Seeking Education That Reconnects Minds And Hearts

October 20, 2009|By Stephanie A. Flores-Koulish

I felt surprised when I found out that I would be seeing the Dalai Lama at an education summit in Washington, D.C. I also felt a sense of responsibility after leaving Constitution Hall that afternoon earlier this month. The responsibility, in my case, was about ensuring that the content of this conference enters the public dialogue. Marion Wright Edelman said it best that day by stating that democracy is not a spectator sport.

And so my democratic responsibility, in Obama's America, is to trumpet that we must ensure that our public schools educate children for healthy minds and hearts.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been engaged for some time now in conversations with scientists, especially neuroscientists, about the connections between mind and heart. Many such connections are now scientifically confirmed; our emotional well-being affects our physical well-being. This has crucial implications for teaching and learning in the 21st century. Regrettably, however, since the turn of this century, our education system has moved further away from genuine connections of mind and heart by abandoning nontest essentials and extracurricular activities in favor of test preparation.

At the conference, we were reminded that we live in an interdependent global economy where it is imperative to consider the importance of ethical decisions and good relationships with our allies and enemies. Instead of ranking schools, we should be promoting collaboration. Aside from only thinking about how we need to promote a skill in order push students over the passing score on the MSA, we should be educating children to be compassionate and empathetic to one another.

University of Michigan distinguished scholar Jacquelynne Eccles declared from the stage that compassion is empathy with reason, and that one way this can be attained in schools is through peer-to-peer tutoring - much like we see through the model of the Baltimore Algebra Project, where high school youth tutor middle school-aged peers during after-school hours.

Additionally, creativity and discovery are found precisely at this intersection of heart and mind. These should be included as 21st century skills in our public schools; yet because they cannot be measured through traditional, objective means, this ambition is problematic. Nevertheless, creativity always will carry us forward as a species so that we can endeavor together new ways to solve old problems and innovate, given our limited resources.

Also along these lines, Richard Davidson of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison discussed how destructive, negative emotions can impair learning. Recent developments in brain imaging have enabled us to see that brains are plastic. They are constantly changing and growing, even among adults - a phenomenon called "neurogenesis" - and through specific types of training, we can enhance our capabilities for emotional regulation. Therefore, habits of mind and heart can change.

Mr. Davidson explained that given our brain development, adolescents, whose brains have limited capacities in the prefrontal cortex, are particularly vulnerable to emotional reactivity. However, studies have also shown that children who are taught mindfulness techniques such as meditation display positive benefits, specifically with regard to consistency and regulation.

Some might believe that emotional regulation is a job for parents, not schools. Yet given the stories of youth violence that complicate the challenge of effective teaching, we cannot afford to leave this task just to this one social unit. It should be everyone's job - schools, the media and all citizens - to promote positive habits of mind and heart.

In this way we can realize the Dalai Lama's aim: to overcome disturbances through dialogue, not violence. In this way, in the words of the conference organizers, we may become "compassionate, competent, ethical, and engaged ... in an increasingly complex and interconnected world."

Stephanie A. Flores-Koulish is an associate professor of curriculum and instruction and co-director of the Center for Innovation in Urban Education at Loyola University Maryland. Her e-mail is sfloreskoulish@loyola.edu.

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