By J. Donald Walters, author of Education for Life and co‑founder of the Living Wisdom Schools
How many adults, what to speak of children, recognize the difference between emotion and feeling? Very few.
And how many children, consequently, are taught that calm, sensitive feeling is an invaluable tool for the complete understanding of most subjects? Or that turbulent feelings—that is to say, the emotions—and not feeling per se prevent clear, objective understanding? Again, very few.
Few children, again, are taught the extent to which reason is guided by calm feeling, but distorted by the emotions. And few are taught that by developing calm feeling they will improve their understanding of objective reality on every level.
Feeling, when it is calm and refined, is essential both to truly objective and to mature insight.
There are ways of clarifying feeling, just as there are principles of logic (already taught in the schools) for learning to reason correctly. Feeling can be clarified, for instance, by learning how to distance feeling from one’s personal likes and dislikes, withdrawing one’s awareness to a calm center in the heart. Feeling can be clarified by directing the heart’s energies upward to the brain, and thence to a point between the eyebrows that was anciently identified as the seat of concentration in the body. Clarity of feeling can be assisted by calming the flow of energy in the spine, by means of certain breathing exercises. These exercises are a priceless contribution of the science of yoga to the general knowledge of the human race. It would be a grave error to ignore them on the grounds of one’s unfamiliarity with them.
Only by calm inner feeling can a person know definitely the right course to take in any action. Those who direct their lives from this deeper level of feeling achieve levels of success that are never reached by people who limit their quest for answers to the exercise of reason. Reason, indeed, if unsupported by feeling, may point in hundreds of plausible directions without offering certainty as to the rightness of any of them.
Children need to learn how to react appropriately. This they can never do if their reaction springs out of their subjective emotions. Considerable training is needed to learn how to harness feeling and make it a useful ally. What children are taught, instead, as they grow older, is that feelings are inevitably obstacles to correct insight. The scientific method is offered as a model. “If you want to see things objectively,” they are told, “you must view everything in terms of cold logic.” I remember a professor when I was in college who boasted, jokingly, that X-rays had shown his heart to be smaller than normal. This, to him, was a sign of intellectual objectivity, which he prized.
Ignored is the fact that, usually, the greater the scientist, the more deeply he feels his subject. Or that, as Einstein put it, the essence of true scientific discovery is a sense of mystical awe.
Feeling can never in any case be suppressed. Shove it out of sight at one point—where you can at least see it and try to deal with it—and it will only pop up at another, often a place where you least expect it. Many times, when long-suppressed feelings have at last burst upon people’s consciousness, those feelings have assumed terrible and unrecognizable shapes. Sometimes they have actually incited to riot.
Right feeling is an important tool for achieving maturity. It must be cultivated, and not merely ignored, suppressed, or treated as something about which nothing ‘reasonable” can be done.
When children feel that their teachers understand their unique talents and motivations, they are much more likely to love school and excel in their academic subjects.
A conversation with Nitai Deranja, co-founder of the Living Wisdom Schools.
Q: Parents who visit the Living Wisdom Schools often question the schools’ philosophy. They’re naturally concerned that their children receive a first-class education. But they often aren’t aware of the powerful connections between academic success and a child’s feelings, particularly during the years from 6 to 12. Parents are often concerned that time spent on feelings is wasted, and would be better devoted to academics.
Nitai: The traditional image of a teacher is that he or she will come into the classroom prepared with a good lesson plan. But the risk in adhering too rigidly to a plan is that the teacher will overlook the reality of the individual child—the child’s unique abilities, needs, motivations, and the daily fluctuations of his or her mind and heart.
A good teacher will, of course, have a solid lesson plan, but their first concern will be to get to know each child, and to be able to relate appropriately to their realities.
When a teacher can do that, it’s a wonderful boon for the children, because it gives them a sense that the teacher understands their worth and their abilities. It’s an experience that most kids aren’t getting today at school. They’re treated as cogs in the school machinery—as just one more anonymous child swimming in the great ocean of students.
The tragedy is that the kids start to identify with being a cog in the system. Whereas if a talented teacher is acknowledging their reality, what we see is that the child comes alive and wants to learn because somebody is investing the time and energy to value and encourage them where they are.
My forty years as a teacher have convinced me that this is the indispensable foundation of academic excellence, because at that point you can do amazing things with the kids and the curriculum. It’s why I’m encouraging this quality more strongly than ever in my workshops for teachers.
It’s a skill that you can develop endlessly. As adults, we know that when we’re communicating at work or talking with friends, we need to be able to set our own mental buzz aside and understand where they are.
Q: Is it a skill that you look for in the teachers you hire?
Nitai: Let me share two stories. I gave an online workshop recently for teachers in Italy. I had to speak through an interpreter, and I wasn’t sure they were getting the concepts. So I told them, “I want you to work on this, and come back next week prepared to share stories about opening up to children’s realities.”
The next week, a woman said, “I was visiting a friend who has two kids, both about two years old. I thought, ‘Okay, here’s my assignment. I’ve got to figure out how to relate to their world.’”
When she looked at the kids she saw that they were chomping very contentedly on their pacifiers. Noticing an extra pacifier lying on a table, she picked it up and put it in her mouth and sat on the floor with these two little babies. (laughs) She reported that the kids suddenly stopped what they were doing and looked up at her and got big smiles on their faces, and one of the kids came over and gave her a big hug.
It was a powerful demonstration of how beautifully this principle works at all ages. How can you expect to teach children effectively, if you can’t get on their wavelength?
Another teacher in the workshop works as a math aide with 12-year-old kids. He told us about a boy in his class who absolutely hates math. The kid came slouching into the classroom with his hoodie pulled up over his head and walked over to a table where he sat down, put his arms on the table, and threw his head on his arms. (laughs)
Stefan, the math aide, watched the boy and thought, “All right, I’m going to see if I can tune into this boy’s world.”
He went over to the table and nudged the boy on the shoulder.
The boy was surprised and said, “What?” Stefan said, “Could you move over a little?”
The boy grudgingly scooted over, and Stefan let himself fall into the chair, put his arms on the table, and threw his head on his arms. (laughs)
The kid started giggling, and finally he picked up his head and they ended up doing some math together. Stefan said it was remarkable how willing the kid was to work on his math when he realized that the teacher could get on his wavelength and sympathize.
During the years from 6 to 12, the classroom should be a place of adventure—it should be a combination of theater, science laboratory and space ship. The classroom at that age should be an enclosed reality that you can turn into just about anything, to draw the kids into the feeling side of the learning experience.
When a teacher at our school wanted to introduce the kids to the science of the rainforest, he turned the classroom into a tropical jungle. There were so many plants and trees in the room that you had to brush the branches aside to get through the door. The point is that you aren’t just reading about the rainforest in a book, you’re having an experience of the rainforest. It’s a prop, you might say, that helps the kids feel what the rainforest is like. And the end result is that because they can feel it, they begin to care for it, and to be interested in learning about it.
The Palo Alto Living Wisdom School puts on an amazing Theater Magic play every year, where every child in the school takes part. All of the kids get completely involved in the self-contained world of the play. If the play is about Joan of Arc, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or the Dalai Lama, or Buddha, or Kwan Yin, or Abraham Lincoln, or Krishna, they’re deeply studying the history and customs of the times, while they’re acting out the lives of these great figures. Most of the kids are picking up each others’ lines as well as their own, and it’s hugely motivating for the kids because their feelings are fully engaged. And, again, the result is that they’re absolutely lapping up the academic side of the experience.
In our science classes, we approach the curriculum in the same spirit, where you’re playing the role of a scientist, and you’re doing real-world experiments as you learn. It’s a pretend world, which is appropriate for children at that age, when their imagination and feelings are at their peak and you’re building the curriculum on that very powerful force.
When I co-taught fifth-grade, we introduced the kids to the Ramayana, one of the world’s great teaching epics. It’s chock-full of deeply absorbing adventures that carry moral lessons in a very convincing way.
We introduced the book by reading some of the stories to the kids. They quickly became interested, and we started acting out the stories. We made a quilt on themes of the Ramayana, and this great saga became a central part of their lives for the semester. For three or four months, you would come into the classroom and find yourself in the world of this great teaching epic from India. You were in an altered reality, and not just a bare and sterile classroom.
It’s an approach to learning that catches the kids’ attention very powerfully at this age. They absolutely love it when there’s a story involved, whether it’s a story about math, science, history, literature, or the arts—because they want to experience life, and they have a highly developed sense of adventure, but they aren’t old enough yet to go out and experience real life for themselves. The teacher’s job is to scale it down so they can experience it in stories and theater and music and painting, because they can’t go to an actual rainforest.
After they leave the Feeling Years, they enter the adolescent years from 12 to 18. Few people understand that this is the time when you can take them out of the classroom and get them engaged in doing real-life things. It’s no longer a time for studying things only in books; it’s a time to introduce them to real life by giving them their own adventures. In our school, we’ve gone to Mexico where we worked at an orphanage, and we’ve gone to India where we met the Dalai Lama.
Each of the six-year stages of a child’s development has its own unique methods for capturing the children’s enthusiasm and interests at that age, and for bringing it into the curriculum.
Maria Montessori, the famous educator, said that when children reach age thirteen, you should put them on a bus and start driving them around and not let them off until they’re eighteen. (laughs)
Q: You’ve given examples from Pre-K to middle school and beyond, and a child’s feelings seem to be important at every stage, when it comes to finding ways to get them excited about learning. If I understand what you’re saying, it’s that the teacher needs to get to know them, and find out what they’re interested in, and make use of their own natural wellsprings of energy and enthusiasm to help them move forward in their academic studies.
Nitai: That’s exactly it. When I began teaching, I was very intrigued by a document that Paramhansa Yogananda developed for a school that he had started in India. He called it the Psychological Chart. It was a way to help you find out, among other things, what the student’s deepest motivations are. I’ve been working with it, adapting it for a document that we plan to call the Student Portrait.
It was a bit confusing at first to try to figure out how to use it, because it covers so many facets of a child’s character. But the point is that when children come into the classroom, you need to look at the key elements of their lives—their family life, their character, their response to being disciplined, and so on—there are twelve categories in all that you can look at, with lots of fine detail. And the insights of the parents can be a great aid in helping you understand the child.
Yogananda used an interesting word: “salient.” You look for the salient characteristic of the child—what is the core motivator in that child? And then you can use that as a leading quality to help you work with them.
It might be something that’s coming from the child’s life outside of school, or it might be some special quality of the child’s own nature.
There was a boy in one of my classes who was extremely competitive. It was the boy’s salient quality, and I always had to take it into account or else it would get out of hand and cause a disruption. But if I accounted for it, we were able to find a way to make school work really well for him.
To keep it fresh in his mind, I would walk out to PE with him and talk about competition, and what it means to win and lose. Because otherwise he would go out and be completely focused on winning.
One of my kids who’s now a young adult has a job as a chef at a famous yoga retreat. In high school, the only salient quality I could find that truly captured his interest was food. He was pretty much oblivious of everything else, but his eyes would light up the moment you mentioned food. So we were able to work with that quality to make school interesting and motivating and inspiring for him.
I find that you can use this approach to help almost any child. Sometimes the salient quality will shift—there will be a clear characteristic that will evolve into something a little different, perhaps because of events in the child’s life, or an inner transformation. But there’s usually one salient thing, and it gives you a very useful clue for zeroing-in on the child’s interests.
Knowing each child’s salient quality helps break any tendency to think of the kids as cogs in the machine, because every one of us is absolutely unique.
Q: In an earlier chapter, “It’s Time We Started Raising Organic Children,” you quoted a New York Times article. The author lamented that kids today are praised for earning good grades, but they aren’t learning about grit and perseverance and enthusiasm, and how to get along with people, and other qualities that are crucial for success and happiness. We’ve all heard of people who didn’t have much formal education, but who were successful because of their drive, initiative, curiosity, and their heart’s enthusiasm, and their ability to get along with others.
Nitai: Yes, and it’s wonderful that people in education today are starting to realize this. It’s related to the idea that kids need to be themselves, and that we need to do the things with them that are meant for kids, rather than force them to conform to the adult world all the time. So, yes, I completely agree. I scratch my head, because it’s hard to understand why people can’t see that.
Even at the level of grades and test scores, the research tells us very clearly that happy kids perform better than stressed kids. And it seems so obvious. Why did we go the other way? Why did we imagine that by pushing and pressuring we would get more learning?
Q: It seems like owning a car and not understanding how the car works so you can put the right fuel in it.
Nitai: Yes. (laughs) It’s like putting gasoline in an electric engine because you don’t understand what it needs to function properly.
Q: I read a book by two authors whose previous work I admired. In a chapter on education, they were ranting that all of this new stuff about feeling-based education is hogwash, and that the traditional ways of teaching are just fine. And never mind if kids today are exposed to violent video games, because they’re basically good kids and they won’t be affected. I was surprised, because I knew the authors to be courageous researchers and independent thinkers. But they were captured by this idea. And I realized that they were reacting to the kind of feeling-based education that is truly going in the wrong direction, where teachers latch onto the idea that feelings of all kinds are good. “It’s healthy for the kids to scream and shout and express their anger openly and not suppress it.” And it’s because they aren’t aware of the difference between raw emotions and refined feelings. They don’t understand that it’s essential to help kids learn to direct their emotions in ways that will support learning and help them thrive as human beings.
Nitai: People tend to judge any movement on the basis of what’s happening at the fringe. The topics in our Education for Life approach to educating children are the topics of life and eternal truth, translated to the world of the child. They are the ideas that describe how life works at every level. There are endless ramifications to explore, and I’ve been blessed to be able to specialize in the particular application of those ideas in education.
Q: There’s an idea that we know from the Education for Life book, that what all humans are seeking is to experience ever-increasing happiness and to avoid suffering. And when we can tap into that basic human drive at school, it seems to release a tremendous amount of energy in the children.
Nitai: Yes, and it’s very unfortunate that the educational establishment tries to press kids into the same mold and ignores that very powerful natural drive to be happy. There are natural laws of how human life works. Those laws are a feature of a universe that is constructed for the purpose of helping souls learn to be happy and successful. And helping children to explore how this life works is tremendously important at all ages.
Kids are always doing it anyway, and in some ways they’re better at it than we are, because as adults we tend to let our thinking processes get in the way. Children are constantly exploring life and experimenting. What will happen if I throw the ball over the bush? What will happen if I dance? What will happen if I eat this? And to be a teacher who can value that, and see it as a core feature of an ideal education, puts us in touch with how the process of education works, rather than just artificially trying to redirect behavior.
I tell people, “You want to get into the child’s world.” And they’ll respond, “Well, I was over there with the kid and they weren’t really doing anything.” And I’ll say, “Go back.” (laughs) Because they were doing something—and maybe they just weren’t doing something that made sense to you, but they were doing something that made a lot of sense to them, and we need to try to tune into that.
Q: When I talk to the teachers at Living Wisdom School, they say that if a child is doing art, for example, it can be harmful for an adult to rush up with their own ideas and say, “I really love that!” Or, “That looks like an airplane!” Because you’re imposing an idea on them that might not actually be the child’s own. The teachers told me that a more fruitful approach is to say, “Oh! You put so much blue in there!” And get them talking about what’s coming out of their world.
Nitai: Exactly. That’s what motivates me to try to keep spreading these methods as best I can, so that more and more five-year-olds can start their lives in harmony with these principles that will give them success and happiness in life, instead of having to learn them, perhaps painfully, a lot later.
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.
The teachers at Living Wisdom School invest tremendous time and attention to help the students learn how to get along.
The goal is to create an environment that will be conducive to learning, where the children can feel safe asking questions, and experience the joy of supporting each other.
Some parents question this approach, feeling that every moment of the child’s time at school should be devoted to the academic curriculum.
Yet this view may be misguided, as UCLA neuroscience professor Matthew Lieberman explains in his book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. It seems that children learnmore efficiently when they are encouraged to connect socially in the classroom, tutoring each other and problem-solving together.
“Being socially connected is our brain’s lifelong passion,” Lieberman says. “It’s been baked into our operating system for tens of millions of years.”
“Someday, we will look back and wonder how we ever had lives, work and schools that weren’t guided by the principles of the social brain.”
Lieberman believes middle school education could be dramatically improved by tapping the brain’s social potential. He notes that U.S. students’ interest in school tends to wane when they reach seventh and eighth grades, an age when humans become extremely social, and when most schools fail to encourage and nurture this tendency.
“Our school system says to turn off that social brain,” he said. “We typically don’t teach history by asking what Napoleon was thinking; we teach about territorial boundaries and make it as non-social as possible. Too often we take away what makes information learnable and memorable and emphasize chronology while leaving out the motivations.
“Eighth graders’ brains want to understand the social world and the minds of other people. We can tap into what middle school students are biologically predisposed to learn, and we can do this to improve instruction in history and English, and even math and science.”
In the Palo Alto Living Wisdom School, the annual all-school Theater Magic presentation engages the children in the lives of great figures from history: not merely the outward facts of wars, treaties, and shifting national borders, but their stature as human beings¾their thoughts and aspirations, their hard-fought personal battles, and their powerful message for our own lives and times.
Research suggests that students are more likely to remember information when they take it in socially. Lieberman believes that schools could apply this principle by having older students tutor younger ones, as happens routinely in the classrooms at Living Wisdom School.
“If you have an eighth grader teach a sixth grader, the eighth grader’s motivation is social: to help this other student and not embarrass himself,” Lieberman said. “Getting everyone to be both teacher and learner would create enthusiasm for learning.”
Social reveals how Lieberman and his colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show that neural mechanisms make us profoundly social beings.
“We’re wired to see things and think, ‘How can I use this to help other people that I know?’” Lieberman said. “I can have the most brilliant idea for an invention, but if I can’t convey that to other people in a way that they’ll help me build it and market it to other people, it’s just an idea in my head. If we’re not socially connected, even great ideas wither.”
(This discussion was adapted from a UCLA news release about Prof. Lieberman’s work, written by Stuart Wolpert and posted on October 10, 2013.)
In a Living Wisdom School classroom, feelings are noticed and dealt with without delay. Negative feelings, ignored or suppressed, can create an underlying current of discontent that can disturb the harmony in the classroom, disrupting concentration and motivation.
The photos that follow show how Living Wisdom School second-grade teacher Kshama Kellogg helped a young student accept and transcend sad feelings at the start of the school day. The photos are not posed – they are real.