Head & Heart Ch. 16: Academic Achievement and Education for Life

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

Mainstream education, with its emphasis on test scores, focuses on training just one of these 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, we’re very interested in knowing how our older students are doing compared to other students their age.

When the original EFL high school near Nevada City, California applied for accreditation in 2005, the process required that the students take a nationally recognized standardized test which is administered annually.

The results have been 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 approximately 1500.

How is it that LWS can compete so well against students from 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, poor diet, and a lack of hygiene can diminish the energy available for focusing the mind and doing hard work in academics. This relationship was clearly established by a study published by 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 and channel their energy in constructive ways can be a tremendous for factor for maintaining mental focus in the face of interpersonal tensions or inner turmoil.

The advent of the concept of “emotional intelligence” in 1995 stimulated a wave of research that has authenticated 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 twelve 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 more than forty years, the Living Wisdom Schools have 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 the thoroughly tested model of Education for Life and the Living Wisdom Schools.

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

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