-44 kids that I’m checking in on. And it’s not like I can go in depth with each of them. So I have them propose an idea six months ahead. And once of the proposals are in place, I’ll ask them for procedures. And then I keep them on track with collecting their data. In the last couple of weeks I’ll help them work on their presentations. Then they’ll do a dry run, where they bring their project to school and do a dress rehearsal, so they’ve had some experience sharing what they’ve done.

GB: Do the classroom teachers help them on their science fair projects?

Doug: Not usually. They have their own schedules. But undoubtedly the parents are involved. I encourage the parents to see the science fair as a golden opportunity to do something creative with their kids, and many of them do.

Some kids don’t want their parents involved. For example, Vidushi is not a kid where that would ever be the case. She would not have to lean on her parents, because she would do it all on her own.

GB: Does developing enthusiasm in science help them with their other studies?

Doug: Well, that’s it. It doesn’t matter if they’re doing science or language arts or history. We all come into life with certain interests, and some people love math or geography or astronomy. And it doesn’t matter what you’re interested in. What matters is that you have the energy and enthusiasm to be able to understand it and love it.

If you’re inclined toward math, and you have it pounded into your head that you have to get through X pages – that’s a sure way to pull all the life and enthusiasm out of the student in math class.

GB: It’s an external motivator. And the research clearly shows that enjoying the process – being internally motivated – yields work of greater quantity and quality.

Doug: Yes, and one thing we do very well here is that we look at the children as individuals, rather than as an age group or a grade level or a group to be processed through an education machine. It’s not unusual here to have a child who’s chronologically in 2nd grade but academically and developmentally on a level with the 3rd graders. And that’s where they’ll go, because that’s where they’ll get the most academically.

But if a child needs to spend more time among his peers, we won’t artificially put them in a higher grade; instead, we’ll encourage them to work individually in their present class. For example, the child may not be socially ready to move up a grade. In that case, we might make it a gradual transition, so they’ll be ready to work at a higher level with appropriate social skills.

Keshav is a golfer, so it was natural for him to study golf balls. Manufacturers advertise their golf balls as traveling farther because of the way they’re made, and Keshav tested and compared various models to see if the claims are true. Keshav is a mathematician by inclination, and you can see that he generated plenty of statistics to support his work. It was a fine experiment and a really excellent presentation.
Doug admires Keshav’s exhibit at the 2015 LWS Science Fair. Keshav is a golfer; he tested the claims of golf ball manufacturers that their balls fly farther. Click to enlarge.

Many schools will advance a student based on academic ability alone, without any regard for the rest of the person. At LWS, we aren’t so blinded by academics that we’ll sacrifice the child’s long-term success by pushing them forward at all costs. That’s short-term thinking, and it commonly ends up demotivating the child, if they’re doing well academically but they’re uncomfortable with their social situation.

GB: Talking with the teachers, I hear them speak about how the culture of the school is built around social connections with people, and understanding other people’s realities. If you watch re-runs of Veronica Mars, you see a high school environment that’s a war zone, basically. It’s a jungle. And it’s not like that in this school. When I visit the classrooms to observe, or to take pictures for the website, I’ll often see the older kids helping each other, or helping the younger kids.

Doug: Because I teach science, I’m not a full-time classroom teacher. But I benefit greatly from what the classroom teachers are doing. For example, when I lead a science lab, I can expect that when I assign lab partners, I know I won’t get a lot of resistance about who the kids do or don’t want to work with. Many times, I’ll know that I can absolutely count on the students wanting to help, because the children have learned to enjoy helping in this school culture. The idea of being kind, of being of service, of being helpful to another person – you’re not “training” kids to do that. You’re simply creating a school culture that reinforces those natural tendencies that are present in human nature.

It’s the culture that allows that level of compassion to become the focus. In every classroom from K to 8, the kids are motivated to be that way, because the culture gives them a chance to experience how helping makes them feel great.

They know they aren’t going to mock or make fun of someone. And if they see a 6th grader who needs help, they’ll naturally and comfortably offer it.

So, as a science teacher, I get the benefit of that culture in my classroom. I see it working, and I’m very aware of it, because it’s a blessing to be able to teach science in an accepting, cooperative culture. And it’s one more way Education for Life makes learning efficient.

You can see it even in the early grades. The 3rd graders in Ruth’s class are wonderful. They’re sophisticated in a way that you wouldn’t expect, probably because of the culture in Silicon Valley. So they have a lot of information, and they’re very curious, and they’re really sweet. In 4th and 5th grade they can get a little sassy – nothing wrong with it! (laughs) But in 3rd grade they’re sweet and they’re not self-conscious, and they’re having fun.

This is Diana again. Her family are from Russia, and she could not be brighter.
This is Diana loading a volcano with fuel at the 3rd grade exhibit during the 2015 LWS Science Fair. Click to enlarge.

It showed in the volcano project that we did with the 3rd graders for the science fair this year. It was typical 3rd grade energy.

In other years, we’ve done a project that asks which bubble gum blows the best bubbles – we called it Bubbleology. It’s actually a great science experiment, because it’s a way to create a logical pathway for thinking through a problem. We’ll compare various brands of bubble gum, and it gets into materials science and physics and math.

The scientific method is something most people have a vague idea about. Everybody knows there’s a specific method that you can follow, and in the West we want to have information verified objectively and scientifically. But it’s a two-edged sword. First, because many people don’t need to know information scientifically, because there are many kinds of information they need to discover for themselves subjectively. But on the other hand, when it’s about coming to an intelligent, logical conclusion, it’s helpful to have the standard process to go by. Diet and exercise are great examples, where you may know the scientific principles, but you have to apply them with respect for individual differences that can be significant, and that can vary daily.

LWS Annual Math Awards

Living Wisdom School students consistently perform well in national tests of academic achievement. LWS 2008 Math Award Winners Zachary, George, Hazemach, and Alex.
Living Wisdom School students consistently perform well in national tests of academic achievement. LWS 2008 Math Award Winners Zachary, George, Hazemach, and Alex.

Living Wisdom School Takes a Unique Approach to International Math Competition

Living Wisdom School has participated in two prestigious national and international mathematics competitions for more than ten years: The American Mathematical Competitions, and the International Mathematical Olympiads.

In our school, we take a very different approach to these very challenging tests.

The official description of the Mathematical Olympiads says:

“Most of those participating in our contests rank among the best mathematics students in their schools. Therefore, if you earned an individual award, you rank among the best of the best internationally.”

Note that in most schools, only the most gifted and academically advanced students take the Olympiads. In these schools, the students receive a great deal of special preparation for the tests, including weekly practice tests, and intensive individual mentoring. Preparing for the Math Olympiads is often a central focus of the after-school math club.

Many schools devote major effort to ensure that their top students will do well in these contests, believing that high scores will attract talented students to their schools and enhance the school’s academic reputation.

(A few schools go so far as to lodge protests when their students are stumped by the deliberately complex verbal test questions.)

Our approach to these contests is based on a central principle of our school’s philosophy: We do not believe in “studying to the test!”

We believe that our students are better served by helping them individually to develop the enthusiasm and skills that will enable them to be successful in their academic subjects, including mathematics. We strive to help them make the greatest possible gains at their own level.

In sharp distinction to the approach of other schools, at LWS, all of our students in grades 4-8 take the tests without any special preparation, as part of the normal daily flow of the school year.

Our students take the tests not to gauge themselves against the brightest young students in the world, but as a fun way to challenge themselves and measure their own individual progress.

At LWS, our overriding concern is how our students’ math skills are improving individually over the years. This is in keeping with our philosophy of helping each child to experience the joy and satisfaction of overcoming academic challenges at their own level. This is why we focus on improving math skills rather than improving test performance. We have found that focusing on skills improves test results naturally and enjoyably.

The positive results of this approach are reflected in our students’ performance when they enter high school. Many of our students test out of freshman math. Occasionally, they may test out of algebra, geometry, and even trigonometry.

A Greater Challenge

A unique aspect of our approach to the Olympiads and the AMC is that our students take the tests that are designed for older students in the later grades.

For example, our 4th through 6th graders take the Olympiad E, which is designed to challenge 6th graders, and all of our 4th through 8th graders take the Olympiad M, which is designed to challenge 8th graders.

Our approach to these prestigious international tests is: “It’s all in a day’s work.” As mentioned, we do no special preparation. For example, some of the tests fall during the week just before the all-school theater production, which is an extremely busy time of the year for the children, when there is little time for last-minute test “cramming.”

We feel this is, by far, a healthier approach for the children. The academic training that we offer them is very rigorous, without subjecting them to a high-pressure testing atmosphere that would have no real purpose other than to use their test scores to enhance the reputation of our school. Thus, we conduct the tests in an atmosphere of relaxed challenge where their self-esteem is not at stake.

As an example of how our approach works, during the 2015-16 academic year some of our youngest students who took the tests (4th graders) scored in the top 30% on the 8th grade test. Very impressive! And two students scored in the top 5% internationally. Extremely impressive!

The fact that an unusually high proportion of our students are performing far above grade level is reflected in their results on these tests, and in the fact that many of our students test well ahead of grade level upon entering high school.

It’s natural that some of our LWS students perform exceptionally well in math, given the amazing Silicon Valley parental “math gene pool.” But a more important question is: are the gifted students being challenged in our school? Are they being trained to be enthusiastic students who will challenge themselves in high school and beyond?

The answer again, we feel, is reflected in our students’ progress as they enter high school and college. As mentioned, many of our graduates test out of high school freshman algebra, and some test out of geometry and even trigonometry. Moreover, our graduates have been accepted at prestigious universities, including Stanford, UC Berkeley (physics major), University of Michigan (Ross School of Business), Cornell (mathematics major), University of Bremen, Germany (PhD program in Space Technology and Microgravity), and other top schools.

LWS Students Comment on the Tests

“It’s nice to do a challenge.”

“The tests make us take math more seriously. It is big and hard, but fun!”

“The tests help us use the other side of our brains.”

Two Kinds of Test Atmosphere – Healthy and Unhealthy

Over the years, our middle school teacher, Gary McSweeney, has carefully monitored the atmosphere in the classroom while the students take these very challenging tests. Gary has been pleased to notice that it is much more relaxed than the stereotypical, high-pressure test scenario where the teachers are pressuring the students to do well, and where the students often feel that their self-worth is on the line.

Gary says, “I would say that they enjoy the concentrated effort of taking a timed test in silence. The questions require the students to employ creative, out-of-the-box strategies to solve problems. These are not multiple-choice tests, so there is no possibility of them guessing the correct answer! In part, they are reading-comprehension problems. They challenge the students to carefully analyze the question and understand what is being asked. Our students enjoy taking the tests as a way to demonstrate their skills, and to see where they can improve their understanding and knowledge.”

What Are the Mathematical Olympiads?

Nearly 150,000 students participate on nearly 5100 teams every year in the global Math Olympiads.

The Math Olympiads are a series of five timed tests, given monthly throughout the year, with five problems in each.

The goals of the Math Olympiads are: (1) to develop mathematical flexibility in problem solving, (2) to strengthen mathematical intuition, and (3) to foster mathematical creativity and ingenuity.

What Is the American Mathematics Contest (AMC 8 and 10)?

The AMC competitions are sponsored by the Mathematical Association of America, which has held the contests for 60 years.

The competitions include the AMC 8, designed for eighth graders, and the AMC 10, designed for advanced high school sophomores.

These timed tests are intended to challenge students by offering them problem-solving experiences beyond those provided in most junior high and high school math classrooms.

The AMC 8 has 150,000 participants nationwide, and the AMC 10 has 31,000.

Living Wisdom School Math Awards through the Years



Shruti and Sophia receive their math awards at the 2015-17 End of Year Ceremony.
Vidushi and Sophia receive their math awards from middle school teacher Gary McSweeney at the 2015-16 End of Year Ceremony.

2015/16 Math Olympiads – Division E (Grades 4-6)

LWS Students in top 50%: 2 (Grade 6)

Top 40%: 2 (Grades 5, 6)

Top 30%: 1 (Grade 4)

Top 25%: 1 (Grade 5)

Top 20%: 4 (Grades 5, 5, 6, 6)

Top 2%: 1 (Gold Pin; Grade 6)

Team Score: 153

Participants: 23

2015-16 Math Olympiads – Division M (Grades 6-8)

Living Wisdom School Statistics:

Top 10%: 1

Top 30%: 1

Top 40%: 3

Top 50%: 6

Participants: 33



Elizabeth, Andrew, and Freya receive their math awards at the LWS End of Year Ceremony. Congratulations to Freya for her perfect scores on the AMC 8 and Olympiad M! (Click to enlarge.)
Elizabeth, Andrew, and Freya receive their math awards at the LWS End of Year Ceremony. Congratulations to Freya for her perfect scores on the AMC 8 and Olympiad M! (Click to enlarge.)

Year after year, students from Living Wisdom School perform extremely well on two difficult international tests of mathematics achievement. For an in-depth conversation about how middle-schoolers learn math at LWS, follow the link to this very interesting interview with middle-school teacher Gary McSweeney.

The AMC 8

The AMC 8 for junior-high students includes many problems that demand math skills and experience far beyond those provided in most junior high math classes.

Congratulations to Freya Edholm of LWS, who achieved a perfect score of 25 – the only perfect score by a sixth-grader in the state of California on the AMC 8 for eighth-graders. Of the 20,571 sixth-graders who took the AMC 8 worldwide, only 6 achieved a perfect 25. And of the 152,691 students in grades 5-8 worldwide who took the AMC 8, only 225 students achieved a perfect score. The average score was 10.67.

The Math Olympiads

In 2013, 103,592 students participated in the Olympiads from 49 states, 9 American territories, and 25 foreign countries. In most schools, only the best math students participate, but at LWS all students take the Olympiad M exam for 8th grade and below and the Olympiad E for 6th grade and below.

Of the 19,541 students who took the Olympiad M exam for 8th grade and below, Freya Edholm of Living Wisdom School was the only 6th-grade girl in the state of California to achieve a perfect score of 25. Congratulations, Freya!

Elizabeth Peters and Andrew Dollente won the silver pin for scoring 17 and 19 points respectively.



Living Wisdom School celebrates the following students.

Olympiad E (Elementary)

Freya Edholm (5th grade) earned a gold pin with a score of 24 out of 25, placing her in the top 2% of students taking the test internationally.

Pongsa Tayjasanant (4th grade, score 18 out of 25) and Jason Fu (4th grade, score 20 out of 25) were awarded silver pins, placing them in the top 10% of students taking the test worldwide.

Placing in the top 50% and earning a Felt Patch were Kalyan Narayanan, Tyler Keen, Andrew Dollente, Divya Thekkath, and Emma Farley.

Olympiad M (Middle School)

Fifth-grader Freya Edholm’s score of 22 out of 25 earned her a gold pin and placed her in the top 2% in this test for 6th to 8th graders.

Percy Jiang scored 16 out of 25, earning a silver pin, placing him in the top 10%.

Scoring in the top 50% and earning a Felt Patch were Mariah Stewart, Jason Fu, Kelly Olivier, Sita Chandraekaran, Kalyan Narayanan, Kieran Rege, and Pongsa Tayjasanant.

The American Mathematics Contests (AMC 8)

The AMC8 has over 150,000 student contestants from more than 2,400 U.S. schools.

Freya Edholm (5th grade) scored 20, which placed her in the top 5% of students on the Olympiad M which is for students in grades 6-8.

Jason Fu’s score of 15 qualified him for a Certificate of Achievement for 5th grade students.




Sahana Narayana, in 7th grade, scored 24 correct for the 99.3 percentile overall. Incredible job, Sahana!

Freya Edholm, in 4th grade, scored 18 correct for the 93.3 percentile overall. Another incredible result. Well done, Freya!

Sergey Gasparyan, 7th grade, scored 14 correct for the 82.2 percentile overall. Well done, Sergey!

Alex Tuharsky, 8th grade, chose not to take the AMC 8 this year. Instead, Alex focused his efforts on the online Calculus B class that he is taking through the Gifted Children Program at Stanford University. He is receiving an A grade in this class! Great job, Alex!

AMC 10

Sergey Gasparyan, 7th grade, was awarded a “Young Student Certificate of Achievement” for his score of 112 on the AMC10, designed for advanced high school sophomores. Well done, Sergey!




Congratulations to the LWS students who completed the AMC 8! Notable scores were achieved by many students for their age group:

  • Lucas Munro, 7th grade, 93.8 percentile
  • Alex Tuharsky, 7th grade, 91.1 percentile
  • Sahana Narayana, 6th grade, 94.7 percentile
  • Sergey Gasparyan, 6th grade, 88.8 percentile



Recent LWS Graduates Test into Advanced High School Courses

Hazemach, now a freshman at Woodside Priory, tested out of Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II/Trig, and began his freshman year in Pre-Calculus with the advanced 11th and 12th grade students. Shortly after, he was placed in the Calculus Class, becoming the first student in Woodside Priory’s history to achieve this honor! (Update 2016: Hazemach is now a PhD student at the University of Bremen, Germany, in Space Technology and Microgravity.)

Zachary Munro, now a freshman at Gunn High, placed into Algebra II/Trig, the most advanced sophomore class, and a weighted course for the UC system. Gunn High waived Zachary’s placement test based on his ISEE (Independent School Entrance Exam) and SAT scores.

LWS Students Score well in the AMC

AMC 8 Results

Zachary Munro, now a freshman at Gunn High, came in third place, scoring 18 (92nd percentile worldwide). George Selley (5th grade) and Alex Tuharsky (6th grade) tied for second place and earned a place on the Honor Roll for their scores, and on the Achievement Roll for their scores for their grade level. They both scored 20 (96th percentile of all grades worldwide). Hazemach, now a freshman at Woodside Priory, came in first place and made the International Honor Roll, scoring 21 (97th percentile worldwide).

AMC 10 Results

The AMC 10 is designed for advanced high school sophomores. Alex Tuharsky (6th grade, score 73.5) came in third place. Hazemach (8th grade, score 84) came in second, and George Selley (5th grade) earned a Certificate of Achievement with a score of 90!

Living Wisdom School received a Certificate of Merit for our overall performance in the AMC 8.

Results: Surya Thekkath (now a Freshman at Pinewood), Sahana Narayana (5th grade), Sergey Gasparayan (5th grade), Zachary Munro (now a freshman at Gunn High), and Alex Ewan (now a freshman at Everest High) earned patches by scoring in the 50-89 percentile.

Hazemach (now a Freshman at Woodside Priory) and Alex Tuharsky (6th grade) scored 17 (top 10%) to earn a silver pin. George Selley (5th grade) scored an impressive 22 out of 25 for a Gold Pin. Congratulations, one and all!



The American Mathematics Contest for 8th graders (AMC8) was held on Nov 6, 2006. Participating in the event were 180,000 students from approximately 2400 schools nationwide.

Congratulations to Rewa Bush (7th grade) and Jessica Wallace (8th grade) who tied for first place at LWS! They qualified for the AMC8 National Honor Roll by scoring in the top 5% of all students who participated.

William Prince (7th grade) received the second-place award at LWS, and Amy Hahn (7th grade) received the third-place award.



During a recent all-school circle we celebrated the results of the American Mathematics Contest 8. Targeted at 8th graders, the AMC8 offers very challenging problems (click here for examples). It includes 25 questions; to get even six answers correct is considered a laudable achievement.

Over 100,000 students from 2,500 U.S. schools took the AMC8. Students from Living Wisdom School were among the best!

Brian Wallace (7th grade) scored 18 and received the prized Honor Roll Certificate of Distinction for placing in the top 2% of all participants! This award honors both the student and the school.

Within our school, Brian Wallace placed first, followed by Ben Madison and Ethan Toolis-Byrd, each with a score of 17. Ethan also received an award for improving the most on the AMC8 from last year to this year.

Our third-place winner was Nicolas Hahn with a score of 16.

Finally, 6th graders Jessica Wallace and Johanna Molina Barajas received awards for having the highest score of 14 within their grade.

Congratulations to all the students who took the test. Our class average was 12.8, up two points from last year, a significant accomplishment! Special congratulations to middle school math teachers Dharmaraj Iyer and Gary McSweeney, who communicate enthusiasm and love for math to their students.