“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
From the time we first encourage a toddler to share his toys we begin the process of building social emotional skills. In truth, it begins before that-with the first touch, the first eye contact, the first whispered words…building intelligence and character begins at birth and follows us to our last day on earth.
Education is not just about schooling-but as children spend most of their time at school from an early age, school is a vital part of their foundation. The task is: How do we, as educators, create schools that teach children to think intensively and critically-schools that build character?
I believe it begins with respect. When we respect the child and, at the same time, model respect for others, including the immediate and extended environment, we create an atmosphere of love and trust. We must not forget to respect ourselves, as well-use our time wisely and live healthily, both in body and mind. It follows that if adults eat junk food and watch junk television children will see this as the ideal.
A focus on testing rather than true understanding of materials is detrimental to thinking critically as it programs a child to memorize, repeat, and forget. In order to foster an ability to think intensively, subjects cannot be taught superficially. Teachers would be better served to delve deeply into less subject matter, rather than race to complete an established and expected curriculum.
I know children who have gotten A+’s on their Native American unit in fourth grade without a clue as to what the Dakota Pipeline Access is all about. We must make our teaching relevant!
As a society, it is important that we place a high value on education and strive for an elevated quality at every grade level. Our modern schools have not changed much since the Industrial Revolution, although our society is changing more and more rapidly. Our children will inhabit a world that we cannot entirely imagine. It is, therefore, of extreme urgency that we nurture creativity and innovative thinking. But creativity without compassion is a hallow achievement.
Experts in the field of human development tell us that empathy is a wired emotion, part of our instinct for societal survival. Yet why is there such an arc of empathy in any one particular classroom? Although certain emotions are part of our DNA, these emotions have a plasticity that is subject to changes that are environmentally dependent – in the same way that a child with a high IQ is not necessarily going to do well in school or beyond. Compassion, like any instinct, such as the ability to walk and talk, must be practiced, refined, and nurtured.
I liken it to a seed with the potential of becoming a tree. The seed will not reach its limbs to the sky, its roots will not dig deep into the earth, branches and bark will not become home for hundreds of creatures, the tree will never bless us with its life giving oxygen, if the rain and the sun and the fertile ground are not present. We must be all of that for our children, not just as parents and professional educators, but as a society. We must embrace all children as our own.
Let’s go back to the teacher explaining to the toddler that she should share her toys. A situation faced millions of times a day in every school throughout the world. How does the teacher communicate to the child? Does she explain that the other child is sad? Does she use a gentle and caring manner that reflects compassion for both sides of the argument? A child cannot develop empathy if the child does not have an understanding of how others feel.
I have seen, in the classroom, how compassion fosters compassion. Yet, it is not enough to teach our children to feel. Just like the toddler unselfishly handing over her toy, we all need to take action on our feelings. By taking personal responsibility we show our children that it is possible to make changes, both small and large.
When we develop a caring attitude about each other we listen, and in this listening we begin to see the world through prisms other than our own. This is the key to true understanding-the kind of understanding that grows as the child grows, developing not only deeper cognitive abilities but the kind of benevolent character traits that will be essential for the survival of our planet.