When children feel that their teachers understand their unique talents and motivations,
they are 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 visiting 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 links between school 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 sticking too rigidly to a plan is that the teacher may overlook the realities of the individual children — their unique abilities, needs, motivations, and the daily fluctuations of their minds and hearts.
A good teacher will, of course, have a solid lesson plan, but their first concern will be to understand the individual child so as 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 having 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, we see 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.
LWS fourth and fifth-grade teacher Craig Kellogg helps Tima negotiate the complicated process of finding his costume and being in the right place at the right time before a dress rehearsal of the school play.
My forty years as a teacher have convinced me that this is the indispensable foundation of academic excellence, because you can very efficiently and effectively do amazing things with the kids and the curriculum. It’s why I’m encouraging this quality more than ever in my workshops for teachers.
It’s a skill that you can develop endlessly. As adults, we know that when we’re trying to communicate well at work or have a great conversation with our 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: I’ll share two stories that happened recently. I gave an online workshop for teachers in Italy, and because I had to speak through an interpreter, I wasn’t really 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 following week, a woman said, “I was visiting a friend who has two kids, both about two years old, and 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 on a table, she picked it up and put it in her mouth and sat on the floor with these two little babies. (laughs) And 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 with 12-year-old kids as a math aide. He told us about a boy who absolutely hates math, and how the kid came slouching into the classroom with his hoodie pulled up over his head and walked over and 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.” So he went over to the table and nudged the boy on the shoulder.
The boy was surprised and said, “What?” And Stefan said, “Could you move over a little?” So 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 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 science laboratory, space ship, and theater. At that age the classroom should be an enclosed reality that you can turn into just about anything that will 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 in the door. The point is that you aren’t just reading about the rainforest, you’re having an experience of it. It’s a prop 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 plays a part. The kids get completely involved in the self-contained world of the play. If it’s 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 time, 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 them because their feelings are fully engaged. And, again, the result is that they’re absolutely lapping up the academic side of the experience.
We approach the curriculum in the same spirit in our science classes, where each child is 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, and we first introduced the book by reading some of the stories to the kids.
They quickly became interested, so we started acting the stories with them. We also made a quilt on themes from the Ramayana, and as a result this great saga became a central part of their lives for the semester. For three or four months, you’d come into the classroom and find yourself immersed in the world of this great teaching saga 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 that 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 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.
When they start to leave the Feeling Years at about age 12, they enter the Will Power years of adolescence from 12 to 18. Few people understand that this is the time when you should take them out of the classroom and get them engaged in doing real-life things. It’s no longer a time for only studying things in books; it’s time to introduce them to real life by helping them have their own adventures. In our school, we’ve gone to Mexico, where we lived and served in 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 best practices for capturing the children’s enthusiasm and interests at that age, and for bringing it to 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 when it comes to getting children excited about learning, their feelings seem to be important at every stage. You’re saying that the teacher needs to get to know them deeply, and find out what they’re interested in, and make use of those 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 intrigued by a document that Paramhansa Yogananda developed for a school that he 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’m currently adapting it for a document that we’ll call the Student Portrait.
It was a little confusing at first to figure out how to use it, because it covers so many facets of a child’s character. But the point is that when a child comes into the classroom, you need to look at the key elements of their life — 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 key 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 a 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 former students who’s now a young adult works as a chef at a famous yoga retreat. In high school, the only salient quality I could find that really captured his interest was food. He was fairly oblivious of everything else, but his eyes lit up the moment you mentioned food. So we were able to work with that quality to make school interesting and motivating for him.
I’ve found that you can use this approach to help almost any child. Sometimes their salient quality will shift — there will be a clear characteristic that evolves into something a little different, perhaps because of events in the child’s life, or some inner transformation. But there’s usually one salient quality, 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 ability to get along with others.
Nitai: Yes, and it’s wonderful that educators 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 be conforming 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. It seems so obvious — and 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 not understanding how a 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 co-authors whose previous work I admired, and 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 children 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 rigorous 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 we shouldn’t make them suppress it.” And I realized 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 are the topics of life itself, and of eternal truths as we’ve translated them to the world of the child. They are the ideas that describe how life works at every stage. 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 Education for Life, 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 longing at school, it seems to release a tremendous amount of energy in the children.
Nitai: Yes, and it’s unfortunate that the education establishment tries to press kids into the same mold while ignoring 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 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 we adults tend to let our thinking processes get in the way.
Children are constantly exploring life and experimenting. What will happen if I throw this ball over that bush? What will happen if I dance in the water? What will happen if I eat this new food? 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 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 weren’t doing anything that made sense to you, but they were doing something that made lots of sense to them, and we need to try to tune in to that.
Q: When I talk to the teachers at the Living Wisdom Schools, 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 that might not be the child’s own. The teachers tell 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 own inner 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.