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Sanity, Compassion, and Learning
Discovering, preserving and making available ancient and modern wisdom of all sorts, practical or profound, arising from whatever tradition, is the general goal that inspires the Dharma Haven Web site. We keep coming back to a basic truth of the ancient Shambhala teachings: We all want to lead sane, dignified and confident lives, and this is possible.

This particular page focuses on learning -- and on teaching and on schools and school systems. We're looking for examples of sustainable, effective practices that could serve as components of a sane and compassionate relationship between students and the people who are trying to help them. We believe that the sanity of our educational institutions is inseparable from our own sanity and well being.

Human beings evolved to live in groups where adults were often busy doing what children would need to learn to do. Children learned by observing, and by participating in whatever ways they were able. We still see this when children want to do what they see adults doing.

The way we teach now is much more abstract. Rather than being allowed to do something useful now, students are being prepared to do something useful in the future. However, the way we set up and run our schools is based on a lot of assumptions that may never have been justified -- that everyone needs the same basic preparation, that we know what preparation they all will need, that what they need is something adults have, and that teachers know how to give it to them.

Even if these assumptions once were correct, they're certainly wrong now, in this modern world of crisis after crisis. Our climate, population, economy, technology, food, air, water, health and who knows what else are all changing more and more quickly in ways that are more and more difficult to deal with using the "tried and true" methods of the past. We can only hope that our younger citizens will have the problem solving, communication and cooperation skills they will need to deal with it all.

Schools that require students to sit still, be quiet unless asked a question, and memorize whatever the current authority figure requires of them, are not going to be up to the challenge of helping people develop the sanity, courage, compassion and creativity they will need in the coming decades. We don't need new citizens who are good at obeying orders; we need people who can think independently and come up with solutions to emerging problems that their teachers could never have even imagined, much less solved.

Fortunately, alternative methods of teaching are available -- not easy ones, necessarily, but workable ones, well tested, that immediately improve the lives of the people who understand and practice them, and at the same time make obvious contributions to the long-term well being of students, teachers and their communities. 

We've already found some of these alternatives, as you can see by exploring some of the resources featured on this page. With the help of our readers, we'll surely find more, and we'll continue trying to make it clear why these ways of teaching are worth learning about.

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Is it Science Yet?
"The more we learn about standardized testing the more likely we are to be appalled. And the more appalled we are, the more inclined we will be to do what is necessary to protect our children."
-- Alfie Kohn

Advocates of standard schooling practices, emphasizing obedience to authority, rote memorization, rewards and punishments, and standardized tests, often claim that these doctrines are "scientific" -- based on research on learning and proven by effectiveness studies. Non-standard approaches that recommend unstructured, more active classrooms, with an emphasis on creativity, critical thinking, and cooperation rather than competition, are dismissed as muddle headed wishful thinking, with no factual basis, emphasizing feeling good at the expense of learning.

The actual situation is the direct reverse of these stereotypes. Even more surprising is that the research which seems to support the use of standard methods suffers from the same logical errors that keep standardized testing, as it is used in our schools today, from giving a valid assessment of students' learning.

You probably remember the parable about the man looking for his keys under a street light, rather than over by his house where he probably lost them, because "the light is better over here." Much of the so-called scientific research that is cited to support traditional schooling practices has just this character, studying simplified artificial trasks, and assuming that we can generalize the results to the learning of complex problem solving and communication skills.

Some researchers were braver than that, and did actually study directly things like how children learn to read when no one is trying to teach them. The results were fascinating, and the teaching methods based on that research work astonishingly well.

Pointing out clear surveys of the evidence relevant to a choice of standard and innovative schooling methods is no easy task, but we can make a good start with the work of Alfie Kohn. His work is a bit to polemical for some peoples tastes, but he does a good job of going over the evidnce, and his conclusions make sense. He argues that standards should be developed out of an understanding of how children actually learn, rather than out of politically motivated movements.

Some of Kohn's books focus on specific principles, and the evidence that supports their application -- and warns of the consequences of violating them. Punished by Rewards, No Contest: The Case Against Competition, and Beyond Discipline fall into this category. Other books, like The Schools Our Children Deserve, The Case Against Standardized Testing, and What to Look for in a Classroom, he discusses the application of these and other principles to schooling., his Web site, offers a wealth of articles on all these topics and more.

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Models of Effective Teaching 
"Do you want to be happy? It's so simple: Help others."
-- Thrangu Rinpoche

Here we are pleased to list a few superb examples of sustainable, effective practices that could indeed serve as components of a sane and compassionate approach to teaching and learning.

betty edwardsmonty roberts

hildred schuellshambhala training

Betty Edwards Teaches Drawing

"... when I started teaching, I tried to communicate my way of thinking about drawing to my students. It didn't work very well, and, to my distress, out of a class of thirty or so students only a few learned to draw." For over a decade she worked on this problem: "how to enable all the students in a class instead of just a few to learn the skill of drawing."

Monty Roberts Listens to Horses

The traditional practice of "breaking" horses is disturbingly similar to the various forms of coercion used in schools. Monty Roberts, who developed a nonviolent method of gentling and training horses, urges us to give up coercion and begin respecting people (and animals!) as individuals responsible for their own choices and their own learning. You can't teach anyone anything -- but you can invite them to learn with you, and set up conditions to help them do so.

Hildred Schuell's Aphasia Therapy

Although aphasia was (and still is) generally considered incurable, Dr. Hildred Schuell discovered how to gradually cure most cases, by removing the element of panic and struggle from therapy sessions.

The Ancient Wisdom of Shambhala

Unbiased awareness of what is actually going on, within ones own being and in ones environment, the basis of all true learning, automatically leads to appropriate action. When ones mind and body are synchronized, when what is actually happening is experienced on the spot, actions mesh with situations as they truly are. Developing such basic sanity, such authentic presence in the actual situation, is possible for all of us.

We'll be continuing to look for projects and methods that can serve as models, and for specific practices that solve certain specific problems in ways that may be generalizable to other problems. Suggestions of appropriate examples would, of course, be warmly welcomed.

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More Resources 
booksweb resources

Net Quest Learning Links

Haven Home: Community

"Ultimate Tension: In honor of Paulo Freire" -- C.A. Gray-Mash

The "Children and Education" section of the Global Ideas Bank

Pathways to School Improvement

John Taylor Gatto -- writings available on the web

Gatto's articles on home education -- Selected articles on schools and teaching

High Scope -- Responsive Classroom

Whole Language Umbrella: Resources

Reading and Language Arts Resources -- Reading Research

Naropa University: B.A. Early Childhood Education

Naropa University: Master of Arts in Contemplative Education

Alternative Assessment In Science

History of Education Links


John Taylor Gatto

Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling

A Different Kind of Teacher: Solving the Crisis of American Schooling

Alfie Kohn

No Contest: The Case Against Competition -- This award - winning book considers the evidence on the use of competition as a way of improving motivation in schools and in the workplace. Contrary to accepted wisdom, competition is not basic to "human nature," but actually poisons our relationships, damages our self-esteem, and holds us back from doing our best.

Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community
Kohn calls into question the very idea of classroom "management." He shows how a fundamentally cynical view of children lies beneath the assumption that we must tell them exactly how we expect them to behave and then offer "positive reinforcement" when they obey. 
Memorizing someone else's answers fails to develop students' understanding. Just so, complying with someone else's expectations for how to act fails to help students develop socially or morally. Kohn contrasts the idea of discipline, in which things are done to students to control their behavior, with an approach in which we work with students to create communities where decisions are made together. 
Punished by Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A'S, Praise, and Other Bribes
Alfie Kohn points out that rewards, like punishments, are methods of controlling people -- perhaps a morally objectionable goal in a democracy -- and that, at best, they produce only temporary compliance. 
Whether used in the workplace, in the classroom, or in the home, rewards fail for many reasons: They punish; they damage relationships; they ignore whatever might be the real reasons for a behavior; they discourage risk taking; and they undermine interest in the task at hand. The alternatives he proposes, which he calls the ``three C's,'' are content, choice, and collaboration

The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and "Tougher Standards"

The current standards movement, which demands that students learn lists of dates and facts, prepares kids for Jeopardy, Kohn argues, not real life. He questions whether today's schools are truly floundering, warning that romantic memories of the old school, with its tests, worksheets, and drills, are purely that -- memories romanticized by time and perception. Kohn also takes issue with the backlash against the whole-language approach to reading instruction.

In What to Look For in a Classroom: And Other Essays, Kohn "challenges us to reconsider some of our most basic assumptions about children and education." Why is cooperative learning so threatening? Why is detracking is so fiercely opposed? "Kohn argues for giving children more opportunity to participate in their own schooling, for transforming classrooms into caring communities, and for providing the kind of education that taps and nourishes children's curiosity." 

More Books

Keeping the Light in Your Eyes: A Guide to Helping Teachers Discover, Remember, Relive, and Rediscover the Joy of Teaching
Authors Beth Hurst and Ginny Reding interviewed over 70 teachers in communities across the country -- teachers who, in a profession characterized by pressure, stress, and little reward, still find teaching an enjoyable, fulfilling career. 
The book offers unique insights into creating a teaching mission, setting up a community of learners, discovering the rewards of diversity, balancing personal and professional time, turning mistakes into excellence, using laughter to create rapport with students, and using discipline to create an atmosphere of trust and cooperation in the classroom.

The Power of Mindful Learning, by Ellen J. Langer; Addison Wesley, 1997. After years of research, Langer has concluded that many of the problems with current schooling systems can be traced to seven commonly held myths, and teachers' efforts apply them. The myths are simply stated: The basics must be learned so well that they become second nature; paying attention means being focused on one thing at a time; delaying gratification is important; rote memorization is necessary; forgetting is a problem; intelligence is knowing "what's out there''; and there are right and wrong answers. Langer counters with five principles of her own, the basis of what she calls "sideways learning'': openness to novelty; alertness to distinction; sensitivity to different contexts; implicit, if not explicit, awareness of multiple perspectives; and orientation in the present. She offers alternative approaches based on her five principles, with startling results.

Interview with Ellen Langer on The Power of Mindful Learning

You Are the Earth -- David Suzuki & Kathy Vanderlinden. Everything on Earth is connected: Here are science, activities, ideas and stories to help children understand the relationship between human beings and the environment, and what they themselves can do to improve things. -- more

One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards -- Susan Ohanian 

Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It -- Peter Sacks 

Contradictions of School Reform: Educational Costs of Standardized Testing -- Linda M. McNeil 

Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet Out of Idaho -- Jon Katz

The Children's Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer, by Semour Papert; Basic Books, 1994. Rather than using computers to teach the same old curriculum even more mechanically, some visionary teachers have used computers creatively to enrich learning. Computer based media can let children master areas of knowledge that are now inaccessibly difficult, and self directed study can support diverse learning styles and let students take charge of their own learning.

"So The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog is what? It is a handing of the tools of a whole civilization to its citizens."

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Revised on October 23, 2001

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