Ch. 11: Happiness, Success, and Academic Achievement

This chapter is adapted from an article on the website of Education for Life International (

Mainstream education, with its emphasis on test scores, emphasizes training just one of a student’s developmental tools, the intellect, at the expense of their potential for growth in other areas.

Education for Life (EFL) is based on helping students succeed academically and personally through balanced development of their five “Tools of Maturity” — Body, Feelings, Will, Mind, and Spirit.

Let’s compare the results of these two very different systems.

Education for Life and Testing

While Education for Life doesn’t emphasize academic testing for young children, our older students often express an interest in knowing how they are performing, compared to students their age in other schools.

When the original Living Wisdom High School applied for accreditation, the students were required to take a nationally recognized standardized test. The results were remarkable. The students placed in the top 10 percent of schools nationwide as a group, and over the next 10 years they scored consistently in the top 10 percent, placing in the top 1 percent one year.

Their SAT scores were equally impressive, averaging 1248 compared to the national average of roughly 1060. In recent years, an LWHS student earned a perfect score on the SATs.

Scholastic Aptitude Test Scores
  EFL Averages  National Averages
Language Arts       640       533
Mathematics       608       527
Total     1248     1060

How can EFL schools compete so well against elite academic schools, when the EFL students spend significant time on the arts, outdoor activities, service projects, and adventure travel?

Current research offers some insights.

The Body and the Intellect

Surely it’s obvious that disease, stress, and poor hygiene can erode the energy available for sustained mental performance in academics. This relationship was demonstrated in a 2013 study by the National Academy of Sciences:

State-mandated academic achievement testing has had the unintended consequence of reducing opportunities for children to be physically active during the school day and beyond…. Yet little evidence supports the notion that more time allocated to subject matter will translate into better test scores. Indeed, 11 of 14 correlational studies of physical activity during the school day demonstrate a positive relationship to academic performance. Overall, a rapidly growing body of work suggests that time spent engaged in physical activity is related not only to a healthier body but also to a healthier mind.

Feelings and the Intellect

Similarly, the ability to manage feelings constructively is a tremendous aid for maintaining calm mental focus in challenging circumstances.

The advent of “emotional intelligence” in 1995 stimulated a wave of research that authenticated the importance of social and emotional guidance.

A key survey by J. Payton, et al. examined data from 317 studies involving 324,303 students. The authors concluded:

SEL [Social and Emotional Learning] programming improved students’ academic performance by 11 to 17 percentile points across the three reviews, indicating that they offer students a practical educational benefit…. Although some educators argue against implementing this type of holistic programming because it takes valuable time away from core academic material, our findings suggest that SEL programming not only does not detract from academic performance but actually increases students’ performance on standardized tests and grades.

Will Power and the Intellect

The vital connection between will power and the intellect is evident in qualities such as perseverance, concentration, and personal initiative. In The Willpower Instinct, Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD surveyed the results of more than 200 studies in this area and concluded:

People who have strong will power are better off — i.e., [they have] better control of their attention, emotions, and actions. They are happier and healthier. Their relationships are more satisfying and last longer. They make more money and go further in their careers. They are better able to manage stress, deal with conflict, and overcome adversity. They live longer. Self-control is a better predictor of academic success than IQ. It’s a stronger determinant of effective leadership than charisma. It’s more important for marital harmony than empathy.

Conclusion — and a Prediction

Widespread change always takes time, but educators are already acknowledging that too much one-sided emphasis on the intellect is counterproductive.

For more than fifty years Education for Life has pioneered an approach that cultivates the intellect without neglecting other important factors that contribute to students’ success in academics; namely, the body, feelings, will, and spirit.

The research tells us that the future of education will favor schools that can implement an integrated approach along the lines of Education for Life and the Living Wisdom Schools.

Ch. 10: Happiness and Success: the Love Plant Approach

By George Beinhorn

In the late 1980s, I wrote an article about an experiment by the children at the original Living Wisdom School. I present the forty-year-old article here with two thoughts in mind: first, as an example of how the Living Wisdom teachers encourage young people’s expansive feelings; and as a reminder that the ultimate key to helping children thrive, personally and at school, is love.

The Love Plant

The children in teacher Kabir MacDow’s classroom at Living Wisdom School, age five through eight, have applied the scientific method to investigate the power of love.

In an experiment suggested by Kabir, the children planted five seeds in each of four pots.

One pot, the “Dark Plant,” received only water and was kept in a closet with no exposure to sunlight.

A second pot, the “Too Bad Plant,” received sunlight and water, but no extra soil nutrients or special attention.

A third pot, the “Everything But Love Plant,” got sunlight, water, and soil nutrients — the normal care a good gardener would give it.

The Love Plant received the same care as the Everything But Plant, plus the added ingredient of love.

It’s 9:30 in the morning. The children are working quietly at their desks, when Kabir asks for their attention and invites them to bring the four plants to an open area on the rug. The children respond eagerly, smiling as they gather in a circle. It’s obvious that this is something they’ve looked forward to.

First the plants are watered, and then the Dark Plant is returned to the closet and the children take the Too Bad Plant back to the window sill. The Everything But Love Plant is fussed over amid a discussion of the nutrients a plant needs to grow.

Kabir: “We’re going to focus our attention on the Love Plant now. This is the one we want to give our attention to. I’d like someone to explain what this experiment is about — someone who’s been centered this morning. Tara, would you explain what the experiment is?”

Tara: “It’s to watch the plants grow and see what they do when you put them in different places, like put them in the sun, and put them in different kinds of soil, and put them in the dark.”

Kabir: None of us can really grow without all of those things — the water and the sun and the air and good soil — and something special is there, too.

(Several children begin talking at once.)

Kabir: “Let’s sit up, please. Sit up nice and straight. Now look at the plants. Look at them closely. You can see how well they’ve done. We’ve started these plants from seeds, and they’ve depended on us to take care of them and help them grow. Now, the plants that we gave a little bit to, they grew a little bit. The plants that we’ve given a lot to, they’ve grown a lot, they’ve grown a lot more than the rest. What we give is what has helped this plant, and we’ve been giving our love, which is one of the most important things that it could have. So we want to give it some more right now.

“We can start by sitting up. Close your eyes. Inside of your mind, try to see the plant. Do this: Try to see the plant inside — it’s green and it’s leafy.

“As we sing, we’re going to try to feel that it’s pulling the plant up, making it great and big. All the leaves are spreading out and branching out and getting big. The blossoms are starting to come out on the plant, and the flowers.”

(The children sing to the plant with obvious enthusiasm while projecting loving feelings toward it.)

“The flowers this plant has are its gift to us. We give it love and it gives us its beauty. Ready? Have the plant in your mind. As we sing, we can feel that we’re bringing it up. We can even bring our hands over it. Here we go, just bringing our energy up as we sing.”

(The children sing again, then Kabir leads them in a prayer. The quality in their voices is startling, as if they are praying with a single voice, vibrant, rich, enthusiastic. No voice wanders or lags; the children’s full attention is on what they’re doing.)

Kabir (followed responsively by the children): “Bless this plant. Fill it with Your love. Help it to grow strong. And beautiful.”

The Love-Plant Model for School Success

The worst mistakes in education generally begin with a subtle thought. Instead of nourishing the Love Plant in children’s hearts, we ignore its needs — we put it in the dark, in a feverish obsession with test scores and grades. We burn its joyful fronds with a deadly-boring lockstep, standardized curriculum. Or we ignore the quiet instinct of our hearts that is separately telling us what each child in the class truly needs in order to thrive.

There is a current that runs through the Living Wisdom Schools, a constant theme: that the right thing, in school and life, is to engage with love, and never limit the classroom instruction to force-feeding young plants with barren ideas. The inborn excitement of math or science, history or English, beautifully revealed by teachers who are free to be creative and independent and strong, infects the kids with a love and enthusiasm for learning that empowers them to blossom.

The Palo Alto Living Wisdom K-8 school’s graduates do extremely well when they enter the San Francisco Bay Area’s academically challenging public and private high schools. Yet parents who inquire about the school are often skeptical.

They worry that the kids will fall behind academically because we spend so much time cultivating their hearts. Or they raise reasonable objections. Surely we’re successful because our students come from smart, successful families. Surely we accept only the top students. Surely our kids do well because of our fabulous nine-to-one student-teacher ratio. Surely our system, which spends so much time on “soft skills,” will fail to help the kids compete when they enter the harsh, dog-eat-dog world of high school.

It’s true that many of our students have highly educated parents. It’s true that our student-teacher ratio is as low as six to one in middle-school math, where the teacher and two adult math aides are present in the classroom. But the truth is, we accept students across a broad spectrum of academic ability.

Our successes aren’t due to those external factors, as some visitors suspect. They are the natural outcome of an approach to working with children that takes account of each child’s individual hopes and dreams.

The high-pressure K-8 academic prep schools in the area don’t evoke our envy. To put it kindly, their results are no better than ours, because our philosophy is rooted in the Love Plant approach. A saying at our school is “Children who are taught to love, love to learn.”

Our philosophy is based on the idea that life has meaning, that life’s meaning is reflected in school, and that the principles that work in life — at Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, and on sports teams, in the military, and at Google and other top companies — are the same principles that help children thrive from kindergarten through college and beyond.

An education that instills these principles gives children two things that all people have craved since the dawn of time: continually increasing happiness, and regular, ongoing experiences of success.

If there is one core truth that has emerged in the fifty-year history of the Living Wisdom Schools, it’s that, at school and in life, expansive attitudes of love, kindness, compassion, and joy improve performance, while negative, contractive attitudes and feelings destroy happiness and impede success.





Ch. 9: Happiness, Success, and the 5 Stages of a Child’s Development

By George Beinhorn, Living Wisdom School of Palo Alto, California.

I don’t read the papers much, but I came across an article in the Sacramento Bee some years ago that fairly begged to be disbelieved. Here’s an excerpt:

In a Journal of Medical Ethics article titled “A Proposal to Classify Happiness as a Psychiatric Disorder,” Liverpool University psychologist Richard P. Bentall argues that the so‑called syndrome of happiness is a diagnosable mood disturbance that should be included in standard taxonomies of mental illness such as the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Happiness, as Bentall states in his abstract, is “statistically abnormal, consists of a discrete cluster of symptoms, is associated with a range of cognitive abnormalities and probably reflects the abnormal functioning of the central nervous system.” (In this regard, as Bentall later notes, happiness resembles other psychiatric disorders such as depression and schizophrenia.)

The author of the Bee article, Maggie Scarf, a New Republic contributing editor, related Dr. Bentall’s suggestion “that the term ‘happiness’ be removed from future editions of the major diagnostic manuals, to be replaced by the formal description ‘major affective disorder, pleasant type.’”

When I read the article aloud to a friend, she promptly doubled over with major affective disorder, pleasant type. “That’s such amazing cock‑a‑doo!” she howled. “It’s so carefully reasoned — yet it’s completely incredible!”

The Practice of Happiness

It is nutty-cakes. And yet, is there anything actually wrong with using scientific methods to study happiness? After all, it’s what the spiritual explorers of all ages have done — they’ve studied happiness in the laboratory of human bodies, hearts, and minds and kept tidy notes on what worked and didn’t. (See Chapter 4, “Ancient Secrets of Happiness & Success.”)

For most of us, happiness isn’t a “mood disturbance” – it’s the prize we’re seeking. And if we can get a little more with the help of scientific order and method, all the better.

The spiritual researchers realized that the single underlying desire that drives our actions is a longing to experience greater happiness, and to escape from suffering.

Albert Einstein, ever a keen observer of the human scene, stated it this way:

Everything that the human race has done and thought is concerned with the satisfaction of deeply felt needs and the assuagement of pain. One has to keep this constantly in mind if one wishes to understand spiritual movements and their development. Feeling and longing are the motive force behind all human endeavor and human creation, in however exalted a guise the latter may present themselves. (From an essay, “Cosmic Religious Feeling.”)

Because the world’s spiritual traditions have made the longest recorded scientific study of happiness, what they say may be worth hearing, in these times of pandemic discontent.

After all, their approach is practical. They tell us, for example, about the five instruments through which we can experience greater happiness: body, heart, will, mind, soul. Our happiness, they say, increases as we learn to use each tool “expansively.” (More on “expansion” in a moment.) Thus, the most important time in our lives for learning to be happy is when we’re growing up, as each tool in turn becomes the main focus of our development.

To review: from birth to age six, an infant’s primary developmental taks is to become familiar with its body and senses. From six to twelve, feelings come to the fore — this is a time when children are especially receptive to learning through the arts — through stories, music, theater, art, and dance – the “media of feeling.”

From twelve to eighteen, teenagers welcome challenges to their will power in preparation for independent adult life. And at around eighteen, young people become fascinated with the life of the mind, engaging in late-night discussions of science, philosophy, politics, and the arts.

Finally, at about twenty-four, many people experience life events that may precede a spiritual awakening.

As each tool takes center stage, the others don’t simply fade away. Thus, while a toddler is primarily concerned with its body and senses, it won’t hesitate to express its feelings — with the volume turned up! Nor do the stages begin and end exactly on our sixth, twelfth, eighteenth, and twenty-fourth birthdays; the transitions are gradual.

Why did nature settle upon this particular scheme? In his insightful book, Education for Life, J. Donald Walters explains how each stage prepares the child for the ones that follow. Thus, feeling comes before will power because feeling is the faculty that enables us to tell right from wrong. Before we can use our will power intelligently, with awareness of others, we need to develop the ability to feel their realities. Walters laments the ruinous consequences of cramming young children’s minds with facts, at the expense of developing their capacity to feel sensitively.

Similarly, each stage fulfills the one that came before. Thus, feeling motivates us to act, and will power provides the energy to act on our feelings. Unless we want something strongly enough, we won’t muster the energy to achieve it.

Will power, in turn, finds its fulfillment in wisdom, which tells us which actions will make us happy, and which will not. And wisdom is fulfilled in Spirit. In Self-realization, we realize that true wisdom and joy come from a higher Source within.

The history of education reveals that in ancient Greece and Rome, and throughout the Middle Ages and Enlightenment, the six-year stages were recognized as natural phases of a child’s growth. Thus appropriate teaching methods were devised for each stage, and schools were roughly divided into the equivalents of our modern elementary school (six to twelve), junior and senior high (twelve to eighteen), and college (eighteen to twenty-four).

Expanding Awareness Equals Joy

The spiritual teachings of the ages tell us that our happiness increases as we learn to use our five human instruments “expansively.” Like most abstractions, “expansion” is most easily understood through examples.

Let’s look at what happens when we begin a fitness program.

After the first two or three weeks, we find that we are feeling happier and more alive. Why? Because the exercising body has begun to generate energy that spills over to nourish our feelings, will, and mind, expanding their range and force. Expanding our awareness through one “tool,” the body, has influenced the others. Good actions spread their effects — as do “bad” ones. It’s now well-known that negative, contractive attitudes have adverse mental, emotional, and physical consequences.

People tend to specialize in one, or perhaps two, of the “tools of expansion.” Thus, some people go more by feeling, while others tend to “lead” with their will power or mind. The spiritual teachings encourage us to go with our strengths, while working to correct any imbalances.

In many natural processes, the “tools of happiness” tend to appear in the same sequence as in a child’s development. When we fall in love, for example, the first attraction is often, though not invariably, physical. We see a person across the room whose appearance attracts us, and our feelings become aroused. We form a volition to act on our feelings, and we walk over and strike up a conversation. The mind probes for information: What interests do we share? Does he like children? And if we’re wise, we’ll consult a higher guidance before entering this important new life venture. We’ve passed through the five tools in order: body, feeling, will, mind, soul.

When I ran ultramarathons, I noticed that the tools tended to show up in the same natural order. The first hour or two were for the body, as my heart, legs, and lungs found a rhythm and began to generate a flow of energy. The next hour was for the heart — cheerful conversations would spring up among the runners. As the body tired, will power came to the fore — it was time to focus attention and not waste energy on distractions.

Farther along, it became important to apply the mind to questions of logistics: How can I pace myself to make it to the next aid station? How can I deal with this blister? Finally, if I succeeded in using the tools wisely, I would enjoy a wonderful inner freedom. I became a very simple person, free from distractions, worries, and restless thoughts, living wholly in the present moment.

Talking with other runners, I realized that many experienced a similar sequence in the longer rhythms of their careers.

At the start, the major issues tended to be about the body — how to train, which shoes to wear, how to treat an injury, what to eat and drink, etc.

Then, as the body grew fit, feelings took center stage. The feeling phase is rich with the romance of running, as we explore longer distances, seek interesting courses, and absorb the inspiration of sports role models.

Later, we begin to crave challenges to our will. We may take up speedwork, compete with ourselves to run faster times, and enter more difficult races. As we pass through the five phases, we find that the tools we need for the next stage tend to show up in uncanny ways.

After the will power phase, runners often become intrigued by the life of the mind. They learn to plan their training wisely, perhaps using a heart monitor.

Finally, there may be a period where the overriding concerns are spiritual, where all of the tools are merged in a quest for inner harmony. We seek a fulfillment that comes by “running in beauty,” our activities balanced in a careful synchrony.

It helps to be aware of the five stages of a run, and the natural sequence of a runner’s career.

As with running, so too with educating a young child. To help each child in the best possible way, we must first understand the child’s unique gifts and apply the most appropriate methods at each stage to prepare them for the stage that follows.

More than we may realize, each tool is a world unto itself, with its own wonderful strengths and rewards. In my life, I’ve had the good fortune to enter two of these worlds as a relative newcomer: first, when I started an exercise program, and later when I spent several years working to open my heart.

In the first case, I was overjoyed to discover the world of the fit body. I had never been in good physical condition, and now at age twenty-six I could run for miles barefoot on the beach, probing with fingers of consciousness into the rich inner world of a body that glowed with health and energy. How fulfilling and expansive it was, to enter this spacious new world for the first time!

Later, as my heart began to open, I was delighted to discover a vast inner world of feeling. I became aware that there were issues in my life for which the heart held answers that were hidden from the rational mind. I gained a renewed respect for the world of feeling in which women spend much of their lives. Standing in line at the bank or supermarket, I could quietly enjoy watching women working together, appreciating their communion of feeling.

The System Is Rigged

It all sounds so straightforward — simply use the tools expansively, and happiness is sure to follow, rather like remembering to brush our teeth in the morning. But, in real life, cultivating expansive attitudes turns out to be a challenge. That’s because the opposite urge, contraction, is a temptation for us also.

Life places essentially the same choice continually before us: will we use our bodies wisely, or abuse them? Our hearts, to love or to hate? Our minds, to be wise, or merely clever? Our spiritual yearnings, to aspire to the heights, or to dabble in psychic trivialities? History — ours and the world’s — is the story of the eternal struggle between these opposing forces in human nature.

Also, the theory is simple, but the details seldom are. We’ve been given all of the tools we need to achieve happiness and success — or so it seems. The trouble is, if we rely too exclusively on our purely human resources, we sooner or later find ourselves coming up against their limitations.

The five tools of expansion embody wonderful expertise, yet their specialization can trip us. When this happens, we can still find answers by looking beyond those merely human instruments. Happily, we can use the tools to tap into an awareness that is fathomlessly wise and loving, and that has our best interests always at heart.

This is what an expansive Education for Life is about: harmonizing the children’s environment and guiding their activities in ways that will bring each of them individually the greatest success and joy at each step of their journey.

George Beinhorn received his B.A. and M.A. at Stanford University at a time when dinosaurs still roamed the Quad.

Ch. 7: Happiness and Success in Math Class

Jo Boaler’s revolutionary work in math education has brought her worldwide acclaim. A professor in the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, Boaler was the subject of a feature article in Stanford magazine, “Jo Boaler Wants Everyone to Love Math: Yes, even you.” (April 27, 2018. The excerpts that follow are used with Prof. Boaler’s permission.)

Jo Boaler has repeatedly demonstrated that amazing things happen when we adjust math instruction to the student’s individual mindset:

By adopting richer, more open teaching methods and encouraging kids to adopt a growth mindset, Boaler believes, educators can help students make strides. In 2015, she and her associates brought 81 middle schoolers — many of them underachievers  — to [the Stanford] campus for a four-week math camp centered on activities taken from the Week of Inspirational Math. The students began the camp convinced they were “not math people,” Boaler says. But they were soon engaged. After four weeks of morning classes and afternoon enrichment, the students had improved their scores on standardized math tests by an average of 50 percent, or 2.7 school years.

Granted, the results were achieved in a university research environment, under focused conditions, with multiple expert instructors, using state-of-the-art methods. But Boaler has found that when math instruction in public schools is adapted to each student’s unique mental and emotional makeup, successes like these are common.

Prof. Jo Boaler, Graduate School of Education, Stanford University

The article relates the experiences of Marc Petrie, a middle school math teacher in Orange County, California. Petrie teaches in a district where 98 percent of the students qualify for free or low-cost lunches. When he began teaching, the students were deeply demotivated — traditional “test-and-drill” methods had let them down, leaving most of the students behind.

A decade later, the students sit in groups, “working together to come up with varying approaches to problems, while Petrie cruises the room as a coach, more likely to ask guiding questions than to give answers.”

The results have been dramatic, with math test scores rising 60 to 90 percent. Other district schools have since adopted Petrie’s methods.

Petrie’s classes closely resemble how math is taught in the Living Wisdom Schools — with the exception that adult math aides will wander the classroom at LWS, responding to questions and working with the students individually.

The value of this non-traditional approach is evidenced by the LWS students’ success in fields that require high levels of math proficiency. Living Wisdom graduates have thrived at Stanford, UC Berkeley (physics), the University of Michigan (Ross School of Business), Cornell (mathematics), the University of Bremen, Germany (doctoral program in Space Technology and Microgravity), and other top schools.

From a companion volume to this book, Head & Heart: How a Balanced Education Nurtures Happy Children Who Excel in School and Life (

Over the years, our middle school teacher, Gary McSweeney, has carefully monitored the atmosphere in the classroom while the students take the challenging American Mathematics Competition and the International Math Olympiads test. Gary has been pleased to note that it is much more relaxed than the more typical test scenario where the teachers is pressuring the students to do well, and the students may feel that their self-worth is on the line.

 “I would say that my students enjoy the concentrated effort of taking a timed test in silence. The questions require the students to employ creative, out-of-box strategies to solve problems. These are not multiple-choice tests, so there is no possibility of them guessing the correct answer. In part, they are reading comprehension problems. They challenge the students to analyze the question carefully and understand what is being asked. Our students enjoy taking the tests as a way to demonstrate their skills, and to see where they can improve their understanding and knowledge.”

Jo Boaler believes high-pressure testing impairs math performance:

For Boaler, the test — with its focus on speed, volume and performance — is a big part of why math crushes spirits like no other subject. To her, it represents shallow learning with debilitating consequences. Students who work slowly are often left convinced of their own inability, although they may be the deeper kind of thinkers who make the best mathematicians. And even those who calculate speedily — not a skill Boaler thinks is particularly valuable in the digital age — may end up shrugging off math as a high-pressure hamster wheel.

As a researcher, teacher and evangelist, Boaler is a leading voice for a wholly different pedagogy where speed is out, depth is in, and the journey to an answer can be as important as the destination. It’s an approach where sense-making matters more than memorization, and retaining “math facts” matters less than understanding how such facts interconnect.

It’s the approach that has been adopted with seamless success for fifty years in the Living Wisdom Schools. How well does it work? A Head & Heart chapter, “Mathematics Competitions at Living Wisdom School,” outlines the method and describes the results:

At LWS, our overriding concern is how our students’ math skills are improving individually over the years. This is in keeping with our philosophy of helping each child experience the joy and satisfaction of overcoming academic challenges at their own level. This is why we focus on improving math skills, rather than improving test performance. We have found that focusing on skills improves test results naturally and enjoyably.

The results are reflected in our students’ performance when they enter high school. Many LWS graduates test out of freshman math. Occasionally they test out of algebra, geometry, and even trigonometry….

During the 2015-16 academic year some of our youngest students (4th graders) who took the International Math Olympiads tests scored in the top 30% on the 8th grade test. Very impressive! And two students scored in the top 5% internationally. Extremely impressive!

Individualized math instruction is highly effective for students at all levels of ability , not only the math-challenged. From Head & Heart:

The [American Mathematics Competition] AMC 8 for junior high students includes many problems that demand math skills and experience far beyond those required in most junior high math classes. Congratulations to Freya Edholm of LWS, who [in 2013] achieved a perfect score of 25  —  the only perfect score by a sixth-grader in the state of California on this very challenging test for eighth-graders. Of the 20,571 sixth-graders who took the AMC 8 worldwide, only six achieved a perfect 25. And of the 152,691 students in grades 5-8 worldwide who took the AMC 8, only 225 students achieved a perfect score. The average score was 10.67.

Ch. 6: Happiness and Success at Stanford and MIT

How well do students educated in today’s schools perform when they enter the nation’s most prestigious universities?

How well do test scores and the state-mandated, standardized curriculum predict college success?

Merilee Jones, Director of Admissions at MIT, says, “We’re raising a generation of kids trained to please adults…. That’s the big difference with this generation. They’re being judged and graded and analyzed and assessed at every turn. It’s too much pressure for them.”

The MIT faculty tell Jones that many of their students today aren’t as much fun to teach. They no longer come to MIT with the kinds of wildly creative ideas and research projects that were formerly more common. The faculty report that the current generation of students “want to do everything right, they want to know exactly what’s on the test. They’re so afraid of failing or stepping out of line that they’re not really good students.”

The child who learns that his self-worth is attached to an external test result or grade is at risk of becoming emotionally dependent on outward affirmation, over-focused on test scores and adult approval as measures of his or her self-worth. That child risks becoming fixated on grades to the detriment of other important, well-rounded factors that contribute to success and happiness in school and life, including an enthusiasm for pursuing wildly creative ideas that may not fall strictly within the boundaries of the curriculum.

Because educators have begun to recognize this, a 4.4 GPA may no longer guarantee admission to a top-flight university. A source in the Stanford admissions office confided that the university now prefers to accept applicants with a 3.9 or 4.0 GPA who are well-rounded as people, having realized that the test-taking superstars are too often deficient in human qualities that more accurately foretell success in school and adult life.

From an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “Perfect scores alone don’t make grade for admission to college of choice” (May 16, 2013):

A Stanford admissions official said the university considers college board scores, grades, the difficulty of courses, extracurricular activities and achievement outside of school. But it’s the personal essay that differentiates one top student from the next, she said. Princeton asks applicants to “tell us your story. Show us what’s special about you.…”

Stanford had a school record 38,828 applications this year and will admit 1,700 freshmen, including legacy applicants and scholarship athletes. Minneapolis attorney Fred Bruno, a Stanford alumnus and local recruiter for the school, said Stanford could completely fill its freshman class with valedictorians.

“When I meet with an applicant, I look for interaction, for presence,” Bruno said. “We assume they have huge credentials. I don’t even ask them about grades. We’re looking at the human side of these kids.”

Parental praise for grades and test scores may motivate the child, as is, of course, perfectly natural. But if it becomes an obsessive source of affirmation for the child, it risks sacrificing the development of self-confidence, independence, initiative, and a sure inner sense of their goals and purpose in life.

Schools today are training children to be afraid to make mistakes. And, as Sir Ken Robinson pointed out in his TED Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” far from enhancing their creative initiative, it may only guarantee that they will never come up with an original idea.

“Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. Am I right? They’re not frightened of being wrong. I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original…. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this. We stigmatize mistakes. And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”

Robinson’s ideas reflect the thinking of Seymour Papert, a South African-born American mathematician, computer scientist, and educator who spent most of his career teaching and researching at MIT. In his best-selling book, Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, Papert proposed that a key benefit of teaching kids to program computers is that it teaches them “a bug-fixing approach to life.” They learn that mistakes are an unavoidable and perfectly natural part of the creative process, and should be welcomed gratefully and joyfully as milestones on the path to discovering solutions.

Sir Ken Robinson points out that colleges today are inundated with applications from kids with outstanding grades, and that businesses can now take their pick of applicants with high college GPAs and advanced degrees. Jobs that formerly required a bachelor’s now require an MS/MA, and jobs that once demanded a master’s now require a Ph.D.

The key differentiators for admission to an elite university today, and for employment at a prestigious company, have shifted; they now include such “soft” factors as proven communication skills, high energy, personal magnetism, and an ability to cooperate and work harmoniously with others.

The approach of the teachers in the Living Wisdom Schools to motivating the children in their academic studies reaches deep into their hearts and encourages the development of these positive personal qualities. The Education for Life methods have proved highly successful in eliciting the child’s natural enthusiasm for learning. The results are evidenced by the children’s test scores, their grades in high school and college, their admission to elite schools, and their careers.

The Living Wisdom teachers are trained and expected to take the time to become intimately familiar with each child, to gain a deep and full awareness of the child’s natural inclinations and enthusiasms, so that they can understand the internal motivations that the child brings to the classroom.

The teachers build upon these motivators to tailor the child’s education individually. If the child is artistic, the arts may provide a portal through which the teacher can introduce the standard curriculum in math, history, English, and science. If the child is good with his hands but relatively uninterested in academics, the teachers will use the child’s strengths to motivate him/her to learn — perhaps by showing them the indispensable applications of math, science, history, and English to the kind of work the child is inclined to pursue.

The same is true for the child who is inspired by business, science, the arts, math, or a trade — the LWS teachers will help the student understand that these fields all are intimately related; that a person cannot be a first-class mathematician without a strong ability to communicate his or her ideas, and without knowing something of the history of mathematics and its applications to other fields such as engineering and the physical sciences. The child may someday find fulfillment in using his or her math skills to help researchers find solutions to deeply meaningful problems.

Perhaps most important for children is to teach them that the highest success in every field — as the stunning Project Oxygen study of Google’s top employees revealed (Chapter 3) — comes to those who can cooperate, who understand and support the needs of others, and who relish the joy of working together to accomplish worthwhile goals.

Children who have a sure sense of themselves, with positive feelings about their strengths and clear, positive images of what they most deeply desire to accomplish, will be able to enter college better equipped to succeed than those whose brains have been stuffed with quickly forgotten facts, to the detriment of the feelings of the heart and the strength of will that give life its motive power and its meaning and value.

Ch. 5: Happiness and Success at Harvard

When Shawn Achor was a graduate student in psychology at Harvard, he served as an academic proctor, a role that required him to have hundreds of conversations with the incoming freshmen.

During their informal get-togethers, Achor began to notice traits that set the most successful young Harvard students apart. It was an insight that, in time, would completely overturn all his previous assumptions about success.

He realized that the Harvard freshmen who were most likely to excel were not those who buried themselves in the library stacks, grimly intent on grinding out good grades. The most successful students were the happiest and most socially adept. They interacted with their peers, formed study groups, continually asked questions, and approached their studies in a spirit of joyous exploration. They were connected, engaged, and were skilled communicators.

Achor is the author of an influential best-selling book, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work.

Achor ended up teaching the most popular course at Harvard, on the principles of positive psychology. Today he applies his findings about the links between happiness and success to help corporate executives advance their careers and transform their companies’ cultures.

Achor realized that when it comes to success and happiness, our traditional assumptions are backwards.

Most people assume that they will be happy after they have achieved material success. But Achor found that the opposite is true — that people who are happy are far more likely to be successful in their careers.

These findings confirm a discovery of neuroscientists, that people with high levels of activity in the prefrontal cortex of their brains — the brain area where happy attitudes, positive expectations, will power, and the ability to form and persevere in achieving long-term goals are localized — are more successful in their lives than those with weaker prefrontal cortex activation.

Neurophysiologist Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., director of the Lab for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, is one of the world’s foremost experts on the prefrontal cortex. When Davidson studied the brain patterns of college students, he found that those with higher levels of prefrontal cortex activation were uniformly better at setting and achieving goals and had fewer problems with drugs and alcohol, compared to students with lower prefrontal activity.

To put it differently, our brains are wired so that happiness and success go together. Qualities that are essential for success — will power, planning, perseverance — are localized in the same brain area where upbeat, happy attitudes reside. The very structure of our brains tells us that happiness and success are inseparable.

Achor would eventually confirm that the happiness principle is true not only for Harvard students, but for successful people in many fields.

The traditional expectation that happiness is a reward that we can expect to enjoy after we’ve achieved success, defined as a good job, a beautiful home, an impressive income, and a shiny car, was simply wrong. The most successful people are those who are happy from the get-go; thus the title of Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage.

If you were to ask school administrators to name the most important factor for school success, many would probably say: “Good study habits.” But a mounting body of evidence suggests that this is only a small part of the school success equation, albeit an important one.

The Living Wisdom Schools have shown that the best determinants of school success more closely reflect Achor’s findings: a happy learning environment, permeated by a spirit of joyful exploration, where each student can be challenged to learn at his or her own pace.