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Mind and Life Institute Conference, October 2009
With comments by Nancy Roof and Stephanie Shorter
How can our educational system evolve to meet the challenges of the 21st century? How will we educate people to be compassionate, competent, ethical, and engaged citizens in an increasingly complex and interconnected world?
The urgent challenges of a globalized and interdependent world demand a new vision of world citizenship that is not confined to national boundaries, but encompasses moral and ethical responsibilities to all humanity. People coming of age in the 21st century will need to develop unprecedented levels of intercultural cooperation, mutual moral concern, creativity, and skill in effectively addressing the challenges of the world today—challenges economic, ecological, and inter-cultural/religious in nature. An education that will prepare young people to become competent and compassionate world citizens in such a context cannot be measured only in terms of cognitive skills and knowledge, but must address wider aspects of the heart, including skills and qualities of awareness associated with conscious self-regulation, ethical and social responsibility, and empathy and compassion for others.
Mind and Life XIX brought together world-renowned educators, scientists, and contemplatives, with the Dalai Lama presiding, to explore new avenues for science and educational practice related to the cultivation of these positive human qualities—mindful awareness, self-control, social responsibility and concern for the welfare of others—among children, youth, and the adults who educate them. This interdisciplinary dialogue honored insights from various perspectives on this issue, including those from educational theory and practice, philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and the wisdom of contemplative traditions. The intent is for the synergy of these converging disciplines to inspire and support visions of education that focus on the development of the whole person (including both students and educators) within more caring and effective school communities. At the heart of this dialogue is a shared vision of an educational system that nurtures the heart as well as the mind, and that creates compassionate, engaged, and ethical world citizens whose skills and abilities are not only used for personal growth and advancement, but also for the good of the world.
Educators have recently seen impressive results in the field of social and emotional learning (SEL), a form of education that helps children and adults develop fundamental social and emotional skills conducive to life effectiveness. Studies have documented that SEL has a positive impact on promoting ethical and pro-social behavior in young people as well as supporting their academic learning.
The success of social and emotional learning programs is encouraging educators to explore other practices such as those found in the contemplative traditions that may also cultivate, strengthen, and extend skills that SEL teaches.
The world’s great contemplative traditions encompass a shared wisdom on key ethical virtues such as non-violence and empathic concern for the welfare of others, as well as a vast array of specific techniques, including different forms of meditation and reflective practices, that aim to cultivate such virtues. In adults, studies are beginning to document how these practices promote better emotional regulation, improved attention, increased calm and resilience, better stress management and coping skills, and the deliberate cultivation of qualities such as compassion and empathy.
Neuroscience is beginning to build a body of evidence on the positive effects of contemplative practices on the minds, brains and bodies of adults. This leads to the question: would intervening earlier in life to teach young people healthy habits of mind, heart and body amplify the benefits of contemplative practices across the entire lifespans of individuals and provide a host of positive ‘downstream’ preventative and health-promoting effects? As a starting point, research on practical applications for the promotion of stress reduction, health, and well-being is beginning to be examined in relation to the childhood and adolescent periods. Central to this emerging work is an exploration of how to provide contemplative practices to the adults in the lives of children and adolescents—parents, teachers, youth workers and so on—as one key way of ‘educating’ the young in these practices through role modeling. Indeed, it is likely that the most beneficial effects of introducing contemplative practices to young people will occur when educators and parents model the positive qualities arising from such practices themselves. The goal is to “be the change we wish to see in the world” as Gandhi put it. Moreover, since school is often one of the most stable environments for children and youth exposed to developmental risks, focusing on school-based programs may be the best way to help children develop the nonacademic skills necessary to be successful and contributing members of 21st century society.
The time is clearly ripe for scientists, educators, and contemplatives to plan collaborative research on how contemplative practices might be adapted for use in the classroom and how to assess their pedagogical value. Adapting contemplative techniques that were originally embedded within ancient cultures to the secular setting of public schools requires an interdisciplinary approach that includes those with expertise in educational practice, applied and basic science, and the wisdom of the contemplative traditions themselves. This meeting aims to identify new avenues of scientific inquiry and educational practice that aim to cultivate positive qualities that are particularly important in the global context of the 21st century.
©2009 Mind and Life Institute, Boulder, CO, USA. All rights reserved.
I go to many conferences, but it is rare to find one of such momentous importance. Just imagine what a difference it would make if our children were given the skills to manage their anger, to relate to others without suffering guilt and rejection, to respond with compassion and empathy rather than violence when confronted by dysfunctional situations. I am grateful I have found these skills as an adult, as they have been the foundation of creating a peaceful mind, which allows me to be my most creative self, without ruminating on personal slights and fears that took up more interior space than needed in my early years. I can only imagine how much freer I would have been as a child if I were trained in these skills, and how much my parents and teachers would have benefitted from them as well.
My heart wept as I heard educators in the front lines tell stories about the increasing violence in schools, the cradle-to-prison destiny of many of our children, the sense of despair and hopelessness so many are burdened with. Speakers echoed over and over again that our values must change if we are to create a better future. It was clear that we are now headed for a severe educational divide, with the privileged learning and growing while the rest of our children are schooled in settings of fear and punishment resulting in little opportunity for a full and productive futures.
The good news is that The Mind and Life Institute has developed a long-term strategic plan to make these skills available to children, their teachers and families. The Dalai Lama has made secular education, as distinguished from religious education, a priority as the scientific evidence of the consequences of a chaotic interior life are known. And universities such as Harvard and Stanford have heard the call. As Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, so eloquently implored with the conviction of someone who knows what we must do, “Stand up to power. Stand up now.”
The time has come to usher in a holistic view of education that empowers children and builds resiliency, hope and confidence. From the opening moments that dedicated this conference to children everywhere to the final session that discussed how to restructure teacher training, the theme that strongly emerged for me was of connection. Experts of several domains—with different perspectives on human development—connected in their shared passion of improving education. Buddhist teachers, including the Dalai Lama, shared their wisdom on how to cultivate compassion and inner calmness. Researchers from the growing field of contemplative neuroscience illustrated how meditation regulates the consistency of brain responses. Neuroplasticity allows us to take responsibility for our own behavior by reshaping our brain at the level of synaptic connections. Teachers and education policymakers gave infuriating examples of how the current school system fails and inspiring examples of brilliant solutions when you connect students to their inner worlds and to each other, and when students and teachers join efforts in radically new ways, sometimes even formalizing respect for community and values by collaboratively penning their own classroom constitution at the beginning of the school year.
The Western educational paradigm focuses on technical skills to mold students into good worker bees. Teachers expressed frustration at being told to teach to the questions on standardized tests. Shame on us for treating students as if their worth arises from how favorably they contribute to the mean and standard deviation of their school district’s scores! We can do so much better! Kids deserve so much better!
This one-dimensional, test-score-driven approach has, to this point, largely ignored the importance of cultivating students’ emotional development and regulation, but these two types of education need not be independent. Research clearly shows that children who are more skillful in regulating their emotions score higher on memorization and reasoning exams. Students who are given the tools to more effectively manage their inner lives seem to learn more deeply. Children who are encouraged to care move beyond themselves to care about the collective and not just ‘me’ and ‘mine.’
Nancy Roof, Ph.D. is the founder of the award-winning Kosmos Journal: The Journal for World Citizens and Planetary Civilization, which is based on evolving interior development and cultural values as they impact globalization and world community. Kosmos Associates, Inc. is also actively involved in the founding of the Global Commons movement with James Quilligan of the Global Commons Trust.
Stephanie Shorter PhD was trained as a sensory neuroscientist and cortical electrophysiologist, and has long been interested in perception, cognition and consciousness. She is a seeker who embraces yoga as her tool of individual transformation on her path towards being an agent of social transformation.