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 (

Dharmaraj Iyer: An MIT Graduate Reflects on Teaching in the Living Wisdom Schools

MIT graduate Dharmaraj Iyer taught at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California.

Dharmaraj taught math and science for several years at the Living Wisdom Schools at Palo Alto, California and Ananda Village near Nevada City, California. This is his farewell talk to the students, teachers, and parents of Palo Alto LWS, where he taught for six years.


Thank you, children, thank you friends, thank you students, and thank you, Helen and everyone.

I want to start by saying that sun block is a wonderful invention. (laughter) I seem to rediscover it every year – but not right away. (laughter)

dharmarajToday marks six years to the day that I have been at the school. My first experience of Living Wisdom School was six years ago, at an end-of-year ceremony. And I want to say a little bit about the journey that got me to that place.

I was a graduate student at MIT in computer science, and I had been offered a summer job at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), not too far away. And my main interest in taking the job was so that I could live in the Ananda Community in Mountain View.

I had been a member of Ananda for three years, and I had always wanted to live in a community, but had never been able to until then.

So I moved here. I arrived at the community, and then soon after, in fact on the second day, having started my job, I talked to Asha Praver, who is one of the leaders of the community. And she said, “Have you ever had an interest in teaching children?”

I said, “Well…”

I mean, here I was doing research in Bayesian feedback algorithms for automatic text categorization. And along comes Asha and asks me, “Do you want to teach children?”

And I had to pause and take the question inside, because it was one of those moments when the mind just stops. And I said, “Yes – I would be interested in teaching children.” And it was a moment of inspiration that I acted on, because it felt right.

Later my mind kicked in, and I said, “Well, you know, I’m not as experienced in science as I am in math. I’ve only taken courses in biology and chemistry in high school, and I only did physics through college. So I’m not sure I could teach the science as well.”

And she said, “Well, yes, but you’d be talking to kindergartners about the weather.” (laughter)

And so it was a bit hard to beg out of that. Asha invited me to come to the end-of-year ceremony, which was on Friday. This was 1999. And I was amazed.

I didn’t know any of the children. I didn’t know any of the teachers. I had just arrived here. So I came to the school’s end-of-year ceremony, which we’re having again today.

And I couldn’t believe the teachers, their poise, and their obviously caring nature. But what impressed me even more was the students.

The children, from age five to fourteen, were talking about a special “quality” that the teachers had given them. And I thought it was very inspiring that each child received a certificate of appreciation for a special quality that the teachers saw in them, and that the student had tried hard to develop during the year.

The students’ presence on stage simply bowled me over. Their ability to talk with poise and to give a mature speech, and the feeling that they projected – I was moved to tears a few times, by the sincerity and clarity with which the children spoke. And I said to myself, “I don’t really know the philosophy of this school, but I know that it works.”

Because you can’t fake those qualities. And that’s what made me sign up to teach here.

Now came the process of asking the school if they were interested in hiring me. Asha introduced me to one of the other teachers after the ceremony. She said, “This is Dharmaraj, and he’s interested in teaching at the school.” And this experienced teacher, with appropriate caution, said, “Well, that’s nice.” (laughter) “Many people are interested in teaching at our school, and we don’t necessarily have a whole lot of openings right now, but we’ll keep you in mind. What is your area of expertise?”

I said, “Math, science, and computers.” Her head swiveled sharply, and she lasered-in on me and said, “Really…” (laughter)

And it turned out that both of the science teachers, Sandy and Sonya, would be spending just one more year at the school, before they moved on. So I came just in time.

I visited the school over the summer, during the Selfish Giant theater workshop, and I came into a classroom and saw these beautiful children concentrating on their fantastic artwork. Three of the regular teachers were there, and they were guiding the children, and the children were clearly very enthusiastic and inspired.

I saw a little boy named Max who was deeply focused on his drawing, and I thought, “What a perfect little saint. What would there be to teach these children?! They must certainly teach themselves.” And little Max was working away, until finally he completed his drawing, and then as he finished it, he held it up and gazed at it for a moment in wonder. And then he said, “CLARE I”LL SELL YOU THIS FOR A MILLION DOLLARS!!!!! A MILLION DOLLARS!!!!!” (laughter)

So I thought maybe there was something that we adults could share.

But that day began a long journey of discovery in teaching. My friends would sometimes ask me, “How do you like teaching?” And I would say, “It’s really fun, and it’s really hard.”

It was very hard to have all of these thoughts about math, science, and computer science as I understood them, and then struggle to find ways to make them crystal clear to someone else.

I tended to learn more abstractly, at least in my recent years. And my students didn’t necessarily take to abstraction. They might prefer visual or auditory or written ways of learning. They might like to write about their experience in math, linking their language and mathematical minds together.

Dharmaraj teaches a lively middle school math class.
Dharmaraj teaches a lively middle school math class.

While I was still learning how to become a good teacher, Swami Kriyananda told me, “You need to make the abstract concepts clear by concrete examples.” So whenever I would teach science, I would try to give the children a hands-on experience, and concrete examples in their own lives. Because otherwise it was just words and abstract concepts. And that’s very cold and impersonal, and not very interesting and easy to forget.

But the real challenge, as every teacher knows, is not even the content, when you’re first starting out as a teacher. It is what we call “classroom management.” (laughter)

Classroom management, in the beginning, means, as a young teacher, trying not to cry. (laughter)

Then, as you progress, it evolves into trying not to yell. (laughter)

And then finally you get to the point of being able to try to inspire the children through calm, quiet words. For example, I would be doing my job as a teacher and thinking that it was completely impossible, and then I would see the example of one or another of the great teachers we have here. And one of them would just say at the end of an active playtime, very quietly, “Children.” (laughter) And all of the heads, all of the desks, all of the chairs, and all of the pencils in the room would move and point to her. (laughter)

And so I knew it was possible to learn this skill.

During my first year, Helen was my supervising teacher. She trained me throughout the first year I taught in the fifth through seventh grade classrooms.

She was immensely valuable, first of all in her example, of the way she was with the children, and the way she spoke to them. And also she was able to give me feedback, as I would stand up in front of the firing squad and deliver a few things before I went down in flames. And she would give me feedback about what went wrong, and why. She made all it very clear. And she tolerated my many woes.

There was a time, about halfway into the first year, when I said, “Does it get easier?” And she said, “Well, the first three years are awful, but then…” But I couldn’t get past that. “The first three years!!??” Because I was just trying to make it through next week. (laughter)

But of course, it was with a certain relish that I reached the third year and found out she was right.

But what made teaching hard, of course, was not the students. It was me having to face my own self, as we all do. When you ask seven students to do something, and they don’t, what are you going to do? Are you going to cry, yell, or calmly inspire?

That, again, is what makes teaching hard for every one of us. And when it comes to leading anyone, the hardest thing is the way you have to face yourself – and change.

Before I came to LWS, I wasn’t convinced that it was possible to teach in the right way. I didn’t know what the right way was. I knew that some of my own teachers had done it as I grew up, and some of them had not.

And, again, I wasn’t sure how to explain what the right way was. You would always have a gifted person here and there. But I didn’t really know if it was a skill that could be learned, on the whole.

But then I met the wonderful teachers here and watched them through the years. I met Helen and saw the way she taught. I saw all of the teachers, all of them teaching in the right way. And again, I wasn’t even sure what it was, but I knew it was right, because I saw that it worked beautifully, and it felt right. And the children showed it.

Then Gary came, and Ghislaine, and Megan, and I saw that they all taught in the right way, too. And so I began to wonder, “What is it that’s so special about our experience here?” Because it wasn’t only the gifted teachers, and the wonderful students, and the dedicated parents.

I realized that part of the power of our school, and what made it all work, was the Education for Life philosophy. The power of small classroom sizes. The power of circle time. The power of meditation and prayer and chanting. The spiritual lives of the teachers, and the students, and their families. And the plays, through which the children are able to live the life of a great saint, by acting out that life, and experiencing it, and trying to understand it. Because they’re the ones who are going to have to tell the story. And, of course, it is the active blessings of Swami Kriyananda and Paramhansa Yogananda, who are the founders of our educational philosophy.

And these, of course, are all things that some might say, and some do say, “Do these interfere with the students becoming really good at academics?”

And, in fact, as we’ve all come to see, they not only do not interfere, but they support and enhance the academics. First of all, the proof is self-evident in the top-level high schools and universities where our graduates go, and where they thrive. Those who wish get into extremely competitive high schools in this area and outside of the Bay Area.

Our students who can go extremely fast with the academic curriculum are allowed to do so. They take it as fast as we can give it, and we give it as fast as they can take it.

There are students who go into high school placing out of algebra, having completed the entrance exams. They do very well on the standardized tests. This year, Rose placed out of first-year science, and she’s moving right into sophomore biology. They’ve had their poetry published. There are so many outward accomplishments that support the claim that the academics are only enhanced by all of these cross-curricular enrichment programs.

But what of the students who take the curriculum more slowly, at their own pace? I’ve always been glad to say that I have always felt, and I think it’s always true, that the students who need more time are not left behind at LWS. In fact, Keith Devlin, a famous mathematician at Stanford University, visited our school last year, and afterward he said to me, “This is a wonderful school. Do all of your students excel in math?”

I said, “Well, all of the students in the school, through the efforts of the teachers, all of the teachers, may not excel in math, but they all like math.” And he was very impressed, and I was very proud to be able to say it.

Now, Samantha and Sarah are looking at each other. (laughter) But I said it because I felt it was very true. And that was something I could be proud of, and we can all be proud of.

Dharmaraj and Dharmini Iyer
Dharmaraj and Dharmini Iyer

It’s six years later now, and just as I felt the call to move here and start teaching, Dharmini and I feel the call to move on. We have wanted to move to Ananda Village for a number of years, and now finally the time has felt right. She will be working at the Expanding Light guest retreat center, with the guests there, and possibly also working with some students in music. I’ll be teaching in the fourth through sixth grade classroom there, and I’ll help with high school math and computers.

Good-bys are always hard. There’s no shortcut around the sorrow of parting. But this not really a funeral, I’m not dying. In fact, we’re not even moving until July. So we’re going to be here for quite some time, and I’m already planning my first return visit in the fall.

Also, Therese Ducharme, who is taking over the math and science teacher position, was my first choice. And I’m so glad and relieved to pass the torch on to her. I know she’s going to do a magnificent job.

So here we are, at the end of six years, and I’ll just say that I’m very grateful for my time in service to you all here. The teachers are my friends. And my dear students, and all you dear, dedicated parents and friends, it has truly been a tremendous blessing in my life. Thank you.


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.

Educating Middle-Schoolers at Living Wisdom School

A conversation with LWS middle school teacher Gary McSweeney

Gary McSweeney, middle-school teacher at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California
Gary McSweeney


Q: You spend a tremendous amount of time with the middle school children at Living Wisdom School. What kind of relationship do you try to establish with them?

Gary: It’s very individual. As a general rule, I try not to be “palsy-walsy” with them. I’m definitely an authority figure for them. I’ll have to ask them to do many things, but I do try to be friendly. I genuinely like kids, even though in middle school they can be a little exasperating at times.

Q: Because they’re starting to flex their independence?

Gary: Yes. In Education for Life, which our school’s philosophy is based on, J. Donald Walters describes the six-year stages of a child’s development. The years from 12 to 18 are what he calls the “Willful Years,” when they’re establishing their sense of identity.

Q: Do you try to teach the kids lessons about adult life at that age, when they’re getting ready to leave the nest?

Gary: To return to Education for Life, the teen years are a time when children naturally need people they can look up to. They want heroes, and I’m not sure our culture is holding many people up for them that meet that need.

In our school, we introduce them to hero-figures early on, primarily through our annual all-school theater production, where every child takes part. We’ve done plays on Martin Luther King, Jr., the Buddha, Christ, Krishna, the Dalai Lama, Moses, Joan of Arc, and many other great people.

When I work with the students directly, I try to give them a positive outlook for the future. I would love to see them never become cynical. So I try to inspire them with a sense of hope and optimism.

For example, we’re doing a unit about energy. They’re researching geothermal and solar energy, and they’ve all heard the news about global warming and climate change. You don’t want to sugar-coat the news and pretend that everything’s all right. But I like to give them something to be hopeful about, by pointing out the many ways the future’s bright.

The media are all-pervading, especially through the Internet, and kids are bombarded with negative images all the time. They hear about Darfur, the extinction of species, hate crimes, war, and it’s endless. I try to get them to be realistic but hopeful and engaged in being part of the solution, as opposed to a passive approach where they’re feeling hopeless.

Q: Living Wisdom School takes the students on lots of field trips. How do they fit into the school’s philosophy?

Gary: We take them on lots of one-day field trips. And three times a year we go away for a week. These experiences are absolutely pivotal. The first trip is to Point Reyes, where my family has a cabin. We go early in the school year, when we’re just getting to know one another.

The second trip is to a meditation retreat in the foothills of the Sierra, where we stay in cabins.

The third is generally a camping trip. This year, we’ll probably go to Yosemite. It gives the students a chance to live out in nature for a week, and it’s an amazing adventure. It’s less structured than the other trips, and for the kids who aren’t experienced campers, it’s an entirely new experience.

The learning that takes place on the trips is difficult to quantify, but it can’t be exaggerated.

My first goal is to help them be more aware, more conscious, and more responsible for themselves and each other. The field trips are laboratories for that level of learning, which is an important component of building their enthusiasm for learning.

They’re modeled after the way a spiritual teacher would work with people. He’ll work with each one individually, and encourage them to learn from their own experiences. The field trips are about learning to behave, but to be themselves and have fun and be safe, and to explore and learn. We give them lots of freedom, within very definite, clear boundaries.

We take them to some amazing places, and we challenge them. We camp outdoors, fix our meals, and clean up. So they have chores and responsibilities. At this point in the school year, they know what to expect, and they pitch in and help.

When you work with middle school kids, their learning needs to be experiential as much as possible. It’s much more difficult to get them to learn if you’re saying, “Here’s a book about a great person. Go home and read it, and we’ll analyze why this person was great.”

In the teen years, kids are looking to have their own experiences and make up their own mind.

Kids also learn a great deal when you take them into a new situation and let them learn from it. I give them tremendous freedom during the field trips, but the overarching theme is harmony. More than anything else, they have to keep harmony. We set firm boundaries, and the teachers will immediately step in if there’s friction. But otherwise it’s very hands-off.

One of the high points of the middle school field trip is the “day of independence.” We give them a very clear structure. We set basic rules: “Don’t hurt yourself. Don’t go past Bald Mountain.” And so on. But we give them free time to go out and explore in small groups, and at that age, they love it.

Again, it’s very experiential. They experience a freedom that comes with a responsibility. Last year they spent an entire day in silence. At other times, we’ll incorporate short periods of silence and reflection. We might go to Mirror Lake in the Tenaya Creek valley at Yosemite and write poetry for an afternoon. Or we’ll maintain silence from 2 to 4 p.m., and then we’ll prepare dinner.

The reason behind it all is to build reciprocal bonds that will carry over into school and the classroom. It tells them a lot about the culture that they’ll be part of in the school. The basic thing we want them to learn is: “When your energy is right, and you’re showing me that you’re responsible, I’ll give you more freedom.” It’s one of the most important lessons they need to learn before they can be adults in the truest meaning of the word.

They’re at an age where they like to take risks. They like to climb rocks, and do things that challenge their will power. We visited Malakoff Diggins, which is a big Gold Rush excavation near Nevada City. We joined the students and teachers from the local Living Wisdom School, and they decided to play a massive game of Capture the Flag in the diggings, which are a huge place to run around. It was wonderful, and they had a great time.

Educating the whole child is completely about energy. We try to guide their energy toward wholesome choices. At the same time, we give them freedom to make mistakes, but never to the point where they’ll hurt themselves.

We want them to experience consequences. We take them into nature, and maybe it’s cold, and we’ll let them experience what it’s like to be responsible. “Oh, you forgot your jacket. We mentioned it to you three times at the campsite, but now you’re on the hike and you forgot your jacket.” Real-life consequences help them understand how to be aware and responsible. It’s one of the many reasons it’s wonderful to take them into nature. And it all translates directly to the classroom, where they have to be aware of others, and help each other, and feel supported and responsible enough to focus on the task at hand.

We’re compassionate. We’ll say, “You forgot your snack. Okay, have some of mine.” And they’ll say, “No, it’s okay.” But they’re learning to face the consequences of their actions. “I said bring a snack, and now we’re on the trail and there isn’t a store in twenty miles, and you’re going to miss a meal.”

We never take it to the point of pain, but they can learn a great deal without actually suffering. But it always has to be experiential, because there are some things they can never learn if you’re only talking to them, or preaching. It’s better when it’s real life and they can try different attitudes and decide, “That didn’t make me happy.”

In 2005, we took them to Tomales Bay. There was rain in the forecast, and looked like it would be the worst storm in forty years.

In two days we had four inches of rain with forty-mile-per-hour winds. The canoes were blowing off the beach. And it was one of our best field trips. When they got home, it was six or eight months before they reached that conclusion, but the trip came up vividly in many of their graduation speeches. It was a real experience – the wind blowing, the difficulty of tramping around in the rain. And we all had to deal with it and help each other.

The middle schoolers love the sweet taste of freedom, of being in nature and facing new situations together with their buddies. At this age, their peers are hugely important to them.

Q: Does the approach of giving them freedom to learn from their own experiences translate to the classroom?

Gary: It’s particularly clear when we’re preparing for our big yearly all-school play.

The students learn about the life of a great soul such as Buddha, Christ, Krishna, Moses, Kwan Yin, Rumi, or St. Francis. As the play approaches, we dive deeply into the history, art, culture, and philosophy of the period, and the teachings of the person who’s the subject of the play. The students’ lines are actual words spoken by these great souls. So, again, it’s very experiential.

While we’re preparing for the play, they have many hours of instruction in acting their part, and a tremendous amount of support. But the bottom line is that, come performance, I won’t be there, nor will our drama coach be there. So it’s very real, very experiential, and an intense, very real experience. They have to draw on their inner strength to get through four performances with standing-room-only audiences of several hundred adults, teachers, and students from other schools.

It’s important to point out that these are not ordinary school plays. Drama is an extremely useful learning instrument, because the students are deeply engaged in studying and writing and talking about the historical period. But the plays have a very special added emphasis, in that these are among the greatest people who ever lived.

They’re people who didn’t choose an average life. St. Francis abandoned wealth to follow a higher path. Buddha abandoned wealth and family. Christ went through great trials. The plays are about the tests and triumphs of these great souls, and the guidelines they’ve left us for leading a successful life. And because they’re acting out the parts, they aren’t merely learning it out of a book. They’re experiencing it directly with their bodies and hearts, in a way that they will remember for years.

In math and other classroom subjects, we try to get them to dig deep within themselves and do their best. It takes time to develop a relationship where we can engage them that closely, where they’ll want to do their best.

Gary McSweeney teaches math to middle schoolers at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California
Gary McSweeney teaches middle school math.

It takes figuring out what works for each child, and this is a cornerstone of our school – the focus on the individual child.

To give you an example. I was teaching math to the middle schoolers, and I said, “As a rule of thumb, we should do a half-hour of math every night.” I was laying out a broad guideline for all of the children, because I thought it would accommodate those who could go faster and those who learned more slowly, if they had a fixed time to aim for.

Later, one of the mothers said, “I think my son would do better if you broke it down into a number of problems. For some reason, a half-hour isn’t working for him.”

I figured out that if he did ten problems a day throughout the school year, he would keep up with the pace of the book. It worked amazingly well, because he would do ten problems come hell or high water. I would say, “You don’t need to do ten problems tonight, because we had play practice today.” “No! No! I’m gonna do ten!”

It takes tuning in to each child and figuring out what works for them. That’s the great bulk of what teaching is about – finding what works best to motivate each child for each subject. Then you have to work with their moods, and whatever they’re going through in the moment. We’ve created an intense, wonderful environment where we can nurture and care about our kids.

Part of the answer is to challenge them constantly on the level of their own energy, because that’s what brings out the best in them. The field trips accomplish this, and the play does it also. In the normal course of the year, in the classroom, we challenge them constantly to do better, at their level.

Each child comes to us with a unique set of issues. Are they strong in math? Will they ever be strong in math? Who knows? For lots of kids, math isn’t their strong suit, so you try to find individual ways to support them to help them succeed.

Some of the most inspiring success stories are about kids who never saw themselves as being particularly good as artists or mathematicians.

At one point, we invited a world-class mathematician, Keith Devlin, to visit our school and talk to the kids. He’s the “Math Guy” on NPR. Our former math and science director, Dharmaraj, knew Keith and got him to come to our school. And the first thing he told the kids was that he didn’t like math in high school. It meant nothing to him. But when he entered college and began to study biology, he realized that he needed to shore up his math skills, and that’s when he got excited about it for the first time.

We all know people for whom school wasn’t terribly relevant, yet they were very bright and achieved a great deal in their lives. Then there are people for whom academics come easily, but who aren’t good people. At our school, we emphasize both. We help the students cultivate expansive values of kindness and compassion, and we challenge them to put out energy in academics, whether the results are impressive initially or not.

Middle schoolers on a field trip at Tomales Bay.
Middle schoolers on a field trip at Tomales Bay.

The most important lessons we try to teach the kids involve putting out energy. You’ll have a child for whom academics come easily, but he isn’t trying. And he’s sitting next to a student who’s trying hard but isn’t getting it. Which student would you rather work with? You’d much prefer to work with the one who’s trying hard.

You’ll have kids who are very solid in academics, who may even be academic superstars. But there’s the emotional side of the child’s development – of learning how to behave, and balancing the intellect with the heart, with compassionate feeling.

We continually work on both, and all of our teachers do this. Because teaching, to a tremendous degree, is about working with the student’s energy in the moment. That’s why it can be very hard to articulate “the method” that we practice. You end up saying, over and over, “It depends on the child. It depends on the situation.” And it’s literally true.

You can work with each child more effectively as you get to know them and build a relationship with them. Sometimes it can take a year or longer to develop a deep bond, where they truly begin to trust you and let their guard down. It’s about helping them find the energy in themselves to do what they set out to do.

There’s no simple formula that seems to work for everybody. It’s much more about supporting them individually, and keeping it real.

Some educators did a study where they asked a group of first-graders, “How many of you are artists?” And every hand went up. But by the time they reached sixth grade, very few hands went up. They had acquired lots of limiting self-definitions — “I’m not good at math. I’m not good at art. I’m really good in history.” But we encourage the kids to put those definitions aside, because at age 12, you don’t really know what you’re good at.

They need to have an inner experience of what you’re trying to teach them. You can tell them verbally a thousand times, but until the knowing comes from inside, and until they get some real success in math or art, it doesn’t work. It has to be more than words. What counts for them is real experience.

Middle schoolers from Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California enjoy a canoe outing on Tomales Bay.
Middle schoolers enjoy a canoe outing on Tomales Bay.

So it takes building a relationship, where you can guide them to have many success experiences. But you have to get their energy involved, so that the learning becomes a direct personal experience.

Q: In Education for Life, the author says that engaging children’s feelings is a first step toward awakening their interest.

Gary: The best teachers can get children enthused about a subject. It’s all in how you lay the groundwork for an assignment, or a field trip, or the annual play. When you can get them enthused, they’ll put out plenty of energy, and then they can have the full personal experience of whatever they’re doing or learning.

If you aren’t putting out lots of energy, you aren’t going to fully experience math, or history, or poetry. Shakespeare is wonderful, but if you aren’t listening with attention and energy, he isn’t going to be great for you. So you have to find ways to get the students to initiate some energy.

That’s why the annual school play is so rich for the kids. When you’re on stage, playing the part of Sheriff Bull Connor, and you’re ordering the police to beat up black people, or you’re acting the part of a black person who’s getting beaten up, it goes beyond a lecture. It goes beyond watching a video. It becomes “Oh, God, that must have been terrible, to have fierce dogs charging at you.”

It’s a turning point for the children when history becomes alive at that moment of their lives. Then it becomes a question that’s personally meaningful. “Why did Buddha give up a palace?” The plays use the words of great people from many traditions, like Rumi, the Buddha, and Teresa of Avila. So the children get a touch of that person’s level of consciousness. “Wow, this was real to the person when they said it — this isn’t theoretical. They were talking from their own experience.” So they can experience that particular spark of divinity, that spark of the real purpose of life, those real answers to the question “What are we doing here?”

Much of education nowadays is about getting into a good high school in order to get into a good college and get a good job. It’s all about financial security, and it’s all posited on some future imagined happiness.

Walters starts his book Education for Life by asking “How do we define success?” Because when you talk about education, that’s what you’re talking about. And our definition of success at Living Wisdom School is that a student who might want to go the route of science or business or finance or the law, should also have a sense of their place in the world.

We’re trying to help kids feel that they belong in the world, and that there’s a context for what they’re doing and what they’re seeing around them. I often think how crazy it is to grow up today. It was crazy when I grew up, with the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Vietnam War, and riots in the colleges. It was very unsettling.

And now you’ve got terrible tragedies happening with frightening frequency. The senseless violence is crazy; and how are you going to make heads or tails of it, when you’re 12?

Another concern I have is the influence of technology. One of the boys in my class had been a very good student, but then he suddenly starting doing terribly — he turned in sloppy assignments, just junk to barely get by, to a point where I thought he might actually be on drugs.

Later in the year, he pulled out of it, and I asked him, “What happened?” I had a really good relationship with him. It was the third year I had him in my class, and now he had actually been rude to me. I said, “What’s the story?” And he said, “Oh, I was addicted to a video game.” During all his waking hours, he was playing the game. It was a very real addiction, without the slightest shadow of a doubt.

Q: Research has shown that watching TV or a video screen stimulates the back part of the brain. It’s why you can sit in front of the TV and zone-out for hours. Hours pass, and it’s time that you haven’t spent in the forebrain, where qualities such as ambition, concentration, planning, and perseverance are localized. Children’s prefrontal cortices don’t develop fully until their mid-twenties, and if you’re spending all your free time in some other part of the brain, you’re not developing essential tools of a mature adult.

Gary: I have a student who’s addicted to computers. He’s very bright, and he’s into programming. You can see where it might work for him as a career, but something is completely missing in the equation. The tech side is interesting, but it’s in the forebrain where he would find real inspiration, or expansion of his awareness, by developing the other tools he’ll need to be truly successful in his chosen field.

“Clever” is almost always held up as the goal. Many kids who do well in school are actually just very clever. As far as I can see, it isn’t the crying need of the world now, to have more clever people. It’s to have people who have tremendous energy and will power and a deep commitment to do good.

It’s the same with people who become true experts in many fields. We brought in an expert in yoga who showed us various postures, and I asked him, “How many hours a day do you work at this?” He said, “Oh, about six.”

A virtuoso violinist came to the school. She was a Chinese woman, and I asked her, “Oh, by the way, how many hours do you practice a day?” She said, “About six hours a day, if I’m lucky. But I don’t really see it as practice. I just love doing it!”

When these kinds of people come to the school, and the kids can see what they’re like, whether they’re artists or executives and engineers from Silicon Valley, the kids invariably see a model of being very bright, heart-oriented, forward-thinking, and expansive. Success inevitably ties into energy, and being able to martial energy and keeping your energy straight.

There’s a magic in our school, but without the spiritual component, I don’t think you can be truly happy, even if you’re doing wonderful things externally, such as designing software that will help people. What if you suddenly get a brain aneurysm, or someone you love dies? And then there’s the huge question of where they went. What happened?

Quiet moment during LWS middle school field trip to Tomales Bay.
Quiet moment during LWS middle school field trip to Tomales Bay.

There’s a wonderful scene in our Buddha play, where the young Buddha rides through the city in his father’s chariot and sees suffering for the first time. “That person is sick? What do you mean, sick? Can that happen to me?” And then he sees someone who’s growing old, and someone who’s dying.

Our culture seems to think that you can’t answer these questions. “Oh, well, that’s religion, that’s way far over there.” But really, it’s everyone’s question. It’s a matter of discovering the universal principles of life that apply to everyone, regardless of their creed.

We’re arriving at a point where you no longer need to be dogmatic about your religious beliefs, and you can talk to kids about those big, universal human questions.

Many people have said to me, “Private schools are selective, so you don’t get the problems we have in public school.” But that’s just a bias born of ignorance of who we are and what we’re doing. “All the kids are wealthy, and all the kids are happy.” And I can only say, “If only!”

If you can give children hope, then you’re giving them a very great deal. Regardless of their native abilities, to give them hope and a sense of their place in the world is priceless.

Q: Do the students who’ve been at Living Wisdom School for a while help the others that are coming in?

Gary: We have a really wonderful school culture, as far as accepting new kids and making them feel at home. When children leave elementary school and enter a public school with 1200 students, it’s a big shift for them, and some of them just don’t do well with the transition. The kids who are new here appreciate our school, because of the contrast with these big, impersonal schools. And the kids who’ve been here longer are versed in how things are done, so they do help the newcomers.

I’m amazed at how kids will come into our school and behave. Then I realize, “They aren’t used to Living Wisdom School; they’re acting the way they’re accustomed to.” They’ll tease other kids, or they’re mean on the playground, and when I call them on it, I see the response in their eyes: “This is what we all do…” I say, “I don’t know about other schools, but we don’t do it here.”

The older kids help the newer kids by their example. Usually, there are one or two kids in the class that I can really count on. Hadley, right now, is dynamite. She can be very quiet, yet set a strong example.

One girl, Rose, did eighth grade over, because she wanted to spend an extra year in our school. Another girl stayed an extra year because she said she needed to get more mature before she went on to high school. Neither of these kids needed it from an academic point of view — they weren’t being held back, but it served them beautifully. One of them, Sinead, is at UC Berkeley, and Rose is at The Bay School of San Francisco. But they intuitively knew that another year of our school would serve them.

Gary McSweeney helps a middle school student with math at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California.
Gary helps a middle school student with math.

Several years ago, we had a boy who just took to everything we offered — the academics, the spiritual, everything, and he loved it all. We had him for a year before the family moved to Texas. His mom wrote us from Texas and said, “Elliot’s year at Living Wisdom was a godsend to him.” He’d been beaten up at a public school, to the point where they broke his collar bone, and the school administration brushed it off, saying, “Well, these things happen.”

When he came to us, and we heard about his history, we wondered, what will this kid be like? But he was just wonderful, very engaged and bright and high-energy. Public school works for some kids, so it isn’t an issue of black and white, but for a lot of them, they die in that environment, and when they get to our school they feel like they’re respected, and that they can be freer about their expression. Some kids just blossom in our school environment.

It’s so expansive for them. It’s so much more inclusive and broadening. That’s what we’re trying to create, a place of inclusiveness, an understanding of the whole picture of educating each child, and an expansive environment where the children have a chance to grow in all ways.