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.
Can kindergarten influence your child’s chances of success and happiness in later life?
Most definitely! – but perhaps not in the ways you may have imagined.
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.
Play & Learning – Essential Partners
When we’re talking about a four or five-year-old, the first thing we need to consider is that children of that age absolutely need a playful, loving approach to learning. It is the single most important key to preparing 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.
Many of our parents have come from rigid school cultures where the children were forced to sit at their desks most of the day and allowed very limited playtime. That model is neither creative nor realistic. As a result, 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. Instead, it pounds information into young brains without opening their hearts to receive it. But that is not how children are made. Nor does this approach draw them into the learning experience in a way that helps them absorb learning 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 or its equivalent. I think it is a wonderful sign that St. Francis High School in Mountain View, for example, has made Bruni’s book required reading for every parent.
I often talk with parents of kindergarten 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, children should be learning that learning is fun and that mastering academic challenges is exhilarating. 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, some are even able to absorb concepts at more advanced curriculum level.
When learning is delivered in a format that matches their natural development, children 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 to 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 we 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 to be successful throughout their school years.
At Living Wisdom School, children start the day with yoga and meditation, and then, most days, they go right into math class. When the teacher sets a tone which makes them comfortable and at ease in the environment, a great deal becomes possible in math, phonics, writing, art, and science. In fact, 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, they will inevitably gravitate toward the joy of learning.
When the learning environment is also alive with inclusivity and friendship, instead of cliques and competition, children are happier and learn better. In other words, learning and joy go together.
It is 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 move from one activity to another.”
The tremendous energy that we devote to creating a calm, peaceful, joyful, accepting classroom and school environment frees children to be exactly who they are. When you’re allowed to be who you are, and when you’re challenged at exactly that level, you will have daily successes that will give you a joyful experience of learning. By contrast, just trying to meet someone else’s rigid demands and requirements all the time, at someone else’s level creates a tension that prevents learning by shutting down 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. It fuels an exhilarating learning process.
In our school, we achieve that freedom by combining learning with play, and by making sure our kids have free time. We fight against the misguided compulsion to structure every minute of the child’s day.
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. Our children are typically centered in themselves in a natural and real way. And when they do become scattered or upset, they are given the tools to catch themselves with the support of a discerning teacher.
You can see their ease 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 for my friend.” Someone is hurt, and they are eager to help, without fear or hesitation. Or they’ll come in to share a birthday treat with me.
If it’s a difficult situation…they aren’t feeling well, or someone needs to call a parent, they’ll come in with absolute trust. In fact, they will be at ease with every adult in the school, including all the classroom and PE teachers, music teachers, and math tutors – because there is a family atmosphere that is consistent and consciously cultivated every day.
Theater Magic – An Extraordinary Experience of Learning and Growth
Our theater program includes every child from grades TK 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. When they can engage easily and confidently with an adult or an older child, even in a playful way, they feel empowered to walk in the world in a very different way. So, Partner Reading and Partner Walks and play with older children are an extension of the confidence-building practices the children experience every day.
Our methods come to fruition most clearly, especially for the youngest children, during spring quarter, when you can watch a child get out of the car in the morning, brimming with confidence, the same child who wouldn’t look at you six or seven months earlier, or who would cringe with shyness and hold their mother’s hand tightly.
I’m thinking of a child who was extremely fearful at the start of the school year, and now when her father says, “Have a great day!” she will turn and look at me with a big, confident smile and say, “Good morning, Helen!”
It is a maturation made possible because at Living Wisdom School there is a definition of self that allows for the inclusion of everybody, not just one’s own classmates and teachers, but every single teacher and every single 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.”
To Practice kindness means learning to be considerate and loving with one another and to recognize that doing so helps create a loving and safe atmosphere.
To Choose happiness means learning that you have the power to choose how to respond to life’s challenges. The children learn to focus on the positive rather than the negative, to control moods, and to raise their 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. Rather, you have an obligation to use your will power and understanding to turn the energy around with the ready and willing help of both teacher and classmates.
It is amazing to watch the rules in action. For example, a child might come to school, and maybe they aren’t feeling well. Maybe they are feeling a little moody or even snarky, yet everybody is sympathetic. The teacher might say, “I’m so sorry you’re not feeling well. Take a moment on the pillows in the corner, and don’t forget to take your teddy.” So, there’s sympathy, but there’s also an expectation that at some point— and it should be soon—the child needs to choose to be happy.
And they do because they are shown how to do it. They are given the specific steps to take in order to be kind and choose happiness. They learn that they have the power to choose positive feelings and behavior. Because all the children in the school know each other and because the older ones sincerely love to help the kindergarteners, the older ones become role models.
The right behavior is constantly modeled for the little ones, 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 learn to be very sensitive to the well-being of the little ones. They want to take care of them, to help them, and guide them in the spirit of friendship. Thus, they develop a sense of responsibility for others, especially the little ones.
Four and five year old children can be especially selfish and self-involved. They need to grow into a sense of the other. To see exactly that constantly modeled for them by the adults and the other children in the school environment is a priceless gift. For such young ones, it is an invaluable foundation for acquiring the maturity that we must all achieve to be successful at every level, and it is an awareness that we instill in them starting on the very first day of kindergarten – an awareness of another’s reality.
Does Living Wisdom School Over-Emphasize Soft Skills?
Parents often ask a huge question 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 acceptance and grades, and in their adult success.
In our book Happiness & Success at School, there’s a wonderful account of how, in the military and in sports, individual attention, individual freedom, and individual acceptance create a culture based on what’s best for the individual and produce the highest success. 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 for our graduates who have gone on to major universities and corporations.
I received an application recently from a parent of a fifth-grade boy. Unfortunately, that class was full, so we were unable to take him. The parent was sad because the child’s predisposition to self-judge made him afraid to try anything. His fear precluded success. By contrast, our school culture supports an attitude toward learning that includes the ability to “fail happily” on the road to success and then try again—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 which results in children asking, “Am I as good as somebody else?” as opposed to, “What am I learning?” and “Was it fun?”
In our school, the children know who excels in this or that subject area, because we celebrate those successes. But we also celebrate the small, daily successes that lead eventually to greater mastery as the most important kind of success for every child. Included in those celebrations are our children’s beginning mastery as artists, poets, singers, scientists, dancers, and mathematicians.
Success builds upon success. 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 in order to do well. He was motivated because he had experienced what it feels like to be successful.
Each of us has an inborn drive to experience happiness and to be free from suffering. 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 into account the link between learning and happiness. Children are so elastic, so ready to learn, especially when it comes to learning which thoughts and actions will give them joy. Instead, they too often find themselves bound in straitjackets of expectations that may or may not be realistic. Tragic.
Learning by rote and by drill no longer needs to be the foundation of a child’s school experience. What is necessary is the cultivation of imagination, resourcefulness, and creativity, starting at the earliest age. We need to support the children who are learning at the bottom end and take the limits off each child’s horizons. That way they can surprise themselves and keep growing every day.
We had a first grader whose artistic ability was beyond all imagining. He made several sketches of a ship, beautifully executed with lots of fine detail. We put one of them on the cover of our annual literary magazine. Traditionally, an older student was awarded that honor. We had a choice – to celebrate excellence, or to abide by a more rigid standard. But it was clear that what that little boy had achieved was not equal. So, he got the cover!
Everybody in the school acknowledged and celebrated the boy’s talent. The older kids were saying, “Whoa, who did that cover?” The truth is that we don’t shy away from celebrating every child’s success, and we ensure that there are plenty of successes to celebrate by having children operate at the edge of their ability all the time.
A girl who came to us in the fall absolutely flourished in the school play. She took to her role and developed it beautifully. That talented little girl had been very unhappy in her former school, but when she came here and felt embraced by the energy, she realized that she could let loose and be as creative as her abilities allowed.
Once I spoke with parents who are brain researchers at Stanford. The father was educated at a very progressive school in Israel, while the mother had a more standard education. 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 which results in the happiness of the children. More than anything else, they simply wanted their children to be happy during their time in school. This kind of prioritizing is truly refreshing.
Yet, sometimes, it is hard for parents to hold on to the idealism that brings them to Living Wisdom in the first place. 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 child into Harvard, Stanford, Yale, or Princeton?”
The parents I spoke with above understood 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 as brain researchers they knew that a great deal of learning goes hand in hand with a great deal of happiness.
It is really that simple. Happiness and school success are not mutually exclusive – 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. 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 where our graduates go to high school and college, and their adult successes.
Follow this link to view a list of high schools and colleges
that have accepted our LWS graduates,
and examples of their inspiring careers.
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 our children what it feels like to appreciate another person’s reality, and how happy it makes them feel.
If a kindergartner gets some place first, it is their nature to let everyone know that it’s their place. They can be very territorial…It’s my toy, my place, my pencil. Yet, they can also have very open hearts if they are allowed to. By showing them that the greatest happiness comes from being unselfish, together we create a wonderful learning environment. Whether in the sandbox or on the tricycle, relating to a reality other than their own is something even the youngest children are learning at Living Wisdom every day. In fact, it is a priority.
Two children were arguing over a bike, so 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 is a defining story which illustrates how, once they understand the principle of conflict resolution, children can be creative and take it a lot farther than we might imagine.
We help our children have many experiences of happiness, and we teach them how to find it for themselves. Then, they begin to look for it all the time, and they become very expansive. Once, I was talking about something with one of the eighth graders in my office, when he suddenly said, “Oh, hey, Helen, I gotta go!”
I said, “Well, we’re not quite finished, are we?”
He said, “I know, but the younger kids are about to show up, and they want me to hide the ball for them.”
This eighth grader, RJ, a big, strong, athletic six-foot tall boy, was truly connected to the younger children—tiny kindergartners and first graders, and he wanted to honor that connection based on their game in which he would hide the ball somewhere on campus, and they would have to find it.
For an older child to hide the ball might be considered hostile, but not in our environment. Here, it was an expression of friendship. The little tots adored RJ, and he was willing to break off a lively conversation with me to indulge them.
“No Bullying!” – More than Just Empty Words
The principals of two of our local high schools were in conversation with me and asked me about the culture at our Living Wisdom High School, because I’m on the school board, and the high school was up for certification, which it did receive.
The conversation came around to what makes our school different, and I boldly and truthfully said, “We do not have bullying at our school.” Immediately, I noticed a sudden change in the atmosphere. They sat quietly, and I intuited why – because they couldn’t say the same about their schools. The issue of bullying comes up quite often in my talks with prospective parents.
I always say, “It is not allowed, and it’s not that we have to come down punitively in order to enforce that rule because we have actually created a culture of kindness. Our children understand from the inside out that practicing kindness, one of our school rules, gives them the highest happiness.”
I would say that at least 50 percent of the parents who come to my office are trying to escape a culture of bullying at another school.
I think that bullying comes from the highly competitive atmosphere in many schools today. I’m not talking about sports; I’m talking about grades, social advancement, and test scores. Unfortunately, a constant, brutal sense of competitiveness permeates so much of the social culture in schools today, particularly high schools.
Many parents in Silicon Valley have had to struggle to get where they are, and they naturally value material success. So, when you have an efficient and balanced environment such as we have here, one that brings the whole child, not just their will power and intellect, into the educational process, we can initially look a little suspicious, especially when there is anxiety about a child’s chances of getting into a “good college” – 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 extremely introverted and fearful children, who were not able to thrive in the highly competitive cultures of other schools, blossom when they come to Living Wisdom School where they are respected, accepted, and naturally part of the group.
I’m sure that we will reach a tipping point in this country when parents will wake up to the simple truth, one we have demonstrated for many years – Children can be highly successful at school and be happy and well balanced 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.
To obtain a PDF copy of this book with clickable hyperlinks, visit the website of the Palo Alto Living Wisdom School: www.livingwisdomschool.org. Follow the links to articles that support the principles and practices of Education for Life.
Most education research focuses on how teaching methods affect academic performance. But forty-five years of experience have shown us that practices that enhance a child’s inner development can powerfully contribute to their academic success.
(If you come across supportive research, please let us know. You can send us a message through the contact form on the website of the Palo Alto Living Wisdom School: www.livingwisdomschool.org.)
Active Focused Learning Approach. Quotes: “I’m not really held back anymore, just sitting in class waiting.” “There’s not a lot of lecturing, which makes it easier to stay focused.” “I really like working with other students.” Students spend more time working in groups. The strategy is getting more students to achieve better in class.
10 Ways to Improve Schools Using Coaching Principles. An important article by Tony Holler, a public high school honors chemistry teacher and football and track and field coach (Plainfield North HS, IL). Living Wisdom School has followed Tony’s 10 recommendations throughout its 40-plus-year history. And because we’re very clear that they’ve played a large part in our success, the principles are engrained in our school’s philosophy.
Going in circles puts students on path to better choices. Quotes: “The goal is not so much to punish as to get students on paths to make better choices, to understand the impact of what they do, to deal with people better”… “We’ve become more like a family and not just kids who go to school together,” said freshman Leah Brito. “We’ve grown up big time in the last few months.” “One result of the new approach is that kids are giving more thought to the effect what they do and say can have on others,” she said. “In eighth grade, the he said/she said stuff was horrible when many of the students were together at Audubon middle school,” Brito said. “This year, there is much less of that.”
Preschool Controversy – Academics or Play?Quotes: “People who attended play-based preschools were eight times less likely to need treatment for emotional disturbances than those who went to preschools where direct instruction prevailed. Graduates of the play-based preschools were three times less likely to be arrested for committing a felony.”
Why I pulled my son out of a school for ‘gifted’ kids. In this Mashable article, a mother tells how her son thrived after she transferred him out of an elite academically oriented elementary school in New York City. “If you are privileged enough to be selective about what schools your children attend, please consider how they are learning and not just what they are learning. School isn’t only about cramming as much as possible as quickly as possible into their little brains.”
Pressure Cooker Kindergarten. Quotes: “Kindergarten has changed radically in the last two decades in ways that few Americans are aware of. Children now spend far more time being taught and tested on literacy and math skills than they do learning through play and exploration, exercising their bodies, and using their imaginations. Many kindergartens use highly prescriptive curricula geared to new state standards and linked to standardized tests. In an increasing number of kindergartens, teachers must follow scripts from which they may not deviate. These practices, which are not well grounded in research, violate long-established principles of child development and good teaching. It is increasingly clear that they are compromising both children’s health and their long-term prospects for success in school…. Kindergarten has ceased to be a garden of delight and has become a place of stress and distress…. Blindly pursuing educational policies that could well damage the intellectual, social and physical development of an entire generation…. There’s ongoing concern about American children catching up with their counterparts in countries such as Japan and China. Specifically in areas such as science, math and technology, schooling in those countries before second grade is “playful and experiential.” And youngsters in Finland, where teens consistently score high academically, also attend play-based kindergarten and start first grade at age 7 rather than age 6.”
School starting age: the evidence. An article on the website of Cambridge University. “In England children now start formal schooling, and the formal teaching of literacy and numeracy at the age of four. A recent letter signed by around 130 early childhood education experts, including myself, published in the Daily Telegraph (11 Sept 2013) advocated an extension of informal, play-based pre-school provision and a delay to the start of formal ‘schooling’ in England from the current effective start until the age of seven (in line with a number of other European countries who currently have higher levels of academic achievement and child well-being).”
One in Five Girls in Upper Secondary School Suffers From School Burnout. Quotes: “A sense of optimism during university studies along with high self-esteem tend to predict job engagement ten years later on, while an avoidance strategy tends to predict work-related burnout…. The more encouragement the students got from their teachers, the less likely they were to experience school burnout.”
Explaining Math Concepts Improves Learning. Quotes: “Teaching children the basic concept behind math problems was more useful than teaching children a procedure for solving the problems – these children gave better explanations and learned more,” Rittle-Johnson said. “This adds to a growing body of research illustrating the importance of teaching children concepts as well as having them practice solving problems.”
Social Skills, Extracurricular Activities In High School Pay Off Later In Life. Quotes: “High school sophomores who … [had] good social skills and work habits, and who participated in extracurricular activities in high school, made more money and completed higher levels of education 10 years later than their classmates who had similar standardized test scores but were less socially adroit and participated in fewer extracurricular activities…. “Soft skills” such as sociability, punctuality, conscientiousness and an ability to get along well with others, along with participation in extracurricular activities, are better predictors of earnings and higher educational achievement later in life than having good grades and high standardized test scores…. Schools are increasingly cutting…activities that foster soft skills in order to focus almost exclusively on achieving adequate yearly progress on state-mandated standardized tests.”
Students Benefit From Depth Rather Than Breadth. Quotes: Teaching fewer topics in greater depth is a better way to prepare students for success in college science. Teachers who “teach to the [standardized] test” may not be optimizing their students’ chances of success in college science.
Ten Steps to Better Student Engagement. Quotes: Students who have been shamed or belittled by the teacher or another student will not effectively engage in challenging tasks. To learn and grow, one must take risks, but most people will not take risks in an emotionally unsafe environment.
Creating Positive Classroom Management. (A teacher developed creative ways to encourage positive attitudes and behaviors in younger students. The method and theory are very similar to the “Rocks in the Basket” game used at LWS and described in this video.) Quotes: “I’d spent years offering students rewards (stickers, tickets, tangibles, intangibles) for good behavior and I’d come to realize how they were often self-defeating…. One change I had already made was … I would celebrate ‘great work’ by reading aloud the child’s name and stating what they had done well. Often their classmates would give an actual round of applause – which was lovely.”
Recess Makes for Better Students. Quotes: Study finds getting enough of it [recess] each day helps kids perform better in classroom…. Children learn as much on breaks as they do in the traditional classroom, experimenting with creativity and imagination and learning how to interact socially…. Conflict resolution is solved on the playground, not in the classroom…. The more physical fitness tests children passed, the better they did on academic tests…. Walks outdoors appeared to improve scores on tests of attention and concentration.
Physical Activity May Strengthen Children’s Ability To Pay Attention. Quotes: “Following the acute bout of walking, children performed better on the flanker task…. Following acute bouts of walking, children had a larger P3 amplitude, suggesting that they are better able to allocate attentional resources…. The increase in reading comprehension following exercise equated to approximately a full grade level.”
A Fit Body Means a Fit Mind. Quotes: “Cardiovascular exercise was related to higher academic performance…. Regular exercise benefits the brain, improves attention span, memory, and learning … reduces stress and the effects of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder…. Aerobic exercise pumps more blood throughout the body, including to the brain. More blood means more oxygen and, therefore, better-nourished brain tissue. Exercise also spurs the brain to produce more of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which Ratey calls ‘Miracle-Gro for the brain.’ This powerful protein encourages brain cells to grow, interconnect, and communicate in new ways. Studies also suggest exercise plays a big part in the production of new brain cells, particularly in the dentate gyrus, a part of the brain heavily involved in learning and memory skills…. [Many] schools are cutting back on PE and reducing recess hours. It’s a huge challenge with budget restraints and No Child Left Behind.”
Happiness Contagious as the Flu. Posted on the LiveScience website. At Living Wisdom School, we create a joyful, caring environment among the students. When a new student arrives, he or she immediately feels supported and positively affected. Parents routinely comment that soon after their children enter LWS they seem happier than at their former school.
Meditation, Breathing, Yoga, Affirmations
Meditation Program in the College Curriculum. Quotes: “[Meditation] produced significant freshman-senior increases in intelligence and increased social self-confidence, sociability, general psychological health, and social maturity.”
Meditation in the Treatment of ADHD. Meditation-training showed significant decreases in levels of impulsivity [and significant improvements in] selective deployment of attention and freedom from distractibility in the behavior of the children.
Meditation seen promising as ADHD therapy. Quotes: “The effect was much greater than we expected.” – lead researcher Sarina J. Grosswald, a cognitive learning specialist in Arlington, Virginia…. The children also showed improvements in attention, working memory, organization, and behavior regulation.
Faith rites boost brains. Even 10 to 15 minutes of meditation appear to have significant positive effects on cognition, relaxation, and psychological health.
Meditation Program in the College Curriculum. Quotes: “[Meditation] produced significant freshman-senior increases on intelligence and increased social self-confidence, sociability, general psychological health, and social maturity.”
Music Training Linked To Enhanced Verbal Skills. Quotes: “Music training … may be more important for enhancing verbal communication skills than learning phonics…. potential of music to tune our neural response to the world around us…. Music training may have considerable benefits for engendering literacy skills…. (Musicians have enhanced subcortical auditory and audiovisual processing of speech and music.)”
Other Articles and Papers
It’s Official: To Protect Baby’s Brain, Turn Off TV (from Wired online). Quote: “A decade ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggested that parents limit TV consumption by children under two years of age. The recommendations were based as much on common sense as science, because studies of media consumption and infant development were themselves in their infancy. The research has finally grown up. And though it’s still ongoing, it’s mature enough for the AAP to release a new, science-heavy policy statement on babies watching television, videos or any other passive media form. Their verdict: It’s not good, and probably bad.”
The Heart in Holistic Education. (PDF) Quotes: “Educational programs based on new scientific discoveries about the heart lead to improved emotional stability, cognitive functioning, and academic performance.”
After Abuse, Changes In the Brain. Quotes: “Affectionate mothering alters the expression of genes in animals, allowing them to dampen their physiological response to stress. These biological buffers are then passed on to the next generation. [There is] direct evidence that the same system is at work in humans.”
When Friends Make You Poorer. Quotes: “Students tend to gravitate to a major chosen by more of their peers. And the students whose choice was driven by their peers were then more likely to end up in lower-paying jobs that they didn’t like.”
As of this writing, in mid-2018, there are six thriving Education for Life Schools: in Palo Alto and Nevada City, California; Portland, Oregon; Seattle, Washington; Ljubljana, Slovenia; and Assisi, Italy.
(You can find brief descriptions of the schools on this page: http://edforlife.org/about/#schools.)
The appellation “Living Wisdom School” refers to schools that follow the Education for Life philosophy, and that were founded under the auspices of Ananda Sangha. (The first school was started at Ananda Village in 1972.)
Thanks to the success of these schools, the good news about this inspiring new broad-spectrum approach to academic excellence has spread to organizations that have started or plan to start their own schools that will be based on the Education for Life philosophy and methods, but that will not be formally associated with Ananda. These schools can be generally referred to as “Education for Life Schools” but are not, strictly speaking, Living Wisdom Schools. At this time we expect at least three new schools will be started in the coming year (2018-19).
Because this book is based on the experience of the original schools, the terms “Living Wisdom School” and “LWS” are used throughout.