Ch. 1: Introduction

For more than forty-five years, the Living Wisdom Schools have pioneered a radical new approach to educating young children—an approach that empowers them to be happy while excelling in school and life.

In education today, there’s a quiet but powerful groundswell—a grassroots rebellion against the government-mandated “No Child Left Behind” and Core Curriculum initiatives that have hamstrung teachers, alienated students, and distorted the true purpose of education by preventing children from receiving the best possible education and experience of school.

The Education for Life philosophy can be simply stated:

At school, the factor that most assuredly
promotes deep, engaged, lasting learning
is happiness.

Many parents who inquire about the Living Wisdom Schools are dumbfounded when they hear the teachers confidently proclaim that a happy, arts-enriched, highly individualized curriculum is more efficient than the STEM-loaded curricula offered by other schools.

They are nonplussed by the suggestion that the LWS curriculum gives children a deeper education, because the teachers are encouraged to teach principles and review the content until each student can grasp the concepts in depth before moving on, instead of skimming the surface of the subject matter in an ill-considered rush to demonstrate good test scores.

Many parents simply don’t believe that what’s offered at LWS can possibly be valid, since everybody else is doing it differently.

And yet, a deeper look at those schools with more “traditional” curricula reveals troubling flaws.

The shortcomings were eloquently outlined by Sir Ken Robinson, an award-winning international educational consultant whose TED Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” is the most-watched in TED’s history, having been viewed more than 40 million times by 320 million people in 160 countries.

Robinson shares his thoughts on the needed changes in education today:

“In place of curiosity, what we have is a culture of compliance. Our children and teachers are encouraged to follow routine algorithms rather than to excite the power of imagination and curiosity…. Human life is inherently creative. It’s why we all have different résumés. We create our lives, and we can recreate them as we go through them. It’s the common currency of being a human being. It’s why human culture is so interesting and diverse and dynamic….

“We all create our own lives through this restless process of imagining alternatives and possibilities, and one of the roles of education is to awaken and develop these powers of creativity. Instead, what we have is a culture of standardization.

“Now, it doesn’t have to be that way…. Finland regularly comes out on top in math, science and reading. Now, we only know that’s what they do well at, because that’s all that’s being tested. That’s one of the problems of the test. They don’t look for other things that matter just as much. The thing about [the] work in Finland is this: they don’t obsess about those disciplines. They have a very broad approach to education, which includes humanities, physical education, the arts.

“Second, there is no standardized testing in Finland. I mean, there’s a bit, but it’s not what gets people up in the morning, what keeps them at their desks.

“The third thing—and I was at a meeting recently with some people from Finland, actual Finnish people, and somebody from the American system was saying to the people in Finland, ‘What do you do about the drop-out rate in Finland?’

“And they all looked a bit bemused, and said, ‘Well, we don’t have one. Why would you drop out? If people are in trouble, we get to them quite quickly and we help and support them.’

“Now people always say, ‘Well, you know, you can’t compare Finland to America.’ No. I think there’s a population of around five million in Finland. But you can compare it to a state in America. Many states in America have fewer people in them than that….

“But what all the high-performing systems in the world do is currently what is not evident, sadly, across the systems in America—I mean, as a whole. One is this: they individualize teaching and learning. They recognize that it’s students who are learning and the system has to engage them, their curiosity, their individuality, and their creativity. That’s how you get them to learn.

“The second is that they attribute a very high status to the teaching profession. They recognize that you can’t improve education if you don’t pick great people to teach and keep giving them constant support and professional development. Investing in professional development is not a cost. It’s an investment, and every other country that’s succeeding well knows that…. They know that to be the case.

“And the third is, they devolve responsibility to the school level for getting the job done. You see, there’s a big difference here between going into a mode of command and control in education—that’s what happens in some systems. Central or state governments decide they know best and they’re going to tell you what to do. The trouble is that education doesn’t go on in the committee rooms of our legislative buildings. It happens in classrooms and schools, and the people who do it are the teachers and the students, and if you remove their discretion, it stops
working. You have to put it back to the people….

“Many of the current policies are based on mechanistic conceptions of education. It’s like education is an industrial process that can be improved just by having better data, and somewhere in the back of the minds of some policy makers is this idea that if we fine-tune it well enough, if we just get it right, it will all hum along perfectly into the future. It won’t, and it never did.

“The point is that education is not a mechanical system. It’s a human system….

“So I think we have to embrace a different metaphor. We have to recognize that it’s a human system, and there are conditions under which people thrive, and conditions under which they don’t. We are after all organic creatures, and the culture of the school is absolutely essential.”

From Sir Ken Robinson’s talk, “How to Escape Education’s Death Valley” (2013), used with permission from TED. To watch the full talk, visit www.ted.com. (Alternatively, you can watch three talks by Robinson, including this one, at: http://bit.ly/2KFExrR.)

Children who are subjected to a one-sided academically over-loaded curriculum during the extremely important Feeling Years from roughly age 6 to 12 are at risk not only of receiving a relatively superficial education; they end up less well prepared mentally and emotionally to succeed in high school and college. Perhaps most troubling, they are less likely to acquire important personal qualities that are common among successful people.

One prospective parent, during a visit to LWS, protested, “But these kids can’t be learning—they’re too happy!”

Yet groundbreaking research has confirmed beyond any possibility of doubt that happiness and school success are intimately connected.

What are some of the qualities that we, as parents and teachers, should encourage in young children to prepare them for success in high school, college, and life?

Aside from the knowledge and skills required to succeed in a given profession, surely it’s fair to suggest that there also needs to be a deep wanting to do good and wonderful things.

There has to be a confident self-knowledge, a positive expectation, and an ability to work well with others. And these qualities must be deliberately nurtured in the child. They cannot be imposed from without; nor will they magically appear as a side-effect of good grades and test scores.

The time in a child’s life when these qualities become the natural developmental focus, and when they most urgently need to be nurtured and refined, is during the “Feeling Years” from approximately age 6 to 12.

These personal qualities which are highly predictive of success cannot be nurtured by merely trying to motivate the children to get good grades. Any motivation that grades and test scores provide will be superficial, and will not touch their hearts. Worse, it may encourage a dependence on external recognition that can never be fully satisfied—after one test, there will always be another.

Success and happiness, as will become clear in the chapters that follow, come most reliably to those who are focused enthusiastically on the process: who are not postponing their happiness until some vaguely imagined future, but are able to rejoice in the expansion of their powers today.

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