Living Wisdom School of Palo Alto is overjoyed to announce the publication of a new book: Happiness & Success at School.
Our director, Helen Purcell, says, “It’s a wonderful book and fun to read. I hope that all parents who are seeking an education for their children that includes a balance of academic excellence and the development of indispensable personal qualities that will help to ensure their success in school and for all their lives will read this book.”
About the Author. George Beinhorn serves as our school’s web content manager. A graduate of Stanford University (BA ‘63, MA ‘66) he has been associated with the Living Wisdom Schools since 1976. George has enjoyed a long and fruitful career as a writer and editor with clients in technology, publishing, and academia. (Among his more interesting projects, he edited the “Best doctoral dissertation in computer science in 2008 at Stanford University.”) He is the author of The Joyful Athlete: The Wisdom of the Heart in Exercise & Sports Training.
To obtain a PDF copy of this book with clickable hyperlinks, visit the website of the Palo Alto Living Wisdom School: www.livingwisdomschool.org. Follow the links to articles that support the principles and practices of Education for Life.
Most education research focuses on how teaching methods affect academic performance. But forty-five years of experience have shown us that practices that enhance a child’s inner development can powerfully contribute to their academic success.
(If you come across supportive research, please let us know. You can send us a message through the contact form on the website of the Palo Alto Living Wisdom School: www.livingwisdomschool.org.)
Active Focused Learning Approach. Quotes: “I’m not really held back anymore, just sitting in class waiting.” “There’s not a lot of lecturing, which makes it easier to stay focused.” “I really like working with other students.” Students spend more time working in groups. The strategy is getting more students to achieve better in class.
10 Ways to Improve Schools Using Coaching Principles. An important article by Tony Holler, a public high school honors chemistry teacher and football and track and field coach (Plainfield North HS, IL). Living Wisdom School has followed Tony’s 10 recommendations throughout its 40-plus-year history. And because we’re very clear that they’ve played a large part in our success, the principles are engrained in our school’s philosophy.
Going in circles puts students on path to better choices. Quotes: “The goal is not so much to punish as to get students on paths to make better choices, to understand the impact of what they do, to deal with people better”… “We’ve become more like a family and not just kids who go to school together,” said freshman Leah Brito. “We’ve grown up big time in the last few months.” “One result of the new approach is that kids are giving more thought to the effect what they do and say can have on others,” she said. “In eighth grade, the he said/she said stuff was horrible when many of the students were together at Audubon middle school,” Brito said. “This year, there is much less of that.”
Preschool Controversy – Academics or Play?Quotes: “People who attended play-based preschools were eight times less likely to need treatment for emotional disturbances than those who went to preschools where direct instruction prevailed. Graduates of the play-based preschools were three times less likely to be arrested for committing a felony.”
Why I pulled my son out of a school for ‘gifted’ kids. In this Mashable article, a mother tells how her son thrived after she transferred him out of an elite academically oriented elementary school in New York City. “If you are privileged enough to be selective about what schools your children attend, please consider how they are learning and not just what they are learning. School isn’t only about cramming as much as possible as quickly as possible into their little brains.”
Pressure Cooker Kindergarten. Quotes: “Kindergarten has changed radically in the last two decades in ways that few Americans are aware of. Children now spend far more time being taught and tested on literacy and math skills than they do learning through play and exploration, exercising their bodies, and using their imaginations. Many kindergartens use highly prescriptive curricula geared to new state standards and linked to standardized tests. In an increasing number of kindergartens, teachers must follow scripts from which they may not deviate. These practices, which are not well grounded in research, violate long-established principles of child development and good teaching. It is increasingly clear that they are compromising both children’s health and their long-term prospects for success in school…. Kindergarten has ceased to be a garden of delight and has become a place of stress and distress…. Blindly pursuing educational policies that could well damage the intellectual, social and physical development of an entire generation…. There’s ongoing concern about American children catching up with their counterparts in countries such as Japan and China. Specifically in areas such as science, math and technology, schooling in those countries before second grade is “playful and experiential.” And youngsters in Finland, where teens consistently score high academically, also attend play-based kindergarten and start first grade at age 7 rather than age 6.”
School starting age: the evidence. An article on the website of Cambridge University. “In England children now start formal schooling, and the formal teaching of literacy and numeracy at the age of four. A recent letter signed by around 130 early childhood education experts, including myself, published in the Daily Telegraph (11 Sept 2013) advocated an extension of informal, play-based pre-school provision and a delay to the start of formal ‘schooling’ in England from the current effective start until the age of seven (in line with a number of other European countries who currently have higher levels of academic achievement and child well-being).”
One in Five Girls in Upper Secondary School Suffers From School Burnout. Quotes: “A sense of optimism during university studies along with high self-esteem tend to predict job engagement ten years later on, while an avoidance strategy tends to predict work-related burnout…. The more encouragement the students got from their teachers, the less likely they were to experience school burnout.”
Explaining Math Concepts Improves Learning. Quotes: “Teaching children the basic concept behind math problems was more useful than teaching children a procedure for solving the problems – these children gave better explanations and learned more,” Rittle-Johnson said. “This adds to a growing body of research illustrating the importance of teaching children concepts as well as having them practice solving problems.”
Social Skills, Extracurricular Activities In High School Pay Off Later In Life. Quotes: “High school sophomores who … [had] good social skills and work habits, and who participated in extracurricular activities in high school, made more money and completed higher levels of education 10 years later than their classmates who had similar standardized test scores but were less socially adroit and participated in fewer extracurricular activities…. “Soft skills” such as sociability, punctuality, conscientiousness and an ability to get along well with others, along with participation in extracurricular activities, are better predictors of earnings and higher educational achievement later in life than having good grades and high standardized test scores…. Schools are increasingly cutting…activities that foster soft skills in order to focus almost exclusively on achieving adequate yearly progress on state-mandated standardized tests.”
Students Benefit From Depth Rather Than Breadth. Quotes: Teaching fewer topics in greater depth is a better way to prepare students for success in college science. Teachers who “teach to the [standardized] test” may not be optimizing their students’ chances of success in college science.
Ten Steps to Better Student Engagement. Quotes: Students who have been shamed or belittled by the teacher or another student will not effectively engage in challenging tasks. To learn and grow, one must take risks, but most people will not take risks in an emotionally unsafe environment.
Creating Positive Classroom Management. (A teacher developed creative ways to encourage positive attitudes and behaviors in younger students. The method and theory are very similar to the “Rocks in the Basket” game used at LWS and described in this video.) Quotes: “I’d spent years offering students rewards (stickers, tickets, tangibles, intangibles) for good behavior and I’d come to realize how they were often self-defeating…. One change I had already made was … I would celebrate ‘great work’ by reading aloud the child’s name and stating what they had done well. Often their classmates would give an actual round of applause – which was lovely.”
Recess Makes for Better Students. Quotes: Study finds getting enough of it [recess] each day helps kids perform better in classroom…. Children learn as much on breaks as they do in the traditional classroom, experimenting with creativity and imagination and learning how to interact socially…. Conflict resolution is solved on the playground, not in the classroom…. The more physical fitness tests children passed, the better they did on academic tests…. Walks outdoors appeared to improve scores on tests of attention and concentration.
Physical Activity May Strengthen Children’s Ability To Pay Attention. Quotes: “Following the acute bout of walking, children performed better on the flanker task…. Following acute bouts of walking, children had a larger P3 amplitude, suggesting that they are better able to allocate attentional resources…. The increase in reading comprehension following exercise equated to approximately a full grade level.”
A Fit Body Means a Fit Mind. Quotes: “Cardiovascular exercise was related to higher academic performance…. Regular exercise benefits the brain, improves attention span, memory, and learning … reduces stress and the effects of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder…. Aerobic exercise pumps more blood throughout the body, including to the brain. More blood means more oxygen and, therefore, better-nourished brain tissue. Exercise also spurs the brain to produce more of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which Ratey calls ‘Miracle-Gro for the brain.’ This powerful protein encourages brain cells to grow, interconnect, and communicate in new ways. Studies also suggest exercise plays a big part in the production of new brain cells, particularly in the dentate gyrus, a part of the brain heavily involved in learning and memory skills…. [Many] schools are cutting back on PE and reducing recess hours. It’s a huge challenge with budget restraints and No Child Left Behind.”
Happiness Contagious as the Flu. Posted on the LiveScience website. At Living Wisdom School, we create a joyful, caring environment among the students. When a new student arrives, he or she immediately feels supported and positively affected. Parents routinely comment that soon after their children enter LWS they seem happier than at their former school.
Meditation, Breathing, Yoga, Affirmations
Meditation Program in the College Curriculum. Quotes: “[Meditation] produced significant freshman-senior increases in intelligence and increased social self-confidence, sociability, general psychological health, and social maturity.”
Meditation in the Treatment of ADHD. Meditation-training showed significant decreases in levels of impulsivity [and significant improvements in] selective deployment of attention and freedom from distractibility in the behavior of the children.
Meditation seen promising as ADHD therapy. Quotes: “The effect was much greater than we expected.” – lead researcher Sarina J. Grosswald, a cognitive learning specialist in Arlington, Virginia…. The children also showed improvements in attention, working memory, organization, and behavior regulation.
Faith rites boost brains. Even 10 to 15 minutes of meditation appear to have significant positive effects on cognition, relaxation, and psychological health.
Meditation Program in the College Curriculum. Quotes: “[Meditation] produced significant freshman-senior increases on intelligence and increased social self-confidence, sociability, general psychological health, and social maturity.”
Music Training Linked To Enhanced Verbal Skills. Quotes: “Music training … may be more important for enhancing verbal communication skills than learning phonics…. potential of music to tune our neural response to the world around us…. Music training may have considerable benefits for engendering literacy skills…. (Musicians have enhanced subcortical auditory and audiovisual processing of speech and music.)”
Other Articles and Papers
It’s Official: To Protect Baby’s Brain, Turn Off TV (from Wired online). Quote: “A decade ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggested that parents limit TV consumption by children under two years of age. The recommendations were based as much on common sense as science, because studies of media consumption and infant development were themselves in their infancy. The research has finally grown up. And though it’s still ongoing, it’s mature enough for the AAP to release a new, science-heavy policy statement on babies watching television, videos or any other passive media form. Their verdict: It’s not good, and probably bad.”
The Heart in Holistic Education. (PDF) Quotes: “Educational programs based on new scientific discoveries about the heart lead to improved emotional stability, cognitive functioning, and academic performance.”
After Abuse, Changes In the Brain. Quotes: “Affectionate mothering alters the expression of genes in animals, allowing them to dampen their physiological response to stress. These biological buffers are then passed on to the next generation. [There is] direct evidence that the same system is at work in humans.”
When Friends Make You Poorer. Quotes: “Students tend to gravitate to a major chosen by more of their peers. And the students whose choice was driven by their peers were then more likely to end up in lower-paying jobs that they didn’t like.”
If teachers were allowed to be coaches, our schools would rapidly become inspiring centers of learning, populated by happy students and their happy teachers.
In Tony Holler’s thirty-eight years as a teacher, he’s seen the best and worst of public education.
Tony teaches honors chemistry at Plainfield North High School, in the greater Chicago area. Tony laments the way teachers today are hamstrung by the mandate for a core curriculum, and by national policies such as “No Child Left Behind” that force them to give their students a standardized, lock-step education that ignores the students’ individual needs.
Tony says, “Schools force-feed the curriculum to students every single day. The political ‘war on education’ has forced schools into an all-consuming quest for higher ACT and SAT scores, disregarding the toll it takes on the students.
“I work at an excellent school. My principal asked the teachers what our school was doing well. My answer: ‘The trains run on time.’
“This was not the answer my principal expected. I would give my school an A-plus for organization and discipline. It’s the education that bothers me…. My own best teachers were artists. They didn’t paint by the numbers.”
Tony’s views on education are biting, but they are fueled by a desire to see young people thrive and be successful and happy, and a distaste for the obstacles that politically motivated policies place in their way.
For Tony, the flipside is that he is intimately familiar with a side of public schools where happy, motivated students learn to perform at high levels of excellence every single day.
The methods used on that side of the school campus look remarkably like the Education for Life approach of the Living Wisdom Schools. The problem is, you’ll rarely find these extremely successful, comprehensively proven methods practiced in the classroom.
Besides teaching honors chemistry, Tony coaches track and field. In sports, unlike academics as taught today, what matters isn’t test scores but solid results. On the football field, there are no test scores to distract attention from the scoreboard. Coaches must either adopt methods that bring out the best in every kid, or risk being fired.
Tony believes that if teachers were allowed to adopt coaching methods, it would transform our public schools overnight into vibrant centers of learning, populated by motivated, happy students.
Those methods are on display every single day, right under the noses of the school administrators and government policy makers—yet nobody is paying attention.
When Tony coached freshman football from 2010 to 2015, his teams went 49-4, averaging 44-plus points per game. When he taught at Harrisburg (Illinois) High School, his track teams won the state title in the 4×100 a remarkable four times. In 2018, his Plainfield North High track team won the 4×100 title in an Illinois state record time of 41.29. An hour later, a 15-year-old PNHS sprinter ran a state record in the 100 (10.31). The team won four gold medals and placed third, close behind two much larger track powerhouse schools.
Tony knows what it takes to nurture winners on the track and in the classroom. What follows is Tony’s overview of the principles that earned him election to the Illinois Track and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame, and that he believes should be adopted in school classrooms everywhere.
Sports are not graduation requirements. Kids play sports because they are challenging and fun. Advanced Placement courses should similarly “sell” themselves, and not be forced upon all of the students by government decree.
Coaches don’t spend 80 percent of their time with the 20 percent of kids who can’t do the work. Students should be helped to succeed at their own level. A one-size-fits-all definition of success is ridiculous, and is bound to fail.
Coaches aren’t told how to coach. Schools should give teachers the freedom to tailor the curriculum to the needs of the individual student.
Sports programs are promoted. Kids play sports because they hear rumors about the great team culture on a football, basketball, baseball, or track team. Teachers should be allowed to make their courses exciting and attractive to the students—whatever it takes.
You play to win the game. Too many schools are diploma mills. Schools should set themselves no lesser goal than to help every single student experience the greatest possible success at their own, individual level of ability.
All men are not created equal. Every student is talented, but not in the same way as other students. The obvious fact of individual differences should be given primary consideration in the classroom.
Coaches don’t give grades. Grades are meaningful only as they measure each student’s progress. Grades should not be held up as the goal, or used as a motivator—or, worse, as a punishment.
Failure is not an option. Great coaches make sure that every player has daily experiences of success. This is the way to create excitement and enthusiasm for learning. How to give each student daily success experiences? By challenging them at their own level.
Coaches are leaders, not bosses. Rigid, authoritarian teachers are obsolete. Teachers must have the flexibility, skills, and experience to make learning exciting and to introduce every student to the thrill of overcoming challenges, again and again, every day.
Coaches don’t need advanced degrees. The value of an advanced degree has been artificially inflated in the teaching profession. Good teachers know how to help kids succeed, regardless of their academic credentials.
“I’ve spent thirty-eight of my fifty-nine years going to high school and hanging out with teenagers. As I enter the twilight of my teaching career, I dream of better schools. I dream of independent students who are bold and assertive. I dream of students who have the enthusiasm of athletes. I dream of teachers who run their classrooms like coaches, tailoring courses to the talents and interests of their students. If schools were more like sports, maybe kids would love school.”
Q: A defining feature of the Living Wisdom Schools is an emphasis on adapting the curriculum and the teachers’ interactions with the children to their special needs in the years from 6 to 12—the “Feeling Years,” as they’re called in Education for Life, the book that outlines the schools’ philosophy.
Can you tell us how you address your students’ need to have their feelings brought into the educational process, and how it’s done throughout the school?
Kshama: When we talk about the Stages of Maturity that are discussed in Education for Life, we’re really speaking of how humans naturally develop and grow.
The Foundation Years from birth to age 6 are the time when children develop their awareness of the physical body and senses. Little children are constantly moving and touching and tasting, and generally getting to know the physical world, and how to live in their bodies. But when they begin to enter the next phase, from 6 to 12, they start wanting to relate to their emotional life, and to learn how to deal with the feeling side of their nature.
It’s a very social time, with a major emphasis on learning to relate appropriately to others. With children in the Feeling Years, we need to devote a great deal of time as teachers to help them understand the emotions that might be running through them in various situations. We need to give them the skills to bring their emotions into a place of calm feeling and understanding. And we do it with a broad array of classroom practices; first and foremost by being deeply aware of where each student is in their development, and what their next natural growth point can be.
We do an enormous amount of teaching through storytelling and the arts—the “media of feeling,” including music and dance and theater. For children at this age, anything that is heart-opening can become a highly effective medium for teaching the curriculum.
In math, for example, we find it’s tremendously helpful when they can connect their feelings to the subject. With my second graders, I might bring in stuffed animals to help them relate to certain math concepts. Or we’ll act out the concepts, because it brings math to life in a way that they can connect with and remember. It’s much more motivating and engaging than only using workbooks or the standard manipulative tools.
Q: Education for Life says that when we fail to guide children in their emotional development at this age, they will feel that something’s missing from their education, and they’ll be more likely to rebel and tune-out school in their teen years.
The Living Wisdom Schools have shown that this needn’t happen, when the students feel that their emotional needs are being met, especially their need for inspiration and high ideals. Education for Life laments the common practice of cramming children’s heads with facts at this age, at the expense of teaching them to work positively with their feelings as an important component of their ability to learn.
Kshama: In our school, we find that when the teachers are able to connect with the children at the level where they’re naturally growing, the learning flows much more easily and naturally.
Children at this stage are deeply engaged in imaginative play and creativity. So it’s no surprise that when we bring their feelings into the learning process, and help them learn how to work with their feelings generally, they resonate with school. When you can find ways to make what they’re studying come alive for them at a feeling level, they begin to experience school as a very interesting place of growth.
Q: When you’re creating lesson plans, are you trying to bring the feeling element into them?
Kshama: We’re doing it all the time. But first, I think we need to make a clear distinction between “feelings” and “emotions.” There’s a very large difference between raw emotions and refined feelings. Our job as educators is to help children be aware of their inner states and learn how to transform turbulent emotions into calm, positive feeling.
It’s not at all a question of encouraging them to express their emotions willy-nilly. We’re trying to help them understand how to use their feelings in positive, expansive, mature ways that will contribute to their happiness and success.
Q: Education for Life points out that refined feelings enable us to tell the difference between right and wrong. We don’t decide if something is right or wrong based on reason alone, but by feeling it. The author says it’s a disaster when children aren’t taught to consult their calm feelings as a guide to what’s right and true.
Kshama: Our children receive an enormous amount of support for becoming aware of the difference. The teachers use conflict resolution techniques and other proven tools to help them handle the emotionally charged issues that are bound to come up at school. We help them increase their awareness of what’s happening for them at an emotional level, and we help them understand how they can work with that reality and come to a positive resolution.
Q: There was an incident that took place at the original Living Wisdom School in Nevada City many years ago. It had snowed overnight, and at recess the children got into a snowball fight. Some of the little kids were crying, so the teachers got the kids together to build a snowman. Later, the teachers asked them how they had felt during the snowball fight and while they were building the snowman together. They said things like, “I felt bad when I saw the little kids crying, but it felt great to build a snowman.” The teachers recognized a heaven-sent opportunity to draw the children’s attention to their feelings of right and wrong.
Kshama: We’re constantly helping them work with their feelings in all kinds of situations. We also help them be aware of what’s happening for other people in moments of conflict or pain, and we help them develop empathy. They acquire the problem-solving skills to create a healthy and supportive environment, where all of the kids can have a good experience that feels wonderful.
Q: Do you model positive behaviors for them?
Kshama: Modeling is a huge part of the process. But the extremely important first step is to notice what’s happening with them.
As adults, we might put our own judgments on the children’s actions or emotions—“Don’t be angry!” But at LWS, the teachers learn to share their awareness in ways that will help the child understand what’s going on, and how they can deal with it.
Instead of saying “Oh, you are angry,” I might say, “Oh, your face is like this”—where I’m scrunching my eyebrows and making a frowny face. I’m modeling it for them, as a way to help them begin to find a solution.
I’ll say, “Your face looks like this—you might be feeling angry.” They’ll want to look up and see what’s happening on my face, and it gives them an awareness of what’s happening internally for them. It’s giving them a connection to the emotion that goes along with the experience they’re having. We’re helping them make that connection very consciously, so they can start to find a happier place.
Another example of how we work with their feelings is a situation that will come up in art class. Very often, children are conditioned to seek adult approval for what they’re drawing, instead of being encouraged to be alive in the experience. A child will come up to you and say, “Do you like it?” And instead of giving them back, “Oh, that’s a beautiful painting!” Or, “Oh, how lovely!” Or, “I love it!” you can say things like “Wow! I loved watching you paint that!” You’re giving them back their own experience. You’re celebrating them doing it, and validating their reality without imposing your own judgment on what they’ve created. So you’re helping them be aware of their feelings, instead of creating a situation where their feelings are devalued and they might be tempted to suppress them, which isn’t productive.
I can say, “Wow! Look at all the color you put into your painting!” So I’m not saying whether I like it, but I’m acknowledging that they’ve put a ton of color into their piece.
It might sound like a trivial thing, but we find that it’s very important. When you give their experience back to them in a way that they can own it, it has huge consequences.
With really young children who aren’t very adept at drawing, as adults we may try to guess what they’ve drawn, because we want to connect with them and support what they’re doing. But very often what they’ve drawn isn’t at all what we think it is. And as soon as we put our assumption onto it, it changes their relationship to it.
You can ask them, “Tell me about your painting—what did you do here? Tell me about this part.” It gets them sharing, and it keeps them alive in their own experience of it.
Validating their feelings is a very healthy step toward helping them develop a natural, relaxed self-confidence. It’s a major step toward helping them become happily engaged people.
From age 6 to 12, children have a pressing need to be introduced to inspiring figures that speak to their hearts. There are many educational approaches that use fairy tales and storytelling with children at this age, or that engage them in studying the lives of inspiring historical figures. At LWS, it’s a hundred percent of what we’re doing with our theater program. The yearly all-school plays are about some of the most wonderful role models that are available to humanity—they are about “human treasures” that can serve as models for all people. We’ve put on plays about Buddha, Bernadette of Lourdes, Kwan Yin, Jesus, Yogananda, Mirabai, Hafiz, St. Francis and Clare, Krishna, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King, St. Teresa of Avila, George Washington Carver, Abraham Lincoln, and the Dalai Lama.
Every child has a role in the play, and the learning that takes place is beyond measure. The kids are not only learning about the life of the subject of the play, they’re also studying about the culture and history of the times in which they lived. And by memorizing the words of these great role models, they gain an internal library of wisdom and inspiration that will remain with them for years.
Q: Does a feeling-based approach help the children become internally motivated to learn, instead of the teacher having to force-feed them or resort to a system of punishment and rewards?
Kshama: It creates a safe environment where the children can be who they are and know that there’s safety in the relationship with their teachers and between student and student. It creates a classroom community that’s based on respect and kindness and safety, so that real sharing and real learning can take place.
It’s enormously important for kids at this age, and it’s why we devote tremendous energy to creating a caring classroom and a caring school community. Because it’s simply the indispensable foundation for a healthy learning environment.
Q: The atmosphere in the classrooms I’ve visited is remarkable. When I grew up, the teachers had to spend lots of time “herding cats,” because the kids’ energy was often wanting to be somewhere else, and the teacher had to rope it back into the unfortunate fact that we had to do math or history or English. Whereas at LWS I can walk into Ruth’s third-grade classroom, or Lilavati’s kindergarten, or Gary’s middle school classroom, or Craig’s fourth and fifth grade class, and I’ll see that the kids aren’t rebelling. The kids are enjoying what they’re doing.
Kshama: When summer comes, the kids always beg us to keep the school open year-round. Many of them would prefer to be at school, learning and being with their school community, rather than heading off to their camps and other summer programs.
Q: One of the results of the “extracurricular” activities at LWS—working with their feelings through theater arts and music and art and field trips—is that you get a very focused atmosphere in the classroom when it’s time for academics. In Gary’s middle school classroom, I’ll see kids sitting around a table doing math, and maybe one of them will say something and they’ll laugh, but then they’re right back and centered in their work.
Kshama: Mm-hm. It’s a question of understanding what a child’s motivation is at this stage, and knowing how to work with their reality in ways that help them become happily engaged. It’s about giving them many joyful success experiences that will help them grow into a strong sense of their own abilities, starting where they are.
The attention that the teachers devote to finding out who each child is, and helping them at their own level in every aspect of their being and not just academics, contributes tremendously to help them develop a strong sense of their own identity and their ability to master challenges. It’s a joyful experience that carries over very powerfully into their studies.
Whether it’s math, science, writing, or reading, we’re constantly looking for ways to inspire the children to care about what they’re learning, because that’s when real learning takes place. And they absolutely love it.
Q: In Craig’s fourth and fifth grade classroom, I’ll see the kids working in pairs, and their body language makes it absolutely clear that they do not want to be distracted or disturbed.
Kshama: The students in my second grade class are seven and eight years old, so they’re still developing their early writing skills. We use a workshop approach, where we invite them to write from their own life experiences and from their own sense of the world as it’s developing for them. So it’s very real for them, and it provides a safe venue for them to be enthusiastically engaged.
They’ll tell stories about their experiences, or they’ll draw on their imagination to create wonderful fictional pieces. But it’s all about drawing on life as they understand it, and bringing it onto the page, instead of the teacher passing out story prompts that might feel artificial. Giving them ways to bring their own enthusiasm into the process is a wonderful step toward helping them become thoroughly engaged learners.
In science, our goal, especially with the younger ones, is to create a sense of awe and appreciation for the world and the universe we live in, and a feeling of connectedness, so that as we’re learning about science, we aren’t just thinking about how we can use our knowledge to make a profit, but we’re understanding how everything in the world is connected, so we will love it and want to take care of it and protect it.
Q: Tanaka Shozo, a famous Japanese conservationist of the early twentieth century, said, “The question of rivers is not a question of rivers, but of the human heart.”
Kshama: Yes, and we do a lot with nature, because it’s hugely important for the students, especially if they’re growing up in the city, to make sure they’re connecting with the natural world. And when we’re doing lab sciences, we’re making sure they are coming to life in a way that is interesting and tangible for them, and that helps them make connections outside the classroom so they can really understand why they’re learning it. It’s an extremely experiential approach to the curriculum, and as you said, it touches their hearts so they’ll remember and care.
Q: I talked with Gary about his approach to math in middle school. He gives the kids daily problem sets that they work on in class, and he corrects them and goes over every single problem with each student individually until he’s sure that they’ve grasped and interiorized the concepts.
They’re challenged at the edge of what they can handle individually, with the result that they have an ongoing sense of the joy of overcoming challenges. There are one or two math aides working with the students in the classroom, and it’s almost entirely individual tutoring.
The teachers and aides are always checking to make sure the students are working at the upper limit of their abilities, “pressing their edges” and feeling very good about overcoming the obstacles.
Kshama: It’s the approach we take throughout the school. We’re giving them success experiences and a depth of understanding, so they can feel they’re holding the material in a way that they can apply it to new situations.
In public schools and academically focused private schools, the teachers are often required to cover a certain amount of material within a prescribed time. It means that they’re pressured to herd the students through the curriculum together at the same pace. But then you can end up overly concerned with “studying to the test,” with the result that there’s a very thin layer of comprehension.
Our goal is to take the students as deeply into the material as we can, and give them the support and positive experiences to internalize it and understand the concepts in depth, so they can use that understanding as a building block for taking the next step.
As teachers, we’ll have students who are working on many different levels of math in our classroom, and we’re always discovering creative ways to support them. It’s important that they feel engaged at their own level, and not just be spinning their wheels, quickly completing an assignment and being bored while they wait for the rest of the class, or struggling because the other students are working on something they aren’t ready for.
Q: There seems to be a strange magic at LWS, where the attention to the individual is like a jet booster for academic success. If you weren’t familiar with the school, you might think, “Okay, the teachers are spending way too much time on the individual child, and they’re going much too deep in their academic subjects. They’re doing lots of art and theater, and how are the kids going to move ahead at a reasonable pace?”
Yet we continually hear stories of second-graders who are doing fourth-grade math, and kindergarten kids using fourth-grade math concepts, and eighth graders testing into second-year or third-year high school math.
Perhaps you touched on the answer: that you don’t have one-third of the class being bored out of their minds because you’re trying to move everybody ahead in lockstep, and another third of the class struggling because you’re going too fast, and only a third of the class being taught at their own level. When you’re teaching the individual child, it’s more efficient, and the class can move forward at the fastest possible speed.
Several years ago, there was an exceptionally talented girl at LWS who was the only sixth grader in California to achieve a perfect score on the Math Olympiads M exam for eighth grade and below, out of 19,541 students who took the test. She was highly gifted, but at LWS she was able to go at her own pace.
In 2018, another sixth grader at LWS, Vinca Lu, got 23 correct answers on the Olympiad E for sixth graders, scoring in the top 2 percent internationally. And on the Olympiad M test which is designed to challenge eighth graders Vinca (who by age should be a fifth grader) scored 24 out of 25, again placing in the top 2 percent internationally. Her teacher, Gary McSweeney, revealed that Vinca had received no special preparation for the tests, evidencing that advanced students are rigorously challenged in math at LWS.
Kshama: The students are not all punched from the same mold; they are highly individual, and each one will have areas of strength and challenge. The problem with a cookie-cutter approach, where you’re trying to stamp out standardized children with standardized math skills who can pass standardized tests, is that it ignores the inescapable reality of individual differences.
We keep our class sizes deliberately small and the student-teacher ratio low so that we can connect with every student every day, and understand where they are and what they need, not only in their academic subjects but in their social and emotional development.
Also, we have a community of teachers who are expected to be committed to a personal centering practice of some kind. All of the teachers either meditate or have some kind of mindfulness practice. For myself, I find it’s a huge component in my being able to walk into the classroom and be fully present with my students, and able to relate and make connections and have insights about what’s needed to help each child on a level that isn’t superficial.
Q: How do you work with students who might be coming into your classroom for the first time?
Kshama: Fill them up with love! (laughs) Really, I’m quite serious. On their first day we welcome them into the class community. We’re about to start school now, and most of the students will be returning, but there will be a few new ones. And my job is to welcome everyone in the spirit of a family to help everyone feel that they are welcome, that they’re important, that we’re all starting a year-long journey of friendship and growth together, and that we need to be a supportive community for one another so that everybody can grow.
We’re crafting lots of experiences that are team-building and collaborative, and making sure there are lots of opportunities for the students to connect one-on-one with each other.
It requires an enormous amount of modeling helpful behaviors, and coaching the children on the playground so they can learn to integrate with one another and learn how to play together successfully. And those bonds carry over to the classroom.
It’s absolutely crucial to remember that every student is unique. Last year, there was a student in my class who was facing some temporary issues in his personal life. The kids were aware of what he was going through, and every single student in the class rallied around the child to create an environment where he could blossom. We created moments where he was connecting one-on-one with the other children, and moments where the whole class was supporting him, and we watched him rocket through the challenges until he was fully connected with the class. It was incredible.
An important part of our process for creating a caring classroom community is that every teacher meets with every student at the start of the year, in the days before school begins. The kids bring their school supplies, and we use the time to set up their desks, get them situated, help them pick out their backpack hook, and do all the little mundane things that need to happen, in addition to spending quality one-on-one time together to make a connection with the child before they arrive on the first day of school as a group.
It’s the start of their LWS experience, and it reflects the experience they’ll have every day, with a growing network of personal connections with the teachers and students that encourages enthusiasm, engagement, and being challenged to learn at their own pace.
Teaching here is amazing. It’s fantastically rewarding to see our students thriving personally and academically, and to follow their successes throughout their years at our school and beyond. We are always discovering new ways to help the students, and I feel that our successes in terms of academics and happiness prove the value of what we’re doing.
By Nitai Deranja, co-founder of the Living Wisdom Schools
About fifty years ago, a small but dedicated group of people began to challenge America’s attitudes toward food production.
The prevailing view was that vegetables should be judged by their appearance—bigger and redder tomatoes were deemed more desirable. So American agriculture adopted chemical fertilizers and pesticides that would support growing great-looking tomatoes.
But a tiny fringe group, which gradually became known as the organic farming movement, pointed out that the real value of tomatoes lies not in their color but their taste and nutritional value, which were being sacrificed to improve their appearance.
It took a while, but people began to listen. A recent study1 revealed that seventy-five percent of Americans now buy at least some organic food.
Today we face a similar misconception about our children’s education. We all want our kids to succeed—no doubt. The problem is how we define “success.”
As with the misplaced emphasis on bigger, redder tomatoes, many people now assume that student success can be measured in numbers, using standardized tests.
These tests are mandated in almost all schools, and they exercise an enormous influence over our children’s future.
With such important consequences, it seems appropriate to ask what exactly these tests are measuring.
Below are some topics covered in one of the most widely used standardized tests for fifth through eleventh graders.2 As you scan the list, note the number of items you might be familiar with, and how important this information has been in your adult life. (These items are not taken from the more rigorous “advanced” level of the exam, but from the easier, “proficient” level.)
The function of the esophagus
The difference between a stereoscope and a laser light with holograph
The reason fossils are found in sedimentary rocks
The contributions of Hammurabi
The differences between metals and nonmetals
The form of energy released or absorbed in most chemical reactions
The Schlieffen Plan
The Tennis Court Oath.
The Social Gospel movement
The Reconstruction Finance Corporation
The point, of course, is not that the Schlieffen Plan, the Tennis Court Oath, and the Code of Hammurabi may not be useful in certain specialized fields. It’s that in using such relatively obscure data to measure the overall effectiveness of our schools, we’re making the same mistake people made in judging tomatoes—we’re focusing on superficial appearances at the expense of real substance, as measured by actual benefits to the individual child.
When we pressure teachers and administrators to make sure every student is exposed to the “right” facts, the end result is that creativity and enthusiasm are replaced with what’s been called “dead-ucation.”
In a recent New York Times article, a long-time teacher questioned the overwhelming emphasis on standardized testing today:
“This push on tests is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human. Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, you could be successful. Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SATs, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”3
A parent lamented her son’s experience of dead‑ucation:
“I saw the light in his eyes extinguishing…. These energetic, engaged, accomplished six-year-olds turned into 12-year-olds who ask, ‘Are we getting graded on this?’ or ‘Is this going to be on the test?’ That flame they had at age 6 didn’t burn out on its own, we smothered it.”4
And from an administrator at Peking University High School in Shanghai, one of the winners in the most recent worldwide standardized testing administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development:
“Test taking is damaging to students’ creativity, critical thinking skills and, in general, China’s ability to compete in the world. It can make students very narrow-minded. In the 21st century, China needs the creative types its education system isn’t producing.”5
The time has come to ask what an alternative, more “organic” approach to education might look like.
What if our schools shifted at least some of their focus from testing relatively useless facts to include the following measures:
How to take initiative and exercise creativity
How to concentrate
How to cultivate a passion for lifelong learning
How to be responsible
How to live healthfully
How to overcome negative moods
How to respect different points of view
How to discern the difference between right and wrong
How to find peace and contentment within yourself
How to know yourself and express your highest potential
How many of these items have proven useful to you in your adult life?
Which kind of knowledge would you deem more important for your child’s success?
Certainly, turning around the vast, hulking battleship of public education would appear to take enormous effort. But in the long run, it will probably not take much more time or energy than the switch from chemical-based food production to organic farming.
The traditional school subjects (“Readin’, Writin’, ’Rithmetic”) will always be the foundation of a well-grounded education, but our approach needs to incorporate these broader, more nutritive skills.
Much work has been done. We just need to share our resources and insights, and support each other as we make the needed changes.
The fruits of this movement will give our children a useful, enjoyable education, and a better guarantee of success.
The Hartman Group Study, “Beyond Organic and Natural,” 2/22/2010.
Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR), www.starsamplequestions.org
“What if the Secret of Success Is Failure?” New York Times, 9/14/2011.
“How Shanghai’s Students Stunned the World,” www.msnbc.msn.com, 11/2/2011.
In his bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence, New York Times science reporter Daniel Goleman tells how the pioneering Russian neuropsychologist A. R. Luria first suggested in the 1930s that the prefrontal cortex was a key brain center for self-control and restraining emotional impulses.
Luria found that patients with damage to this area “were impulsive and prone to flare-ups of fear and anger.”
A study of two dozen men and women convicted of heat-of-passion murders “found that they had a much lower than usual level of activity in these same sections of the prefrontal cortex.”
In 2002, scientists at Duke University used brain scans to verify that raw emotions interfere with concentration, and that mental focus and raw emotions exist in a mutually exclusive relationship. That is, not only does emotion distort our ability to focus, but deliberately focusing attention is an effective way to calm and “neutralize” emotions. As the Duke news release put it, “Surprisingly, an increase in one type of function is accompanied by a noticeable decrease in the other.”
This is interesting news for educators, and for students preparing to take tests, since it confirms the age-old maxim that deliberately focusing attention tends to calm the pre-test jitters, while uncontrolled emotions are dangerous because they can interfere with concentration and good decision-making. At Living Wisdom School, the students are taught simple meditation techniques that help them focus their energy and attention in the prefrontal cortex while studying, preparing for tests, and dealing with turbulent emotions.
“We’ve known for a long time that some people are more easily distracted and that emotions can play a big part in this,” said Kevin S. LaBarr, assistant professor at Duke’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and an author of the study described above.
“Our study shows that two streams of processing take place in the brain, with attentional tasks and emotions moving in parallel before finally coming together.” The two streams are integrated in a region of the brain called the anterior cingulate, located between the right and left halves of the brain’s frontal portion, which is involved in a wide range of thought processes and emotional responses.
It’s easy to test this finding, by holding our attention with relaxation in the area of the anterior cingulate, just behind the point between the eyebrows, a practice that tends to soothe any troubling emotions we may be feeling, by helping us feel more calm, positive, focused, and in control of our emotions.
Researchers now suspect that calm feeling (as distinct from raw emotions) and reason work hand in hand. Contrary to a longstanding prejudice of our western culture, which assumes that reason is the superior faculty, the researchers are finding that reason is deeply compromised unless it is balanced by the feelings of the heart.
Neurologist Dr. Antonio Damasio studied patients with damage to the connection between their brain’s prefrontal cortex and amygdala—the two most important centers of reason and emotion in the brain. He found that when these patients lost their ability to feel, they made terrible decisions in their business and personal lives, and became incapable of making the simplest decisions, such as when to make an appointment, even though their reasoning powers were intact.
“Dr. Damasio believes their decisions are so bad because they have lost access to their emotional learning…. Cut off from emotional memory in the amygdala, whatever the neocortex mulls over no longer triggers the emotional reactions that have been associated with it in the past—everything takes on a gray neutrality….
“Evidence like this leads Dr. Damasio to the counter-intuitive position that feelings are typically indispensable for rational decisions; they point us in the proper direction, where dry logic can then be of best use.
Clearly, there are risks in trying to make decisions based on feeling alone. Our decisions may be subtly compromised by our personal desires and raw emotions—our hearts may not be sufficiently calm and detached to be trusted.
Our feelings are more reliable when we check them against our reason, common sense, and experience. Are our heart’s feelings truly calm and dispassionate, or are we just telling ourselves what we want to hear? Cool, clear reason can help us decide. Our sense of the right decision will be more often correct when we hold ourselves in a state of “reasonable feeling.” It may help to imagine that our awareness is centered in an axis of energy between the forehead and the heart.
At Living Wisdom School, the students learn to consult their calm feelings while listening to the voice of calm reason. Learning to access and use these human tools gives them an advantage when it comes to mastering the academic curriculum.
Researchers at the Institute of HeartMath have found that it’s surprisingly easy to prove that intuition exists, and that its accuracy increases when we deliberately calm and harmonize our feelings.
In a study of intuitive ability, the subjects were shown images of soothing subjects, interspersed randomly with emotionally disturbing images. Monitoring the subjects’ EEG (brain waves), ECG (electrocardiogram), and heart rate variability showed that they reacted emotionally to the images five to seven seconds before an image appeared. Confirming the folk wisdom that women are more intuitive than men, female subjects reacted with greater accuracy and sensitivity.
Surely the message for students and educators is clear: expansive thoughts, actions, and feelings have been scientifically shown to boost brain efficiency and happiness.
At Google, at Harvard, in ancient Indian ashrams, and in the classrooms at Living Wisdom School, happiness and success go hand in hand.
Emotional Intelligence. (New York: Bantam Books, 1995) 314.
 Duke University press release, August 19, 2002.
 Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam Books, 1997) 27–28.
 “The Sixth Sense—More and More, Science Supports It,” Gabriella Boehmer, Institute of HeartMath; the study referenced is: “Electrophysiological Evidence of Intuition: Part 1. The Surprising Role of the Heart,” McCraty, R., Atkinson, M., Bradley, R. T., Journal ofAlternative and Complementary Medicine, Feb 2004, Vol. 10, No. 1: 133–43; “Electrophysiological Evidence of Intuition: Part 2. A System-Wide Process?” McCraty, R., Atkinson, M., Bradley, R. T., Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Apr 2004, Vol. 10, No. 2: 325–36.