Jack Dieckmann serves as Associate Director of Curriculum at the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE). Jack completed his doctorate in mathematics education at Stanford in 2009. He is also an instructor in methods and language courses in the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP). He has worked as a public high school math teacher, a professional developer, and an education research associate.
Jack: Good morning. We’re the parents of Joseph, who’s a student at Living Wisdom High School. We’ve been with Living Wisdom for more than nine years, and our daughter now attends the K-8 Palo Alto Living Wisdom School.
Given that my professional field is education, I spent a great deal of time trying to find the right school for Joseph – I visited and studied a wide variety of schools, and I interviewed the people, and I shadowed and observed.
And then I came across this jewel of a school, Living Wisdom School of Palo Alto, and I couldn’t believe it. I really could not believe that such a school existed, because I had never seen anything like it, and I had never encountered a school like this one in my work in education.
We enrolled Joseph at LWS for his first year with Kshama as his first-grade teacher, and it was fantastic. I couldn’t believe that I could leave my child, the most precious thing in my life, leave him there and feel totally confident that he would be loved, supported, and that he was going to grow and be nurtured. And I’ve had that feeling all the way through, including his time at Living Wisdom High School, where I know that I’m leaving him in good hands, and that he’s not only going to be challenged with a rigorous curriculum, but he’s also going to add meaning to his life.
Public schools do their best, but as a parent who taught math in public high school I know that they are large systems, and that the learning is very often first and foremost about how to obey rules, how to follow, how to be passive, and how to do the homework that’s handed to them. And the poor students do the best they can, but there’s no sense of agency or active learning or finding their place in the world, or finding meaning in what they’re doing. Adolescence in particular is such a difficult time, and those are exactly the kinds of questions they should be asking.
Living Wisdom offers a unique program that I wish all students everywhere could benefit from, because they’re giving the individual student a chance to understand who they are in relation to their world, and not just be sort of college-ready.
That’s a big term now, “college-ready.” But many students, even those who go on to college, and even those who get good college grades, don’t know why they’re there, and they don’t know the horizon they’re moving toward, because they’re just following the rules.
I’m very happy to say that our experience of Living Wisdom School has been the opposite – that we are not raising a passive rule-follower, but somebody who is trying to understand his place in the world, his purpose in the world, and who’s very actively contributing to that purpose.
Esther Peralez-Dieckmann has over 25 years of experience in workforce and economic development, human services, and policy advocacy. A well-known community leader, she has earned numerous distinctions for her work and leadership on behalf of women, children, and families. She currently is Executive Director of Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence in San Jose.
Esther: I feel that the approach they take at Living Wisdom is very practical, because everybody wants their child to be loved, to be safe, and to want to go to school. And we haven’t had any issues with our children not wanting to go to school, because they’ve been very excited every day about coming to Living Wisdom.
When it comes to how we educate our children, my stance is practical, too, because everybody wants their child to get a good job someday and be very happy in their work. And as somebody with nearly thirty years’ experience in the public, private, and non-governmental sectors, one of the first things I look for, and that we need in the workforce, is people who can think critically, people with empathy, people who understand the needs of others and that know how to work with other people, and that can deal with adversity.
You need lots of personal skills to have a good career and to stay in a good job, and I feel those are among the skills my kids have picked up at Living Wisdom, including the ability to know yourself, to be loved and appreciated for your differences and for all the things you are, and to have the chance to explore figuring out who you are, what you love, and what’s your passion. And all of the steps, all of the activities, and all of the outings at Living Wisdom have been carefully designed to accomplish just that.
I’ve been thinking about resource allocation, because we all know that the economy isn’t great right now, and organizations and businesses are dealing with severely limited resources.
I’m thinking of when we took the Living Wisdom School students on a camping trip to the Malakoff Diggins in the foothills of the Sierra. At one point, it felt like we might run out of food – we were close to civilization, so it’s not as if we were endangering the children, but we were there for three days and we had to keep an eye on the supplies. I was very impressed by how the kids pitched right in and cooked and did the dishes, and generally accepted the situation and cheerfully helped out. And when I look back over the nine years we’ve been with Living Wisdom, I realize that all of those activities and experiences have had a tremendous relevance for helping our children learn to thrive in the real world, and that there isn’t a price you can put on them.
So if you’re looking at Living Wisdom as an option, I can say that you really must look at the total educational experience, and how you can raise children who’ll never want to stop learning. Because that’s really the way to advance in a career – always eager to learn while loving the process and knowing how to think of others. We’re trying to solve the problems that are affecting our world, and we urgently need thinkers like the students that are coming through Living Wisdom.
A conversation with LWS middle school teacher, founding board member, and parent Gary McSweeney
Q: What questions do parents typically ask about the middle school grades?
Gary: We’re asked about academics, of course, and specifically math, and then they might ask how it works to combine the three middle school grades, as we’ve done.
I learned recently that the Palo Alto Unified School District decided to do away with separate advanced math classes, and to begin combining the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders in a single math class.
I’m guessing they’d seen research that indicated the older model wasn’t working all that well, where you’re separating the advanced students from the others. It was particularly interesting to me because we’ve been combining the grade levels in math, science, and language arts for more than forty-five years.
Our experience is that with any cross-section of students, regardless of their grade level, you’ll have kids who seem to be able to absorb the subject almost by osmosis, and kids who can get it if you explain it to them, and kids who struggle. And of course they all need to be helped at their own level. So the teacher’s work doesn’t really change when the classes are combined.
Today I’ve just come from a math tutorial with two eighth-graders and a sixth-grader, and it was clear that the same concepts applied across levels. It was a simple question that involved the algebraic method, but whether you’re in seventh grade or doing postgraduate math, you’re still applying the algebraic method but at deeper levels.
Our school director, Helen Purcell, grew up in a family with nine kids. Her father was an attorney, and he would always pose a question for discussion at the dinner table. It worked out very naturally, because the younger kids would listen and learn, and the in-between kids would chime in occasionally, and the older kids would lead the discussion.
It’s the same synergy in our classrooms, where the kids will be helping other kids, and the teachers and aides will be walking around and working with the individual students, and the students who are a little reticent will be listening in on the conversation.
One of the greatest benefits we’ve seen for the children is that it helps their relationship to math. Our kids, by and large, have a very positive and wholesome relationship to math because of our approach. It works because it’s highly individualized, and we’re helping them become engaged at their own level, which is always very individual. And I don’t think it would matter if there were college seniors among them, working at their level.
The larger issue is, are they relating to math, or are they just hoping the class will be over?
Beyond individual instruction, we find that when the kids help each other, it benefits them both. The kids are constantly helping each other, and it’s been shown that when you explain a concept to someone, it helps you interiorize and absorb the material, especially when you know the person and you care about them.
Maybe they’ve grasped a concept, and a friend will raise a hand and they’ll go over and explain it. And whether the child who asked for help gets it right away is almost secondary, because by explaining it the first child has a chance to become more clear on the concept. So that’s just one more way the learning is deeper when you combine classes, apart from the teachers working with each student at their own pace.
Q: Do you have math aides and assistants?
Gary: We’ve always had them. This year we had Tandava and Ruchi and Diana’s grandmother, and it’s been a wonderful experience for the kids. When you have someone like Tandava helping the kids, with a degree in symbolic systems from Stanford and experience working at Google, and a great deal of enthusiasm for teaching, it’s completely amazing for the kids.
We’ve been fortunate to have very good math assistants over the years. I’m thinking of Richard Fouquet who had degrees from Stanford and Harvard, and Eric Munro who retired from the tech industry and graduated from MIT.
Teaching math at LWS takes lots of intuition and a personal touch, because you’re forming a relationship with the child and learning what works best for them. At Living Wisdom there’s less emphasis on the curriculum and more on the person – it’s about the teacher’s ability to reach the individual student in the way that will be most meaningful and helpful for them.
When schools talk about education today, it’s usually about how many of the teachers have advanced degrees, or the wonderful textbooks, or the online features. But I don’t think those are anywhere nearly as important as being able to answer a simple question, “Who is this child?”
How are the children able to relate to their teacher, and what is the school environment like? Those are the most important questions, and at Living Wisdom School we offer a wholesome environment where the kids can be relaxed and receptive.
Watch Gary answer parents’ questions during an LWS open house (50 minutes). Gary talks to prospective parents during the LWS Open House on February 1, 2020. The open house was attended by approximately 50 parents. After an introductory talk by school director Helen Purcell, the parents went to the various classrooms for Q&A’s with the teachers. In the video, Gary talks with parents of children of middle school age.
Q: The median high school grade point average of the LWS graduates over the last five or six years has been 3.85, so something seems to be working.
Gary: That’s another question parents ask – how will the students do when they leave our school? It’s why we track their high school grades after they leave us. The LWS alumni often come back to visit, and we ask them, “How’s it going for you at Saint Francis or Harker or Menlo?” We find that they are very well prepared, because they know the material and they’re thriving socially.
We’re extremely pleased that they do very well in their personal interviews, and that the high school counselors tell us how impressed they are by these young kids who demonstrate so much natural centeredness and self-possession and poise.
I feel that too much of education today is concerned with superficial things – the excessive focus on absorbing information today is very far from what kids truly need.
Q: There seem to be fewer discipline problems and classroom control issues at LWS than in other schools. Can you comment on that? Do the kids rebel when they don’t feel that the teachers understand them?
Gary: We were talking about this recently among the teachers. At our End of Year Celebration each child receives a quality, and then they stand up and give a short talk about the quality, and at the end of the ceremony the eighth graders give their graduation speeches.
We’ve held the ceremony for thirty years, and it’s one of the most inspiring events of the year. But we were speculating, half-seriously, about what would happen if a student stood up and went on a rant against the school. But I expressed the thought, “There isn’t a pent-up energy here that’s waiting to explode, because there isn’t an adversarial dynamic between the teachers and the children.”
The children are encouraged to think for themselves and voice differing opinions as a necessary part of their learning. If they say, “I don’t believe in God,” they are free to express their ideas and think them through, because we don’t shrink from facing the big issues.
It’s true that we don’t have a lot of the usual discipline problems, and I think it’s because we reach out to each child and motivate them individually. If you’re learning at your own level, it means that you’re having success experiences every single day at school, and it’s a very enjoyable experience, so you’ll want more, and you’ll be channeling your energies into the work because you enjoy that feeling.
Of course, what I’m saying is tempered by twenty years of working in the trenches as a teacher. Because you can’t hold out bright shiny ideas that aren’t related to what the students are actually experiencing day by day. You have to be very real, and it’s why we hire teachers who are capable of having a real relationship with the kids, a relationship that makes the child feel that they’re being seen. And as a welcome side-effect it eliminates a lot of the discipline issues.
Our founder had a significant dream that became the guiding impetus for the book Education for Life. He saw a group of teenagers lounging around, looking surly, and he talked to them about how the adults in their lives weren’t giving them anything to be hopeful about. So he wrote Education for Life to help teachers and parents reach kids and give them reasons to be positive and hopeful about life.
In a recommendation letter that I wrote for the high school applications of one of our graduates, I said, “You should consider this student, because she is very bright. She has real gifts, and her thinking is outside of the box. She’s very creative and able to come up with fresh perspectives. I marvel at her abilities. Many times I’ve thought that she is the definition of what a good school would be looking for, a student who is engaged and who thinks for herself.”
She needed some discipline, but I think we’ve proved that you can offer it in a way that doesn’t get the students’ backs up, because they know that you’re genuinely on their side.
When you can give them discipline with kindness, it frees up tremendous energy. We aren’t stressing the kids; we’re trying to work with them, encourage them, and inspire them. We would rather help the kids get to a point where they will show initiative of their own accord because they’ve discovered what they enjoy and what they really want. It’s far more effective to educate the child from the inside out, instead of from the top down or from the outside in.
Q: We talked earlier about how the students help each other in math class. Do you feel it’s a key to the success of the school? I remember helping my friends with math in high school, and what a happy experience it was.
Gary: Parents sometimes have trouble getting their heads around how our math class works, and I can understand why.
We go straight into math first thing in the morning after a brief Circle Time, and I don’t lecture during math class, because we’re all working independently. Everyone is sitting at a desk or a table working on math, and if they have a question we’ll go over and help them, or we’ll ask them to come over.
The ability to work independently, with complete focus, requires a great deal of inner motivation on the part of the students, and it’s why we spend so much time working with them individually. Because once you have that personal energy and enthusiasm flowing, you’ll have lots of successes that you can celebrate, so it becomes a self-feeding cycle that breeds motivation and initiative.
Some of the kids are unbelievably advanced in math, and others really struggle. One of the kids in my class was struggling in math this morning, and when he finally solved the problem we celebrated it. And the reason it can happen is that I’m free to work with him and make sure he’s having those success experiences, because I don’t have to answer to an administration: “Why is he behind in math? Why aren’t you making him keep up with where everybody else is?”
His parents told me that he’d been tested and that it was a brain issue – his brain simply doesn’t process math, so it’s like a foreign language to him. But I’ve never thought for one moment, “Oh, he’ll never be good in math.”
We had a student who didn’t feel that she was very good in math, and I kept telling her, “No, I think you are good, you just haven’t realized it.” And now she’s getting a PhD in genetics, which requires heavy math skills, and she has mastered them.
We give them the tools to be okay with themselves, and to be very real and work with themselves starting exactly where they are. And it’s something we don’t just talk about. We live it every day, because it works – making your own progress, helping the other kids, and feeling good about it. I see it all the time, how when you work with the kids at their own level, there are countless moments where the light will go on, “Wow, yeah, I know how to do it!” – whether it’s math, guitar, drama, sports, or language arts.
I’m talking about math because parents nearly always ask about it, but the principles are equally true in history or language arts or personal development. “Wow, I’m learning how to make friends.”
After morning Circle and just before math, we meditate briefly, and I doubt that any of the children would be able to say very much about what they’re getting out of it. But I’ve seen over the years that it serves them very well. When they meet life’s tests, they’ll be able to look back and remember, “I was able to focus and get calm and see things from a more solution-oriented perspective.”
It’s not just a mental exercise, it’s an experience of learning to get control of the energy in their body, heart, and brain. And it helps them gain access to inner mental resources that will be there for them the rest of their lives. I don’t have any illusions that they’ll all become lifelong meditators, but when we meditate briefly together in the morning there’s a tangible power in the room, of calmness, focus, and joy.
Q: I’ve observed that the kids know how to be very serious and concentrated. It’s amazing to see the kindergarteners and first, second, third, or fourth graders being really serious and intent about what’s going on, and in the next moment they’re laughing and happy. But they seem happy when they’re laughing and happy also about being serious.
I watched a fourth-grade girl reading a book at a table in the courtyard during morning recess. She looked completely absorbed, and I was curious to know what kind of book was capturing so much of her attention. I had my camera, and I said, “Can I take your picture?” She said, “Okay,” and immediately turned back to the book, as if she didn’t want to be distracted for a second. And I looked over her shoulder and saw that she was studying math.
It seems quite a testimonial for the school, that the kids can be both serious and happy. Because you can tell the parents, “We have a happy school,” and what are they going to do with that? It may be a completely foreign concept to them, or they might form the wrong impression, imagining that you’re indulging the kids, just letting them play.
Gary: It’s very unfortunate that it’s so foreign in education now. On the other hand, there are lots of forward-looking companies where cooperation and happiness have become a major part of the cultural goals, and where people are living these principles. And that’s what we have at our school, including the culture among the teachers.
Joseph Chilton Pearce, an author whom I greatly admire, said that when you’re dealing with children, you have to be what you’re saying. You can tell them to be good, but you have to model the behavior for them. So our faculty spend a great deal of time cooperating on being models for the kids, and it helps that we genuinely enjoy each other’s company.
There’s a spirit that you can feel when you walk onto the campus. It’s harmonious and joyful. We have the usual issues, of course. For example, putting on the play is a very intense experience for everyone, and this year we had just one dress rehearsal after seven weeks of intense preparation, before we had to pull the plug because of COVID-19. And that’s a subject that we’ll revisit with the kids, because it’s full of lessons about real life. And even though the kids may be young, there’s a soul there, and you can’t just brush these things aside, because the kids need to learn about life by talking about what’s going on.
I’ve had some very interesting conversations with five-year-olds here. And you might think that we’ve been asked virtually every question a child could possibly come up with, but there’s one group of kids that will always surprise you with something new and fresh, and that’s the teenagers. They will invariably find a way to come at it from a new direction, and maybe the ideas are wacky, but often they’ll be very fresh and insightful.
I’ll give an assignment, and I’ll find myself asking a student, “Where did you come up with the idea to do it that way?” [Laughs] But then I’ll have to admit, “Okay, it works.”
It’s a wonderful environment. My son attended LWS from kindergarten to graduation, and he’s in India now, developing Living Wisdom Schools. As part of his work, he’s been visiting other schools, and he tells me that these principles are showing up all over the world today.
There are principles that schools are tapping into everywhere, but the advantage that we have here is that when you have an entire faculty that’s dedicated to working in this philosophical space all of the time, something very special can happen, where you are no longer just a good teacher who happens to listen to their students, but there are lots of great teachers all around you. So you develop a faculty and a community and a school environment that are all supporting these methods, and you begin to see something extraordinary.
Q: The middle school students are at the age when they’re starting to flex their willpower. And how do you deal with that energy? Parents send their child here for six hours a day, and how are the teachers finding ways to help the kids express their willpower in positive ways?
Gary: I’ve given this a lot of thought. Because whatever you’re doing, you’re going to have to learn to set boundaries, and with the middle schoolers it often translates to something as simple as telling them, “Come on, guys, when you walk in the door you’re in silence – no, I mean silent!”
They’re going to need a certain amount of discipline to be able to weed out the distractions in their life and accomplish their goals,
One of the most interesting things I’ve experienced as a teacher is that I’ll set a firm boundary for a child, and maybe I’ll go home and wonder, “Gosh, did I go too far?” But invariably the next day the child will be right next to me during morning walk, because they feel safe. And maybe it’s a cliché in education and parenting, but there is no avoiding the fact that the kids need you to set boundaries for them.
When you set fair boundaries, and it’s done in a spirit of love, it nearly always works. And if it doesn’t seem to be working today, it does work in the longer term. We find that when the kids come back to visit they tell us how grateful they are for what they received at LWS.
Helen, our school director, also teaches language arts, and she has the students’ respect. Doug, our science teacher, rarely raises his voice, and whenever he says the slightest thing in the way of correction, I’ll revisit it with the kids. I’ll say, “You guys, Doug never says anything.” And because they know it’s true, they’ll correct their behavior, because they realize they’ve stepped over the line.
The need for correction is an integral part of our process, certainly in the upper grades. Because otherwise the kids just feel adrift, and it doesn’t serve them.
Great teachers – whether they are school teachers, sports coaches, drama directors, or spiritual teachers – discipline the people who can receive it. And those working under them love them for it.
I find that when it’s given in a spirit of kindness, it’s essential. I’ll say, “You have to put out more energy. You don’t have your homework.” And the kids will push you, because that’s what teenagers do – they want to know where the boundaries are.
I think of Steve Jobs, who was famous for his creative discipline that made so many contributions to Apple’s success. Bruno, our music teacher, is relaxed and cordial in his manner, but he’s super-dedicated to his craft, and the same is true of Claudia on recorder and keyboard, Rose in drama, and Helen in language arts.
We hire teachers who are serious and who have high expectations. Our fourth and fifth grade teacher, Craig Kellogg, is right on top of the kids when it comes to practicing good sportsmanship, or putting out energy in math, or being neat in their work.
The kids have to learn that there will be a need for an appropriate amount of discipline in everything they do. And it doesn’t have to be oppressive or depressing, because the trade-off is that when you develop self-control it’s very empowering, and it opens doors to success experiences that come with a significant amount of joy.
You can’t just tell every kid, “Oh, you’re empowered, let me give you a trophy.” That model doesn’t work. In truth, it’s good to include people, but you have to be real and let them know, “You can do better.” Because it’s what will serve them.
Q: You see kids blossoming at the school, and maybe they haven’t blossomed before, or maybe they are naturally upbeat and positive about everything. I’m thinking of a boy who graduated last year, and who did well at everything – sports, guitar, academics, theater, friendships. I see lots of kids here who are excelling in whatever they’re doing, and I get the feeling it’s because they’re in touch with the nature of who they are at their core, and they recognize what’s needed to achieve something in their own way and feel the glow of success. I’m assuming from what you’ve said that you don’t just try to help them develop those qualities in math class, but that you’re watching them on the playground and all the time.
Gary: There’s a term we use in Education for Life, “specific gravity.” And Gaurav, the boy you mentioned, is a very good example. He had initiative, and it didn’t matter what challenges he might be facing, he would always try his best. His whole family is structured that way. It’s an amazing family, very happy and wonderfully generous of heart. His sister graduated this year, and another sister is coming along in middle school.
We have a student now who, if you put a challenge before her, you know she’s going to rise to the challenge, and it doesn’t matter what it is. And maybe she doesn’t have the natural outward bubbliness that some of the other children have, but when she sees a challenge she meets it, because she likes the feeling of accomplishment.
There’s another girl who has a hard time accepting any sort of praise, even though her results are most impressive. She’s always driving, driving, driving. And you have to work with the child’s individual nature, and try to help them discover a little joy in the mix.
We only get the kids for a few years, and we try to guide and encourage them and show them what’s possible. As opposed to just helping them claw their way to a good grade point average in a culture where it’s all about the numbers – the grades and test scores, and admission to prestigious school X. And of course those are good things, because doing well in school is good, and exercising will power to excel in school is good.
But there’s an entire separate side to the education equation, where you’re looking at whether the child is happy. Because when you can bring the whole child to school, so to speak, you find that they all have tremendously important tools that will help them succeed as students and persons, beyond just warehousing facts in their brains.
The high school acceptance counselors always ask us how a child has been able to react to criticism or setbacks. It’s a classic question that they ask. And some of the kids frankly haven’t had a setback, so we don’t always know how to answer. But some kids have had big challenges. And the point is, one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to evaluating a child’s potential and helping them. Some kids will come in with a heavy load, while some are more or less able to breeze through, and some will exercise their initiative from day one, and other kids won’t. So, again, you have to work with the individual child, and you have to build a relationship with them so you’ll know where the gaps are and what will work best for the child as you’re helping them develop their unique strengths.
Q: I’ve noticed that the children here aren’t overly concerned with trying to conform to an image. When I observed in Ruth’s third-grade class, I noticed that there was a group of girls who were close friends, yet they were very unique and different. One seldom smiled and was serious all the time, and one was always bubbling with laughter, and the third was somewhere between. It was interesting that there didn’t seem to be any sort of student-run culture where a child is always feeling pressured to fit a certain mold, for fear of being excluded.
Gary: No, you’re allowed to be yourself at Living Wisdom School, and it sometimes means that the individual child may be a bit of a curmudgeon, always thinking serious thoughts, and some are naturally bubbly and every day is amazing.
Of course they do change over time. A child can go through lots of changes if we have them for the full nine years, because they’ll be dealing with life’s challenges, and it’s part of an education for life, too. At LWS that’s part of what school is about for them. Parents will ask us, “What math book are you using?” Or “How do you teach three grades at once?” And those are important questions, but it’s ultimately about how well we’re working with the energy of the kids.
There’s a lot of interest in the middle school this year, with a waiting list, so we have several shadow students, and I talked to two of them at the end of their shadow days.
I said, “So what do you think of the school?” And one of them said, “All the kids are so happy here. It’s really unusual.” Because he hadn’t seen that in his school experience. The other child used the word “open.” She said, “Everyone is so open.”
One of the shadow students was running around with the kids as if she’d been here forever, and I assumed that she knew them. She was playing and laughing and hugging the kids, and I asked her, “Do you know these girls from your neighborhood?” “Never met them!” But she was wide open. And at our school there’s not this consciousness of constantly measuring people, “Oh, you’re just a shadow student.” There’s a deep acceptance that is really quite amazing, and it’s been there from the first days of the school.
Q: In many schools there seems to be a culture of power, where if you have the power of prestige or the power of being really smart, or the power of belonging to an inner circle, or from a wealthy family, you’re accepted, but if you aren’t, you’re nobody and you’re excluded and maybe mocked and shunned. “Maybe I’m not a jock, but I’m smart.” You have these categories, and you have to defend your self-definition and be really good at something or else you’re sort of a shadow person, like a mole.
Gary: It’s sad. After talking with prospective parents, our director, Helen, has often remarked that the bullying issue is not small in the school culture today. Many parents tell us, “Well, he’s been bullied.” And it’s not just a bit of teasing, it’s really nasty. And that ties into exactly what you’re saying, that it’s about power, or feeling un-empowered and turning into a bully to get power. And it’s very sad.
Our practices on exclusiveness are very clear, and we go a very long way beyond just giving them lip service, as some schools do. Every one of the teachers is constantly modeling inclusiveness, and if they see it’s not happening, or if there’s the slightest hint of exclusion, they address it immediately, on the spot. Because we take it very seriously, and we put real effort into it.
Q: I’ve heard many stories about how a teacher will notice something negative going on, whether it’s a tiny hint of bullying, or a kid in a bad mood, or someone saying something hurtful, and they’re all over it right away, starting in kindergarten.
Gary: Oh yes. And our kindergarten teacher, Lilavati, is very gifted and sensitive that way. We give it a lot of attention in our faculty meetings – “Have you noticed so and so this year?” “Oh, yeah, and what can we do about that?” “Well, I’ll see him on the playground.” Because among the teachers it’s all hands on deck, like an extended family of teachers each of whom might have different connections with the kids, and maybe someone can reach a particular kid, so they’ll reach out to them and respond, even if they aren’t the child’s classroom teacher.
Q: On the issue of test-taking, it seems artificial to study to the test, because it implies that you’re going to stay up late and ace the test, but then it’s gone. And I’ve observed in the middle school classroom during math that there appears to be a culture where each child is immersing in a subject not only because the school has an individual approach to teaching, but because of the approach to math specifically, which is that you’re constantly reviewing with the individual child and insisting and ensuring that they get a sound understanding of the principles at every step of the way.
Gary: The question of depth came up recently during the pandemic. Some of the kids will say, because we’re teaching remotely and the school is shut down, “Oh, I went online and did some math.” And maybe they’re watching some videos from Khan, and I have no complaint about Khan, but if I’m doing math online I’m naturally going to go to the problems I know how to do, and I’m going to avoid the harder word problems about percentages because I don’t like word problems.
The student said, “I haven’t been doing the math textbook or the curriculum, I’ve just been online.” And I said, “My experience is that when you do that you just end up jumping around.” And he said, “You know, that’s right, I was kind of jumping around.”
There’s a superficiality in education now, where you’re skimming the surface, touching all the right buttons, because you’re being dragged along with one eye on the mandated curriculum and the other eye on tests and grades. And every math teacher I’ve met feels this way. But what it neglects is the student’s need to understand the principles and concepts in depth. Have you actually mastered them, or are you just gliding over the surface? Because if you’re just skating over the surface it’s bound to catch up with you.
Any book you’re using, whether it’s CPM or Envision or Singapore, will help you build a solid foundation in math, just as when you’re learning guitar or keyboard and you want to learn the basics thoroughly and soundly – finger placement, chords, etc. And in math, too, you have to build a solid foundation, because there are no shortcuts.
In any good math curriculum, you need to keep circling back so the students are constantly getting exposed to the underlying concepts.
I may allow the students to go forward for a while, even though I know they haven’t fully mastered the concepts, because in our school they will always get a chance to fill in the gaps, instead of being dragged along by an externally mandated schedule. At some point, the gaps in their understanding will begin to show, and it might be a humbling experience to realize that, wow, I never really got it.
A student asked me why he needed to do proofs if he knew the answer. I said, “Don’t take my word for it. Go talk to our math aides, Eric or Richard.” Richard went to Harvard and Stanford, and Eric went to MIT. And sure enough, they gave him the same answer: “Proofs are good.” Because it isn’t only about getting the right answer, it’s knowing how to get the answer, which is the more valuable skill.
And that’s what math is ultimately about. It’s training the brain to think clearly, and to analyze things and come up with answers. Those are skills you can apply in any area. Computers can do math a lot faster than we can, but it’s about developing clear thinking and logic. The ability to solve any kind of problem is as important as being able to jump straight to the answer.
We have a student who can go straight to the right answer, because he’s very gifted. But it doesn’t really work at Living Wisdom. And in language arts, too, if you’re wanting to analyze a poem or write an essay with originality and spark, you can’t just check off the five bullet points and say, “I got the answer.” We want them to experience depth in everything.
Q: You mentioned Hazie, who graduated from LWS and now teaches math at the Living Wisdom High School. When he was twenty, he had basically exhausted what the American universities could teach him in math, so he had to go to Germany where they’re more advanced in math education. And now he’s come back after a long time away, because he said that he was getting along fine academically in those other school environments, but he realized that he had started to become depressed because he was accepting other people’s standards of behavior and values. And in his mind, he had to refresh the principles that had made him happy at Living Wisdom. He was in graduate school in Germany when he had that crisis of faith, and he decided to return and become a teacher at LWHS.
Gary: He recently said something interesting. He said that kids nowadays are asking their teachers, “What do I need to do to get an A in your class?” And he never answers that question, because we’re here to learn math and master principles. It’s not about following the steps to get an A – that doesn’t fly at Living Wisdom, because we all know that it doesn’t work in life.
When we had him as a student, Hazie was so precocious in math that the only way I could help him was basically to tell him to be a bit neater in his work. That was about the only help he needed. But he’s very grounded, perhaps because he’s also been active in martial arts for twenty-three years, so he has a great deal of inner discipline, and he says that the students have to learn the math foundations. Which is a very healthy approach, because there are no shortcuts in life.
Q: Kids who are as smart as Hazie can sometimes become isolated at school, but he never was at Living Wisdom. When I interviewed him, he told stories about being very socially connected all the way through school, even though he was often a great deal smarter than anybody else in math.
Gary: He was part of an interesting class that included several other very advanced math students. He had two buddies in particular, and they were rowdy and did wacky things. And after those three left, another group of three came, and now there’s another threesome. A professor at Stanford was the world’s leading expert on groups of three. [Laughs]
There are many teachers today in other school systems who essentially are Education for Life teachers, whether they call it that or not. Most of us have had an EFL teacher at some time in our lives. My high school history teacher didn’t have a great delivery, and he wasn’t there to please us or be funny, but I remember him for his fairness, and the respect we had for him, because he was deeply engaged with his subject and he made it alive for us.
I remember my geometry teacher who was so kind, even though he was a former Marine drill sergeant. And maybe you’d think he would have been a terror – you picture a drill sergeant yelling at the recruits. But he was so gentle. “Mr. McSweeney, you fell into the latrine on that one!” You know, “Let me show you where you made your mistake.” [Laughs] He was so nice, and I still love geometry as a result. I’m less fond of algebra, possibly because my two algebra teachers were like drill sergeants, always yelling.
I think education is gradually coming back to its senses, where teachers and administrators and parents have started to understand that you can’t just educate one part of the child for thirteen years and expect them to be happy and successful and well-prepared for life.
One of our LWS parents is applying to Nueva School for her child’s high school, and we asked her, “Oh, what’s that like?” She thought about it, and she said, “You know, they do a lot of the same things Living Wisdom does. They don’t give letter grades anymore, and they emphasize the individual approach.” And as she ran down the list of the similarities, I was thinking, “Well, that’s good.” They’re positioning themselves as a cutting-edge school, and we’re hearing about many other schools that are trying to be more humane.
Lots of schools went off the rails for a while with test scores and grades, and even UC is thinking of doing away with the SAT, or making it optional. And that’s no small thing, because it will have major repercussions.
The cynical side of me is thinking that education today is basically an industry, with powerful players that include the testing services and the textbook and test-prep course and book publishers. So there’s an element of greed to it. But parents can override that in a heartbeat by switching their vision. “I’m not putting my child on those cold and inhuman rails, I’m choosing a well-rounded school.” And if enough parents do that, the market will respond.
Q: I’m friends with an honors chemistry teacher in Illinois. who’s also a very successful track and field coach. He retired recently, and he has strong views about how education took a wrong turn, to the point where he felt that he had to become an advocate for the students, Because he saw that education was basically creating unhappiness concentration camps for thousands of kids, partly because everybody was so intimidated by the prevailing idea that success will come for kids at some indefinite point in the future if you made them suffer horribly now.
As a result there’s this ridiculous thinking that every child has to get into Harvard, or else they’re a failure. It’s extremely polarized thinking, and it’s so unrealistic that it’s heartwarming to hear that people are waking up and coming out of that hypnosis.
Gary: I think they’re trying to. It may be unrealistic to expect that the education mainstream will suddenly change. But there is a grassroots movement that seems to be leading to a shake-up, because people are looking for alternatives. Many of the kids at our school are really bright, so it’s not as if they couldn’t cut it in a mainstream school. But the parents have very carefully chosen not to do that. “I don’t want that competition for my child. I want my child to do well. I want them to learn the basics and excel, but I don’t need them to be indoctrinated with the wrong self-image: ‘I’m so great, I got an A in science and I’m going to make lots of money and be happy when I grow up.’” And all the attitudes that go along with that kind of thinking.
Q: There are some LWS parents with impressive credentials – they include tech industry executives and Stanford professors who’ve brought their children to Living Wisdom because they want them to have a balanced education.
Gary: We have friends in the School of Education at Stanford, and they applaud what we’re doing. Jack Dieckman told me, “What’s really important when a kid graduates from middle school is their relationship with math – how do they feel about math?” It’s not, “Are they doing geometry? Are they doing algebra?” It’s how they feel about their math ability. And if it’s intact, you’ve done well.
You do have to plan for the longer term. I mentioned the student who hated math, who’s now getting her PhD in genetics. Some kids struggle until after high school, and then the light goes on.
A teacher wrote a letter to the editor of a local newspaper. She said, “I’m very sorry that I’m going to have to give up teaching. It’s been my whole career, and I love teaching. I love seeing the students, but this pressure to give standardized testing is taking all the fun out of it for me, and I can no longer teach.” She was a kindergarten teacher, and she was horrified that they are giving timed standardized tests to kindergarteners.
Q: They aren’t letting them have recess because it’s time away from math. It’s insane.
Gary: Well, again, there’s a huge profit motive when you get into that system, with the standardized tests and the textbook industry. So it’s not brain surgery to see where the impetus is coming from to keep that system going. There’s an industry around standardized testing, and when you start talking about how each child has unique gifts, I can’t imagine how you’re going to monetize that, but I’m sure they’ll try to figure out a way. [Laughs]
The book Education for Life begins with the question, “What do you want for your child?” And you might say, “Well, I want them to receive a good education.” And then the author asks, “What is a good education?” And he talks about how it includes questions of values, and how the child will grow as a person, and how this completely unbalanced view has come in, where it’s entirely about academics.
Because what you want them to become is people who tell the truth, who have integrity, who know how to work as part of a team.
When Google looked at the personal qualities of their most successful employees, they found that the most successful employees and research teams expressed qualities of cooperation, the ability to listen, the ability to change when proven wrong. And way down in eighth place on the list were STEM skills. (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.)
They discovered that success at Google depends very strongly on the values we’re emphasizing in EFL. And I think the proof is in the power that the kids have when they get to high school. My son did very well in navigating high school and finding his way.
When our graduates leave college, we don’t want them to be thinking, “Wow, I got all these good grades, but I’m so poorly prepared for this job!” Because they don’t have the skills that Project Aristotle discovered people need to be successful at a company like Google.
Q: When I talked with your son recently, he said that when he graduated from St. Francis High School he knew everybody in the student body. So he was socially very well-adjusted.
Gary: [Laughs] When he went to his first dance, he didn’t know anybody, so he went out on the dance floor and met one kid, and she had a couple of friends, and the next thing you know fifty of them were dancing together. He ended up becoming the student body vice president and hosting a radio talk show.
He wanted to be involved in theater, but he didn’t get the part, so he said, “I’ll do tech.” And that’s pure EFL, where you learn to be resilient and optimize your options and resources. He ended up studying film, and it became his livelihood. But most important, he just kept putting out energy. In his freshman year he got cut from the soccer team, but he went out again sophomore year and made the JVs. And through it all, by being resilient and always finding opportunities, he had a lot of fun and he’s been very successful.
Q: You can hear it in his voice, which is strong and centered and aware of other people’s realities. You sense that there’s an ability to navigate any environment he’s in.
Gary: I would say you’re describing the typical LWS graduate. There’s a self-possession. There’s an ability to deal with life that is palpable when you meet these kids regardless of their grade level. I’ve been involved in the middle school for twenty years, and when I meet the kids from the other Living Wisdom Schools, they all have this awareness. They’re aware of others and they’re aware of situations and how to deal with them maturely and objectively.
Q: People in education don’t always visualize what they’re going to accomplish with the standardized curriculum and the tests. Because what kind of people are they trying to graduate? They’re going to graduate millions of people who are good in math, okay, and millions of people who know how to manipulate the system of the academic world. And when they leave school, you find them doing lots of things where math and STEM might not be the focal point.
Your son is making films very successfully in India, and he’s helping start EFL schools there. But you also have graduates like a young man who works at Motley Fool, a leading financial research and consulting company, and he’s one of their senior counselors because he’s a financial wizard. And then you have the person who’s doing genetics research, and you have Hazie who’s in love with math, to the extent that he was doing extremely abstract advanced math that didn’t have anything to do with the real world, but he loved it because it was his nature.
And who’s to say that any one of those people is not successful? And who’s to say that the geneticist was a failure because she wasn’t good at math initially? But she saw that she had to learn it, and she had the foundation of personal qualities that allowed her to solve the problem and succeed.
Gary: We give them a foundation that serves them very well as they go along, and when life throws curves at them they know how to cope. That’s what any parent would want for their child. That’s what a true education is. Are you ready to deal with what life is going to throw at you?
It goes back to when Yogananda laid out the principles for an Education for Life that will train you to be successful in your human relationships and your work, with all of the emotions and feelings and willpower and self-control that are required, and that we emphasize from a very young age.
Q: Your life is going to put you in those situations, in school and after, and if you aren’t trained to deal with them, they’re going to smack you and maybe you’re going to be spinning. But these kids know how to navigate the situations their lives might put them in.
And as Aryavan and Hazie described in my talks with them, when they got in those situations they could look back and remember, “I know how to be happy, and here are the qualities I need to manifest right now. I need to manage this with a little kindness, or a little inner strength, or a little resistance or perseverance.” And if you’re working with your academic skills at Google, you’re going to need those life skills. Otherwise, just the ability to be a computing machine isn’t going to get you through, if that’s all you’ve got, and it’s going to isolate you very quickly, because you won’t know how to get along with people.
Well, thank you, Gary, it’s been interesting. I hope it will help parents understand what their kids will experience at Living Wisdom School.
The Yearly Living Wisdom School Awards Ceremony is perhaps the most inspiring public event of our entire school year. Each child receives a “Quality” reflecting an area in which they have shown special growth in the preceding year. Follow the links below to watch the students give their end-of-year speeches.
This year’s ceremony was conducted on Zoom, which had a not inconsiderable advantage — instead of watching the children receive their awards from distant removal of the audience, we have the privilege to meet these inspiring young people up close and personal. Enjoy!
We spoke with Aryavan McSweeney, a Living Wisdom School graduate who attended LWS from kindergarten through eighth grade. After graduating from Cal State Fullerton he worked as a filmmaker in India and northern California. He now lives in India where he and Ishani are developing new Education for Life schools.
Q: You were in kindergarten when you entered Living Wisdom School. That was a long time ago – do you remember your first years?
Aryavan: I do remember – because I have very positive memories of Living Wisdom School. So much so that I’ve dedicated a major chunk of my adult life to trying to spread the word about Education for Life, and I’m motivated by my experience at the school when I was younger.
I don’t recall many details of my time in kindergarten, but my general impression is that school was always fun and joyful. I remember looking forward to coming to school every day, and that was always true. I can’t imagine how I could have been better prepared for life after I left LWS.
Q: How was the transition to high school? You went to a highly regarded private school in Mountain View, didn’t you? Was it difficult in certain ways, or was it a breeze?
Aryavan: When I came to St. Francis, I was surprised to discover that I was a much more outgoing person than I had thought. I went to the first school dance and found myself wanting to meet people, and putting out lots of energy in a way that I wasn’t aware was part of who I was.
I think I was much more fearless than I imagined. So the transition was very good socially, but the shift to a more heavily structured, book-based academic system was less inspiring.
I didn’t find the academics too challenging, I just didn’t like it, because I knew from my experience at Living Wisdom what schoolwork could be like. But I was at an age when I was open to new experiences, and I just assumed “Okay, this is what high school is like.”
For most of the people I met at St. Francis, it was a natural continuation from elementary school, but it definitely wasn’t like that for me, and it’s part of why I’m highly motivated to try to see a change on a larger scale in schools everywhere.
All of the teachers at St. Francis were very sincere, and they were probably allowed more flexibility than at other schools, but it did feel like they were on a track from which they couldn’t deviate too far. Some of my teachers had amazing creative energy, but I missed the exceptional instruction at Living Wisdom School – and even more so when I went to college, where there were similar limits on how creative the professors could be.
I had nice relationships with some of my teachers at St. Francis, and the school felt really good generally, but the system was a bit on rails, and you could feel it. I hadn’t been used to that, because even though the teachers at Living Wisdom School did have their daily lesson plans, it felt like every day was new and creative and different, and the highest priority was always on the needs of the individual students. In high school it was more like, okay, here’s the syllabus, and here’s exactly what we’re going to be doing every week for the rest of the year.
It was fine, in its way, because you do need to cover a certain amount of material, but the creativity of the instruction was very noticeably less. There was a lot of lecture in high school, and a lot less hands-on work – and, again, I thought, “Okay, this is what you do in high school.” But I’m much more aware now that the same information could have been delivered in a more inspiring way.
I felt very well-prepared socially for the transition, in terms of my ability to make friends and meet people. High school can be a little cliquey, generally speaking. Ours wasn’t as bad as some, but there were the usual groups – the athletes and the nerds and this and that – all of the distinctions you normally find because people tend to gather according to their interests.
But I do think it was also a product of the system, because at Living Wisdom School we were so deeply integrated, not only because we were smaller but because we had so many interactions between the grades on a very dynamic level. When I got to high school I just assumed I was going to be everyone’s friend, and in fact, by the end of high school I was vice president of the student body, and I’m sure my earlier experience helped.
I knew just about every person in my class, and maybe I didn’t have deep friendships with everyone, because it was four hundred people, but I felt I could talk to them all, and that there weren’t any insurmountable boundaries.
I had friendships across many different types of people and groups, and my feeling, at the time, was that it was a result of the way Living Wisdom School had prepared me.
A good example from my years at Living Wisdom was our all-school walks to the park for phys ed, and how each of the middle schoolers would pair up with a kindergartener or a first grader. And instead of it being a big, heavy, mandated thing, it was very lighthearted and natural, and we would end up talking to the person and getting to know them. But I was amazed, on the few occasions when I would see high schoolers interact with younger kids, by how different it was. And maybe it’s fine if it’s a friendly rivalry between the seniors and the freshmen, but seeing juniors and seniors not even be able to relate to the freshmen was mystifying to me.
And then, also, the way they related to older people. The way the students related to their teachers in high school was completely foreign and unfamiliar to me. And even when the teachers might have allowed some familiarity, it was such a contrast to Living Wisdom, in part because of the tremendous familiarity between the students and teachers, and between the younger students and other levels of students, where there was a soul-to-soul relationship, instead of it only feeling like a casual acquaintance. In high school, I noticed that a lot of my peers related really well to each other, but not so well outside of their own circle.
I did sometimes get stressed about grades, I think partly because so many of the people around me were worrying about them. But I was very much more interested in the social side of high school. And of course I know that people might misunderstand me when I say this, but I knew that having fun was my priority, and I saw the other things as a bit more transitory. And once I got into the rhythm of high school I was very successful academically, even though it wasn’t my primary interest.
I didn’t see academics as an end in itself. I would see people fall into a rut of studying with their nose to the grindstone, which is all right if it’s expressing who you are. And I was capable of studying hard when I needed to. But I saw the social aspect as being much more important, and I was less likely to believe people when they said, “You need to concentrate on studying so you can get into a good school.”
By the time I entered college, I had begun to feel that there was a bit too much emphasis on conforming my nature to fit into the surrounding environment. I went to Cal State Fullerton in Southern California, and the experience was responsible in a very large way for my coming onto a spiritual path at a young age, because there was such a strong contrast between what I had experienced at Living Wisdom, and the materialism I was witnessing around me, and how it wasn’t making people happy.
I saw that people were relating to academics from a concern for material wealth – I’m talking about the students, not the teachers. The school was in Orange County, which has a very materialistic orientation, and the contrast with my earlier experiences was so striking that I was completely overwhelmed and mystified for a time. And then, not long after I left, I found my spiritual path because it was exactly what I needed. But I was mystified that people could be so obsessed with outward things.
Q: I assume you studied film, because it’s the field you’re working in now.
Aryavan: Yes. For a very long time I never really knew what I wanted to do. I picked film because I had to pick something, and I had enjoyed making videos and short films in high school, so I thought that until something else came along I would try it. I knew I wanted to do something creative, and film seemed like a good track.
Q: What was the transition like after college? Did you immediately start making films about the Living Wisdom Schools and related subjects, or did you enter the film industry?
Aryavan: In my last college semester I took a class called “The Biz.” The teacher was a very successful Hollywood producer who had produced the blockbuster Final Destination movies and other major films, and we were excited to have her with us. But what I remember most vividly was when she said to us, “You are going to have to work on projects that you’ll absolutely hate for at least five years before you can do anything you’ll like.”
That was her big inspiration, and it was at that moment that I realized I wouldn’t be working in the film industry. The vibe I got from the class was that this wasn’t the kind of industry I wanted to participate in, because it seemed extremely cold, and everything in the class was about money, which I guess makes sense for a class on “The Biz.”
She painted a picture that was informed by her own experience, and people obviously do make things they believe in, even in Hollywood. But it was very clear that I didn’t want to do things that I didn’t believe in, for any period of time.
So I started brainstorming ways to create my own series and pitch it directly to the networks. And that was something that had been instilled in me at Living Wisdom School. It was a complete refutation of the pervasive idea in the film business that you have to suffer in order to advance toward your goals, and not just work hard, but you have to subjugate your values if you want to succeed.
That’s something I found myself rejecting immediately, even as I saw my classmates nodding in agreement. So it set me apart, and I think it came from Living Wisdom School. Because we were taught to face our obstacles creatively and express positive, expansive values.
Again, those tendencies were latent in my own nature, even in eighth grade, where the teachers weren’t necessarily verbalizing those things, but we were definitely picking them up – that we could influence our circumstances in positive ways that would bring us happiness.
I don’t remember any teacher at Living Wisdom ever saying, “Live to be happy – don’t live to be rich.” But I knew the deeper values that were implied, and they were well-aligned with my nature. So when I was presented with opportunities to work purely for money, I rejected them completely.
My best friend in college entered the film industry, and he ended up creating a nice career for himself, but whenever I talk with him, he’s saying to me, “You’re living the dream – and how did that happen?”
He works for Apple and he’s making outrageous sums of money. He’s been very successful and he has a good life. He has a wife and a new child, and they’re happy, but something’s missing and he knows it. And our lives could not have gone in more opposite directions after college.
I wasn’t planning to make films for the Living Wisdom Schools. I had no long-term plans, except for maybe going back to LA and trying to build a creative life for myself.
Just before my senior year in college, I went to India as my graduation present, and I met Swami Kriyananda, the founder of the Living Wisdom Schools. I was still planning to come back and try to create something in the film world, but then my life led me in mysterious ways in a different direction.
The trip to India was super cool. The moment I showed up, I discovered that Swami wanted to film a series of TV programs, and that he wanted to hire people he knew. In the meantime, the original videographer suddenly couldn’t come to India, and I got the job.
So I’m suddenly recording TV programs, which is way above my pay grade in terms of the skills I’d learned in school, and I ended up learning more about video from that experience than from school. I had to do lots of things I wasn’t comfortable with, and it was like a postgraduate education. [Laughs]
Q: There must have been wrenching times, when you wondered where you were going.
Aryavan: I had this weird mental logic, where I would tell myself, “Okay, I’ll go back to my old life, but at least I’ll have spent time working for an inspiring figure, so this is an awesome opportunity, and I’ll be able to go back and do normal stuff with what I’ve learned.”
Q: How did you meet your wife, Ishani, who works as your partner in film?
Aryavan: I was in India, and the producers of The Answer, a film about Swami Kriyananda’s youthful search and his meeting with Paramhansa Yogananda, were in India to work on the film.
I had signed up to do some behind-the-scenes work on the movie, and I had spoken with Ishani several times, and then I was in the room when she got a call asking her to do makeup for the film, because she had been a professional makeup artist for fashion and photography in New York.
She didn’t really want to do it, because she felt she was done with makeup, and she was enjoying not doing it.
I knew there weren’t going to be many people I knew on the film, so I said, “You have to do it, because I won’t have anyone to talk to if you’re not there!” So I convinced her, and she did it.
The experience of making the film was total chaos, with lots of craziness and conflict. It was one of the craziest professional experiences I’ve had, and through it all Ishani and I became closer and closer, just holding onto each other for a bit of sanity and positive magnetism.
What with all the intensity, we built a deep friendship in a very compact amount of time. We learned a lot about each other in those extremely intense months, and we decided that this would be a good thing.
Q: How did you come back to the Living Wisdom Schools as the focus of your work?
Aryavan: Toward the end of his life, in 2012 and 2013, Swami Kriyananda began saying repeatedly that I should work with children, that I should be in education, and I should work in Education for Life. And the upshot is that when he left his body in 2013 there was a clear direction that he had left for me.
I wasn’t uninterested in teaching – I did find the idea somewhat interesting, and I didn’t have anything else in my life that I was deeply passionate about. I enjoyed film, but I never felt that it was the one big thing that would feed me. So it took a while before I began to feel a flow of enthusiasm for Education for Life and the vision of how it could literally change the planet.
Q: When you began making films about Living Wisdom School, did that give you a clue? Was there a special energy that you wanted to have more of in your life? Because the first 6-minute film you made about the school is beautiful!
Aryavan: I feel it’s one of the best videos we’ve made. The content was so rich that it virtually made itself, and that made it so much easier for us.
We had a really great time making that film, and when I think about the experience, it’s obvious that I would be getting into education, although I was the last person to know. [Laughs]
At a point when I was still undecided about what I would do with the rest of my life, the thought came that I had been really happy as a child at Living Wisdom School, and that that level of happiness had faded over time, and maybe it was something about the school, and the people I’d been around.
I had loved helping with the LWS summer camps, and I was always looking for opportunities to come back and visit the school, and to be with the children in that environment.
I believe that’s a big part of what makes Living Wisdom School so exceptional. The environment is so uplifting and joyful on a deep vibrational level that it’s the kind of place you want to be. And when I think of how learning happens at LWS, I realize it’s the best possible environment for kids to learn and just be in. It was such a pleasant, joyful, uplifting place to be that when I look back at it now, it’s very clear why I would end up wanting to create that kind of experience for other children.
I hadn’t thought of getting into education, yet it now seems obvious, because everything about the Living Wisdom Schools is attractive to me, and I find it deeply inspiring.
Education for Life is not complicated. You just have to believe in being happy and joyful, and in having more of that experience in your life. And for me, sharing that experience with others, especially children, has been deeply fulfilling and gratifying.
Q: It’s amazing that for six hours of the day, and nine months out of the year, there’s an intense environment where kids can thrive – it’s like a super cosmic happiness school for kids, and a wonderful success incubator and nursery.
Aryavan: I totally agree. Of course, I’m biased, but when you visit the school and you meet the kids, and you hear the stories of kids who’ve come from tough backgrounds or tough schooling experiences, and you compare it with their experience at Living Wisdom School, the idea that you can create an environment where children can feel loved is already a huge win.
And then you add learning to the equation, and it’s brilliant. But even if we didn’t run a school, and if we just ran a place where children felt whole and safe and happy, that would actually be enough to guide them for the rest of their lives. And that we’re doing anything else is a bonus.
When a child has the opportunity to experience what that kind of pure happiness feels like, and to know that they can create it for themselves and navigate the world based on that feeling – who needs more than that, once they have that sense of themselves and who they are and what their abilities are, and the enthusiasm to do great things?
Our whole approach is about helping kids thrive during the years from roughly age six to twelve, when their feelings are at the forefront of their personal development, and helping them acquire a good mastery of their feelings as a tool of maturity, all while you’re recognizing the highest, appropriate use of the intellect.
We all have to deal with the four tools of maturity that kids develop in the years from birth to age twenty-four. You can see examples all around you, of people who have strong will power, for example, but it’s often directed in ways that aren’t going to give them happiness and fulfillment. And the true meaning of the intellect is that it needs the inward process of uniting the feelings and mind in expansive and wise ways.
Feeling is the one that always seems to get left behind in our current educational system. And so the intellect becomes a purely outward thing, where it’s all about grades and test results, and the feelings become nothing, because we just shove them aside and bury and disparage them. And then we’re surprised when people rebel, or when they have midlife crises, or they reach the pinnacle outwardly and realize that there was nothing in it worthwhile.
If you look at the graduates of Living Wisdom School, and the relationships they have with their work and their families and friends, that’s where you begin to see the potential for a revolution, because it’s offering the kids so much more. It’s telling them about life the way our lives were meant to be. This life was meant to be so much more fulfilling than people are giving it an opportunity to be. So, yes, we’re training people to be happy.
What kind of education do you want for your child?
I would like to make a case for a complete, well-rounded approach that takes into account not only the child’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being, but their individuality as well.
Education Through the Ages – A Legacy of Common Sense
For many centuries, educators understood that children’s development occurs in natural stages of about six years. From birth to age 6, for example, the child’s primary developmental task is to become comfortable with its body. From 6 to 12, feelings come to the fore – this is a time when children can be taught most effectively through the “tools of imagination” – in particular, the arts. It’s a time that many of us look back upon fondly as the years that most truly defined our childhood.
From 12 to 18, will power becomes the primary focus, as young people prepare for independent adult life. And finally, from 18 to 24, the life of the mind takes center stage – think of college students talking late into the night about philosophy, politics, history, science, and the arts.
As I’ve hinted, schools in centuries past took account of these natural stages in the life of a child and adjusted their methods accordingly. In ancient Greece and Rome, in India and China, and in Europe throughout the Dark Ages, Renaissance, and Enlightenment, teachers adapted their approach to the student’s age and natural tendencies.
I believe that in our attempts to improve schools today, we shouldn’t overlook the reasons this system was so widely and successfully adopted. Wise educators have always recognized that it’s much more efficient to align their teaching methods with the child’s nature, and not try to impose adult theories that might have little correspondence with the reality of the student’s needs.
They knew that to ignore the child’s developmental stage would be disastrous, and that forcing a child of 6 or 8 into an overwhelmingly academics-oriented curriculum would do far more harm than good. It would risk stunting the children’s emotional growth, killing their enthusiasm, stifling their curiosity, and greatly reducing their eagerness to learn.
Equally unfortunate, it would do a very inferior job of giving the children invaluable skills that would help them succeed in high school, college and beyond – for example, the ability to cooperate happily with others, to consider others’ needs, to communicate well, and to grasp with a sure inner certainty the need for personal self-discipline, kindness, compassion, values, morality, courage, and honor.
How Our Thinking About Education Changed
It was only in the 19th century that educators, encouraged by the federal government, began to consider that this system, which had worked so well for so long, was in need of change.
They decided that schools should prepare students to be employable in the factories of the burgeoning industrial age. To that end, they stripped the curriculum of almost everything except the “Three R’s” – reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic.
This is why, for the last two centuries, our students have been almost completely deprived of an education that addresses important aspects of their being: their feelings and will power, and the proper training of their minds.
What results has this stripped-down educational system achieved? I believe it’s fair to say that they have not been attractive:
Widespread cynicism and rebellion against a system that fails to acknowledge the child’s inner realities
A poisonous belief that life has no purpose, and an accompanying loss of motivation
A lack of moral education, which can make susceptible children feel free to commit selfish acts without pangs of conscience, including crime and violence
Addiction to drugs and alcohol, in an attempt to dull the sense of meaninglessness and the lack of awareness of life’s exciting possibilities
Over-competitiveness, status-seeking, cliquishness, and bullying as an affirmation of the ego against other egos, due to a lack of proper training during the “Feeling Years” from 6 to 12, and encouraged by school environments where unbridled social and academic competitiveness is the rule
Illiteracy and underachievement – a sense that what’s being taught has little relevance, and that it holds no promise of satisfying the individual’s longing for increasing happiness
Depression, suicide, boredom, and aimlessness
Failure-consciousness among those less academically gifted
Tremendous, oppressive pressure on every child to excel academically – a pressure that can reach completely unrealistic, unsustainable levels for the gifted and the less gifted alike, and that can lead to serious, health-destroying stress and chronic depression
A thoroughly unrealistic, terribly misguided, and profoundly damaging belief that every child, regardless of their natural talents and inclinations, should be encouraged to compete for acceptance at an elite university
Many parents today have begun to awaken to the need to fix our educational system. Organizations have sprung up to help them in this endeavor. Yet everywhere, well-meaning parents, educators, and reformers are still groping for answers.
The reformers too often overlook what has worked in the past. Nor do they give due attention to the handful of exceptional schools that have found real, working answers to educating all aspects of the child, by implementing an educational philosophy that, far from lowering the child’s chances of being accepted at a good college and landing a good job, leads to the highest personal achievement and happiness in high school, college, and beyond.
Instead, the reformers have, in large part, tried to re-invent the wheel. They’ve spun fine-sounding theories that haven’t actually been tested. Some schools simply “fake it.” Hoping to ride the bandwagon of school reform, they spout nice-sounding phrases like “joyful education,” “well-rounded curriculum,” and “educating the whole child.” But when we look at their actual classroom practices we find that they are delivering the same old pressure-cooker education that yields one-sided results at the expense of the child’s well-being and overall development, not to mention the health- and happiness-destroying effects of years of unrelenting stress on their bodies, hearts, minds, and souls.
The Answer Is in the Outcome
What is the answer? I think we can gain a glimpse by considering the qualities that enable adults to be highly successful in today’s world. As our first example, I propose that we look at the world’s most prominent high-tech company. (The following account is adapted from our book, Happiness & Success at School.)
When Sergey Brin and Larry Page founded Google in 1998, they established a policy of hiring only the most brilliant applicants in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math).
Fifteen years later, Google decided that it might be a good idea to evaluate the results of this policy.
A Washington Post article, “The surprising thing Google learned about its employees – and what it means for today’s students” (December 27, 2017), summarized the insights Google gleaned from Project Oxygen, the detailed examination of its hiring practices.
Project Oxygen completely overturned the company’s assumptions about the qualities that best predict success in a high-tech business environment. Most notably, among the eight standout qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise was dead last.
The top qualities that augured success at Google were all “soft” skills. The researchers found that the most successful Google employees:
Are good coaches
Empower the team and do not micromanage
Express interest in and concern for the other team members’ success and personal well-being
Are productive and results-oriented
Are good communicators – they listen and share information
Help others with their career development
Have a clear vision and strategy for the team
Have key technical skills that help them advise the team
A follow-up study by Google of the qualities of its most productive research teams (Project Aristotle, 2016), confirmed these results.
In the Post article, Cathy N. Davidson, a professor in the graduate school at CUNY, described the findings:
“Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard.”
Davidson cited a survey of 260 companies conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. The study, which included industry giants Chevron and IBM, found that recruiters ranked communication skills among the top three qualities companies look for in job applicants. “They prize both an ability to communicate with one’s workers and an aptitude for conveying the company’s product and mission outside the organization.”
What conclusions can we draw from these studies, about the best ways to prepare our children to succeed and be happy in school and beyond?
A common feature of the qualities that set the top Google employees apart is that they are “expansive.” That is, they foster a safe work environment where the employees can feel free to work cooperatively, ask questions, make mistakes, and help each other.
The personal traits that the researchers identified as furthering success at Google and at other top companies are precisely the same qualities that the teachers at Living Wisdom School devote tremendous energy to fostering in the classroom every day, considering them essential for creating a safe, nurturing, joyful learning environment for the children.
In Happiness & Success at School, we present overwhelming evidence that individualized instruction, combined with appropriate attention to emotional needs, consistently produces the greatest success not only in high-tech companies but at Harvard, Stanford, and MIT, and in business, sports, and the military.
The qualities that contribute to success at Google, Harvard, and Stanford are the same qualities that we cultivate, starting with each four- or five-year-old child’s first day at school.
Let me hasten to dispel any fears parents may have that our school overly emphasizes these “soft” abilities. Quite the opposite is true. In the 45 years of our schools’ existence, we have found that learning becomes far more efficient when soft skills are given due attention.
Discipline problems are greatly reduced and motivation soars when each child is guided to learn at the upper edge of his or her own, individual capacity. It has been our experience that proper attention to the soft skills powerfully amplifies the amount of learning that can take place in the classroom. Because we are able to motivate and engage each child at his or her own, individual level, the gifted students are never bored, and the less-gifted are never frustrated or infected with a sense of failure, and of being left hopelessly behind.
Because we’ve had 45 years to observe how these qualities help children succeed throughout their lives, we take great care to cultivate them, starting in the earliest years.
We’ve shown that they create the best possible foundation for success in the K-8 grades, in high school, college, and after. It’s why we are tremendously focused on kindergarten as a critically important gateway to give the children the vital skills they will need to be successful throughout their lives.
Kindergarten Is the Portal to Future Success & Happiness
We’ve seen that if you can start developing these expansive “soft” qualities in the children at age 4 to 6, and if you can continue to build upon those qualities throughout their elementary years, it’s a gift that will bear powerful rewards in high school and college.
I’m thinking of one of our students, Hazemach Munro. Hazie entered LWS in preschool and recently earned his master’s degree in astrophysics from the University of Bremen in Germany. Hazie now teaches math in our Palo Alto Living Wisdom High School.
I think also of Bryan McSweeney who spent nine years with us, from kindergarten through 8th grade. Bryan is a talented professional filmmaker who taught at Living Wisdom School High in Nevada City and now serves as ambassador for Education for Life in India, as that country begins to develop its own Living Wisdom Schools.
Kshama Kellogg spent most of her elementary years at the Living Wisdom School in Nevada City, aside from two years when she attended public school in Italy. A brilliant, inspired teacher, loved by her students, Kshama taught second grade in our Palo Alto Living Wisdom School for many years and is now the School Director at our Living Wisdom High School.
In 45 years we’ve gathered a growing reservoir of knowledge and experience for translating our Education for Life philosophy into practice. Our philosophy is based, first and foremost, on creating a learning environment where the children can feel safe, happy, and free to interact confidently with the teachers and with each other. We feel it’s only within such a safe and happy environment that the children can experience the undistracted joy of mastering challenges every day.
When learning happens with joy, we find, with tremendous consistency, that every child quickly begins to love learning. This is why our students, who represent a wide spectrum of native abilities and backgrounds, have achieved a median high school GPA over the years of 3.85.
Play & Learning – Essential Partners
When we’re talking about a four- or five-year-old, the first thing we need to take into account is that they absolutely need a playful, loving approach to learning. It’s the single most important key to preparing these little children for success now and in the years ahead.
Once we have that playful, happy foundation, we find that the children feel inwardly free to achieve amazing things. For example, it enables our kindergarteners to happily acquire math concepts two to four years ahead of their grade level.
Many of our parents have come from rigid school cultures where the children were forced to sit at their desks all day and were allowed very limited playtime. Some of the schools in our area that have adopted that system give their kindergartners just 20 minutes away from the classroom at lunchtime. Learning is reduced to something incredibly formulaic and dry, even at the earliest age. And because it isn’t creative, it utterly fails to produce learning in the most efficient and natural way, because it doesn’t make use of the child’s natural enthusiasm. It’s pounding information into their young brains without opening their hearts to receive it.
It harkens to the industrial era when all instruction was directed, even with four- and five-year-olds, to how it would affect their SAT scores in high school. But what unfortunately happens is that it sets up tremendous resistance in the child, because it’s fighting against the way they are made. And it runs completely against the way they can best be drawn into the learning experience, and the way they can absorb learning most naturally and efficiently.
In his wonderful book Where You Go, Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, Frank Bruni, a long-time New York Times columnist and feature writer, laments the tragic failures of the traditional approach of forcing children into a system that ignores the way they are made. He excoriates today’s approach which is oriented toward improving the children’s high school grades and SAT scores and preparing every child to be accepted at Harvard. I think it’s a wonderful sign that St. Francis High School has made Bruni’s book required reading for every parent.
I often talk with parents of kindergarten-age children who are deeply concerned about this very false and misleading kind of rigor, which fails to tune into the child’s actual needs at each developmental stage, and which, in kindergarten, must include play.
In the very early years, they should not be learning, first and foremost, that learning is torture. They should be learning that learning is fun. At that age, they do not need to understand that learning, in later years, may require hard work to reap the joys of mastering academic challenges.
At this age, they are very open to whatever is going on in the classroom and at school. And an instructor who can bring together the twin threads of learning and play, and do it in a happy, loving way will be very successful. As we demonstrate in our book, Head & Heart: How a Balanced Education Nurtures Happy Children Who Excel in School & Life, our kindergartners are not falling behind their Harvard-acceptance competitors. Quite the opposite, as a direct result of the playful approach, they are able to absorb concepts at the third and fourth grade curriculum level.
I’m sure that most of us, when we visualize a kindergarten classroom full of four- to six-year olds, imagine a squirming mass of young bodies and a harried, red-faced teacher who’s yelling at them to behave. But parents and educators who visit our kindergarten are confronted with a very different picture.
First of all, when learning is delivered in a format that matches the children’s natural development, they become deeply engaged. Thus – believe it or not! – you will find four or five tiny tots working silently together, heads bowed in deep concentration.
We are intent on helping each child be comfortable and happy within the school environment. With this goal in mind, a practice that helps us greatly is the inclusion of yoga and meditation at the start of the school day. If you can help children discover an enjoyable state of calmness and concentration within themselves – a state of happy, relaxed mental attention – they will be gaining a powerful tool that will help them be successful throughout their school years.
The kids start the day with yoga and meditation, just before math class. When you can set a tone where they are comfortable and at ease in the environment, a great deal becomes possible in math, phonics, writing, art, and science. Anything is possible when the children’s hearts are open and eager to dive into the day’s lessons.
The Incalculable Benefits of A Stress-Free Learning Environment
When you can give a child an experience every day at school of being comfortable and relaxed in the environment, and with the teacher and the other kids, it means that they will never have to fend off the distractions they would find in schools that are focused entirely on academics, and that spend little time creating an optimal learning environment.
Most schools do little, if anything, to steer the kids away from forming cliques and treating each other badly, with the upshot that each child must deal with these extremely negative and harmful factors that can make school too stressful and tense to give full attention to their studies.
It’s well documented that generalized stress at school interferes with learning. In a Washington Post article, “How much does stress affect learning?” (June 10, 2011), education and foreign affairs reporter Valerie Post quotes Catharine H. Warner, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Maryland:
“Our findings indicate that stress in the classroom environment affects children’s likelihood of exhibiting learning problems (difficulties with attentiveness, task persistence, and flexibility), externalizing problems (frequency with which the child argues, fights, disturbs ongoing activities, and acts impulsively), problems interacting with peers (difficulties in forming friendships, dealing with other children, expressing feelings, and showing sensitivity, or internalizing problems (presence of anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem, and sadness in the child). These findings suggest that stress – in the form of negative classroom conditions – negatively affects the way children pay attention in class, stay on task, and are able to move from one activity to another.”
The tremendous energy that we devote to creating a calm, peaceful, joyful, accepting classroom and school environment frees each child to be exactly who they are. And who they are will be exceedingly individual. When you’re allowed to be who you are, and you’re challenged at exactly that level, the result is that you will have daily successes that will give you a joyful experience of learning. But if you’re just trying to meet somebody else’s rigid demands and requirements all the time, at somebody else’s level, it creates a tension that prevents learning by shutting down your energy and enthusiasm.
As a teacher for more than fifty years, it has been my experience that tension is never a positive factor when it comes to learning. On the other hand, feeling free to make mistakes, and to have those mistakes accepted as a natural part of the learning process, is an amazing, blissful and extremely helpful experience for the child.
In our school, we achieve that freedom by combining learning with play, and by making sure our kids have exposure to free time. We fight against the misguided compulsion to structure every minute of the child’s day. It can create a very stressful situation for a kindergartner, when their teachers and parents are scheduling their every waking moment. Even during our after-school program, where the kids are mostly working on homework, there’s a relaxed sense of freedom, and the children love being there.
Children Can Be Happy and Successful in School
Parents and educators who visit our school invariably remark on how every child is completely him- or herself, and how they show a remarkable level of maturity and confidence. It’s an extremely rare and extraordinary experience in schools today, to see how centered they are in themselves, in a natural and real way.
You can see it in their eyes and in how they carry themselves. A child will walk into the principal’s office, not at all intimidated, and say, “Helen, I need an ice pack.” Somebody was hurt and they are eager to help, and there’s no fear or hesitation. Or they’ll come in and share a birthday donut with me.
If it’s a difficult situation, where they aren’t feeling well, or somebody needs to call a parent, they’ll come in and have absolute trust. And this is true of every adult in the school, including all of the classroom teachers and PE teachers and music teachers and math tutors – because there is a family atmosphere that’s very consistent and that we cultivate very consciously every day.
It happens in every situation – in class, on the playground, and in extracurricular activities such as music and the theater program.
Theater Magic – An Extraordinary Experience of Learning and Growth
Our theater program includes every child from grades K through eight. It creates an extraordinary atmosphere for learning, and for cultivating personal success qualities. The kindergarten children are on stage, rehearsing and performing with the older children, and they develop a level of comfort and confidence that is far beyond what most kindergartners get to experience at school. It allows them to walk in the world of school in a very different way, when they can engage with an adult or an older child and they can both be very playful. Partner reading and partner walks are an extension of the confidence-building practices the children experience every day.
Our methods come to fruition most clearly for the kindergartners during spring quarter, when you can watch a child get out of the car in the morning, brimming with confidence, and it’s the same child who wouldn’t look at you six or seven months earlier, or who would cringe and hold their mother’s hand tightly and be very shy.
I’m thinking of a child who was extremely fearful at the start of the school year, and now her father will say, “Have a great day!” and she’ll turn and look at me with a big, confident smile and say, “Good morning, Helen!”
It’s a maturation that is possible because there is no exclusion. There’s a definition of self here that allows for the inclusion of everybody, not just their own classmates and teachers, but every single teacher and child.
We don’t have an intimidating or fearful culture. This morning, I was explaining to a parent that the fundamental principles on which our school is based are most clearly expressed by two of our School Rules: “Choose Happiness,” and “Practice Kindness.”
Practice kindness. Learn to practice kindness with one another and to recognize that in doing so you help create a loving and safe atmosphere.
Choose happiness. Learn that you have the power to choose how you will respond to life’s challenges. Learn to focus on the positive rather than the negative. Learn to control your moods and raise your energy to meet difficulties that arise.
These two rules define the culture of the school. If you choose happiness, it means that you don’t have the right to take out a bad mood on anybody – you have an obligation to use your will power and your understanding to turn the energy around, with the ready and willing help of your teacher and classmates.
It’s amazing to watch the rules in action. A child will come to school, and maybe they aren’t feeling well. Maybe they’re feeling a little moody or snarky, and everybody is sympathetic. The teacher says, “I’m so sorry you’re not feeling well. Go over to the safe spot and take a moment, and take your teddy.” So there’s sympathy, but there’s also an expectation that at some point, and it should be pretty soon, you need to choose to be happy.
And they do, because they’re shown how to do it. They are given the specific steps they can take to be kind and choose happiness. And when you articulate the steps, they learn that they have the power to choose positive feelings and behavior.
It’s an incredibly valuable lesson for now and for the longer term. And the other children have the opportunity to practice kindness, because they aren’t going to be saying, “Oh, stop being such a chump.” The right behavior is constantly modeled for them, and the teachers deliberately take time to give them instructions on how to choose happiness every time the need arises.
Over several months the older children work with the younger children at play rehearsals, and they are very sensitive about their well-being. They want to take care of them, and they’ll help them and guide them. It’s a spirit of friendship that includes a sense of responsibility for the other person, especially the little ones.
It’s so easy for children to be selfish and self-involved. Especially when they’re kindergarten age, it’s all about them. They need to grow into a sense of the other, and to be able to learn how to do it at a young age, and to see it constantly modeled for them by the adults and the other children in the school environment is a priceless gift. It’s an invaluable foundation for acquiring the maturity that we must all achieve to be successful at every level, and it’s an awareness that we’re instilling in them starting on the first day of kindergarten – the awareness of another’s reality.
Does Living Wisdom School Over-Emphasize Soft Skills?
There’s a huge question that parents ask about our school. “You have a wonderful school culture, but how does it translate to grades and test scores?” And, of course, the proof is in our graduates’ high school and college grades, and in their adult successes.
In our book Happiness & Success at School, there’s a wonderful account of how, in the military and in sports, individual attention, individual freedom, individual acceptance, and a culture of what’s best for the individual produce the highest success. We were able to show how, at Harvard, Stanford, and Google, happiness and success go together. We are not simply spouting wishy-washy, unrealistic ideas that we haven’t tested and that don’t work in the real world. The interplay of happiness and success is a real-life experience at our country’s elite universities, at major corporations, and in sports and the military.
I received an application recently from a parent of a fifth-grade boy. It was very unfortunate that the class was full and we weren’t able to take him. The parent was sad because the child’s predisposition is to self-judge himself to an extent that he becomes paralyzed – he’s afraid to try anything new because he’s afraid to fail. And to build a culture and an attitude toward learning that includes the ability to “fail happily” is a wonderfully liberating gift.
In the late 1980s, a professor of computer science at MIT, Seymour Papert, published a book called Mindstorms in which he pointed out that the most wonderful lesson children can take from learning to program computers is that mistakes are a natural and necessary part of the process. He pointed out that professional programmers make, on average, at least 10 mistakes per hundred lines of their first code drafts.
Papert called it “the debugging approach to life.” Kids today have so much stress around success, and on getting it right the first time. There’s a tremendous competitive and comparative emphasis in the typical approach to learning, where you’re always wondering if I’m as good as somebody else. As opposed to “What am I learning?” And “Was it fun?”
In our school, the kids know who’s good at this or that subject, because we celebrate their successes. But the fact is that we constantly celebrate their small, daily, individual successes as the most important kind of success. We are celebrating their small experiences of mastery as artists, poets, singers, scientists, dancers, and mathematicians.
There isn’t a child in our school who doesn’t have an area of success that we can celebrate. I’m thinking of a boy who had some very significant challenges at school, until he began rehearsing for the all-school play, whereupon he flourished amazingly. The success he enjoyed in the theater program translated to an ability to self-regulate in class, where he now wants to do well because he’s experienced what it feels like.
Each of us has an inborn drive to experience happiness and to be free from suffering. And the universal spiritual law is that whenever we expand our awareness by learning something new or by overcoming a challenge, we experience a corresponding inflow of joy. And if you’re having happy learning experiences every day, you’re going to want more and more of them.
The Straitjacket of Modern Education
I often wonder how our culture went wrong, when it failed to take account of the link between learning and happiness. Children are so elastic, and so ready to learn, including learning which thoughts and actions will give them joy. And instead, they suddenly find themselves bound in straitjackets of expectations that may or may not be realistic. And it’s tragic.
Learning by rote and learning by drill no longer needs to be the foundation of a child’s school experience. What is necessary is to cultivate imagination, resourcefulness, and creativity, starting at the earliest age, and then remove the limits. We need to support the children who are learning at the bottom end and take the limits off each child’s horizons, so that they can surprise themselves and keep growing every day.
We have a first grader who has artistic ability beyond all imagining. He made several sketches of a ship, beautifully executed with lots of fine detail, and we put them on the cover of our annual literary magazine. We had a choice – we could celebrate excellence, or we could impose some false standard of egalitarianism. But it’s absolutely clear that what that little boy has achieved is not equal, and we feel that it’s a false imposition to pretend that his work isn’t exceptional.
Everybody in the school acknowledged and celebrated the boy’s talent. The older kids were saying, “Whoa, who did that?” But the truth is, we celebrate every child’s successes, and we ensure that there are plenty of successes to celebrate, by having them operate at the tip of their ability, mastering challenges at their level.
A girl who came to us in the fall absolutely flourished in the school play. She took to her role and developed it amazingly. That little girl, who has so much talent, was very unhappy in her former school, until she came here and felt embraced by the energy, and realized that she could let loose and be as creative as her abilities allowed.
This morning I spoke with parents who are brain researchers at Stanford. They chose our school because they have friends whose children go to our school, and they recognized the level of acceptance and individuality that exists here, and the happiness of the children. But, more than anything else, they simply want their children to be happy during their time in school.
The father was educated at a school in Israel that was very progressive, but the mother had a more standard education, and they both just want their children to be happy while they’re learning.
One of the biggest tests for our parents is that when their children reach third or fourth grade, they’re tempted to buy into the culture that is constantly pressuring them to think, “Oh my God, how am I going to get my kid into Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton, or MIT?”
The parents I spoke with this morning understand the theoretical and practical aspects of our system, but they really didn’t want to talk about that side. They wanted to tell me how the families of children in our school had told them that their kids have never been happier, and that a great deal of learning goes hand in hand with a great deal of happiness.
It’s really that simple. And what parents everywhere need to realize, and our government and schools need to realize, is that happiness and school success are not mutually exclusive – that, in fact, the opposite is true: happiness is indispensable for the most efficient learning to take place.
We need to help children leverage their natural gifts. And maybe the process won’t be as linear as our culture would prefer, and maybe we won’t always be able to quantify it with numbers. But our successes have proved our methods year after year, in terms of our graduates’ high school and college grades and their adult successes.
Learning Priceless Personal Success Qualities
Another factor that makes our kindergarten so special and powerful is that from the first day we practice leading with the heart. We teach each child what it feels like to appreciate another person’s reality, and how happy it makes them feel.
If a kindergartner gets to someplace first, it’s their nature to let everyone know that it’s their place. They are very territorial, and it’s all about “mine.” My toy, my place, my pencil. Yet they also have very open hearts, if they’re allowed to. And it’s bringing those two together, by showing them that the greatest happiness comes from being unselfish, that creates a wonderful learning environment. It’s a learning that may take people a lifetime to acquire. But whether it’s in the sandbox or on the tricycle, it’s something that they’re learning here every day.
Two kids were arguing over a bike. We did a conflict resolution, and one child said, “Okay, how about five minutes for him and five minutes for me?”
The teacher said, “That seems reasonable.”
The other child thought about it and said, “Well, what if we had it at the same time?”
The teacher said, “I don’t think that’s possible.”
He said, “Oh, yeah, it is, because one of us could drive and the other could stand on the back and then we could switch places.”
It’s a defining story, because it illustrates how, once they understand the principle, they can be creative and take it a lot farther than we might imagine.
We help them have many experiences of happiness, and we teach them how to find it for themselves. And they begin to look for it all the time, and they become very expansive.
I was talking with one of the eighth graders here in my office, when he suddenly said, “Oh, hey, Helen, I gotta go!”
I said, “Well, I’m not quite finished.”
He said, “I know, but the younger kids are about to show up, and they want me to hide the ball for them.”
What’s interesting is that RJ is so connected with the younger children. They are these tiny kindergartners and first graders, and RJ is a big, hulking kid, almost six feet tall, who’s very strong and buff and athletic, and he’s wanting to play this game with the little ones where he’ll hide the ball and they’ll have to find it.
For an older child to hide the ball might be considered hostile, but what’s happening here is very different. And in this environment everyone knows that it’s an expression of friendship. The little tots adore RJ, and he was willing to break off a conversation with me to go help them.
“No Bullying!” – More than Just Empty Words
I talked yesterday with the principals of two of our local high schools. They were asking me about the culture at our Living Wisdom High School, because I’m on the school board and we’re up for certification.
When the conversation came around to what makes our school different, I very boldly said, “We do not have bullying at our school.” And I noticed a sudden change in the atmosphere. The men sat quietly and had nothing to say, and I knew why – because they couldn’t say the same about their schools.
I said, “It’s not allowed, and it’s not that we have to come down punitively in order to enforce it. It’s that we teach a culture of kindness, and our children understand from the inside that it gives them the highest happiness.”
I would say that 75 percent of the parents who sit in this office who are looking for a suitable school for their children are trying to escape bullying.
And, well, don’t you think that it comes from the extremely one-sided, highly competitive atmosphere in the schools at all levels? I’m not talking about sports, I’m talking about grades and social advancement and test scores, and how there’s a constant, brutal sense of competitiveness that permeates the social culture in schools today. The culture, particularly in high school, can be cruelly competitive and stratified.
Many parents in Silicon Valley have had to struggle to get to where they are, and they naturally value material success. And when you can have an efficient and balanced environment such as we have here, and a culture that brings the whole child into the educational process, and not just their will power and their brain, it can look a little suspicious to them initially, if they’re consumed by anxiety about the child’s chances of getting into Harvard – even though we can hold our heads high when it comes to our graduates’ successes.
Our supportive culture frees a child to do extraordinarily well. I’ve seen kids who were extremely introverted and fearful and were not able to thrive in the highly competitive cultures of other schools, and who come to us and blossom, to a point where they are respected, accepted, and naturally part of the group.
I’m sure that we will reach a tipping point in this country where parents will wake up to the simple truth that we have demonstrated for 45 years – that kids can be highly successful at school and be happy at the same time.
Living Wisdom School of Palo Alto is overjoyed to announce the publication of a new book: Happiness & Success at School.
Our director, Helen Purcell, says, “It’s a wonderful book and fun to read. I hope that all parents who are seeking an education for their children that includes a balance of academic excellence and the development of indispensable personal qualities that will help to ensure their success in school and for all their lives will read this book.”
About the Author. George Beinhorn serves as our school’s web content manager. A graduate of Stanford University (BA ‘63, MA ‘66) he has been associated with the Living Wisdom Schools since 1976. George has enjoyed a long and fruitful career as a writer and editor with clients in technology, publishing, and academia. (Among his more interesting projects, he edited the “Best doctoral dissertation in computer science in 2008 at Stanford University.”) He is the author of The Joyful Athlete: The Wisdom of the Heart in Exercise & Sports Training.