What the Arts Can Do for Children


When David Eby isn’t teaching music to children at the Living Wisdom School in Portland, Oregon, he’s a professional cellist with the Oregon Symphony and the Portland Cello Project. David teaches cello at Lewis and Clark College and is a Teaching Artist for the BRAVO Youth Orchestra. He also works with the El Sistema program, which brings classical music training to disadvantaged youth.

David lives in south Portland with his wife Madhavi, their daughter Caitlin, and their Manx cat, Maggie. (David invites you to visit his website where you can learn about his insights on meditation for musicians, and the spiritual healing power of music in our lives.)

David Eby has taught in the Living Wisdom Schools for more than fourteen years – initially for two years in Portland, then twelve years at the original school at Ananda Village, near Nevada City, California, and now he’s back in Portland teaching again.

Q: David, let’s have an informal conversation about the role of the arts in helping kids be happy and successful in school and in their lives. Have you given much thought to the positive role that the arts can play in a child’s development, especially during the important “Feeling Years” from age 6 to 12? Has it been a theme in your life, and in your daughter’s?

David: My daughter Caitlin is in sixth grade now, and she’s performing with the Pacific Youth Choir in Portland. They recently sang Mahler’s Third Symphony with the Oregon Symphony. It was a spectacular, high-powered event – Mahler can be pretty heavy, but she was moved to tears by the beauty of it.

She gets a great deal of joy from the arts – from music, theater, and writing – and she’s very passionate about it. She grew up in the Living Wisdom Schools, and next year she’ll enter the Arts and Communication Academy here in Portland. I’ve taken her to choir practice since she was a little one, and as a result she knows our entire choir repertoire inside and out. (laughs)

In my life, the arts have been an absolutely constant theme. I picked up the cello when I was six, and I knew right away, with a solid intuition – “This is my instrument!” Music was something that stayed with me throughout my childhood, and playing cello and singing took me to some incredible experiences in my earlier years.

david-eby-300It was during that time that my heart was most open, and through music I was able to experience something greater than myself, whether we call it a higher inspiration, God, or our own highest potential. The name we give it doesn’t matter, so long as we recognize the amazing things that music can do for us.

There are two aspects to music. There’s the purely physical, sonic experience, and then there’s the interior, subjective response.

The sonic experience is what the sound waves are doing to our brain. Many studies in recent years have shown that music, and especially playing an instrument, builds important connections between the two hemispheres of a child’s brain, and that when a child is having a musical experience, many areas of the brain become engaged. It’s not just a single part of the brain. Music touches a number of brain areas simultaneously, and when we’re performing, the whole brain lights up in a striking way that the scientists can observe on brain scans. The effect is also there when we listen to music, but to a lesser degree, and even when we imagine music that inspires us.

So there’s the purely physical level, and then there’s an energetic level. And what I mean by “energetic” is the effect that the sound waves produce that touches us in a deep way. It’s what happens when we say, “That piece really moved me.” Or, “It struck a chord with me. I really resonated with it.”

It’s something that we can safely say lies beyond our intellectual perception, or the simple effect of the sound waves on the physical body and brain. There’s something that music can awaken that’s deeper than a collection of beats and sound waves and chords.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of music today, popular music, that is simply that – it’s just sounds and beats and rhythms and effects that are designed to be ear candy. It gets our energy moving and excites our emotions, but when it’s over it just dumps us back out on the curb again.

What intrigues me is a kind of music that does exactly the opposite, a music that bypasses the mind and draws us inward, into a oneness with something that’s greater than the little ego and that we recognize as being the highest part of ourselves.

Q: Are there levels upon levels of uplifting music – for example, music that can raise our spirits, and then music that can take us to an even higher plane?

David: Yes, I’m absolutely convinced of this. I coached at a music camp last week, where an amateur quartet played a Schubert piece, and it was really lovely. Schubert wrote some incredibly inspired pieces. Some of his songs have a powerful ability to cheer us up and make us smile and feel that life is good.

But I believe there are higher levels. Brahms said that he would contact a divine presence that was “superconscious” when he composed – he actually used that word – and that it was from there that he received his inspiration.

For me, music is a road map, or a kind of source code that can capture inspiration, and that captures the state of consciousness that the composers were able to enter and draw upon, and bring into their music.

We’re given these dots on a page, and when we perform it, there’s a big light that goes on somewhere on the scale of inspiration. And if you play the notes, and carefully tune in to the present moment, and if you’re very focused and receptive, you can get a taste or even become wholly immersed in what the composer experienced. And if the composer received it from a very high place, for example Handel’s Messiah, you can feel it touching your soul.

It’s like a prescription for bringing your consciousness up onto a happier plane. It starts with the realm of pure ideas, and then it works through energy to create a sonic vibration that transmits those ideas to a deep place in us.

For me, it’s one of the things in life, like nature, that can awaken a remembrance in us, of a beauty that lies within us all, and an understanding of where our truest fulfillment comes from.

Our greatest fulfillments can never ultimately come from anything material. When you hear music, can you put your finger on it? Can you capture it? It’s played, and then it goes away. It’s this thing that’s completely immaterial, and yet it’s one of the greatest gifts that God has given us, because it leads us inward, toward the inner kingdom where our universal birthright of happiness lies.

Q: As you were growing up, and in your career as a cellist, was there a point where you felt that there was a ceiling on the inspiration that you could tap into through the kind of music you were playing?

David: Yes. First of all, I can tell you that when I was in the Feeling Years from 6 to 12, I was a complete music snob! (laughs) My teacher actually had to pull me aside and say, “David, I’m afraid I have to give you an unsatisfactory grade, because your attitude has been really, really bad in music class.” And I wasn’t quite sassy enough to say, “Well, yeah, because the music we’re having to learn really sucks!” (laughs)

It was totally, totally uninspiring. But, at the same time, I remember being deeply moved by the folk songs of the Seventies, especially the tunes from Godspell and others that were being sung at the time. My Dad is a Presbyterian pastor, and I grew up in those surroundings, with an awareness of the inspiration of Spirit.

So yes, I had many experiences that reassured me: “As long as I have the music, everything will be okay.”

I had incredibly inspired experiences that carried me through high school. But then toward the end of college, after I had gone through a great deal of formal training, I woke up one day in a kind of panic state, wondering, “My gosh, what have I done?”

I thought, “I’ll end up playing in an orchestra surrounded by miserable musicians, of whom there a great many, and cynical, jaded, uninspired conductors, and an audience that’s dwindling, and music that for the most part isn’t inspiring at all.

There’s a lot of music that is inspired, but orchestras oftentimes have to program “new music” to win the grants that will support the more inspiring stuff. And it’s very unfortunate that in contemporary music we have a great deal to learn about inspiration. Right now, it’s seems that the more outrageous and atonal and banging and confused it is, the better the music is purported to be. There’s a lot of powerful music – but uplifting? – hm, I don’t think so.

So I put my career on hold when I was in my late twenties, and I went off in search of that lost inspiration. And, interestingly enough, I ended up actually finding it.

At first I was looking for a way to serve society through music, which I felt would be a heart-opening and fulfilling thing to do. My first attempt was when I joined a troupe of storytelling musicians who were addressing the needs of children in the Feeling Years that we’ve been talking about, from age 6 to 12. We would take stories and set them to music, and we would become the characters and act out the stories, like the Pied Piper of Hamlin.

I remember dressing up like the mayor of Hamlin – I would strap my cello to my body, and we would play and sing and enact the story. And for a long time I felt very inspired, because it really was serving the needs of young children who desperately need upliftment through the arts.

But then over time it turned out to be too much of an “art for art’s sake” kind of thing, with a precious kind of self-conscious flavor that sapped the feeling of expansion. So I bowed out and began working with the Suzuki Method, which is founded on a beautiful philosophy of creating children who won’t necessarily be professional musicians, but who will be human beings with beautiful hearts. And that was just an incredible experience, because there was a lot of wonderful material there.

But then I noticed that whenever I would go to a Suzuki conference, I would be surrounded by people who were ordinary music teachers who’d seized the opportunity to slap a button on their chest that said, “Hi, I’m a Suzuki teacher.” They weren’t looking for something that would be more deeply meaningful, in the way that I was.

Then, thank goodness, I found Ananda, and I started working as a teacher at the Living Wisdom School in Portland.

At that point, I had quit professional music, and I just dove headfirst into teaching, with these kids who were all in the age group of 6 to 12, and it was the hardest job I’ve ever had, because of the tremendous energy I had to put out to manage the kids and connect with them. I had a class of all girls and one very shy boy who was overwhelmed and wasn’t able to put out much energy. So, for the first two years, it was just the typical, terribly difficult, soul-searing experience of being a beginning teacher.

Then we moved to Ananda Village, where I taught music in the Living Wisdom School for twelve years, and it was an incredibly fulfilling experience, and very, very successful.

Q: Here in Palo Alto, Helen and Gary often have to explain to parents why we spend so much time on the arts. The parents wonder if we might be neglecting the kids’ academic studies.

Arthur Gu performs an advanced classical piece during the 2015 LWS Spring Concert
Arthur Gu performs an advanced classical piece during the 2015 LWS Spring Concert

It can be difficult to persuade them that forty years of experience have shown us that engaging kids in the performing arts has a very positive effect on their academic performance. There’s a strong component of feeling in the learning experience, and it needs to be cultivated, as an important cornerstone of the academic curriculum.

One of our students is a gifted young classical pianist. Arthur just finished third grade, and you can see that he’s totally focused and engaged when he plays, and it’s a quality that carries over to his studies, and his interactions with the other children.

In your years of teaching, have you noticed that the children’s lives are meaningfully enhanced as a result of the time they spend in the arts?

David: Without the slightest question. One of my first students in the Portland school was Keshava Betts, who’s now in his late twenties and lives in Los Angeles, where he plays cello very inspiringly. Keshava realized very early on that if he was feeling low, all he had to do was pick up the cello and play, and he would very quickly feel better. That’s a huge gift – to have the tools to raise our consciousness. It’s one of the most valuable skills we can learn.

I remember coming out of a horrible opera rehearsal one night. As I drove home in the rain, I was feeling drenched by the misery of it all. And then I began to sing a solo that I had volunteered to do, from the oratorio “Christ Lives” by Swami Kriyananda. It was just a way to pass the time on what would have otherwise been a miserable drive. I wasn’t expecting any great change in my consciousness, but then, whammo! I felt a tremendous current of joy. It was so powerful that I had to pull over to the side of the road and wonder, “What in the world just happened?! I don’t understand this. How did this happen?” (laughs)

The song I had started to sing was a very simple piece. It stayed within the octave, and it wasn’t sophisticated at all. Yet it left me wondering, “How did this move me so powerfully? How was it able to change me, in an instant?”

Swami Kriyananda talked about this force in music. He said that music, like architecture, can hold a vibration, and a state of consciousness. And when we walk into an inspired piece of music, it’s like walking into a beautiful building, and it can change our consciousness. We walk into a holy place and we feel uplifted, and we walk into a holy song, and the same thing can happen.

For me, it’s an awe-inspiring responsibility to provide uplifting music for children. I’m teaching music at the school in Portland now, and for the children to walk into these pieces, it changes them. It’s very important to provide opportunities for them to explore those higher places in themselves.

You can’t force it. It’s not something that you can ever hope to drive into them – “Now I want you to feel!” (laughs) And it’s the same with adults. There are adults who love the music, but they have a hard time tuning in to the inner experience of it. And it’s a joy to help them find that happiness in themselves.

I’m working with a music education program called El Sistema, which was started in Venezuela in 1975 by an educator, musician, and activist, José Antonio Abreu.

It brought intense classical music training into the slums, the barrios, and it transformed the whole society, to the point where eighty percent of the doctors and lawyers and educators came up through this system as children. That’s an amazing, powerful statistic!

We’re working with children in an impoverished area of north Portland. It’s hard to measure the changes in just the last three years, because how can you compare where a child is now, compared to some other potential for the child? But we’ve seen an incredibly positive development of personal skills and confidence and social maturity.

Q: These inner changes are starting to be documented by science. It’s been shown, for example, that in the presence of expansive feelings like love, compassion, kindness, and so on, the heart’s rhythms change from relatively chaotic to extremely harmonious. The scientists who’ve studied these changes have shown that those harmonious vibrations have a powerful effect on the body and brain. They’ve found that in school districts where they’ve taught their heart-harmonizing methods to children, including methods that employ music, the children’s grades uniformly improve.

There’s a YouTube video, “How Playing an Instrument Benefits Your Brain”:


David: A wonderful thing about music therapy is that it brings the children into an uplifted, happy place in their consciousness, without your having to nag them into changing.

David, Caitlyn, and Michelle (2008)
David, Caitlyn, and Michelle (2008)

There doesn’t have to be a teacher or parent yelling at them, “Change your energy!” And the kid is going, “I don’t know how.” But if you have them perform uplifting music, it puts them in the right cycle automatically, and it does it effortlessly.

It’s been really fun for me, over the years, to have the children perform only Swami Kriyananda’s music for a time. I was amazed how the kids never tired of it. And if they want to learn some new songs, we were fortunate to have over four hundred pieces to choose from.

Through music, children are able to tap into a higher awareness that’s always with them, without having to struggle to quiet the mind, or to get past the intellect. We would do these positive, uplifting songs, and they loved them – like “Mañana, Friends,” or “A New Tomorrow” or “If You’re Seeking Freedom.” And it was amazing how it would change their mood.

Q: Thank you, David. At Living Wisdom School, we’re inspired by the streams of energy and joy and consciousness that flow through our school, both in academics and the arts.



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.

Academic Achievement and Education for Life

Academic Achievement and Education for Life

The educational philosophy that we follow at Living Wisdom School is called Education for Life (EFL). It’s based on helping children achieve academic and personal success by a balanced development of their personal “Tools of Maturity”: body, feelings, will, and mind.

A well-rounded education nurtures a child’s enthusiasm, which in turn fuels academic success.
A well-rounded education nurtures a child’s enthusiasm, which in turn fuels academic success.

Mainstream education, with its emphasis on test scores, emphasizes training only one of these childhood developmental tools – the intellect – at the expense of the child’s growth in other areas.

Let’s compare the results of these two very different approaches.

Education for Life and Testing

While Education for Life doesn’t emphasize academic testing for young children, our older students often express an interest in knowing how they are doing academically compared to other students their age.

When the EFL high school applied for accreditation in 2005, the process required the students to take a nationally recognized standardized test, administered annually.

The results have been nothing short of remarkable. Every year the students as a group have placed in the top 10 percent of schools nationwide on average, reaching the top 1 percent on one occasion.

Their SAT scores have been equally impressive, with the average EFL student scoring 1691, compared to the national average of about 1500.

How can EFL students compete so well against students in elite academic schools, when our focus includes significant time spent on the arts, outdoor activities, service projects, and travel?

Current research offers some insights.

The Body and the Intellect

It would seem obvious that a healthy body provides a sound foundation for a healthy mind. Disease, stress, and a lack of hygiene can erode the energy required for focusing the mind and working hard in academics. This relationship was clearly demonstrated by a study from the National Academy of Sciences in 2013:

State-mandated academic achievement testing has had the unintended consequence of reducing opportunities for children to be physically active during the school day and beyond…. Yet little evidence supports the notion that more time allocated to subject matter will translate into better test scores. Indeed, 11 of 14 correlational studies of physical activity during the school day demonstrate a positive relationship to academic performance. Overall, a rapidly growing body of work suggests that time spent engaged in physical activity is related not only to a healthier body but also to a healthier mind.

Feelings and the Intellect

Similarly, the ability to manage one’s feelings constructively can be a tremendous aid for maintaining mental focus in the face of interpersonal tensions or inner turmoil.

The advent of the term “emotional intelligence” in 1995 evoked a wave of research authenticating the importance of social and emotional growth.

A key report by J. Payton et al. surveyed data from 317 studies involving 324,303 students. The authors concluded:

SEL [Social and Emotional Learning] programming improved students’ academic performance by 11 to 17 percentile points across the three reviews, indicating that they offer students a practical educational benefit…. Although some educators argue against implementing this type of holistic programming because it takes valuable time away from core academic material, our findings suggest that SEL programming not only does not detract from academic performance but actually increases students’ performance on standardized tests and grades.

Will Power and Intellect

The connection between will power and the intellect is evident in qualities such as perseverance, concentration, and initiative. In The Willpower Instinct, Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D surveyed the results of over 200 studies.

People who have strong will power are better off – i.e., [they have] better control of their attention, emotions, and actions. They are happier and healthier. Their relationships are more satisfying and last longer. They make more money and go further in their careers. They are better able to manage stress, deal with conflict, and overcome adversity. They live longer. Self-control is a better predictor of academic success than IQ. It’s a stronger determinant of effective leadership than charisma. It’s more important for marital harmony than empathy.

Conclusion and Prediction

It may take a while, but educators are acknowledging that too much one-sided emphasis on the intellect is counterproductive.

Even the “winners” with this approach are adversely affected. In a nationally televised interview in November 2011, an NBC reporter talked with an administrator at Peking University High School in Shanghai, the top school worldwide as measured by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, where the students put in 12 hours of study per day, including weekends. The school administrator lamented:

Test taking is damaging to students’ creativity, critical thinking skills and, in general, China’s ability to compete in the world. It can make students very narrow-minded. In the 21st century, China needs the creative types its education system isn’t producing.

For over 40 years, Education for Life has pioneered an approach that cultivates the child’s intellect without neglecting other important contributors to the student’s academic success, namely the body, feelings, and will.

Modern research shows that the future of education will favor schools that can implement an integrated, holistic approach, along the lines of Education for Life and the Living Wisdom Schools.

This article originally appeared on the Education for Life website (www.edforlife.org).

The Happiness Advantage in School

Most people assume that if they strive very hard to achieve success in school and at work, and if they succeed in making a lot of money, and having a prestigious job, and marrying and raising a family, they’ll be happy.

At Living Wisdom School, we practice a completely different approach. Since our first school opened in the early 1970s, we’ve realized that children do better in school when we teach them how to be happy at the start. It’s one reason our school rules begin with “Choose Happiness!”

Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage
Shawn Achor’s book is based on his research with hundreds of Harvard students and successful business leaders.

Shawn Achor’s book is based on his research with hundreds of Harvard students and successful business leaders.

Naturally, this approach raises questions for parents, even though our students do very well in standardized testing, and in high school and college.

In fact, there’s scientific evidence that putting happiness first works very well on the job and in school.

If we’ve aroused your curiosity, we invite you to watch the following fascinating 12-minute TED Talk with Shawn Achor, author of the New York Times bestseller The Happiness Advantage. (You can also read the transcript.)

And here’s a bombshell article, Be More Successful: New Harvard Research Reveals a Fun Way to Do It, that was posted on the popular Barking Up the Wrong Tree website (120,000 subscribers). It’s based on an interview with Shawn Achor who summarizes his research that kids who learn to be happy do a lot better in school than those who burn themselves out with fact-cramming and studying to the test.

(For your interest, we present Shawn’s bio below.)

In this talk, given at the Dalai Lama Center, Shawn shares his findings on The Happiness Advantage for Children. (7 minutes)

Shawn Achor Bio

Shawn Achor is the winner of over a dozen distinguished teaching awards at Harvard University, where he delivered lectures on positive psychology in the most popular class at Harvard.

Shawn has become one of the world’s leading experts on the connection between happiness and success. His research on happiness made the cover of Harvard Business Review. His TED talk is one of the most popular all time, with over 4 million views, and his lecture on PBS has been seen by millions.

Shawn teaches in the Advanced Management Program at Wharton Business School and collaborates on research with Yale and Columbia University.

Shawn graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and earned a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School in Christian and Buddhist ethics. For seven years, he served as an Officer of Harvard, living in Harvard Yard and counseling students through the stresses of their first year. Though he now travels extensively, Shawn continues to conduct original research on happiness and organizational achievement in collaboration with Yale University and the Institute for Applied Positive Research.

In 2007, Shawn founded Good Think to share his findings with the world. Shawn has since lectured or researched in 51 countries, talking to CEOs in China, school children in South Africa, doctors in Dubai, and farmers in Zimbabwe.

He has spoken to the Royal Family in Abu Dhabi, doctors at St. Jude Children’s Hospital, and worked with the U.S. Department of Health to promote happiness. In 2012, Shawn helped lead the Everyday Matters campaign with the National MS Society and Genzyme, to show how happiness remains a choice for those struggling with chronic illness.


Education in the Age of Energy

Living Wisdom School is at the forefront of a movement toward more effective, individual-centered education.

As people become increasingly aware that energy, not matter, is the ultimate reality of our world, our understanding of many traditional institutions is undergoing a fundamental change – including the way we educate our children.

Book cover of The Yugas, by Joseph Selbie and David Steinmetz
Click to enlarge.

These changes are outlined in an intriguing book, from which the following article is adapted: The Yugas: Keys to Understanding Our Hidden Past, Emerging Energy Age, and Enlightened Future, by Joseph Selbie and David Steinmetz.

The authors present overwhelming evidence for the notion that in recent centuries, humanity emerged from an age of material awareness into a period of growing energy-consciousness.

The concept of cycles of consciousness in human history was clarified by a yogi-sage of modern India, Swami Sri Yukteswar, and elaborated by his disciple, Paramhansa Yogananda, the author of Autobiography of a Yogi.

The authors propose that the education of the future will be based on three pillars appropriate to an energy-aware age: Individualized Learning, Effective Learning, and Holistic Learning.


Almost all countries in the world today provide free education for their children. There are still numerous emerging nations that cannot support public education, but that nonetheless accept its value and importance. In earlier centuries when man’s consciousness was circumscribed by a predominantly materialistic and form-bound awareness, by contrast, education was limited to the wealthy, or to those whose occupation required some education—such as scribes, who needed to be able to read and write.

It wasn’t until the 1600s, during the 100-year transition period at the end of the age of materialism, that the idea of education for everyone began to take hold. The Parliament of Scotland, in 1633, passed the first known law to levy taxes to support public education. The town of Dedham, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, authorized the first public school in America in 1643. Throughout the 1700s and into the 1800s, the 200-year transition period at the beginning of age of energy, the establishment of public schools in Europe and America became more widespread and organized. In 1837, Horace Mann became the first Secretary of the Board of Education for Massachusetts, and established an approach to public funding for public schools that by the l870s was adopted by every state in the United States. By the early 1900s, mandatory education was established throughout the U.S. A similar pattern is found in all the prosperous nations of the world.

Higher education evolved along a similar timeline. Harvard College (now Harvard University) was founded in 1636. Although Oxford and Cambridge, founded in the 1200s, are considered to be the oldest universities in the world, they too went through a transition in the 1600s. Prior to the 1600s, Oxford and Cambridge were focused primarily on “scholastic philosophy,” which was the study of classic philosophy and church doctrine. The “colleges” that made up Oxford and Cambridge had more in common with monasteries than with the higher educational institutions of today, and today one finds many of Oxford’s and Cambridge’s colleges still associated with the chapels and abbeys of their past, such as St. John’s and Trinity College. In 1536 Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in England, and with them the colleges, and set Oxford and Cambridge on a new course away from a purely religious and philosophical focus and into the classics, mathematics, and science, Today there are thousands of colleges, universities, and other institutions of higher learning throughout the world.

Public schools are a giant step forward in education, but are often seen as a mixed blessing. If public schools themselves were to be graded on their efficacy, many people might give them an F. When schooling is mandatory, all children may go to school, but not all thrive. Even gifted teachers cannot hope to bring out the best in every student when they have thirty or more in a classroom.

Leading educators, often found in private schools and in such progressive public school programs as charter schools and home schooling programs, are pioneering several trends in education, trends that address current needs and that are likely to gain momentum into the future of the age of energy.

Individualized learning: Children are just as unique as adults, yet the current public school model channels them all through the same basic subjects and teaches them in the same way in classrooms around the world. The groundbreaking work of Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, persuasively argues that all of us, children and adults alike, learn and process information in very different ways. Gardner refers to these as multiple intelligences: bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, naturalistic, intrapersonal, spatial, and musical.

While these specific categorizations of people’s natural intelligence may not stand the test of time, it has become clear that teaching thirty different children in the same classroom, all in the same way, will tend to resonate only with those children who like to learn that way—and will leave the rest at a disadvantage.

Home schooling programs, personalized learning programs, and schools where different educational methods are available, are soaring in popularity in California, and are spreading throughout the U.S. They provide not only a broader choice of subjects than the traditional public school, but allow for different learning styles as well.

Look for this trend to continue to expand and become more practical. Individualized learning is an obvious outcome of the key qualities of human consciousness in the age of energy: self-will x awakened intellect x energy awareness.

Effective learning: A frequent, and rueful, subject of conversation among adults is how little they remember of their public school and college educations. Studies have shown that retention of knowledge goes up enormously when that knowledge is applied in some manner as part of the process of learning. Conventional wisdom has known this for a long time. If you want to learn something well, go out and do it.

While not ground-breakingly new, making learning more effective dovetails well with the approach of individualized learning. Apprenticeships, internships, participation in activities, outings, travel, all may become part of an individualized learning experience for a particular learner, one tailored to his interests and his preferred way of learning.

Holistic learning: Current education for children addresses only the mind and the body. Through classes and mental pursuits, children are taught to use their intellect and reason, and are encouraged to use their bodies in sports and outdoor activities. But their emotional and spiritual natures are rarely addressed.

In America, this lack is in large measure due to the so-called separation of church and state. Teachers in public schools are forbidden to explore spiritual and religious issues, lest they be perceived as trying to win children to a particular religion. But even in so-called religious schools children rarely explore or experience their innate spiritual natures; instead they memorize religious tenets and dogmas.

Children’s emotional natures are similarly left alone, but for different reasons. Only a few gifted teachers are able to help children gain emotional awareness and understanding. The majority of teachers are not given tools or training that could help them encourage emotional awareness among their students. Both the emotional and spiritual natures of children are considered to be the domain of the family, and teachers are told not to intrude.

Attitudes are changing, however: many parents and educators are looking for new ways to incorporate emotional and spiritual awareness into education. For example, in his book Education for Life, J. Donald Walters presents a seminal approach to helping children explore and learn about their emotional and spiritual natures, in ways that are neither religious nor subjective. His approach is to facilitate the process of children recognizing, considering, and learning about their own feelings and subtle natures—without conflict with their own, or their family’s, personal or religious outlook.

Walters points out that there are universal emotional and spiritual experiences. Just as everyone has his heart in the same place, his liver in the same place, uses his legs in the same way to run, needs to eat when he is hungry and sleep when he is tired, so too there are commonalities of emotional and spiritual experience. Feelings are centered in the heart. Positive feelings are accompanied by an increase in, and upward flow of, energy in the body. Negative feelings are accompanied by a decrease in, and downward flow of, energy in the body. Happiness- producing actions are calming, relaxing, and move toward an inward sense of contentment and security. Unhappiness-producing actions make one nervous, tense, and restless.

Children can be taught to be aware of these universal experiences, and as a result, can learn to be more in command of themselves, and much more likely to make choices that lead to fulfillment. This approach, of fostering innate emotional and spiritual awareness among children, avoids the limitations of conventional religious education.

The Human Brain: Wired for Values

History shows that human beings have the potential to hold lofty values and act upon them, even at the cost of dire consequences to themselves.

An ordinary seaman in the U.S. Navy during World War II ran barefoot across the red-hot deck of a burning ship to save a comrade’s life.

In the Netherlands during the same war, Betsy Ten Boom mustered the spiritual strength to forgive the Nazi camp guards who tortured and eventually killed her. Our potential for loving sacrifice exists at one end of a spectrum of values, the other pole of which is occupied by the doomed attempt of disturbed teenagers to resolve their personal issues by opening fire on their classmates.

If both potentials exist in human nature–the loving and expansive as well as the murderous and contractive–would we be justified in assuming that values are somehow encoded in our brains?

In fact, science has begun to deliver tantalizing hints that life-affirming values may be a fixed feature of the brain’s design, awaiting stimulation by appropriate teaching methods.

Recent research from the growing field of neuropsychology, for example, suggests that most of our higher abilities — our capacity to empathize with others, to “multitask,” to solve complex problems, to be upbeat and positive, and to concentrate and persevere — are localized in the prefrontal lobes of the brain — the “new” part of the brain which is more highly developed in humans than in other primates.

If we could help children energize this part of their brains, perhaps we might help them lead happier, more meaningful lives.

The February 2, 2001 issue of Science Daily reported the results of a study by Donald Stuss, one of the world’s foremost experts on the brain’s prefrontal lobes. Dr. Stuss’s research, originally published in the February 2001 issue of the international journal BRAIN, provides the strongest evidence so far that our ability to empathize is localized in the prefrontal lobes — the part of the brain that also controls personality, mood, memory, a sense of humor, and consciousness awareness.

The Science Daily article observed: “It has long been known that some patients with frontal lobe damage have significantly changed personalities…. For example, patients with damage in the specific frontal area are often less empathetic and sympathetic.”

Further evidence that empathy is localized in the prefrontal lobes comes from an emerging body of evidence which shows that, in some people, damage to the frontal lobes is responsible for the development of a sociopathic personality. “Sociopathy” is a term used to describe people who can commit violent crimes, including murder and rape, without experiencing feelings of remorse. In less severe forms of the syndrome, “sociopathy” is used to describe people who are simply unable to empathize with others.

Children with well-developed empathy would naturally tend to value their classmates’ welfare. They would be less likely to commit acts of mass murder, and on a more mundane scale, they would enjoy improved socialization, along with the inner rewards that accompany a healthy ability to bond.

Current brain research suggests that there may be ways to stimulate children’s frontal lobes directly, aside from long-term developmental methods such as those practiced at Living Wisdom School. (See accompanying article, Mothering Magazine Praises Living Wisdom School.)

A study, &lrdquo;Reversing the Neurophysiology of Violence,” conducted by Alarik Arenander, Ph.D. at the Brain Research Institute at the Institute of Science, Technology and Public Policy in Fairfield, Iowa, concluded:

“Modern physiological research on the causes of violent and aggressive behavior have [sic] identified two strong neurophysiological correlates: abnormal neuroendocrine patterns and abnormal metabolic patterns. Specifically, serotonin and cortisol are known to affect mood and emotional impulsivity. Normal neuroendocrine patterns are restored by the [Transcendental Meditation] meditation technique.”

Nothing could be more certain than that any suggestion that meditation be introduced into public schools would be violently opposed by a broad spectrum of special interest groups, with mainline religious groups in the lead. Nonetheless, powerful scientific support exists for the notion that meditation works at least as well as Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil, by stimulating the brain’s prefrontal lobes, even as a growing body of evidence shows that these powerful drugs do. Moreover, meditation lacks the unfortunate side-effects of Prozac, et al., which include a return of depression once patients stop taking the drug.

In fact, meditation is increasingly being prescribed by the medical community as a purely sectarian remedy for stress and depression. In a July 5, 2000 article on ABCNEWS.com, “Mindfulness Medication — Modern Medicine Turns to An Ancient Practice,” Jeff Brantley, Ph.D., Director of the Mindfulness‑based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine in Durham, N.C. reported that meditation helps his patients discover “an increased awareness and appreciation of their lives.”

Dr. Brantley remarked: “We get everyone from born-again Christians to avowed atheists. We tell people we are not trying to make anyone into anything.” The article further noted: “Doctors refer patients to mindfulness programs for any number of diseases and disorders, including heart disease, anxiety and panic, job or family stress, chronic pain, cancer, HIV infection, AIDS, headaches, sleep disturbances, type A behavior, high blood pressure, fatigue and skin disorders.”

Further evidence that our ability to empathize may be hardwired in our brains appeared in the January 27, 2001 issue of New Scientist. Brain scientists have discovered that when we watch someone prick their finger, neurons in the same finger of our hand fire in sympathy. Neuroscientists V. S. Ramachandran, Vittorio Gallese, Alvin Goldman, Giacomo Rizzolatti, and Michael Arbib are fascinated by these “mirror neurons,” which they believe may provide a physiological basis for our ability to anticipate other people’s behavior and empathize with their feelings, as well as our capacity to communicate, exercise ingenuity, and develop tightly interwoven societies.

These results are the first hints of a connection between values and the brain. But if science tells us anything clearly, it is that kids can change, because the brain continually adapts in response to lessons from the surrounding environment.

In plain terms, children can be taught the skills they need to become happier, more fulfilled and caring individuals.

Dr. Richard Davidson, one of the world’s leading researchers on emotions and the prefrontal lobes of the brain, said in a Washington Post “Health Talk” radio interview on November 2, 2000:

“One thing that is so important is for people not to assume that since we find biological differences among people it necessarily means that those differences have arisen from heritable causes. Modern neuroscience research teaches us that the brain is an organ built to change in response to experience, probably more than any other organ in the body. The brain is literally shaped, both structurally and functionally, by experience. So while early differences in these patterns of brain function have been detected, we and others have also found remarkable plasticity or change that can occur, particularly in the early years of life, before puberty. It is also likely that change can occur in adulthood though we do not know what the limits of such change might be.”

In his book, Moral Development and Behavior, the late Lawrence Kohlberg, Ph.D., professor of educational psychology at Harvard, described a major cross-cultural study in which the researchers were able to map the precise stages that children of all cultures pass through as they develop moral awareness. Kohlberg concluded that children everywhere, regardless of religious affiliation, nationality, or racial background, pass through the same six phases of development, ranging from unabashed self-interest, through mercenary “you pat my back, I’ll pat yours” attitudes, to selfless concern for the welfare of others.

Professor Kohlberg, whose work became a cornerstone for subsequent research on children’s moral development, discovered that children are attracted to achieve these progressively refined levels of moral awareness as they increasingly discover the internal rewards of behaving selflessly. At the highest level, which Kohlberg dubs &lrdquo;Principled Conscience,” children behave unselfishly simply because it feels inwardly joyful and liberating to do so. Kohlberg’s stages:

  1. Pre-conventional (Obedience and Punishment: “Do it or else!”)
  2. Individualism, Instrumentalism, and Exchange (Conventional: “Do it for a reward.”)
  3. “Good boy/girl” (Conformity: “Do it to please others.”)
  4. Law and Order (Post-conventional: “Do it because it’s proper.”)
  5. Social Contract (“Do it because it makes everyone happy.”)
  6. Principled Conscience (“Do it because it’s right and because it feels joyous and liberating.”)

Dr. Kohlberg’s discovery of a sameness in children’s moral growth around the world would seem to provide the strongest evidence so far that values are a built-in feature of human nature, one that can be encouraged by consistent, compassionate teaching methods.

In the last analysis, we don’t have to wait for science to catch up with what common sense already tells us: that children who are loved and inspired will respond and grow as human beings, while those who are force-fed an unrelenting stream of dead facts will wither inwardly, even as their brains, computer-like, develop the mechanistic capacity to “solve the system” by spitting forth what they are fed.