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.