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.
We spoke with Hazemach, a Living Wisdom School graduate who was enrolled at LWS from kindergarten through eighth grade. After graduate studies in mathematics at the University of Bremen, Germany, Hazie joined the staff of Living Wisdom High School of Palo Alto, where he now teaches math, science, and PE.
Q: What age were you when you started at Living Wisdom School?
Hazemach: I was four. My mother had tried various schools for me, but they were all very unhappy experiences. Even at that young age I’d been targeted because I’d never had my hair cut, and I was treated differently for that reason.
I came to LWS in kindergarten. I had started martial arts when I was three, so those twin strains of martial arts and Living Wisdom formed a major part of my life.
Q: Did you find that they blended well? What kinds of teachers did you have in martial arts?
Hazemach: When I was seven I found the teacher that I would end up sticking with. When I got my driver’s license I would drive up to Lafayette to train with him, as I still do, even though it’s fifty miles. It’s interesting for me, because I’ve noticed lately that he has a perspective that’s similar to Education for Life, which is our philosophy at Living Wisdom School.
He always says that karate is different from other sports because when you get the black belt it’s not just a symbol, it’s something that shows you’ve gained a skill that you can apply in every aspect of your life.
He emphasizes how everything we’re doing is about learning life skills. Today he talked about how your English teacher might tell you that you got all the words right, but you weren’t expressing any emotion, and you need to bring that emotional content into your style.
So it’s more than just doing it step by step, by rote. There has to be heart, and there has to be an intensity of feeling in every action.
Martial arts complemented my education very well because it’s such a disciplined space, and at Living Wisdom when I was young I would often do the opposite. I would be a bit of a troublemaker. But when I was in the dojo I was very disciplined and respectful. I would always be very careful with every action, and I always wondered why there was that contrast. But I think it helped me. It was an ascetic practice when I was young that would eventually help me choose a spiritual path.
I was very happy at Living Wisdom School – but I wasn’t happy with the school systems after I left, in the sense that they didn’t bring me the same joy and enthusiasm, and they generally had the opposite effect.
At every single school I went to after Living Wisdom, I felt that it was killing whatever joy and enthusiasm I had. And I was eventually in such a sad place that I knew I needed to be happy again. And when I thought about it deeply, I realized that I’d been happiest when I was at LWS, so I decided to turn my life around, and instead of relying on the external factors to give me happiness, I would direct my own inner life. Which was something I had learned at LWS, and so I began to bring those Education for Life principles into my expression.
Q: How old were you when you made that decision? Were you still in school?
Hazemach: I was about twenty-one. I was doing my PhD studies in Germany.
Q: What was your field of study?
Hazemach: Mathematics. I was doing very theoretical math, very abstract and disconnected from any immediate practical concerns.
It was very beautiful in and of itself, but not for how it could be applied. I think it’s nice when it can be applied, but at the same time it can be very enjoyable for the way it energizes the mind, and that was very pleasing to me.
That kind of abstract study can have a very powerful energy, and it filled me with love and delight. I had this very powerful love for math, and I was devoted to it, and I was ready to spend all my time on it.
In the beginning of college, I did spend all my time on it. There would be times when I would be sleeping and I would dream a solution to a problem I was working on. I’d wake up and I wouldn’t even remember the dream, but in trying to remember it I would have the solution. And then answers would come when I was doing other daily activities. So it was a very interesting field of study.
Q: Let’s work backward. How did you wind up in grad school in Germany?
Hazemach: After my first year of college, I applied for all kinds of summer programs in math. I was trying to get into something called an REU – Research Experience for Undergraduates. Those programs are for juniors and seniors, to let them experience what research is like, and what professional mathematics is like. It’s an important step if you want to be competitive in your grad school apps.
So I was trying to apply after my freshman year, but the budget was low that year, and I later found out that they’d accepted just one or two freshmen countrywide into the many REU programs because there wasn’t the budget they usually had.
Out of desperation, I found a summer program in Germany, and I was ready to go anywhere because I wanted to continue my growth in math.
So I went to Germany for a two-week program. It was called Modern Mathematics, and they would gather professional mathematicians from around the world. It’s a collaborative space for students from age 16 to 20. Later I was a teacher assistant for the camps, but at the time I was a student, and it was lots of fun.
One of the professors, in frankness, said that as an American my math background was very unusual, because the U.S. is far behind Europe in terms of math training. So when they saw that I was very competitive with the European students, they didn’t understand how that could have happened.
At any rate, one of the professors took an interest, and he invited me to come study, especially after he looked at my university record and saw that I had exhausted much of the math training that they could offer in my first year. So it was a natural next step.
I had been at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. Bard is a very interesting program. They have a bunch of satellite programs, including the one I was at. It’s up in the mountains of Massachusetts, in the Berkshires, and it’s for students who want to leave high school early and start college. The average age is probably 16 or 17 for incoming freshmen, and it’s a very, very good academic program, very advanced and well-rounded. It’s rooted in traditional liberal arts, and the idea is that students need to have a broad grounding in the humanities in order to be true learners. So you can’t just specialize, which is the opposite of what they do in Europe, where they’re less interested in giving you that depth and breadth and you can go straight into your field and specialize.
Each has its advantages, but I’m very grateful for the academics I received at Simon’s Rock, because it broadened my perspective beyond mathematics and into the realm of humanities and more human concerns, which essentially is what led me to questions about consciousness and spirituality.
Q: Where did you go to high school?
Hazemach: I went to Woodside Priory.
Q: After Living Wisdom, what was your experience like at Woodside? Was the transition smooth?
Hazemach: There are many levels to look at. There’s the academic level, and I don’t know how it is for other students, but I know that I tend to have an easier time with academics, so it was an easy transition. I didn’t need to put in all that much work to do very well at Priory academically, because it was just my normal work output, but honestly it was a bit…
Q: You’re trying hard not to say that high school was easy.
Hazemach: [Laughs] I mean, it did challenge me. I took, for example, AP Calculus my freshman year. It was very nice, but I was ultimately really bored with math there, unfortunately. And I’ve had concerns about math education all the way through my PhD. It doesn’t matter that there are aspects that have been really good in every single school, but there are lots of concerns about how we run math education. But that’s a different story.
With Priory, I felt really lonely when I first arrived. I don’t think there was a deliberate culture of kindness there. As an example, it was shocking when one of the students early on started speaking to me very meanly, and intentionally saying very mean things. I just couldn’t understand what was the purpose of this. So I laughed, and of course that made him even meaner to me. He was like, “Wait, what is wrong with you? Why are you laughing?” After that he left me alone. So it worked, he left me alone and he didn’t talk to me again.
But, yeah, it was definitely a very different type of environment. Because, at Living Wisdom, they don’t just let the students act out however they want and create a student-run culture. The teachers take a direct hand in making sure the school space is kind, it’s caring, it’s compassionate, and it’s fun. All these types of things.
Q: Did you feel at Living Wisdom School that you were connected to the other kids around you? It’s a constant theme when you talk with the administrators and teachers at LWS. From your perspective as a student, did that actually happen?
Hazemach: Yes, I definitely felt connected.
Q: Did you feel that you had a lot of friends at Living Wisdom?
Hazemach: Yes, I never felt that I was without friends, and I always felt happy there. And that’s something I noticed when I visited the elementary school last year. I walked in, and it was just happiness everywhere, just bubbling joy. And you don’t see that, I think, very much.
I did a little bit of substitute teaching at other schools, and it just wasn’t the same environment. I remember learning conflict resolution when I was a little kid, and how to maintain really good relationships with people, and how to empathize or sympathize or at least be somewhat compassionate for other people’s realities so that you can get along. And it wasn’t just in terms of your own age group. In a lot of schools, they have these giant classes, and you’re only interacting with others of your own age. So people start to feel like it’s normal to interact only with others of their age. And then they feel like that’s the right thing to do, so you don’t see much interaction across age groups in the culture, which is very unfortunate.
At Living Wisdom, even as a little kid, the older students would spend time with us, and I really felt that they were my mentors. And then as I got older I played the same role for the younger students, and I learned how to be an older brother in the sense of how you can really engage and bring forth delight in the little kids and have fun with them.
Q: I was doing some work for Helen, the school director. She wanted to have more information on our website about kindergarten, for parents who were looking for a place to start their child. So I spent a lot of time with the kindergarteners, including the partner reading and partner walks with the older children. And observing the interactions they had, it was moving how the older ones were genuinely sweet and kind to the younger ones and taking care of them. It was an exercise in creating a positive school culture, and it was quite wonderful.
Hazemach: I felt that all over again not long ago when I visited LWS with one of my high school students. He’s a junior, and in the beginning of the year he was very shy and withdrawn, and it was very difficult for him even to start talking. And, fortunately or unfortunately, he didn’t get his permission slip signed to go on one of the high school service projects, so Kshama said, “Okay, you’re going to go with Hazie.” Because I also teach PE for the kindergarteners at LWS. She said, “Your service today is going to be helping Hazie with PE.”
So he had to come with me, and from what I could tell he had no experience working with little kids, so at first he was very much not sure what to do. But the kids just pulled him out of his shell. They sent so much love to him. They ran up to him, they were hugging him, they were grabbing his hands and asking him to play with them. They were the ones who pulled him out of his shell.
So that was amazing, and he started expressing himself, and as I was watching him play with them it felt so good to see that.
So it’s not just the older students serving the younger ones, it’s actually the younger students reminding the older students of a kind of relaxed openness that they might have forgotten in their years of being socialized to what the teenage culture is in our society today, which is oftentimes unauthentic and withdrawn.
Q: Did you learn those skills at Living Wisdom, of relating to others?
Hazemach: Yes, we did. There are bound to be conflicts. I remember a new girl who came to our classroom in second grade. She had experienced a lot of bullying, and she felt very, very self-conscious. When she arrived she was very sensitive, and she would cry very easily. I didn’t have any ill will to her, but I didn’t understand why she was crying, and I wondered, what’s wrong with this kid? Why is she always crying? And it augmented the problem because we were second-graders and we didn’t know what was going on.
We would ask her, “Why are you crying?” And she’d feel like we were bullying her. But we couldn’t understand what was happening.
So a teacher stepped in and helped us understand the issue. And we were receptive enough to understand that it was a difficult reality for her, and that we weren’t being expansive, and we needed to see that, okay, she just has a different reality, and there’s no reason for us to be treating her in a way that makes her feel marginalized all over again. And after that, I remember feeling that she was a close friend. I had lots of those experiences.
There are bound to be conflicts, and it’s part of growing up to have conflicts and learn to resolve them and get along.
I learned an important lesson after I left Living Wisdom. I was at a summer camp with Zachary, one of my classmates at Living Wisdom, and I had a conflict with somebody at the camp. I’d gone to the summer camp for at least five years, and I decided to break out of a ceremony, which you weren’t supposed to do. So I broke the ritual, and it made her really upset, and she didn’t want to speak to me or look at me.
I thought she was being ridiculous because, yes, she’d also been there many years, but I had spent a lot of time with the ritual, and I felt I could break it if I wanted to. It was immature, and Zachary said to me, “I know you think you’re right, but don’t you value your friendship over being right?”
I think it’s a really good example of how an EFL wisdom principle was kicking in for me. Isn’t getting along well with others and having social harmony more important than just being in the right? [Laughs]
Later, I could say, okay, that was immature of me. But even in the moment it was all I needed, and I apologized to her. I said, “Look, I know we’re coming from different places, but I’m sorry for causing the social disharmony,” and we were able to make up and be friends.
There are ways we can deal with those conflicts with people, and as I’ve walked through life, I’ve always known that I was able, by deliberately expanding my consciousness, to let go of whatever I was holding onto and relate with others and maintain a harmonious situation with them.
It doesn’t mean that I would passively let people walk over me. But it meant that I could choose harmony. And I could choose it even when people were difficult to deal with, just let go of my pride and get along with them.
I don’t know if all of the Living Wisdom graduates have learned those lessons as deeply, but when I had conflicts with people and the feeling wasn’t harmonious, I was always able to remember that harmony and happiness was a choice.
I was always aware that I could choose a wrong decision if I wanted to – maybe I could say, “I’ll try something different this time – I want to see what happens if I argue, and if I don’t stick with harmony.” And over the years I learned that harmony is the right way to go.
Q: Conflict resolution is a major emphasis at Living Wisdom School. From what I’ve observed, the teachers talk about it all the time, and nothing ever gets overlooked. If the teacher notices it, they aren’t going to let it slide because they’re busy, or because we have to get through math class. It’s part of the teachers’ training to always intervene and do something about it.
Helen had a meeting recently with several local high school principals. They were asking her what makes LWS unique, and one of the things she mentioned was that we don’t have bullying at our school. And she said that there was total silence, and she could hear the gears turning in the principals’ heads, because they were thinking, “We have bullying.”
Gary, the middle school teacher, talked about a situation that parents and educators face today, and that they don’t know how to resolve, which is that they want the kids to be extremely competitive, but at the same time they’re saying, “Oh, we don’t want to go too far in that direction, because we want them to be nice, too.” And the kids have no trouble recognizing the hypocrisy, because all of a sudden you’re asking them to turn around and be nice to one another. And in the next minute they’re supposed to be competing fiercely in academics.
What was your academic experience like, in that respect, at Living Wisdom School? I know that the teachers challenge people at their own level.
Hazemach: Yes, there was no top or bottom at LWS. I remember feeling a bit of competitiveness with another student, but it was never felt or encouraged in the classroom. There was no classroom activity that fostered that competition. I don’t think I ever competed within school. It was just a feeling I had because I knew about his extracurricular activities and what he was doing well at, and I was doing all these things, too, and there was that question, okay, so which one’s higher?
But the school didn’t foster that. And then I’ve also had experiences of people who felt threatened by my presence, and they would start trying to be competitive with me. Maybe my mom was competitive with that boy, and she was telling me I had to be better. [Laughs] But I didn’t want to care about that, so I just said, “Okay.”
The karate dojo is a space where every single moment is competitive, but it’s a very healthy version of competition where the goal is to bring out the best in others so you can try to rise to their best. And when you rise, they try to rise also. But you don’t ever try to pull anybody down. You want others to improve. You want others to be better than you so that you will have an ideal to work up to. So everybody’s scaling each other up.
That’s a model of competitiveness that I’ve never seen outside of the karate dojo, really. And it was amazing for me, just absolutely amazing. I think it was one of the best experiences for my development.
I often hear people talk very negatively about competitiveness, and I don’t think it needs to be, when there’s the attitude that we are all lifting each other, and we are inspiring each other to rise to our potential. It’s so beautiful, when you want others to be better so that you can be better.
In karate, one of the masters said, “Whenever you see something good in others, ask yourself, how can I try to work toward that? And whenever you see something negative in others, immediately pull away and think to yourself, ‘Okay, how can I make sure I’m not doing that?’”
Because it doesn’t matter. You’re not trying to identify, “Oh, this person is good or bad.” It’s, “How can I continue improving myself?” And that’s not egotistical. That’s the opposite, actually, where you’re deliberately not comparing egos anymore.
Education for Life does it very well, too, where you’ll have a child whose consciousness is very light and expansive and caring, and who’s working with students of lower “specific gravity,” and they’ll lift the ones who are heavier in their consciousness. So it scales downward. And then the teacher is lifting the students who are lifting the ones below them.
So you have a culture where everybody’s lifting each other, and you see that there are differences, but you want others to do really well, and it’s ultimately all about helping the whole group rise, and creating a group consciousness that is higher.
Q: The school has a tremendous emphasis on the arts, especially the theater program. Do you have any thoughts about that?
Hazemach: Theater was my favorite part. [Laughs] It was so exciting. All of a sudden you had this outside responsibility and you could leave class to prepare for this very big performance. Very, very serious. And the teachers take it seriously also – it’s not just some superficial little play for kids. Kids are putting on the play, but it’s not just that; it’s meant to be inspiring and uplifting and meaningful for both the actors and the audience, and you learn so many skills when you’re on stage. I think you can see that in the LWS graduates.
I talked about this with Kshama (the principal of our high school who formerly taught second and third grade at LWS) – how teaching is like acting. You have to go up there and engage people. You have to hold their attention, you have to draw them in, you have to be magnetic, and you’re going to be doing that throughout your life whatever your work is.
You can see it in the Living Wisdom School graduates, that they really know how to engage a person and draw them into conversation and magnetize something positive from the experience. And it’s all part of the learning that happens in the theater program, learning how to interact with people in a dynamic way.
You might think, oh, it’s just acting, but the way we do it, you have to project your energy. And that’s a really important skill throughout your life – when, for example, you’re speaking to a group of people, and you can project your energy. And then you can see that the people who haven’t learned to do it have never been as successful.
I remember how authentic it felt when I played certain roles; for example, St. Francis. One of the criticisms I received when we were rehearsing was, “You need to approach people with inner peace. You have to share that peace with others. You can’t just be telling people to do this and that, you have to shift your consciousness into inner peace.”
I remember thinking, “That’s groundbreaking.” It was acting from an authentic place, and some of the students had authentic spiritual experiences during the theater program.
I’m reminded of how Yogananda listened to a famous choir, and he said afterward, “Technically it was beautiful, but there was no real devotion in your hearts.”
There is a culture of profound genuineness in the theater program at Living Wisdom School, because the purpose of the plays is for the children to attune themselves to the consciousness of these inspiring historical figures, through the poetry of their words and the songs and movements.
The goal isn’t just to play a role well technically. When I was in high school, I noticed that the actors didn’t feel that sincerity. I felt that they were always just putting on a face that would suit the moment, without any inner sincerity that I could feel – I couldn’t tell where their heart was.
The acting experience at Living Wisdom was from the heart. It was from an authentic, sincere space, and then you could project that energy without putting on a mask. And in the process you were expanding your consciousness, and expanding your authentic experience into new realms.
Q: Watching the plays over the years, I’ve always felt that the kids had an inner feeling for the roles they were playing, and that they were wanting to give the audience something meaningful.
Hazemach: I was able to watch one of the plays for the first time last year, because I had only ever acted in them. And I was so moved. I was so inspired, because the student actors actually became the essential vibration of the saint they were playing. And through acting the lives of these great, inspiring figures it’s giving them a very powerful experience.
Q: It’s interesting that you’re able to look back and enjoy your memories of Living Wisdom School. And now that you’re teaching at Living Wisdom High School, how has that been for you? You mentioned that you had previous teaching experience.
Hazemach: I was teaching grad students and some undergrads, and it was very different from the teenagers. [Laughs] Grad students know what they want to be studying, and you can give them a task and know that they’ll be motivated, and they’ll do it. But with the high schoolers you first have to inspire them and get them interested.
And then there’s a whole cultural background that we’re fighting against. There are so many habits and understandings that they’ve developed – for example, that it’s not cool to be enthusiastic, it’s not cool to like something too much, it’s not cool to enjoy your school subjects. It’s something you might get made fun of for, or get bullied for. It’s something I experienced after I left Living Wisdom School, that all of a sudden liking things and enjoying things brought negative attention to me.
It’s very odd. Very, very odd. But it’s so rewarding to watch the progress that the LWHS students are making. It feels like we’re making a difference in their lives.
The school culture in this area is deeply focused on the test-taking side of things, so it’s hard for the students to see beyond test results as a measure of the progress they’re making.
For many of our students, it’s a source of inner turmoil. How much progress am I really making, if I’m not spending all my time preparing for tests? Shouldn’t that be where my time needs to be spent? If I spend too much time in nature, if I spend too much time taking care of my body, if I spend too much time learning to socialize, if I spend too much time in service, I must be falling behind.
Q: Which is completely misguided.
Hazemach: It’s completely misguided.
Q: There’s a book called The Happiness Advantage that shows why it’s misguided. It was written by a psychology professor who taught the most popular course at Harvard, on happiness. He’d served as a proctor, advising the incoming freshmen, and after hundreds of visits to Starbucks with the first-year students he began to notice which ones were most successful. And he realized that it wasn’t the students who buried themselves in the library stacks intent on grinding out good grades, it was the kids who knew how to be happy. They were socially aware and engaged – they would create study groups and ask their professors lots of questions. Shawn Achor, the author, now consults with corporations on creating happy cultures.
Hazemach: Don’t we learn things better when we’re having fun? I’ve heard of studies that support it. When I started working with one of our students, she was studying 24/7. She felt she needed to be always studying, and that she couldn’t be doing anything frivolous, like going on outings. So there was a lot of tension in the beginning of the year because we were spending time in nature and service.
But I’d watched her studying, and I’d seen that she wasn’t being productive. She was trying so hard, but she couldn’t focus and so she was falling asleep, and she wasn’t enjoying it.
She said something beautiful recently, “I just wish everybody could recognize that all the other stuff mattered.” Because we spent time in nature and we did our studies outdoors, and she said, “It was so interesting, I didn’t get sleepy. I could actually focus on my work.”
Q: Because her body was relaxing, and her heart was being nurtured.
Hazemach: Exactly. Before, she didn’t want to be interacting with the teachers; she just wanted to teach herself by studying and studying because she thought it was the way to learn. And then she discovered that she could enjoy it more if she heard the teacher’s perspective on why it’s fun and interesting. So her subjects are becoming more interesting to her, and the service projects feel a lot more meaningful, and she’s starting to ask deeper questions.
She said her biggest question right now is, who is she really? And, what a question, you know? But that’s what we’re hoping for, that they are asking big, important questions like that, “Who am I, really?”
And that’s the first step. The first real step to true growth is when you can ask those big questions – who am I and what am I here for? And not just put your head in the sand and study because that’s what everybody else is doing.
Burying yourself in books is not going to take you to happiness, which is the ultimate goal, right? The ultimate goal is to discover joy, and people mistakenly believe they’re going to find it through studying all the time. But it doesn’t get results.
Q: Shawn Achor concluded from his research that we have it backward in our society – you study so you can get money and be happy someday. Only it doesn’t happen because “someday” never comes and you keep thinking that just one more thing will finally make you happy. But if you can be happy in the moment it’s a powerful aid to getting the external rewards you might be looking for.
Hazemach: I remember having so much fun with basketball, and how I played better when I was having fun. But when I got to high school the coaches were very intense, probably because their job is on the line, and a number of us couldn’t play to the best of our abilities, and we didn’t enjoy it, and it was scary because we were constantly in fear of the coach getting angry and yelling at us.
We were successful insofar as we put in a lot of work, but we could never achieve our true potential because we were being held back emotionally and we were constantly being forced to externalize.
And, in the meantime, we were internalizing all this anger, and we would get upset at ourselves every time we made a mistake. You can’t play freely if you’re getting upset at yourself. It’s one of the biggest blocks I’ve seen for athletes, where they’re punishing themselves inside for their errors, and for not playing perfectly.
Q: There were two sports psychologists in the 1970s who studied the qualities that separated extremely successful athletes from the people who could never quite make the breakthrough into the top ranks. They found that the best athletes were able to change directions. They were able to say, “Maybe I goofed up, but the game starts now.” Whereas the second-tier athletes were blaming themselves, getting down on themselves, beating themselves up and lashing themselves for their mistakes.
Hazemach: It’s something I learned in karate, where it’s called beginner’s mind. It’s a Zen concept, and we don’t actually use those terms in karate, but it’s there in the culture, where you are always approaching things as if you’re a complete beginner.
When you get your black belt, one of the questions on the test is, “What does the black belt signify?” And the correct answer is that it’s the very beginning. You’re just starting, and you constantly come to it with the attitude that I’m just a beginner, so you don’t get hard on yourself for making mistakes. You’re never looking down on yourself, “Oh, you’re so bad.” You’re saying, “I am always in the place of a beginner, and there is always an upward direction for me to go. There’s always more for me to reach up to.” You’re always trying to improve from where you are. It’s very powerful to be able to forget all the negative things and start fresh.
Whenever I made a mistake, I would laugh. That was how I broke the tendency to get discouraged. I would laugh. I have the same problem with piano, and whenever I make a mistake I laugh, “Oh, that sounded funny.” And I’ll move on. I wouldn’t laugh at other people, and it’s not a mean laugh, it’s just about not taking life so seriously. At the end of the day it’s something we can laugh at and enjoy and have a lot of fun with.
It’s fundamental to the approach we take in the Living Wisdom Schools, where mistakes are taken lightly because they’re an expected and necessary part of the learning process. It frees the students from the tremendous pressure that comes from the idea that you’re either perfect or you’re failing. It allows them to move on without beating themselves up, and just find the joy in fixing the mistakes and moving on.
What kind of education do you want for your child?
I would like to make a case for a complete, well-rounded approach that takes into account not only the child’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being, but their individuality as well.
Education Through the Ages – A Legacy of Common Sense
For many centuries, educators understood that children’s development occurs in natural stages of about six years. From birth to age 6, for example, the child’s primary developmental task is to become comfortable with its body. From 6 to 12, feelings come to the fore – this is a time when children can be taught most effectively through the “tools of imagination” – in particular, the arts. It’s a time that many of us look back upon fondly as the years that most truly defined our childhood.
From 12 to 18, will power becomes the primary focus, as young people prepare for independent adult life. And finally, from 18 to 24, the life of the mind takes center stage – think of college students talking late into the night about philosophy, politics, history, science, and the arts.
As I’ve hinted, schools in centuries past took account of these natural stages in the life of a child and adjusted their methods accordingly. In ancient Greece and Rome, in India and China, and in Europe throughout the Dark Ages, Renaissance, and Enlightenment, teachers adapted their approach to the student’s age and natural tendencies.
I believe that in our attempts to improve schools today, we shouldn’t overlook the reasons this system was so widely and successfully adopted. Wise educators have always recognized that it’s much more efficient to align their teaching methods with the child’s nature, and not try to impose adult theories that might have little correspondence with the reality of the student’s needs.
They knew that to ignore the child’s developmental stage would be disastrous, and that forcing a child of 6 or 8 into an overwhelmingly academics-oriented curriculum would do far more harm than good. It would risk stunting the children’s emotional growth, killing their enthusiasm, stifling their curiosity, and greatly reducing their eagerness to learn.
Equally unfortunate, it would do a very inferior job of giving the children invaluable skills that would help them succeed in high school, college and beyond – for example, the ability to cooperate happily with others, to consider others’ needs, to communicate well, and to grasp with a sure inner certainty the need for personal self-discipline, kindness, compassion, values, morality, courage, and honor.
How Our Thinking About Education Changed
It was only in the 19th century that educators, encouraged by the federal government, began to consider that this system, which had worked so well for so long, was in need of change.
They decided that schools should prepare students to be employable in the factories of the burgeoning industrial age. To that end, they stripped the curriculum of almost everything except the “Three R’s” – reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic.
This is why, for the last two centuries, our students have been almost completely deprived of an education that addresses important aspects of their being: their feelings and will power, and the proper training of their minds.
What results has this stripped-down educational system achieved? I believe it’s fair to say that they have not been attractive:
Widespread cynicism and rebellion against a system that fails to acknowledge the child’s inner realities
A poisonous belief that life has no purpose, and an accompanying loss of motivation
A lack of moral education, which can make susceptible children feel free to commit selfish acts without pangs of conscience, including crime and violence
Addiction to drugs and alcohol, in an attempt to dull the sense of meaninglessness and the lack of awareness of life’s exciting possibilities
Over-competitiveness, status-seeking, cliquishness, and bullying as an affirmation of the ego against other egos, due to a lack of proper training during the “Feeling Years” from 6 to 12, and encouraged by school environments where unbridled social and academic competitiveness is the rule
Illiteracy and underachievement – a sense that what’s being taught has little relevance, and that it holds no promise of satisfying the individual’s longing for increasing happiness
Depression, suicide, boredom, and aimlessness
Failure-consciousness among those less academically gifted
Tremendous, oppressive pressure on every child to excel academically – a pressure that can reach completely unrealistic, unsustainable levels for the gifted and the less gifted alike, and that can lead to serious, health-destroying stress and chronic depression
A thoroughly unrealistic, terribly misguided, and profoundly damaging belief that every child, regardless of their natural talents and inclinations, should be encouraged to compete for acceptance at an elite university
Many parents today have begun to awaken to the need to fix our educational system. Organizations have sprung up to help them in this endeavor. Yet everywhere, well-meaning parents, educators, and reformers are still groping for answers.
The reformers too often overlook what has worked in the past. Nor do they give due attention to the handful of exceptional schools that have found real, working answers to educating all aspects of the child, by implementing an educational philosophy that, far from lowering the child’s chances of being accepted at a good college and landing a good job, leads to the highest personal achievement and happiness in high school, college, and beyond.
Instead, the reformers have, in large part, tried to re-invent the wheel. They’ve spun fine-sounding theories that haven’t actually been tested. Some schools simply “fake it.” Hoping to ride the bandwagon of school reform, they spout nice-sounding phrases like “joyful education,” “well-rounded curriculum,” and “educating the whole child.” But when we look at their actual classroom practices we find that they are delivering the same old pressure-cooker education that yields one-sided results at the expense of the child’s well-being and overall development, not to mention the health- and happiness-destroying effects of years of unrelenting stress on their bodies, hearts, minds, and souls.
The Answer Is in the Outcome
What is the answer? I think we can gain a glimpse by considering the qualities that enable adults to be highly successful in today’s world. As our first example, I propose that we look at the world’s most prominent high-tech company. (The following account is adapted from our book, Happiness & Success at School.)
When Sergey Brin and Larry Page founded Google in 1998, they established a policy of hiring only the most brilliant applicants in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math).
Fifteen years later, Google decided that it might be a good idea to evaluate the results of this policy.
A Washington Post article, “The surprising thing Google learned about its employees – and what it means for today’s students” (December 27, 2017), summarized the insights Google gleaned from Project Oxygen, the detailed examination of its hiring practices.
Project Oxygen completely overturned the company’s assumptions about the qualities that best predict success in a high-tech business environment. Most notably, among the eight standout qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise was dead last.
The top qualities that augured success at Google were all “soft” skills. The researchers found that the most successful Google employees:
Are good coaches
Empower the team and do not micromanage
Express interest in and concern for the other team members’ success and personal well-being
Are productive and results-oriented
Are good communicators – they listen and share information
Help others with their career development
Have a clear vision and strategy for the team
Have key technical skills that help them advise the team
A follow-up study by Google of the qualities of its most productive research teams (Project Aristotle, 2016), confirmed these results.
In the Post article, Cathy N. Davidson, a professor in the graduate school at CUNY, described the findings:
“Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard.”
Davidson cited a survey of 260 companies conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. The study, which included industry giants Chevron and IBM, found that recruiters ranked communication skills among the top three qualities companies look for in job applicants. “They prize both an ability to communicate with one’s workers and an aptitude for conveying the company’s product and mission outside the organization.”
What conclusions can we draw from these studies, about the best ways to prepare our children to succeed and be happy in school and beyond?
A common feature of the qualities that set the top Google employees apart is that they are “expansive.” That is, they foster a safe work environment where the employees can feel free to work cooperatively, ask questions, make mistakes, and help each other.
The personal traits that the researchers identified as furthering success at Google and at other top companies are precisely the same qualities that the teachers at Living Wisdom School devote tremendous energy to fostering in the classroom every day, considering them essential for creating a safe, nurturing, joyful learning environment for the children.
In Happiness & Success at School, we present overwhelming evidence that individualized instruction, combined with appropriate attention to emotional needs, consistently produces the greatest success not only in high-tech companies but at Harvard, Stanford, and MIT, and in business, sports, and the military.
The qualities that contribute to success at Google, Harvard, and Stanford are the same qualities that we cultivate, starting with each four- or five-year-old child’s first day at school.
Let me hasten to dispel any fears parents may have that our school overly emphasizes these “soft” abilities. Quite the opposite is true. In the 45 years of our schools’ existence, we have found that learning becomes far more efficient when soft skills are given due attention.
Discipline problems are greatly reduced and motivation soars when each child is guided to learn at the upper edge of his or her own, individual capacity. It has been our experience that proper attention to the soft skills powerfully amplifies the amount of learning that can take place in the classroom. Because we are able to motivate and engage each child at his or her own, individual level, the gifted students are never bored, and the less-gifted are never frustrated or infected with a sense of failure, and of being left hopelessly behind.
Because we’ve had 45 years to observe how these qualities help children succeed throughout their lives, we take great care to cultivate them, starting in the earliest years.
We’ve shown that they create the best possible foundation for success in the K-8 grades, in high school, college, and after. It’s why we are tremendously focused on kindergarten as a critically important gateway to give the children the vital skills they will need to be successful throughout their lives.
Kindergarten Is the Portal to Future Success & Happiness
We’ve seen that if you can start developing these expansive “soft” qualities in the children at age 4 to 6, and if you can continue to build upon those qualities throughout their elementary years, it’s a gift that will bear powerful rewards in high school and college.
I’m thinking of one of our students, Hazemach Munro. Hazie entered LWS in preschool and recently earned his master’s degree in astrophysics from the University of Bremen in Germany. Hazie now teaches math in our Palo Alto Living Wisdom High School.
I think also of Bryan McSweeney who spent nine years with us, from kindergarten through 8th grade. Bryan is a talented professional filmmaker who taught at Living Wisdom School High in Nevada City and now serves as ambassador for Education for Life in India, as that country begins to develop its own Living Wisdom Schools.
Kshama Kellogg spent most of her elementary years at the Living Wisdom School in Nevada City, aside from two years when she attended public school in Italy. A brilliant, inspired teacher, loved by her students, Kshama taught second grade in our Palo Alto Living Wisdom School for many years and is now the School Director at our Living Wisdom High School.
In 45 years we’ve gathered a growing reservoir of knowledge and experience for translating our Education for Life philosophy into practice. Our philosophy is based, first and foremost, on creating a learning environment where the children can feel safe, happy, and free to interact confidently with the teachers and with each other. We feel it’s only within such a safe and happy environment that the children can experience the undistracted joy of mastering challenges every day.
When learning happens with joy, we find, with tremendous consistency, that every child quickly begins to love learning. This is why our students, who represent a wide spectrum of native abilities and backgrounds, have achieved a median high school GPA over the years of 3.85.
Play & Learning – Essential Partners
When we’re talking about a four- or five-year-old, the first thing we need to take into account is that they absolutely need a playful, loving approach to learning. It’s the single most important key to preparing these little children for success now and in the years ahead.
Once we have that playful, happy foundation, we find that the children feel inwardly free to achieve amazing things. For example, it enables our kindergarteners to happily acquire math concepts two to four years ahead of their grade level.
Many of our parents have come from rigid school cultures where the children were forced to sit at their desks all day and were allowed very limited playtime. Some of the schools in our area that have adopted that system give their kindergartners just 20 minutes away from the classroom at lunchtime. Learning is reduced to something incredibly formulaic and dry, even at the earliest age. And because it isn’t creative, it utterly fails to produce learning in the most efficient and natural way, because it doesn’t make use of the child’s natural enthusiasm. It’s pounding information into their young brains without opening their hearts to receive it.
It harkens to the industrial era when all instruction was directed, even with four- and five-year-olds, to how it would affect their SAT scores in high school. But what unfortunately happens is that it sets up tremendous resistance in the child, because it’s fighting against the way they are made. And it runs completely against the way they can best be drawn into the learning experience, and the way they can absorb learning most naturally and efficiently.
In his wonderful book Where You Go, Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, Frank Bruni, a long-time New York Times columnist and feature writer, laments the tragic failures of the traditional approach of forcing children into a system that ignores the way they are made. He excoriates today’s approach which is oriented toward improving the children’s high school grades and SAT scores and preparing every child to be accepted at Harvard. I think it’s a wonderful sign that St. Francis High School has made Bruni’s book required reading for every parent.
I often talk with parents of kindergarten-age children who are deeply concerned about this very false and misleading kind of rigor, which fails to tune into the child’s actual needs at each developmental stage, and which, in kindergarten, must include play.
In the very early years, they should not be learning, first and foremost, that learning is torture. They should be learning that learning is fun. At that age, they do not need to understand that learning, in later years, may require hard work to reap the joys of mastering academic challenges.
At this age, they are very open to whatever is going on in the classroom and at school. And an instructor who can bring together the twin threads of learning and play, and do it in a happy, loving way will be very successful. As we demonstrate in our book, Head & Heart: How a Balanced Education Nurtures Happy Children Who Excel in School & Life, our kindergartners are not falling behind their Harvard-acceptance competitors. Quite the opposite, as a direct result of the playful approach, they are able to absorb concepts at the third and fourth grade curriculum level.
I’m sure that most of us, when we visualize a kindergarten classroom full of four- to six-year olds, imagine a squirming mass of young bodies and a harried, red-faced teacher who’s yelling at them to behave. But parents and educators who visit our kindergarten are confronted with a very different picture.
First of all, when learning is delivered in a format that matches the children’s natural development, they become deeply engaged. Thus – believe it or not! – you will find four or five tiny tots working silently together, heads bowed in deep concentration.
We are intent on helping each child be comfortable and happy within the school environment. With this goal in mind, a practice that helps us greatly is the inclusion of yoga and meditation at the start of the school day. If you can help children discover an enjoyable state of calmness and concentration within themselves – a state of happy, relaxed mental attention – they will be gaining a powerful tool that will help them be successful throughout their school years.
The kids start the day with yoga and meditation, just before math class. When you can set a tone where they are comfortable and at ease in the environment, a great deal becomes possible in math, phonics, writing, art, and science. Anything is possible when the children’s hearts are open and eager to dive into the day’s lessons.
The Incalculable Benefits of A Stress-Free Learning Environment
When you can give a child an experience every day at school of being comfortable and relaxed in the environment, and with the teacher and the other kids, it means that they will never have to fend off the distractions they would find in schools that are focused entirely on academics, and that spend little time creating an optimal learning environment.
Most schools do little, if anything, to steer the kids away from forming cliques and treating each other badly, with the upshot that each child must deal with these extremely negative and harmful factors that can make school too stressful and tense to give full attention to their studies.
It’s well documented that generalized stress at school interferes with learning. In a Washington Post article, “How much does stress affect learning?” (June 10, 2011), education and foreign affairs reporter Valerie Post quotes Catharine H. Warner, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Maryland:
“Our findings indicate that stress in the classroom environment affects children’s likelihood of exhibiting learning problems (difficulties with attentiveness, task persistence, and flexibility), externalizing problems (frequency with which the child argues, fights, disturbs ongoing activities, and acts impulsively), problems interacting with peers (difficulties in forming friendships, dealing with other children, expressing feelings, and showing sensitivity, or internalizing problems (presence of anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem, and sadness in the child). These findings suggest that stress – in the form of negative classroom conditions – negatively affects the way children pay attention in class, stay on task, and are able to move from one activity to another.”
The tremendous energy that we devote to creating a calm, peaceful, joyful, accepting classroom and school environment frees each child to be exactly who they are. And who they are will be exceedingly individual. When you’re allowed to be who you are, and you’re challenged at exactly that level, the result is that you will have daily successes that will give you a joyful experience of learning. But if you’re just trying to meet somebody else’s rigid demands and requirements all the time, at somebody else’s level, it creates a tension that prevents learning by shutting down your energy and enthusiasm.
As a teacher for more than fifty years, it has been my experience that tension is never a positive factor when it comes to learning. On the other hand, feeling free to make mistakes, and to have those mistakes accepted as a natural part of the learning process, is an amazing, blissful and extremely helpful experience for the child.
In our school, we achieve that freedom by combining learning with play, and by making sure our kids have exposure to free time. We fight against the misguided compulsion to structure every minute of the child’s day. It can create a very stressful situation for a kindergartner, when their teachers and parents are scheduling their every waking moment. Even during our after-school program, where the kids are mostly working on homework, there’s a relaxed sense of freedom, and the children love being there.
Children Can Be Happy and Successful in School
Parents and educators who visit our school invariably remark on how every child is completely him- or herself, and how they show a remarkable level of maturity and confidence. It’s an extremely rare and extraordinary experience in schools today, to see how centered they are in themselves, in a natural and real way.
You can see it in their eyes and in how they carry themselves. A child will walk into the principal’s office, not at all intimidated, and say, “Helen, I need an ice pack.” Somebody was hurt and they are eager to help, and there’s no fear or hesitation. Or they’ll come in and share a birthday donut with me.
If it’s a difficult situation, where they aren’t feeling well, or somebody needs to call a parent, they’ll come in and have absolute trust. And this is true of every adult in the school, including all of the classroom teachers and PE teachers and music teachers and math tutors – because there is a family atmosphere that’s very consistent and that we cultivate very consciously every day.
It happens in every situation – in class, on the playground, and in extracurricular activities such as music and the theater program.
Theater Magic – An Extraordinary Experience of Learning and Growth
Our theater program includes every child from grades K through eight. It creates an extraordinary atmosphere for learning, and for cultivating personal success qualities. The kindergarten children are on stage, rehearsing and performing with the older children, and they develop a level of comfort and confidence that is far beyond what most kindergartners get to experience at school. It allows them to walk in the world of school in a very different way, when they can engage with an adult or an older child and they can both be very playful. Partner reading and partner walks are an extension of the confidence-building practices the children experience every day.
Our methods come to fruition most clearly for the kindergartners during spring quarter, when you can watch a child get out of the car in the morning, brimming with confidence, and it’s the same child who wouldn’t look at you six or seven months earlier, or who would cringe and hold their mother’s hand tightly and be very shy.
I’m thinking of a child who was extremely fearful at the start of the school year, and now her father will say, “Have a great day!” and she’ll turn and look at me with a big, confident smile and say, “Good morning, Helen!”
It’s a maturation that is possible because there is no exclusion. There’s a definition of self here that allows for the inclusion of everybody, not just their own classmates and teachers, but every single teacher and child.
We don’t have an intimidating or fearful culture. This morning, I was explaining to a parent that the fundamental principles on which our school is based are most clearly expressed by two of our School Rules: “Choose Happiness,” and “Practice Kindness.”
Practice kindness. Learn to practice kindness with one another and to recognize that in doing so you help create a loving and safe atmosphere.
Choose happiness. Learn that you have the power to choose how you will respond to life’s challenges. Learn to focus on the positive rather than the negative. Learn to control your moods and raise your energy to meet difficulties that arise.
These two rules define the culture of the school. If you choose happiness, it means that you don’t have the right to take out a bad mood on anybody – you have an obligation to use your will power and your understanding to turn the energy around, with the ready and willing help of your teacher and classmates.
It’s amazing to watch the rules in action. A child will come to school, and maybe they aren’t feeling well. Maybe they’re feeling a little moody or snarky, and everybody is sympathetic. The teacher says, “I’m so sorry you’re not feeling well. Go over to the safe spot and take a moment, and take your teddy.” So there’s sympathy, but there’s also an expectation that at some point, and it should be pretty soon, you need to choose to be happy.
And they do, because they’re shown how to do it. They are given the specific steps they can take to be kind and choose happiness. And when you articulate the steps, they learn that they have the power to choose positive feelings and behavior.
It’s an incredibly valuable lesson for now and for the longer term. And the other children have the opportunity to practice kindness, because they aren’t going to be saying, “Oh, stop being such a chump.” The right behavior is constantly modeled for them, and the teachers deliberately take time to give them instructions on how to choose happiness every time the need arises.
Over several months the older children work with the younger children at play rehearsals, and they are very sensitive about their well-being. They want to take care of them, and they’ll help them and guide them. It’s a spirit of friendship that includes a sense of responsibility for the other person, especially the little ones.
It’s so easy for children to be selfish and self-involved. Especially when they’re kindergarten age, it’s all about them. They need to grow into a sense of the other, and to be able to learn how to do it at a young age, and to see it constantly modeled for them by the adults and the other children in the school environment is a priceless gift. It’s an invaluable foundation for acquiring the maturity that we must all achieve to be successful at every level, and it’s an awareness that we’re instilling in them starting on the first day of kindergarten – the awareness of another’s reality.
Does Living Wisdom School Over-Emphasize Soft Skills?
There’s a huge question that parents ask about our school. “You have a wonderful school culture, but how does it translate to grades and test scores?” And, of course, the proof is in our graduates’ high school and college grades, and in their adult successes.
In our book Happiness & Success at School, there’s a wonderful account of how, in the military and in sports, individual attention, individual freedom, individual acceptance, and a culture of what’s best for the individual produce the highest success. We were able to show how, at Harvard, Stanford, and Google, happiness and success go together. We are not simply spouting wishy-washy, unrealistic ideas that we haven’t tested and that don’t work in the real world. The interplay of happiness and success is a real-life experience at our country’s elite universities, at major corporations, and in sports and the military.
I received an application recently from a parent of a fifth-grade boy. It was very unfortunate that the class was full and we weren’t able to take him. The parent was sad because the child’s predisposition is to self-judge himself to an extent that he becomes paralyzed – he’s afraid to try anything new because he’s afraid to fail. And to build a culture and an attitude toward learning that includes the ability to “fail happily” is a wonderfully liberating gift.
In the late 1980s, a professor of computer science at MIT, Seymour Papert, published a book called Mindstorms in which he pointed out that the most wonderful lesson children can take from learning to program computers is that mistakes are a natural and necessary part of the process. He pointed out that professional programmers make, on average, at least 10 mistakes per hundred lines of their first code drafts.
Papert called it “the debugging approach to life.” Kids today have so much stress around success, and on getting it right the first time. There’s a tremendous competitive and comparative emphasis in the typical approach to learning, where you’re always wondering if I’m as good as somebody else. As opposed to “What am I learning?” And “Was it fun?”
In our school, the kids know who’s good at this or that subject, because we celebrate their successes. But the fact is that we constantly celebrate their small, daily, individual successes as the most important kind of success. We are celebrating their small experiences of mastery as artists, poets, singers, scientists, dancers, and mathematicians.
There isn’t a child in our school who doesn’t have an area of success that we can celebrate. I’m thinking of a boy who had some very significant challenges at school, until he began rehearsing for the all-school play, whereupon he flourished amazingly. The success he enjoyed in the theater program translated to an ability to self-regulate in class, where he now wants to do well because he’s experienced what it feels like.
Each of us has an inborn drive to experience happiness and to be free from suffering. And the universal spiritual law is that whenever we expand our awareness by learning something new or by overcoming a challenge, we experience a corresponding inflow of joy. And if you’re having happy learning experiences every day, you’re going to want more and more of them.
The Straitjacket of Modern Education
I often wonder how our culture went wrong, when it failed to take account of the link between learning and happiness. Children are so elastic, and so ready to learn, including learning which thoughts and actions will give them joy. And instead, they suddenly find themselves bound in straitjackets of expectations that may or may not be realistic. And it’s tragic.
Learning by rote and learning by drill no longer needs to be the foundation of a child’s school experience. What is necessary is to cultivate imagination, resourcefulness, and creativity, starting at the earliest age, and then remove the limits. We need to support the children who are learning at the bottom end and take the limits off each child’s horizons, so that they can surprise themselves and keep growing every day.
We have a first grader who has artistic ability beyond all imagining. He made several sketches of a ship, beautifully executed with lots of fine detail, and we put them on the cover of our annual literary magazine. We had a choice – we could celebrate excellence, or we could impose some false standard of egalitarianism. But it’s absolutely clear that what that little boy has achieved is not equal, and we feel that it’s a false imposition to pretend that his work isn’t exceptional.
Everybody in the school acknowledged and celebrated the boy’s talent. The older kids were saying, “Whoa, who did that?” But the truth is, we celebrate every child’s successes, and we ensure that there are plenty of successes to celebrate, by having them operate at the tip of their ability, mastering challenges at their level.
A girl who came to us in the fall absolutely flourished in the school play. She took to her role and developed it amazingly. That little girl, who has so much talent, was very unhappy in her former school, until she came here and felt embraced by the energy, and realized that she could let loose and be as creative as her abilities allowed.
This morning I spoke with parents who are brain researchers at Stanford. They chose our school because they have friends whose children go to our school, and they recognized the level of acceptance and individuality that exists here, and the happiness of the children. But, more than anything else, they simply want their children to be happy during their time in school.
The father was educated at a school in Israel that was very progressive, but the mother had a more standard education, and they both just want their children to be happy while they’re learning.
One of the biggest tests for our parents is that when their children reach third or fourth grade, they’re tempted to buy into the culture that is constantly pressuring them to think, “Oh my God, how am I going to get my kid into Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton, or MIT?”
The parents I spoke with this morning understand the theoretical and practical aspects of our system, but they really didn’t want to talk about that side. They wanted to tell me how the families of children in our school had told them that their kids have never been happier, and that a great deal of learning goes hand in hand with a great deal of happiness.
It’s really that simple. And what parents everywhere need to realize, and our government and schools need to realize, is that happiness and school success are not mutually exclusive – that, in fact, the opposite is true: happiness is indispensable for the most efficient learning to take place.
We need to help children leverage their natural gifts. And maybe the process won’t be as linear as our culture would prefer, and maybe we won’t always be able to quantify it with numbers. But our successes have proved our methods year after year, in terms of our graduates’ high school and college grades and their adult successes.
Learning Priceless Personal Success Qualities
Another factor that makes our kindergarten so special and powerful is that from the first day we practice leading with the heart. We teach each child what it feels like to appreciate another person’s reality, and how happy it makes them feel.
If a kindergartner gets to someplace first, it’s their nature to let everyone know that it’s their place. They are very territorial, and it’s all about “mine.” My toy, my place, my pencil. Yet they also have very open hearts, if they’re allowed to. And it’s bringing those two together, by showing them that the greatest happiness comes from being unselfish, that creates a wonderful learning environment. It’s a learning that may take people a lifetime to acquire. But whether it’s in the sandbox or on the tricycle, it’s something that they’re learning here every day.
Two kids were arguing over a bike. We did a conflict resolution, and one child said, “Okay, how about five minutes for him and five minutes for me?”
The teacher said, “That seems reasonable.”
The other child thought about it and said, “Well, what if we had it at the same time?”
The teacher said, “I don’t think that’s possible.”
He said, “Oh, yeah, it is, because one of us could drive and the other could stand on the back and then we could switch places.”
It’s a defining story, because it illustrates how, once they understand the principle, they can be creative and take it a lot farther than we might imagine.
We help them have many experiences of happiness, and we teach them how to find it for themselves. And they begin to look for it all the time, and they become very expansive.
I was talking with one of the eighth graders here in my office, when he suddenly said, “Oh, hey, Helen, I gotta go!”
I said, “Well, I’m not quite finished.”
He said, “I know, but the younger kids are about to show up, and they want me to hide the ball for them.”
What’s interesting is that RJ is so connected with the younger children. They are these tiny kindergartners and first graders, and RJ is a big, hulking kid, almost six feet tall, who’s very strong and buff and athletic, and he’s wanting to play this game with the little ones where he’ll hide the ball and they’ll have to find it.
For an older child to hide the ball might be considered hostile, but what’s happening here is very different. And in this environment everyone knows that it’s an expression of friendship. The little tots adore RJ, and he was willing to break off a conversation with me to go help them.
“No Bullying!” – More than Just Empty Words
I talked yesterday with the principals of two of our local high schools. They were asking me about the culture at our Living Wisdom High School, because I’m on the school board and we’re up for certification.
When the conversation came around to what makes our school different, I very boldly said, “We do not have bullying at our school.” And I noticed a sudden change in the atmosphere. The men sat quietly and had nothing to say, and I knew why – because they couldn’t say the same about their schools.
I said, “It’s not allowed, and it’s not that we have to come down punitively in order to enforce it. It’s that we teach a culture of kindness, and our children understand from the inside that it gives them the highest happiness.”
I would say that 75 percent of the parents who sit in this office who are looking for a suitable school for their children are trying to escape bullying.
And, well, don’t you think that it comes from the extremely one-sided, highly competitive atmosphere in the schools at all levels? I’m not talking about sports, I’m talking about grades and social advancement and test scores, and how there’s a constant, brutal sense of competitiveness that permeates the social culture in schools today. The culture, particularly in high school, can be cruelly competitive and stratified.
Many parents in Silicon Valley have had to struggle to get to where they are, and they naturally value material success. And when you can have an efficient and balanced environment such as we have here, and a culture that brings the whole child into the educational process, and not just their will power and their brain, it can look a little suspicious to them initially, if they’re consumed by anxiety about the child’s chances of getting into Harvard – even though we can hold our heads high when it comes to our graduates’ successes.
Our supportive culture frees a child to do extraordinarily well. I’ve seen kids who were extremely introverted and fearful and were not able to thrive in the highly competitive cultures of other schools, and who come to us and blossom, to a point where they are respected, accepted, and naturally part of the group.
I’m sure that we will reach a tipping point in this country where parents will wake up to the simple truth that we have demonstrated for 45 years – that kids can be highly successful at school and be happy at the same time.