Teaching What Matters
Updated: Aug 1
In my 19 years of education, I was never explicitly taught how to maintain equanimity; but I did learn that an equilateral triangle was equiangular. We spent hours learning states and capitals, but rarely were we invited to explore our inner states or study the topography of the inner landscape. I learned how to compose a logical argument, but was never taught how to mediate conflict. I learned chemistry, but was never taught how to self-regulate or change my internal state to optimize well-being. We read books, but were never asked to deconstruct the streams of our own inner narratives or identify and challenge our own cognitive distortions. I learned to map America, but never to map my own brain.
How about you? When governments around the world issued lockdowns, what practical skills were you taught as a child during your 13-21 year career as a student or graduate student to maintain equanimity? What strategies were you taught as a child that you now use as an adult to budget, to manage your portfolio, to grow your investments? Of all the frameworks you were taught, which do you use to mediate conflicts, decouple identity from thought, or manage strong emotions? When you are stressed, which specific techniques did you learn as a child to self-regulate? Of all the recipes that were shared with you to promote health, which nutrient dense meals were your favorite? When a loved one betrayed your trust, what specific techniques did you practice to mend the breach and heal the heart? Of all the strategies imparted to ensure you got a good night's sleep, which have you found most effective? What exercises were you encouraged to practice daily to build strength, flexibility, and endurance?
Few can answer these questions in detail. Few likely received any explicit instruction in the core competencies that matter. While some may have had a teacher who inspired and influenced their development, I doubt if any reader attended a school where communication, economics, self-regulation, mindfulness, nutrition, or the science of well-being were sequenced, explicitly taught, and embedded in the curriculum. You learned the names of state capitals, the names of presidents, important dates, and the causes of the Civil War. You learned that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr had a dream; you learned the Pythagorean Theorem; you learned how to spell correctly, how to write a paragraph, and that objects at rest remain at rest. You learned how to read, how to multiply, how to say "Good morning!" in a foreign language. In all of those years of schooling, did you ever learn how to maintain your seat and listen to an irate spouse or partner with empathy, how to express what is alive in you with authenticity, what and when to eat to optimize your health? Were you ever encouraged to explore your own mind?
I am grateful to my teachers. They followed the paradigms they were taught. Today, thanks to advances in brain imaging technology, biology and neuroscience, we have a better understanding of how the developing brain works. There are 4 independent neural networks that promote well-being: the ability to maintain positive states, the ability to avoid mind wandering, the ability to be generous, the ability to recover from negative states. Now, I am in a position to effect change and to teach what matters as explicitly as I can. What I teach on retreat, I apply in the classroom. My goal in writing this is to show how practical these protocols are both in and out of the classroom.
Mindfulness training is part of our morning routine. I introduced students to the Wim Hof Method several weeks ago. Last week, I brought in heart rate variability sensors. Heart rate variability, or hrv, is a measure of the beat to beat alterations of the heart. Clinicians use hrv to measure heart health. HRV is a biomarker for the health of the autonomic nervous system (which regulates heartbeat)- and the tone of the parasympathetic in particular. HRV is also used as a marker for stress. Many variables affect HRV: diet, rest, and physical activity, for example. Psychological factors affect hrv as well like stress, fear, or anxiety. HRV, then, can offer an unparalleled window into our emotional well-being. We can use the breath to improve coherence, the orderly and harmonious synchronization of the cardiovascular and respiratory system and blood pressure rhythms.
I don't ask children to pay attention. Attentional regulation is explicit. This week, I'll introduce the attention cycle. We'll begin attentional training. Sleep, stress, and preconditions (e.g. time of day, cognitive demands) affect attention. Attention can be optimized, but there is a vigilance decrement which is influenced by the circadian cycle. Attention is not constant; the ability to sustain attention fluctuates. This influences the pace, duration, sequencing, and intensity of lessons.
We learn strategies for managing strong emotions. Ekman's Atlas of Emotions is a useful visual tool for understanding the emotional timeline. I introduce the concept of emotional granularity to help them better understand the nuances of emotional experiences. There is evidence to suggest that the more nuanced one's understanding of emotional tone (even so-called negative ones), the more thoughtfully we can regulate them. We learn to use language to describe the contours of emotion, to describe feelings and identify the needs they point to.
Communication (mediation, negotiation, empathy) is another pillar of our morning routine. Weekly, I introduce specific, actionable strategies they can use in their day-to-day interactions. Lessons are sequenced and developmentally appropriate. We practice in dyads or groups. Last week, I shared John Gottman's 4 Horses of the Apocalypse. These are the negative communication patterns which undermine relationships: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. We also reviewed and practiced the antidotes: "I" statements, identifying feelings and needs, appreciation/gratitude, radical responsibility/accountability and resets. We looked at hypotheticals and the children brought in their own examples. We deconstructed conflicts, guessed feelings and needs, practiced role play, and enemy image work. Next week, we will look at cognitive distortions and practice intensity exercises. In the intensity exercise, we introduce a mild trigger (a comment or word that provokes a negative reaction). Students learn to stay grounded and aware even when triggered so that they can respond, rather than react, more thoughtfully. This is a snapshot of one week, not the whole of what I teach.
The techniques are tools. The more tools we have, the more versatile we can be in our day to day interactions with others. Hammers are the right tool for some jobs, a flat head screwdriver might be the right tool for another, and a specialty tool, like a lipping planer, might be perfect for a third job. Communication tools are similar. People are complex. Culture and context influence how and what we say. Trash talking, for example, can be fun, but if a teammate was just diagnosed with a serious physical condition, real talk might be the best way to support him or her. Communication is a way to connect, a route to the heart.
Every morning, students meet with their teams to trade stocks. We're playing the Stock Market Game. Students apply their negotiation and listening skills. They practice managing their emotions. They work together to build and manage their investment portfolio in a real-world, dynamic marketplace.
The purpose of the game, however, goes beyond investing. Many of the most pressing societal challenges are rooted in economics (or more accurately in our lust for more to satisfy a longing that cannot be met with things): global warming, civil unrest, social inequity, gender inequality, environmental degradation, famine, and conflicts between nations. The ultimate goal is for children to index their values with their investments and to better understand macro events.
I am the Director of Academic Technology. The content I teach is secondary; the core competencies are primary: cultivating resilience, attentional regulation, adopting a growth mindset, increasing frustration tolerance, failing forwards, monitoring self-talk, leveraging the child's inclination toward play, and cultivating joy.
This week, fifth graders are learning Sonic Pi, a Ruby based programming language. Music is produced and coded line by line. In the process, students learn about the physics of sound and how electronic sounds can be engineered, filtered, and produced. In the code below, students modify a sawtooth wave. They slice and phase it, add reverb, assign a root chord, octave, and a chord type. They modify envelopes and cutoff values. They create variables to pan the sound and detune it. There are rudimentary elements of artificial intelligence in the code which allows the machine to choose a start and end note. Panning and detuning are also randomized.
with_synth :dsaw do
with_fx(:slicer, phase: [0.25,0.125].choose) do
with_fx(:reverb, room: 0.5, mix: 0.3) do
start_note = chord([:b1, :b2, :e1, :e2, :b3, :e3].choose, :minor).choose
final_note = chord([:b1, :b2, :e1, :e2, :b3, :e3].choose, :minor).choose
p = play start_note, release: 8, note_slide: 4, cutoff: 30, cutoff_slide: 4, detune: rrand(0, 0.2), pan: rrand(-1, 0), pan_slide: rrand(4, 8)
control p, note: final_note, cutoff: rrand(80, 120), pan: rrand(0, 1)
To guide a 10 year old here, I encourage a growth mindset. I tell them they will make mistakes and get runtime errors every few lines. As in meditation, how they approach errors matters. If they approach syntax errors with the same matter-of-factness as they would a puzzle, in the spirit of play, or as a challenge, they will grow. If they see errors as evidence of ineptitude, they will be frustrated. We learn specific techniques, like reframing or cognitive reappraising, to train the ability to recover from negative events.
Programming is challenging. A high frustration tolerance and stomach for failure promote learning. It's a matter of reframing error. After acknowledging the complexity, I invite students to approach errors the way they might look for Waldo in those illustrated puzzle books. Programmers call the process debugging. I let them sit with their frustration and ask them to search line by line for the bug. If they associate this experience of failing repetitively with something good, they will receive a dopamine hit when they solve it. Often, I see arms shoot up in the air in victory. "Got it!"
In programming, the end goal- a game, an app, a utility- must be compelling enough to push them past frustration. If they are passionate about the idea they want to bring into physical form, they will work past frustration. The projects, therefore, are often open-ended. I show the how, but they must provide the what and bring the why.
I pitch instruction to what psychologist Lev Vygotsky called the Zone of Proximal Development. As in Goldilocks, the lesson can neither be too hard nor too easy. Instruction is short and sequenced. I monitor their body language. I listen for sighs and self-talk. I am not quick to relieve them of their discomfort. The goal is to leverage frustration so that they can drill deeper into learning.
Errors are gateways to plasticity. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that amplifies activity of brain circuits associated with focus and attention. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that amplifies activity of brain circuits associated with alertness. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that amplifies activity of brain circuits associated with pursuing goals, motivation & reward. If all three neuromodulators are present, accelerated learning can occur.
For neuroplasticity and learning to occur, conditions are important. Sleep, diet and exercise are behaviors that promote cognitive and emotional well-being. I don't just lecture on exercise and diet; we exercise and sample nutrient dense foods. For learning to be meaningful, I make it tangible, edible, physical. I brought in homemade energy bites: balls of oatmeal, chocolate chips, coconut, peanut butter, flax meal, honey, nuts (pecan, almond, walnuts), vanilla extract & chia seeds. The kids enjoyed them (no one has food allergies). Several prepared them at home. Last week, I shared a protein drink with them which consisted of a nut milk base (oats, almonds), chia and flax seeds, berries (black, red, strawberries), frozen kale, plant protein, and an ayurvedic extract called ashwagandha. Benefits of ashwagandha include: increased energy levels, improved concentration, and stress relief. The drinks are nutritious and delicious. They're easy for kids to make.
In the classroom, I try to model as best I can. My actions speak louder than my words. Jack LaLanne, the Godfather of Fitness, was one of my childhood heroes. He promoted exercise and diet. His example continues to inspire me. I am approaching 50. I'm training for a 50 mile ultra. I've cycled several countries and continents and will resume touring again this summer. I paddle across the channel and kayak the Elizabethan Islands several times a year. It's applied knowledge: the science of sport and nutrition in action.
We take regular rest and fitness breaks in the classroom. I introduced kids to yoga and the pull-push-leg training split. We did push-ups one day, pull ups the following day, and a light run/walk with lateral movements to strengthen fascia the next.
Walking promotes optic flow which promotes calm. I highlighted some of the cognitive and physiological benefits of walking/running. There is an additional benefit from walking outdoors in the morning. There is a particular wavelength that comes from natural sunlight which triggers photosensitive cells in the retina to prime the body's circadian clock. So, we have the virtuous loop of exercise which promotes cardiovascular fitness, cognition and a good night's sleep- all of which enhance mood.
Adolescence is a period of profound brain structuring and reorganization. Infancy is the only other time during life where such dramatic brain changes occur. The most profound changes occur in the prefrontal cortex (which organizes high-order thinking and is the seat of executive functioning), the corpus collosum (a thick bundle of nerve fibers which ensure that the left and right hemispheres can communicate with each other), and the amygdala (associated with the body's fear and stress responses). The habits and identities we adopt as adolescents often remain with us through adulthood.
We focus on what matters. By prioritizing student well-being, we do not compromise rigor. When we put first things first, we strengthen the core competencies- meta-cognition, attention, memory, emotional management, and executive functioning. Cultivation of these soft skills are what sustain life long learning, passion, resilience and grit, inner fortitude. As a culture, however, we focus more on the acquisition of facts than on those habits which research suggests promote well-being. In our misguided pursuit for top grades, admission to top universities, promotions, and material possessions, we miss the happiness and fulfillment that can be lived now and embodied daily. We compromise the very things that contribute to a life well-lived: rest, health, our friendships and social connections, and the balance of our own minds.
As a result of this misplacement of priorities, more and more children are being diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders. More and more are being prescribed powerful psychotropic medications at younger and younger ages. There is a medical school axiom that speaks to this: if 100 people drink from a well and 90 get diarrhea, you can treat the symptoms or you can treat the water. But when educators, researchers, doctors and other clinicians who might influence change themselves boast 60-80 hour work weeks, limited time with family and friends, citing lack of time for exercise, meditation, or hobbies, it is not likely that any meaningful structural changes within those institutions will occur- which translates to superficial mission statements on well-being.
Many teachers are reluctant to embrace these practices just as many adults are hesitant to adopt mindfulness fearing the reallocation of time would compromise productivity. This essay is not prescriptive. In penning this, I hope to show how practical and beneficial these disciplines can be- not to promote change within cultures or institutions- but to influence those single readers who desire real change and are willing to transform the inner landscape by promoting the conditions for their own well-being.