Children do not need to inherit the problems of the world we leave behind. They can start now to create a better world. A new movement afoot, called full-circle learning, builds their capacity and motivation as change agents. It does so by shaping the passions that begin in the heart, captivate the mind and engage human energies. The most successful students, in our experience, are those who not only feel skillful or curious or creative or who find intrinsic joy in learning for its own sake. The most successful students tend to combine these instincts with an awareness of the connection between their own unique capacities and the positive world conditions they are helping to foster or the suffering they are helping to ameliorate.
What do you wish for today's children and youth? What do you wish for the future of education? Try to imagine an enrichment setting in which students find a purpose for learning--one that nurtures their sense of compassion and urges them to discover fulfillment in giving back to society. Imagine programs that help each student cultivate his or her own gifts and carve out a unique role in forwarding an ever-advancing civilization, based on high ethical standards and altruism.
It is not a new dream but perhaps one that requires more deliberate efforts than ever to pursue. Cesar Chavez said that the goal of all education is service to humanity. We often think of that goal in terms of the here and now, letting each generation fend for itself. Fred Baufman noted, in an essay called Legacies, that "If America and the world are to thrive in the year 2050...we must become the first generation in human history to love our more distant descendants in the same way that we love our children and grandchildren." (Williamson, Marianne, Imagine: What America Could Be in the 21st Century
. New American Library, New York, 2000). Baufman noted that we are the first generation of humans to so desperately need this capacity, because we can "manipulate the biosphere without and the gene within."
The hope that this dream is possible lies in the fact that we are also enjoying a renaissance in human history for our ability to bring people together to address the needs of a global humanity, partially through instant community organizing via the Internet. As the sociological and educational advances of humanity align with its technological advances, we can create a world in harmony on many levels, yet we can only create and sustain such a world by imbuing the next generation with a great deal of humanity, compassion and other-directedness, and with the desire to contribute to such a world through their work, their interpersonal relationships and through their involvement in local and global communities. The internet cannot tap into these innate human virtues unless human communities (some combination of families, schools, and community groups) have presented models that help children feel a sense of humanity and connect with it.
As the assessment-based demands on public education become greater and the budgetary constraints tighter, after-school programs in many states are uniquely poised to embrace and advance this goal. In fact, in many districts, schools are locked in a pattern of struggling for dollars, scrambling for assessment results and trying to provide consistent training without the means to do so. Until the priorities can be adjusted so that all that the experts know about learning can be practically applied to education, community-based enrichment programs may need to play a greater role in filling in the gap. Charter schools and innovative public educators and also play a vital role.
If we want students to grow into the kind of community leaders needed in a society becoming increasingly global, we cannot expect them to intuit the opportunities the world has to offer them. We need to present a global orientation over a self-focused universe during their formative years, when even brief life experiences can create such memorable impressions and the sense of connection to nature can still provoke awe and relief of the suffering of another human being can create surprise as well as deep resonance. When these emotions are connected with learning the arts and sciences and technical skills such as math, integrated learning provides meaning- making activity on several levels.
Some learning environments foist so many survival issues on children that the schools tend to encourage competition, aggression or a sense of futility instead of a sense of collaboration for the common good. Other schools may provide safety, yet the emphasis on assessments helps students know only what and not why they are expected to learn. Sometimes we are pretty good at teaching them how to learn. But do we teach them why to learn? Do they see the connection between the personal attributes and skills they develop and the world they are creating--even now, as children? The purpose of this new movement, full-circle learning, is to help children embrace their role as society's helpers and healers now and to work toward their future role as enlightened, socially responsible leaders, whether in their families, their workplaces, their communities or the world. One way to do this is to influence both attitude and aptitude simultaneously, whether the progress is administered by a public school, a private school, a non-profit or non-governmental organization, a faith group, a city government or a home school.Why Make Personal Development Deliberate?
Why is it essential to introduce a global ethic into education? Will it interfere with preserving cultural identity? At a recent Global Connections conference sponsored by Plan International, 12-16 year-old students from 20 countries came together to share their perspectives about local and global issues around the the world--especially issues affecting children and youth. Each brought a unique perspective based on culture and custom, but all brought a collective commitment to act participate in changing life for children who suffer. They were made stronger by coming together to realize that both the problems and the desire to change them were not unique to their culture.
If children automatically absorb the expectations of their society, what messages does your community send? A study called Hardwired to Connect
, completed by a team of physicians and scientists in December of 2003, indicates that the increase in attention deficit, depression, suicide and aggressive behaviors in children and youth results from a biological need to connect with adult role models in supportive communities that present consistent messages about values and ethics.
Those of us of a certain vintage remember a time in America when the commonwealth itself supported dedication to the commonwealth. The few movies and television programs we saw reinforced the values we learned at home, which supported those taught in the religious community, at school and even in our neighborhoods. When a neighbor called our home one day, and my brother answered, "Hike!" instead of "hello," she knew he had been playing football in the house and reported it to my mother. That was because most people in the neighborhood had similar standards for behavior and similar definitions of integrity. No one was allowed to play football in the house. Today, another parent might feel reticent to comment on the child's behavior, not knowing whether the family standards differed from one home to another. In many homes, the students probably wouldn't be playing football at all but, rather, watching video games or television with no parent present in the room to discuss, evaluate or contextualize the content.
Mary Pipher's legendary book, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls
. (Ballantine Books; New York, 1994; p. 291) cites UCLA studies done at the Annenberg School of Communication, as well as the American Psychological Association, which demonstrated the considerable influence of media on attitudes and behaviors. Everything from antisocial behavior, gender stereotyping and diabetes to bad grades has been linked to the excessive or unsupervised television viewing habits of youth. It's no surprise. If this were not so, advertisers would not have invested such a high ratio of their earnings toward influencing the thought processes, emotions and ultimately, the behaviors of buyers over the course of a century.
More relaxed standards in the media are not the only thing that has made it difficult for youth to understand what society expects of them. While there was no shortage of hypocrisy, prejudice and oppression in the old-world society, children generally knew what messages to expect about the goals they could either aspire to or not aspire to. They heard consistent, accepted cultural narratives.
Today, we live in a more transient world. Children are immersed in classrooms with a rich level of diversity, and yet the differences in family standards and cultural traditions present more complexity for them. A psychologist recently observed that recent student immigrants to America do not maintain the high level of success they once did. He described how children of immigrant families once excelled in school for multiple generations. In recent years, he said, the children find a shocking disparity between the idealism that led them to come and the reality they find in American classrooms where students don't respect adults and home settings in which students have too little responsibility, too little supervision and too much access to disrespectful role models on television or on the streets. Peers might even make fun of the immigrants' working-class parents and dissuade the children from the life of hard work and communal caring fostered by their own former cultural narratives. (In one school, the chant at the high school football game from one team to another was "your mother are our maids.") Consequently, within two years, the immigrant students' grades in one study dropped to the level of their American peers, according to the researcher. He opined that an unrealistic idealism and trust in adults is actually much more productive than cynicism and a sense of entitlement as an influence on achievement. The students he met felt robbed of their most idealistic and hopeful reality and, therefore, stopped living up to their own potential.
The complexity of today's society, coupled with the diverse philosophies gleaned through television, movies and video games and in varying social circles outside the home, require children to develop a much stronger capacity for self-selection than they may be capable of at young age. Children must sort out these mixed messages and decide how to live meaningful lives. At the same time, regardless of language proficiency, turbulent changes, media messages, class factors ranging from nutrition issues to dysfunctional indulgence, students are held to high standards of academic achievement, sometimes without a discussion of why solving a math problem today will make a difference in their happiness tomorrow.
The legal debate about when to try a youth as an adult in a court of law has revealed that at any given age, young people have varying capacities to discern the long-term consequences of their choices. Yet those of us who have worked in after-school settings with certain elements in place have seen students cultivate this determination at an early age. We have seen them make that connection between the skills and attributes they learn today and the accountability, other-directedness and pursuit of excellence they will apply in their adult lives. We have seen children with few role models for positive, crime-free social behavior begin to set personal goals to acquire law degrees or medical degrees, and we have seen them do this independently by the end of their fifth grade year, then give speeches about their goals. The ideas and personal development spawned by their learning have opened windows for them to see how they might apply their future skills in compassionate service. We have observed homeless students living in horrendous social environments, who had never heard of the Peace Corps, yet who eagerly absorbed the full-circle learning lessons and made decisions to earn college degrees so they could join the Peace Corps. When the act of striving for high ideals and social skills becomes deliberate and when those ideals are linked to the development of academic and artistic capacities, students feel a greater motivation to learn. We have seen this phenomenon bear out time and time again. Independent academic assessments have repeatedly shown that at least three out of every four students enrolled in a full-circle learning after-school program increase their grade equivalency in the basic content areas. More than half of those tested who remained in the program for two years or longer increased their grade equivalency by multiple grade levels. Parent surveys also indicate that students universally improve their social skills, ability to resolve conflicts, their global awareness and motivation to learn, as well as developing new academic skills. Public school teachers also report that the program builds leadership skills and accountability.
Humboldt State University's sociology department has an ongoing study on ways to encourage altruism in society. Sam and Pearl Oliner, in the book Toward a Caring Society
, (Praeger, Westport, Connecticut, 1995; p. 202), noted that a caring work or school environment helps its members empathize with others by encouraging them to first know themselves — exploring their own thoughts and feelings — and to simultaneously understand others' perspectives and needs through appropriate questioning, role playing and simulations." It goes on to say that "...success in these endeavors depends on conditions conducive to trust building... ...Empathy would not preclude high expectations of others but instead lead to realistic expectations based on understanding rather than arbitrary determinations."
We do live in a more complex world today than ever before. We need deliberate programs that foster understanding at the critical ages when human beings are indeed getting to know themselves. Anthropologist Riane Eisler is an advocate of systems that promote partnership instead of domination. She wrote Tomorrow's Children
(Westview Press; Boulder, Colorado 2000; p. 25) to describe ways to reshape contemporary educational models, emphasizing that, "We must have the courage to...become the architects of a partnership future for generations to come through an enlightened, empathic global public education. Adapted for different regions and cultures, partnership education can be a blueprint, for refocusing, reframing and redesigning education to help all children realize their full humanity..." How does full-circle learning attempt to create such an environment? I will refer once more to an expert on the changing world for today's children. Mary Pipher, on page 250 of Reviving Ophelia
, maintained that many young people come to therapists with "problem-saturated stories." She discussed the wisdom of playing a unique role "to help them tell more powerful and optimistic stories about themselves...to create solution talk instead of problem talk." This is the goal of full-circle learning. The stories student begin to tell about their lives can be powerful, optimistic and true. Full-circle learning seeks to help students not only learn positive habits-of-heart, as we call them, but to develop altruistic identities and carve out personal visions that will lead to lives of achievement in service to humanity.
George Eliot insists, in the closing chapter of MiddleMarch
, that anonymity does not preclude leadership in shaping the future, "...for the fact that things are so well with you and I is half-owing to the lives of those whose names are forgotten and who rest in unvisited tombs." Service then, by definition, is leadership. Full-Circle Learning students learn the motto, "To lead is so serve; to serve is to lead." To expand one's personal capacity in service to others doubles the sense of creative fulfillment as it amplifies the leader's purpose.
Do you ever wonder how most Nobel winners spent their spare time in childhood? At some point, mentors provided them with the tools that gave birth to a vision. The tools were probably not unearned praise or shallow encouragement but, more likely, a new life experience, a shared concept, a high expectation or a demonstrated need. Imagine the peace treaties that may never have been signed, the pandemics that may never have been thwarted, the ideas that may never have found its way onto a page or into a culture and the events that may never have found their way into a chapter of history if, at some point, human imagination and higher inspiration had not converged in the lives of inspired leaders. How will we mentor the next generation of leaders? How will we provide the experiences that not only kindle their minds but put new sparkle in their eyes and plant passion in their hearts? Fortunately, the practical tools can be much simpler than the ultimate visions they inspire. We invite you to sharpen these tools and add Full-Circle Learning to whatever services you currently offer the future leaders in your midst.
Urban schools report high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in children. As many as one-third of the students manifest signs PTSD, according to recent research, (1) nearly twice the rate reported for troops returning from war zones in Iraq. The resiliency training these “foot soldiers” receive on the ground--at home and sometimes at school-- often amplifies the anticipation of violence and the negative expectations rather than replacing them. Consider the impact of such a pattern on the changes of long-term change.
In just such an urban neighborhood, I visited a Full-Circle Learning school at the beginning of the school year. As I walked down the hallway, a first grader tugged at my sleeve. She smiled up at me and asked whether I remembered her promise to herself last year. The girl was just like any other in terms of parent support. Her head bore an angry gash. She stood several inches shorter than the other students. Everyone once teased her about her height and her ears. Based on the lessons learned in first grade, she had decided to transcend her troubles and reach out to the most angry, reactive child in class—a child who could get along with no one. They still fought, but she would teach her new friend how to hug after every dispute. On the last day of school, she had confided in me about this promise and her ability to meet it with joy.
I’d been holding some flowers and handed her a “forgiveness flower” to celebrate the achievement. I’d told her the other child would undoubtedly be grateful to her throughout her life, and so would her first-grade teacher, for both students had learned a skill just as important as reading. She had said, “I think I’m about to cry.” A passing parent had walked by murmuring, “Mm-hmm. Love will make you cry sometimes.”
Now, months later, the incoming second grader beamed, her eyes brimming with tears again.
“I still have that flower,” she said. “I think about how to practice love every time I see it.”Watering the Budding Potential
Ever since the 1950s, educational systems have danced that famous tango between theory and practice. Benjamin Bloom popularized the tendency to pay attention to the variations in learning styles, recognizing the uniqueness of each student, and yet when educational systems fail, teachers sometimes give up on the time-consuming task of differentiation and “lay down the law” in a one-size fits all classroom.
Ironically, Bloom’s contemporary, the psychoanalyst Eriksen, described the developmental stages of childhood as being universally defined. He identified childhood as a series of psychosocial crises. (Accomplishing a right of passage for a toddler might mean achieving autonomy, even at the expense of a parent’s sanity.) Piaget defined young children as basically egocentric beings, not yet capable of showing motive, but rather, basing their behavior on compliance to authority. These theories became accepted by some as dictums on which to base classroom practices.
The problem with appealing to intellectual variations while rooting educational systems in psychosocial “laws” lies in the tendency of practitioners to underestimate and thus underfeed the altruistic capacities of children.
Just as cognitive responses to learning vary, the capacity for empathy not only varies, but can increase the earlier and more often we stretch it, researchers now say. (2) Still, many discussions of teaching methodologies tend to focus on approaches to skills building instead of on the marriage between that delicate process of altruistic human development, its nuances on education and their joint influence on the crafting of sustainable communities.
Dr. Jerry Ruhl, a Jungian psychologist, recently discussed with me the ever-expanding research linking universal human interpretations (of behaviors, facial expressions, emotions and moral codes) across cultures—an undulating definition of the collective unconscious. Whether from the primeval forests of Irian Jaya or the forests of skyscrapers that mark urban civilization, people universally intuit similar feelings or meanings from certain actions.
If so much of the human condition is universal, what innate components of altruism might we accidentally wean out of the learner, partly because of low expectations and perhaps in part because educational systems deplete rather than nourish these capacities over time? While unwieldy old-world systems struggle to catch up, evidence in the new century suggests that altruism is indeed among these innate human traits. While reasons for like to seek like spring from a limbic need to protect the clan, that overriding instinct to give and the sense of obligation to a universal family larger than nuclear family can survive, when nurtured, it turns out.
For example, research conducted in Germany in the past two decades illustrated the instincts of very young children to perform acts of service. When evaluators dropped objects, children aged two to four tended to stop, retrieve and return the objects with no expectation of reward. (3) One study tracked students into their twenties and also found that those who behaved the most altruistically as children continued to carry out acts of sacrifice and higher moral reasoning as adults.(2)
This pattern complies with research conducted at Humboldt University in which adult subjects who founded humanitarian organizations exhibited similar childhood experiences by: a) bonding experiences with a caring adult role model; b) problem solving to overcome hardship, and c) accessing opportunities to empathize with those who were different. (4)
Another confirming set of data in 2004 concluded that young people are neurologically hardwired to connect with caring adults in their search for a meaningful life. (5)
If emotional well being affects cognitive development, then, a more holistic reimagining of education might well nurture a sense of compassionate membership in the global human family—the giving instinct—as a focal point of learning, even as an axis around which emerging skills find purposeful application. Innate curiosity and creativity become increasingly meaningful as students see their social relevance. Traumatic experiences become more diffuse as children replace images of powerlessness with the experience of their own capacity as a means to change their own environment and to reach out to others. As a result, the learners’ motivation and engagement peak, especially when student identities are linked to both local and global altruism.
1) J. Tucker. San Francisco Gate; San Francisco Chronicle, August 26, 2007.
2) L.F. Patrick, P.A. Minish, Child-rearing strategies for the development of altruistic behavior in young children, The Journal of Primary Prevention, Springer Netherlands, 2005; Science, Vol. 311, No. 5,765, p 1,301-03
3) N. Eisenberg, Child Development, Vol. 70, p. 1,360-1,372, N. Eisenberg, ASU, Tempe, Arizona, 1999
4) Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzigof, Whitehead Conference Papers, China, 2004.
5) S. & P. Olner, The Development of Altruistic Identities, 2000.
6) K. Kovner, Hardwired to Connect, Dartmouth, 2004.
7) L.F. Patrick, P.A. Minish, Child-rearing strategies for the development of altruistic behavior in young children, The Journal of Primary Prevention, Springer Netherlands, 2005; Science, Vol. 311, No. 5,765, p 1,301-03
Learners who positively influence the well being of others sense a higher purpose for their learning. They regard new skills as tools for meaningful contribution to the human family.
This priority grounds the educational model evaluated in this report. Research supports the need for school systems that encourage such models. It suggests that fostering altruistic identities and attaching those identities to global action: a. influences long-term student achievement; b. increases resiliency; and c. enhances the skills required to build a sustainable world community. A Global Model
The educational approach studied, Full-Circle Learning, unites students in both local and global service. Learners:
Service as a Centerpiece
- Form an early identity (preschool through high school) based on connection to a cause larger than self and to a group more universal than the nuclear family.
- Link academic and arts challenges to character goals.
- Activate goals and employ skills as vehicles for change, in projects that enhance community life.
- Reflect about inner transformation (i.e. self-mastery) and its relationship to outer community transformation.
- Challenge peers in partner countries to parallel projects, experiencing wisdom as shared and considering global issues through more than one local lens.
- Experience adults as role models who apply their skills in altruistic pursuits.
Teachers customize curricula to local needs, based on training, instructional tools and a range of suggested classroom strategies. For example:
- In Lesotho, one unit taught the relationship of deforestation and hunger. Students studying passion gave the gift of song to an agricultural specialist called upon to help plant trees. They made a community garden to feed hungry families.
- Five-year-olds in China studied courage in facing life’s first tests and made a booklet for their global partner.
- Eight-year-olds in the US incorporated art, math and writing in a project on the causes of homelessness. After wearing their artwork in a city march, they sent compilations to their mayor and to learning partners in India, where students responded by helping their poor with a project for “orphaned grandparents.” They gave their creative gifts in exchange for blessings, since the childless grandparents had no one to bless. Each country felt inspired by the altruism of the other.
- To help a science-minded child when his father died of cancer, a US class submitted unanswered questions to the National Institute for Health to advance cancer research. Students gifted local oncologists with watercolors depicting healthy cells. (They inspired their partner school in the developing world to allow girls to attend school. Disadvantaged youth in both countries now pursue medical careers, against great odds.)
Flexible models of education allow teachers creative options for inviting the community into the classroom and the classroom into the community. The complexities of a global village portend the need for thoughtful emotionally intelligent decision-makers in world economies, governments, technology and the global health community, making this wedding of cognition and compassion imperative.
As schools unite learners in global problem solving, and as learners carry these capacities into adulthood, the implications could influence not only the destinies of individuals but the destinies of systems and, indeed, nations.