Ch. 13: It’s Time We Started Raising Organic Children

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.

Nitai Deranja

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.)

  1. The function of the esophagus
  2. The difference between a stereoscope and a laser light with holograph
  3. The reason fossils are found in sedimentary rocks
  4. The contributions of Hammurabi
  5. The differences between metals and nonmetals
  6. The form of energy released or absorbed in most chemical reactions
  7. The Schlieffen Plan
  8. The Tennis Court Oath.
  9. The Social Gospel movement
  10. 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.

References

  1. The Hartman Group Study, “Beyond Organic and Natural,” 2/22/2010.
  2. Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR), www.starsamplequestions.org
  3. “What if the Secret of Success Is Failure?” New York Times, 9/14/2011.
  4. www.montessorimadness.com
  5. “How Shanghai’s Students Stunned the World,” www.msnbc.msn.com, 11/2/2011.

Ch. 12: How Raw Emotions Interfere with Learning

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.”[1]

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.[2]

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.[3]

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.

LWS eighth graders Vivek and Sofia receive tutoring
in high school geometry and trigonometry.

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.[4]

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.

[1]Emotional Intelligence. (New York: Bantam Books, 1995) 314.

[2] Duke University press release, August 19, 2002.

[3] Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam Books, 1997) 27–28.

[4] “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 of Alternative 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.

Ch. 11: Happiness, Success, and the Social Brain

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 learn more 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.”

Young actors during a dress rehearsal of The Life of Abraham Lincoln.

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.”

Sixth grader Pooja and eighth grader Nakai solve a math problem together.

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.)

Ch. 9: Happiness, Success, and the Science of Positive Feelings

Modern science is confirming what the Indian sages discovered long ago.

Scientists at the Institute of HeartMath™ Research Center (IHM) in Boulder Creek, California are studying the effects of positive feelings such as love, compassion, and kindness on our bodies and brains. Their research supports the notion that it’s important for children’s academic success that they learn to “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and don’t mess with Mister In-Between.”[1]

Here are some of the Institute of HeartMath findings:

  • Positive emotional states exert a whole-body synchronizing effect by bringing brain waves, heart rhythms, breathing, and blood-pressure oscillations into a unified, harmonious rhythm. During positive feelings, “bodily systems function with a high degree of synchronization, efficiency and harmony.”
  • Deliberately focusing attention in the heart while cultivating feelings of love, compassion, etc., leads to clearer thinking, calmer emotions, and improved physical performance and health, as well as increased frequency of subjective reports of spiritual experiences.
  • Positive, expansive feelings such as love, appreciation, and compassion promote relaxation and synchronization of the nervous system. They quiet the “arousal” (sympathetic) branch of the nervous system and activate the “relaxation” (parasympathetic) side. The sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system is responsible for speeding up heart rate and preparing the body for action, while the parasympathetic branch governs the “relaxation response,” slowing heart rate and calming body, emotions, and brain.
  • Positive feelings quiet the mind, generate a sense of “self-security, peace and love,” and increase the frequency of reported feelings of “connectedness to God.”
    • Additionally, the researchers found that negative emotions such as anger, fear, and hatred make the heartbeat change speeds erratically—the heart literally speeds up and slows down chaotically from one beat to the next, like the random, jerky motion of a car that’s running out of gas. (See figure.)
  • Positive emotions such as love, compassion, and appreciation, on the other hand, make the heart beat with a harmonious, regular rhythm. During negative emotions, the heart’s irregular speed changes appear as jagged, disordered spikes, and its power output is relatively low. Simple relaxation produces a more regular rhythm. But deliberately cultivating positive emotions makes the heart beat in a steady, consistent, harmonious rhythm, reflected in the regular, sine-wave-like pattern in the figure (“Appreciation”). During positive emotions, the heart’s power output jumps by over 500% above the levels attained during negative emotions and simple relaxation. (In the figure, note the Power Spectral Density [PSD] scale in “Appreciation.”)

The Institute of HeartMath findings have begun to find practical applications in professional sports. Here is an excerpt from an article on the website of the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA):

When we’re stressed or upset, it’s physically impossible to think clearly or perform at our best. This is because a disordered heart rhythm pattern sends a signal to the brain that inhibits the cortex, the higher thinking and reasoning part of the brain. On the other hand, when we are feeling confident, secure, and appreciative, our heart rhythms become smooth and even…. Smooth heart rhythm patterns send a signal to the brain that synchronizes and facilitates cortical function, speeding up our reaction times and making it easier to think clearly, perceive a bigger picture, and make better decisions.[2]

The heart and brain communicate continually through the nervous system. Thus the heart’s powerful positive or negative, harmonizing or disruptive messages are carried instantly to the brain, where they enhance or interfere with our ability to remain cool and to concentrate. (The heart is the body’s most powerful oscillator, sending out electrical signals roughly 60 times as strong as those emitted by the brain.)

To summarize: positive, harmonious feelings enhance mental focus, calmness, health, performance, intuition, and the frequency of spiritual feelings. They increase relaxation, alpha-wave output in the brain (associated with a calm, meditative state), and synchronize heart-rhythm patterns, respiratory rhythms, and blood pressure oscillations.

When the Institute of HeartMath scientists taught simple methods for harmonizing the heart’s feelings to school children in the Washington, DC area, the children’s test scores immediately rose.

In the Living Wisdom Schools, the teachers lead the students in practicing heart-harmonizing methods every day. In the classroom and on the playground, the teachers pay extremely close attention to the quality of the children’s interactions with each other, and their mood. The teachers are trained to nurture a harmonious, safe, expansive environment that is optimized for learning.

[1] The basic Institute of HeartMath research is described in The HeartMath Solution by Doc Childre and Howard Martin (HarperSanFrancisco 1999), as well as in research papers on the organization’s website, www.heartmath.org.

[2] “Second That Emotion,” by Deborah Rozman, Ph.D., Pia Nilsson, and Lynn Marriott, downloaded from www.pga.com in 2004. Gold Digest readers voted Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott to the magazine’s list of the top 50 US golf coaches.

Ch. 6: Happiness and Success at Google

Does the happiness principle work outside of school? Does it work in the adult world of career—in the daily grind?

When Sergey Brin and Larry Page founded Google in 1998, they established a policy of hiring only the most brilliant applicants in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math).

Fifteen years later, Google decided that it might be a good idea to evaluate the results of this policy.

A Washington Post article, “The surprising thing Google learned about its employees—and what it means for today’s students” (December 27, 2017), summarized what Google learned from Project Oxygen, the detailed examination of its hiring practices.

Project Oxygen completely overturned the company’s assumptions about the qualities that best predict success in a high-tech business environment. Most notably, among the eight standout qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise was dead last.

The top qualities that augured success at Google were “soft” skills. The researchers found that the most successful Google employees:

  1. Are good coaches
  2. Empower the team and do not micromanage
  3. Express interest in and concern for the other team members’ success and personal well-being
  4. Are productive and results-oriented
  5. Are good communicators—they listen and share information
  6. Help others with their career development
  7. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team
  8. Have key technical skills that help them advise the team

A follow-up study by Google, of the qualities of its most productive research teams (Project Aristotle, 2016), confirmed these results. In the Post article, Cathy N. Davidson, a professor in the graduate school at CUNY, described the findings:

“Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard.”

Davidson cited a survey of 260 companies conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. The study, which included industry giants Chevron and IBM, found that recruiters ranked communication skills among the top three qualities companies look for in job applicants. “They prize both an ability to communicate with one’s workers and an aptitude for conveying the company’s product and mission outside the organization.”

What conclusions can we draw from these studies, about the best way to help our children be successful and happy?

A common feature of the qualities that set the top Google employees apart is that they are “expansive.” That is, they foster a work environment where the employees are free to expand their awareness to include the needs of others.

The qualities that the researchers identified as furthering success at Google and other top companies are qualities that the teachers at Living Wisdom School expend tremendous energy to cultivate in the classroom, considering them essential for creating a safe, nurturing, joyful learning environment for the children.

Oddly enough, the Google findings reflect the results of a vastly older body of studies conducted in the forest ashrams of ancient India.

Ch. 5: Happiness and Success at Harvard

During Shawn Achor’s time as a graduate student in psychology at Harvard, he was an academic proctor, a role that required him to have hundreds of conversations with Harvard freshmen over cups of Starbucks coffee.

Achor soon began to notice a trait that set the most successful students apart. It was an insight that, in time, would completely overturn all of 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 determined to grind out good grades. The most successful students were the happiest and most socially engaged. They interacted with their peers, formed study groups, continually asked questions, and approached their academic studies in a spirit of joyous adventure. They were connected, engaged, and were skilled communicators.

Achor is the author of an influential 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 from the get-go are more likely to be successful in their careers.

These findings confirm a discovery by 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 he studied the brain patterns of college students, Davidson 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. The qualities that are essential for success—will power, planning, and 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 confirm that the happiness principle is valid 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 house, an impressive income, and a shiny car, was simply wrong. The most successful people are those who are happy from the outset—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 one 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 Shawn Achor’s findings: a happy learning environment, permeated by a spirit of joyful exploration, where each child can be challenged at his or her own pace.