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.