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The Education Treadmill

I like to think of my experience with education as a run on a treadmill that began 17 years ago.  The majority of my life has been in an academic setting and as I reflect on that time, I am struck by the inadequacies of a completed education. I have had the privilege of attending private institutions, ones that boast the best professors and a commitment to the development of the whole student, yet there was little emphasis on emotional intelligence, creativity, empathy, or innovation.

In the traditional sense, yes, I learned quite a bit. I learned valuable skills, such as how to conduct research, think critically, analyze data, and write. But critical life skills were missing. For example, what is empathy and how can it help us to stay engaged during difficult conversations about racism, sexism, and homophobia?

That kind of social-emotional learning has been shown to improve mental health, social skills, and performance in school—yet it’s rare to find in most classrooms. A study by three universities found that students who participated in SEL programs had higher graduation rates than those who did not, fewer mental health issues, and were less likely to have drug and behavioral problems.

Throughout my educational experience, I was continually struck by the rigidity of the learning process in the classroom. My last semester of college, I took a writing class where the only expectation was to write. We were not given prompts or deadlines. At first, students were paralyzed by the freedom, unsure of what to do. Eventually it was beautiful to see the poems, reflections, and stories that emerged. The flexible structure of the class helped students to tap into their creativity more effectively because they had the liberty to explore any topic of interest. The learning was deeper because it was not contrived by pre-assigned prompts. On the last day of class, students thanked the professor for giving them the chance to draw on everything they had learned and decide for themselves, finally, what they actually wanted to write about.

Currently, the U.S. educational system does not focus on emotional or creative development, though many institutions claim to. Education expert Sir Ken Robinson, who is famous for giving the most watched TED talk of all time, warns that the U.S. educational system is suppressing student’s creativity and producing a limited definition of what it means to be intelligent. Robinson points to a lack of freedom to make mistakes and a limited “conception of the richness of human capacity.”

Robinson has spent the last few decades pushing educators to embrace change. He calls recent education reforms “catastrophic failures,” because they lack innovation and stick to the status quo. In a recent interview, he noted that people are finally demanding change, pointing to Finland, Singapore, South Korea, and China — all countries that are evaluating their educational systems and taking a more holistic approach to learning. For example, Finland encourages playtime and allows teachers to experiment with lesson plans.

Becky Thompson, Ph.D., a longtime professor and author of Teaching with Tenderness: Toward an Embodied Practice, presents a “pedagogy of tenderness” as a way to create a space of openness and vulnerability in the classroom. She speaks of fluidity between the self, the environment and the walls of the classroom as a recipe for honest conversations that can survive discomfort and lead to radical social transformation. Thompson, who is also a poet and yoga teacher, says: “In a world beset with conflicts, internal as well as external, isn’t it of equal if not greater importance to balance the sharpening of our intellects with the systemic cultivation of our hearts?”

Yale University recently started offering a course that taps into Thompson’s theory. In January 2018, more than a thousand students signed up for “Psychology and the Good life,” on how to lead a happier and more fulfilling life. This course is Yale’s most popular to date, and student’s reported learning about tangible things they can do to live a more meaningful life.

Educators have an opportunity to prepare students to live happier and more productive lives through teaching emotional intelligence and encouraging creativity. The conversation about transforming education began decades ago, but we are now seeing some real first steps toward creating more empathetic, creative, and emotionally intelligent citizens. The question is, how long before it goes mainstream in U.S. education?

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