In much of my past writing on education, I discuss the need for experts at living who are caring, compassionate global citizens who aim to make the world a better, more peaceful place. Experts at living would be creative and critical thinkers, effective problem-solvers, and dedicated to altruism in order to benefit humanity. Reframing schools in terms of problem-solving would expose students to the myriad problems and suffering that exist, and provide them with experience and practice developing their expertise. Dealing with these complex problems would have the added benefit of bringing real moral, ethical, and global issues into our classrooms and conversations. This would also create opportunities for dialogue, an essential aspect of conflict resolution.
In order to build a better world and create experts at living, schools need to provide students with a clear set of values that will act as their “toolkit” for making the world a better, more peaceful place.
The values that I will discuss below – cooperation, altruism, empathy, compassion, and caring – come from an unfinished book that I began writing with a colleague over a year ago. We’ve taken a hiatus that was longer than the time spent writing, but I would like to restart; I think we have some important things to say. Consequently, this blog post is intended to introduce to some of our ideas to a real audience to gauge how our work resonates and where we need additional thought. For purposes of the post, I’ll leave out the research (though there’s extensive evidence supporting all of these ideas) and include a list of further reading at the end.
The Values “Toolkit”
Neuroscience tells us that humans have evolved cooperative behaviors in order to survive as a species. Being able to communicate with each other, work together, and help one another has made the growth of civilizations possible. It has also created the prosperity that is far beyond anything seen with other species, yet unevenly distributed across the world.
Learning to get along with others is nearly always part of early schooling, often beginning much earlier than formal education. We teach very young children to share and play with others. We want them to work together to accomplish tasks. However, at the same time, we also begin instilling values of competition, with an emphasis on dominating others and being the best of the group. These competitive ideas exist in contrast to the cooperation that has created human society. We need to decide what message we want to send, which ought to be the message that will have a more positive impact on our world.
With cooperation as a value explicit in schooling, we could ensure that children left school understanding that cooperation is what makes the world a better place. We need classrooms, lessons, activities, and interactions that cultivate cooperative behaviors and emphasize the importance of cooperation. This way, students would come to understand that their actions can help us all have better lives.
In order to make the world a better place, we need to help our young people develop into adults who identify as helpers, people who believe that assisting others is their responsibility. We know that children and young people behave altruistically and help others without prompting; there is empirical evidence alongside individual personal experience to prove it. As social creatures dependent on one another, it is also in the best interests of all people to help those around them.
Working together and helping those in need generally makes people feel good about themselves and what they’re doing. People of all ages look for volunteer opportunities. Knowing that, it is only logical that altruism should play a central role in our classrooms in order to purposefully develop it as a value that we deem important. We must capitalize on the helping tendencies already present in young children to help students see that their altruistic actions can positively impact and ultimately change society.
It is deeply part of what makes us human to be able to both cooperate and show concern for the well-being of others. Without these truly human qualities, we would not survive as either a species or individuals. Recognizing this allows us to more fully embrace them and encourage these values within schools and education. We want to build a world that emphasizes deep, meaningful altruistic relationships with others so that we are all better off.
Empathy requires us to put ourselves in another’s shoes and act accordingly, whether as a result of our feelings about the other or about ourselves in a reversed situation. Empathy takes practice. Students need to first learn to recognize that others may be feeling a certain way and then determine how to respond in a variety of circumstances. Finally, they need to learn how to communicate with those around them, particularly in cases of disagreement. Empathy will help guide students’ understanding of one another during periods of conflict, which will have an overall positive impact on their interactions.
Therefore, putting students in situations in classrooms and amongst peers that work to develop kindness will enhance the empathy that they feel for others. This will ultimately impact the choices students make when making decisions that affect those around them. Empathy also plays a role in forgiveness, which is clearly tied to creating a better and more peaceful world. If we are able to forgive others for their actions against us, we will be more inclined to cooperate and work towards the benefit of all humanity.
Practicing empathy is an essential aspect of developing citizens who work to enhance the well-being of others and strive to make the world a better and more peaceful place for all. It forces us to consider others’ needs and the value that each individual has in society. If we want our students to develop values of empathy and caring for one another, adults must demonstrate them as a central tenet of our daily interactions. We need to act in ways that emphasize our human-ness, which means working to help each other in all that we do.
Compassion for all living beings requires us to encourage students to look beyond their everyday lives and towards the world as a whole. We need classrooms, books, lessons, and activities that emphasize the importance of care and compassion for others, as well as the desire to cultivate happiness for others. Our students need to become more open-minded and more concerned with those around them. The more we do in schools to help students think, feel, and act compassionately, the more they will behave that way on their own.
Emphasizing compassion in our students is an essential aspect of developing citizens who care about others. Students must come to understand that they are part of an interdependent human society. Thus, their actions and behaviors have an impact on others and on the world. With this foundation, having compassion for others will positively impact students’ work in and outside of school to make the world a better and more peaceful place.
If we want our students to become citizens who participate in democratic societies, work towards peace, and care for all sentient beings, we need to help them understand that their actions now can and do have an impact on the future. Focusing on how to alleviate suffering can and should be an element of daily activities in schools. Recognizing the role that compassion plays in improving the world means that it should be nurtured and developed to help us reframe education to create a better and more peaceful world.
The necessity of caring for both others and oneself is vital if we are working to solve the world’s biggest, most pressing, and most important problems. We cannot solve these problems if we operate solely along individualistic lines. We must teach students to care about others if we want to make any impact at all. Care must be infused as a value throughout our education system as well as our society.
Creating cultures in school that mirror our hopes for society means that there will be congruence between what we communicate to students and what they actually see and experience. Far too often, there is little to no follow-through on the messages that we claim to send. If caring is not a central tenet of how students are treated and how they treat one another, we cannot shift schools into a system where we focus on the good of humanity. This is important for all students in all communities, but especially in circumstances where school provides the caring that might be lacking in other environments. All students need to believe that just as they are cared for, they can care for others.
We want our students to live in a world that is better than our own, which means that we must emphasize caring among, between, and for others in all that we do. This is how we will ensure that students leave school with the qualities that make us human. We need to emphasize caring in order to create a society and culture that value all sentient beings and collectively seek to make the world a better, more peaceful place.
All sentient beings deserve to live in a peaceful, sustainable world with minimal suffering. With their central role in developing the next generation of leaders, schools are particularly suited to this task. Creating a better world is far more worth our time than assessing students’ abilities to take multiple-choice tests. Educators should embrace this responsibility and seek to promote it in their schools.
We live in a world that is changing faster than the world has ever changed, and we are currently not providing our students with the tools to work within the new world that we will all inhabit before we know it. A guiding framework of core values – cooperation, altruism, empathy, compassion, and caring – can act as a starting point for schools and education systems that are truly dedicated to improving society.
- John Dewey – Democracy and Education
- Paul Ekman – Moving Toward Global Compassion
- Daniel Goleman – A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World
- Adam Grant – Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success
- Joshua Greene – Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them
- Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
- Dacher Keltner – Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life
- Nel Noddings – Caring: A Relational Approach to Ethics and Moral Education
- Matthieu Ricard – Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World