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Hallmarks of an Education for Life School

Preparing children to meet life's challenges

By Nitai Deranja, President of Education for Life International

Education for Life offers techniques for transforming education into an integral process which harmonizes book learning with direct life experience and instructs students in the art of living. It is based on the deep insight into the potential of every human being: Nurture creativity, intuition and wisdom in every student, tapping into unexplored capabilities or pure potentiality. Education for Life is a system of education that has the same goal as life itself: progressively to become on every level- heart and mind, body and spirit- more balanced, mature, effective, creative, happy, harmonious human beings.

When you visit an Education for Life School, you will find that each classroom seems unique. There is no standardized “look” to the classrooms, no set outward curriculum that each teacher follows, and no fixed style of learning for students. What then, are the distinguishing features of an EFL school? It is the purpose of this pamphlet to highlight the subtle, yet essential factors that define Education for Life and therefore determine the quality and scope of a child’s school experience.

First and foremost, EFL teachers are trained to appreciate that life itself is a school. Throughout our lives, the events that come to us offer a series of lessons that can lead to an ever-deepening sense of personal fulfillment and happiness. Put slightly differently, life continually offers us the opportunity to expand our consciousness. From this perspective the primary goal for the years of formal schooling becomes the development of the skills and attitudes that will help us take full advantage of these life-lessons.

A hallmark of an Education for Life classroom then will be the modeling of a cheerful openness to life and the unexpected lessons that might come our way. Although teachers will bring appropriate lesson plans to class, there will always be a readiness to embrace and make use of whatever special experiences a particular day presents. In the early grades opportunities for growth might present themselves through an unexpected visitor, unusual weather, or a spontaneous incident from the playground. In later years there will be a concerted effort to involve students in the broader streams of life outside the classroom. In every instance, an EFL teacher will strive to help students discern whether their responses to new events produce an expansion or contraction of consciousness. Specifically, the teacher will guide students from reactions of fear toward courage, from judgment toward compassion, from sadness toward joy. In our school’s philosophy this directionality of attitude is referred to as “Progressive Development.”

This focus on the gradual expansion of the student’s consciousness leads naturally to the next essential component of an EFL classroom, a child-centered curriculum. While every school must address the standard topics of modern education, the EFL curriculum will be child-centered in the sense that the teacher looks primarily to the students’ readiness for particular kinds of growth in determining the specific activities that will take place in the classroom. By knowing each student’s interests, talents, and potential, the teacher is able to present the lessons in a manner that maximizes student involvement and progress. Thus while a teacher may work with the same basic material over a period of years (fractions, world history, etc.), each class will manifest a unique expression of the learning process. EFL curriculum categories such as Understanding People, Cooperation, and Wholeness, as well as our small teacher/student ratios, facilitate this approach to learning.

The emphasis on a child-centered curriculum also contributes to a feeling of mutual respect between teacher and student. In paying close attention to individuals, the teacher develops an appreciation for each student’s positive qualities. Children, on the other hand, sense that the teacher is seeking to adapt the learning process to their interests and abilities as opposed to imposing a rigid program of prearranged lessons. In this way teacher and students can partake in the excitement of co-creating the curriculum.

The final characteristic of an EFL classroom is also rooted in the goal of preparing children to find happiness and fulfillment in life. In responding to life’s challenges, we have four primary tools at our disposal: the body, feelings, will, and intellect. The proper development of these “Tools of Maturity” lies at the heart of Education for Life. In our schools we emphasize one of these tools in each 6-year cycle of the child’s growth.

The stage from 0–6 encompasses the “Foundation” or preschool years. During this period the child is primarily occupied with learning to relate to physical realities, especially those of the body. An EFL preschool will promote physical vitality through a healthy diet and generous amounts of exercise, sunlight, and fresh air. Frequent nature outings will be interspersed with activities specifically designed to promote physical agility and coordination. The Foundation Years are also a time for cultivating the physical senses through creating a beautiful classroom environment and involving the children in painting, crafts, music, dance, and other activities that refine the children’s capacities for hearing, seeing, feeling, etc. Storytelling and role-playing are popular venues with this age for sharing initial insights into human behavior. The preschool years also provide an opportune time for cultivating uplifting habits of cleanliness, cooperation, and truthfulness.

The next cycle of growth covers the period from 6-12, the “Feeling” or elementary years. During this stage we shift our emphasis from the body to working with and through the child’s emotions. For a beginning step, children are helped to notice the different kinds of feelings and their varying effects on people. Students learn to appreciate and cultivate the uplifting influences of kindness, cheerfulness, and even- mindedness. Conversely, they can learn to redirect the disturbing energies that produce anger, greed, and jealousy. Techniques for working with these energies include breathing exercises, affirmations, yoga, and meditation. Of crucial importance during these years is the cultivation of the calm, centered state that leads to clear intuition. As their capacity for refined feelings develops, students learn to discriminate between the positive and negative effects of different kinds of activities and environments. Teachers will also utilize feelings as a powerful stimulus for other kinds of learning by emphasizing the awe of nature and scientific exploration, the sense of order and symmetry in mathematics, and especially the encouragement to be gained from the study of inspiring and saintly people.

Properly understood, the “Willful Years” from ages 12-18 present some of the greatest opportunities for the child’s development. Adults can help students avoid the self- involved negativity and rebelliousness that can plague the junior and senior high school years by encouraging positive applications of the will. Realistic, yet challenging goals must be set for these young people; goals that are in accordance with their own higher sensitivities as well as their individual talents and interests. Through faith in their positive potential and consistent adherence to appropriate disciplinary procedures, adults can support the students’ efforts to gradually learn such lessons as perseverance, self-sacrifice, responsibility, and self-control. Classroom applications of this approach will emphasize a “hands-on” style of learning where students can apply their energies to life-like situations. Science projects, debates, service projects and challenges of physical endurance are especially appropriate for this age group. A primary goal of the EFL teacher is to help each student identify and realize individual areas of expertise, thus providing a basis for the healthy development of the will. In an EFL school students of this age are asked to share in the responsibility for financing field trips and other special activities, even to the point of earning part of their tuition.

The final EFL cycle covers the “Thoughtful” or college years from 18-24. During this period the intellect is trained to work in conjunction with the three complementary tools of the body, feelings, and will. Intellectual insights are coordinated with the energy and enthusiasm produced by physical vitality, the intuitive feel for the rightness of an idea that comes from clear, calm feeling, and the ability to overcome obstacles that results from a dynamic application of the will. In this way the intellect becomes an effective tool for gaining the insights needed to lead a productive and fulfilling life.

Academic Achievement and Education for Life

Education for Life (EFL) is based on a balanced development of the four Tools of Maturity: the body, feelings, will, and intellect. In contrast, mainstream education with its one-pointed focus on obtaining higher test scores has increasingly emphasized the training of intellect at the expense of activities that promote growth in the other areas. It is interesting then to compare the results of these two very different approaches.

Education for Life and Testing

While we do not advocate the testing of young children, older students often express a healthy interest in knowing how they are doing academically in relation to others their age. When the EFL high school near Nevada City, California applied for accreditation in 2005, a part of the process entailed giving the students a nationally recognized, standardized test. The results have been remarkable, though not unexpected for those who are familiar with recent educational studies. In every year the students as a group have averaged in the top 10% of schools nationwide, even reaching the top 1% on one occasion. SAT scores have been equally impressive with the average EFL student scoring 1691 as compared to a national average of around 1500. How can EFL students compare so well with elite academic schools when our focus includes large amounts of time directed toward drama and music, games and outdoor activities, service projects and travel? Current educational research provides some valuable insights.

The Body and the Intellect

It seems obvious that a healthy body provides the foundation for a healthy intellect. Disease, low energy, stress, and a lack of cleanliness and order can all seriously undermine the ability to focus mentally. This relationship is clearly demonstrated in a study done in 2013 by The National Academy of Sciences.

State-mandated academic achievement testing has had the unintended consequence of reducing opportunities for children to be physically active during the school day and beyond…. Yet little evidence supports the notion that more time allocated to subject matter will translate into better test scores. Indeed, 11 of 14 correlational studies of physical activity during the school day demonstrate a positive relationship to academic performance. Overall, a rapidly growing body of work suggests that time spent engaged in physical activity is related not only to a healthier body but also to a healthier mind.

Feelings and the Intellect
Similarly, the ability to work constructively with one’s feelings can be a tremendous help when trying to maintain mental focus in the face of interpersonal tensions or inner turmoil. The advent of the term “Emotional Intelligence” in 1995, produced a wave of research authenticating the importance of social and emotional growth. A key report by J. Payton et al looked at an array of data taken from 317 studies involving 324,303 students. Their conclusion follows.

SEL [Social and Emotional Learning] programming improved students’ academic performance by 11 to 17 percentile points across the three reviews, indicating that they offer students a practical educational benefit…. Although some educators argue against implementing this type of holistic programming because it takes valuable time away from core academic material, our findings suggest that SEL programming not only does not detract from academic performance but actually increases students’ performance on standardized tests and grades”.

Will and the Intellect
The connection between the will and intellect is evident in the value of such qualities as perseverance, concentration, and initiative. In her book “The Willpower Instinct”, Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal Ph.D surveyed the results of over 200 studies in this area.

People who have strong willpower are better off – i.e. better control of their attention, emotions, and actions. They are happier and healthier. Their relationships are more satisfying and last longer. They make more money and go further in their careers. They are better able to manage stress, deal with conflict, and overcome adversity. They live longer. Self-control is a better predictor of academic success than IQ. It’s a stronger determinant of effective leadership than charisma. It’s more important for marital harmony than empathy.

Conclusion and Prediction
It may be taking awhile, but educators are gradually acknowledging that a one-sided emphasis on the intellect is counterproductive. Even the “winners” of this approach are adversely affected. In November of 2011, NBC interviewed an administrator at Peking University High School in Shanghai, the top school worldwide as measured by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, but also a school where students put in 12 hours of study per day including weekends. “Test taking is damaging to students’ creativity, critical thinking skills and, in general, China’s ability to compete in the world. It can make students very narrow-minded. In the 21st century, China needs the creative types its education system isn’t producing.”

For over 40 years, Education for Life has pioneered an approach that emphasizes cultivating the intellect in conjunction with the body, feelings, and will. Modern research shows that the future of education around the world lies with schools that can successfully implement this kind of integrated, holistic approach.

Test Scores
A question that often comes up in discussing Education for Life with newcomers is, “How does this approach affect academic achievement, especially as measured by standardized tests”. The answer often surprises people.

The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) is the principle tool for judging high school achievement in the United States. The following table shows the average scores of our graduating students compared to average national scores.

National Averages EFL School Averages
Critical Reading 497 565
Mathematics 514 579
Writing 489 547
Total 1500 1691

The SAT has withstood the misguided notion current in many educational circles that student achievement can be measured by the number of facts and formulas that have been retained. As an example high scores on the current STAR test in California depend on a student’s knowledge of the Schlieffen Plan, the Tennis Court Oath, and other obscure data that require a fixed curriculum and massive amounts of spirit-deadening memorization to assimilate. Students in an EFL school with an expansive, student-centered curriculum would not do well on these tests.

Other tests, like the SAT however, approach achievement from the more plausible perspective that student progress is better measured in such areas as reading comprehension, mathematical reasoning, and writing skills. We utilized one of these tests, The Iowa Test of Educational Development (ITED), with our students. The results are listed below in percentile ranks that show how our students compared with other schools. A ranking in the 90th percentile means they scored in the top 10% nationally.

Subject 2005 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
Vocabulary 99 87 89 96 97 99 99 81  95
Reading Comprehension 93 93 96 95 93 99 99 86  91
Language 94 85 92 79 91 96 99 94  94
Math Concepts & Problems 97 91 95 96 85 97 99 96  91
Computation 88 82 61 80 84 71 96 92  85
Total Percentile Score 96 90 94 93 93 98 99 94  91

These scores demonstrate the effectiveness of a holistic approach like Education for Life even in more traditional areas of student achievement. For a fuller discussion of this topic, see the article on “Organic Education”.

Education for Life High School Graduates

EFL graduates are accepted to the colleges they choose. For example,our 2013 senior class were accepted at the following colleges and universities: UC Merced, UC Davis, St Mary’s, Lewis and Clark, Humboldt State, Reed, Linfield, Whitman, Puget Sound, Maharishi University of Management, and Ananda College of Living Wisdom.