By Robert W. Roeser
“Education of the Heart” summarizes a rich and extraordinary transdisciplinary dialogue that brought together contemplatives, scientists, and educational practitioners to seek new answers to enduring questions. What does it mean to truly flourish as a human being? How can educational systems cultivate the ethical virtues—empathy, compassion, altruism—needed for new generations of young people to flourish both as individuals and collectively?
This 33rd Mind & Life Dialogue departed from previous dialogues in two distinct ways. First, in addition to scientific talks on the ethical skills and dispositions essential to flourishing, teachers and practitioners shared their hands-on perspectives and practical tools for advancing an “education of the heart.” Second, presenters looked at how research related to the science of the mind and wisdom traditions could influence larger systems—in this case, the field of education. In short, it pointed to the larger systems-level changes that are needed to scale an approach that educates the heart, alongside the head and the hand.
Reimagining Education with Flourishing at its Heart
The Dialogue also touched upon the profound need for a wider re-imagining of the aims and practices of education in ways that place human flourishing at its center, at its very heart. What would it mean for primary, secondary, and tertiary education systems all over the world to make human flourishing a central institutional aim? What would a lifelong approach to education look like that blended scientific observation, artistic imagination, contemplative insight, and practical activity with the goal of nurturing individual and collective flourishing? The notion that positive social change could be affected through such a worldwide educational movement, in ways that address the pressing economic, sociopolitical, and ecological challenges of our age, was a central theme underlying the Dialogue.
“The notion that positive social change could be affected through such a worldwide educational movement, in ways that address the pressing economic, sociopolitical, and ecological challenges of our age, was a central theme underlying the Dialogue.”
“Education of the Heart” advances the idea that the adaptation of premodern wisdom is needed in post-modern educational institutions if we are to rise to the challenges confronting us as a whole species and a whole planet. Such premodern wisdom values the cultivation of attentional skills (e.g., mindful awareness), social-emotional skills (e.g., empathy, perspective taking, kindness), systems-thinking skills (e.g., seeing interdependence, our common humanity), and ethics (e.g., fairness, compassion) through specific practices (e.g., focused attention) and activities (e.g., service with reflection).
Dialogue presenter and former Mind & Life Board member Daniel Goleman refers to these new social-emotional learning (SEL) elements (e.g., attention training, ethics and compassion, trauma-informed practices, system thinking) as “SEL 2.0.” These skills, cultivated through innovative contemplative and experiential practices and activities, are theorized to support flourishing and afford a means of seeing oneself—and life itself—in its hidden wholeness. As a result, one gains insight into how every part is connected to the whole.
Such an education would prepare young people to succeed not only as workers in the global economy, but as engaged citizens wanting to be forces for good—working toward individual and collective flourishing in the face of serious global challenges: economic inequality, social division, and climate change. “Education of the Heart” showcases a new generation of creative programs aimed at cultivating these human flourishing skills, while underscoring the importance of considering the wider cultural and educational contexts in which such programs and practices are implemented.
Transforming Teaching and Learning in Schools
As musician and educator Aaron Stern noted at the Dialogue, without reimagining education and the processes of teaching and learning, new “SEL 2.0” programs may not be as effective as they might be, like pouring new wine into old containers. Stern is Founder and Director of the Academy for the Love of Learning, a kind of learning think tank. He has observed that the organizational culture and pedagogical practices of many school systems where SEL programs are implemented are ill-aligned with the intentions and aims of such programs.
In today’s classroom, Stern thinks children’s natural curiosity is hijacked by an educational system that uses rewards and punishments, rather than innovative curricula, to motivate learning. Too often, such systems emphasize materialistic values, like competitiveness and acquisitiveness, and make economic goals, like getting jobs, attaining upward mobility, and peopling an economy, central to the learning process.
As children are exposed to such educational norms, it “clamps a lid down” on their curiosity, and does violence to it, Stern argues, diminishing children’s natural curiosity. He wonders how SEL 2.0 programs, aimed at experiential learning and social-emotional and ethical development, might fare within a wider culture of teaching and learning that is often at odds with such approaches and aims. We need to renew the way we teach and learn more generally, he argues, for these programs to be truly effective.
For those who have studied the history of education, we hear in Stern’s insights echoes of John Dewey’s educational philosophy. At the heart of teaching and learning, Dewey emphasized, are the ties of affection between student, teacher, the curriculum, and the child’s everyday experience. For Dewey, the primary job of the teacher was to skillfully locate the logical ordering of the subject matter of the curriculum within the psychological development of children characterized by their natural curiosity, age-related developmental needs, cultural experiences, and abilities.
Without this approach to teaching and learning, where cultural and developmental relevance, curiosity, and engagement are central pillars, there is likely no enrichment program that can help children to learn and flourish. Students must be active participants and co-creators of the learning situation with adults to nurture ongoing learning. This kind of wider re-envisioning of education requires a systems view, and a rethinking of the very purposes and practices of teaching and learning on a wider and deeper scale.
“Without this approach to teaching and learning, where cultural and developmental relevance, experience, and engagement are central pillars, there is likely no enrichment program that can help children to learn and flourish.”
Interestingly enough, Dewey’s home of Chicago is also where Stern arrived at his parallel insights on education in the mid-1980s as a dean of Chicago’s American Academy of Music. After observing how music students learn, Stern founded the Academy for the Love of Learning to mainstream his approaches into K-12 education.
The kind of learning Stern promotes both expresses and enacts an innate curiosity that he calls the soul’s urge to learn. “There is a movement that is from deep within that moves us toward something—or a relationship, a work of art, a piece of music—and we make contact with it,” he says. “And then in contacting it, we become intimate with it; and we engage with it to the point of completion; and then we come back to a place of rest.”
The emphasis that Stern places on children’s intrinsic curiosity with the unknown, and thereby, the link of curiosity and imagination (thinking of what is not known), reveals another key theme in this Dialogue, that deep learning in all its modalities (e.g., reason, imagination, action) is closely linked to the process of flourishing and its inquiry into what it means to live a good and meaningful life.
Experience is a constant interchange between individuals and worlds. When learning is located within the social worlds and developmental concerns of the student, it connects the curriculum with the students’ holistic experience of life, and in that way is intrinsically motivating and fostering of further curiosity and desire to learn through engagement with the world. This process reveals the dialectic transformation of “child” and “world” through skillfully structured activities and relationships the teacher creates with the students.
It is this kind of practice of teaching and learning that best aligns with SEL 2.0 programs. Such programs are likely to be most impactful in classrooms focused on experiential, lifelong approaches to learning. This highlights the importance of focusing on the social contexts and systems into which such programs are implemented, and on supporting the development of educational leaders, teachers, and students alike as such programs are implemented, as the scientific and practical work on “Education of the Heart” moves into the future.
The bold vision of education articulated by Dialogue presenters is far from mere aspiration but is being realized in ways small and large around the globe. For example, now, just two years after the Dialogue, the SEE Learning curriculum (see Chapter 5)—with its emphasis on cultivating compassion, ethical intelligence, and systems thinking among students—is being implemented in diverse country contexts around the world. At a time of growing divides and escalating global challenges, such transformative approaches offer hope and practical tools for preparing an emerging generation of young people to recognize and embrace our shared humanity.
Share your story!
Tell us how you used this information.