Tag Archives: Cooperation

A Toolkit to Improve the World

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”

Cooperation
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.

Altruism
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
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
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.

Caring
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.

Further Reading

Building Peace: Reconsidering Masculinity and Femininity

Over coffee a few months ago, a friend and I asked ourselves the following question: What character traits and values should society be promoting in order to best create sustainable well-being for all?

Because we had both recently finished reading Peace Education: How We Come to Love and Hate War by Nel Noddings, one lens to use in answering this question jumped out. We began discussing it as the difference embodied in masculine and feminine traits and values. It appeared obvious to us at the time that the majority of masculine traits and values, which are promoted, advertised, and sold to us, largely stand in the way of universal well-being and their opposite traits and values, embodied in feminist ideology, mostly contribute to a better, more peaceful world.

There seemed to be a clear disconnect between what society espouses it desires and the values it endorses in attempting to actualize those visions of a better society for individuals to live in. This post aims to explore the masculine and feminine values in our society, and the ways that we actually do (or do not) promote a better world.

What We Teach
The easiest way to think about this question is to consider what we teach our youngest children or students. We want them to be kind, caring, and compassionate. We show them how to cooperate, collaborate, play together, and form friendships. We praise children who are gentle with other children and who help those around them.

All of these qualities are undoubtedly positive and certainly enhance the relationships between individuals for the better, thus contributing to overall well-being. When we teach our children to take turns in the sandbox so that no one feels left out or left behind, we do it with the hopes that they will grow into adults who are responsive to others’ needs. When we do not care about others, including those we do not know, we are less likely to see them as deserving of the same rights, privileges, and opportunities as we are. An accepting, non-discriminatory society therefore depends on caring relations between individuals. The time we spend teaching caring to our children demonstrates its importance in all aspects of our societies and communities.

Similarly, we spend countless hours teaching our children to cooperate and work together. We want them to entertain themselves as a group, solve problems collaboratively, and develop strong bonds with others. When children see themselves as friends, they are happy to be around those people; adults are the same way. There is a certain satisfaction to a high-five for teamwork after completing a difficult puzzle or solving a challenging problem in tandem with others that is not the same alone. Cooperation towards a common goal, whether with one person or with hundreds around the globe, means that any number of people will benefit from the realization of that goal. The aim of achieving greater well-being on a large scale is clearly embraced through cooperation.

Cooperation naturally leads to and stems from connection to others. This connection can be brief and shared only for the time that the problem or project lasts, or it can extend beyond into a true friendship. As people spend more time working together, their connection will deepen, whether they are friends or not. We help children interact with others and engage in activities with like-minded individuals in the hopes that they will form friendships. This way, we know that they have people to rely on, people to turn to in times of need, and people who make them feel good about themselves. Those who have deep connections with others tend to be happier in their personal lives, which also leads to taking more actions that increase the well-being of others.

Femininity
The qualities discussed above (caring, compassion, kindness, collaboration, friendships, and gentleness) are traditionally associated with girls and women. These feminine qualities clearly enhance existence and society should promote them in order to best contribute to well-being for all. However, society has an unnecessarily complicated relationship with feminine qualities. We praise girls and women when we call them caring, kind, and gentle but we have actively turned these words into insults for boys and men. We derisively ask, “Why do you care so much?” We hurl at young men, “Don’t be such a pussy!” “Boys don’t cry,” we remind young children who are hurting. As a society we have deliberately chosen not to associate compassion, kindness, and caring (positive feminine qualities) with the qualities that undoubtedly serve to increase the well-being of others.

Instead, femininity is tied to physical beauty, as indicated in this Google Image search:

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 5.00.13 PM

When we whittle femininity down to physical appearance, we devalue everything else that comes with it. Furthermore, we turn femininity into an abhorrence and an embarrassment. If femininity is merely associated with physicality, who wants to be considered feminine? Even the images of “strong women” above are first and foremost images of physical beauty.

This realization is troubling because it indicates that while we consider feminine traits and values of utmost importance when teaching children, we do not carry that message through as children develop into adults. Instead, we focus on femininity’s foil: masculinity.

Masculinity
In direct contrast to femininity, masculinity is generally associated with strength, competition, aggression, individualism, and violence. Overwhelmingly, these are the qualities that society has chosen to promote. A great deal of media are devoted to exercise, sports contests, how to promote oneself, and how to stand out of the crowd. Violence is an accepted part of television and film. Street fights and scuffles among adolescents to solve conflicts are considered “kids being kids” or, more often, “boys being boys”. (Physical fighting between girls, interestingly, is a spectacle.)

The Google Image search below clearly reflects these ideas of masculinity:

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 5.00.36 PM

As demonstrated in the above examples, a society that aims to increase well-being for all must promote the opposite qualities. Competition lies in direct contrast to cooperation. When we teach children that there must always be a winner and a loser, we are sending the message that equality and equity are neither desirable nor possible and that success is equal to winning. Furthermore, we indicate that the way to win is to do it alone, which is incompatible with working for the betterment of all.  We have objectified others, literally turning them into objects that we need to overcome, rather than looking at them as subjects that we to know and understand. We have thus stolen their humanity.

Similarly, the all too common displays of aggression are far from caring for those around us. Aggression means a continuous display of strength and a celebration of strength. Where does that leave those who need help? What role are they relegated to in society? Choosing to value aggression automatically devalues anyone who is not aggressive, and those who are not aggressive are not strong. Traditionally, this refers to women, children, and the elderly, leaving younger men as the ones who matter the most. Obviously, this is a ludicrous statement. However, that is the decision we have made as a result of our emphasis on aggression, strength, and violence.

Moving Forward
It is clear that what society espouses it desires for the world does not match the values it actually endorses. We are not promoting the values that would create sustainable well-being and a better, more peaceful world for all. We need to move away from masculine traits and qualities and embrace feminine traits and qualities if we hope to increase well-being and develop a more peaceful world.

One way to accomplish this would be to adjust the language that we use, especially around young people. Let’s use emotion as an example. Many young boys will decide it’s not okay to show emotion (caring and compassion are feminine values) and this is because of the message that we have chosen to send (men are strong and the strong don’t cry – aggression is very much a masculine value). Instead, we need to reframe how we approach those around us. If we can see tears as a sign of what they are, feeling, and if feeling is a demonstration of concern for others, we should embrace the tears and feelings that tie us together as humans.

Rather than referring to strength as a physical quality, we need to reframe it as the ability to endorse the values that we espouse, these feminine qualities that will actually make the world a better place. It takes a far stronger individual to resist conformist and socialization pressures than to hit harder or run faster than the next person.

We also need to exercise caution with words of praise. Girls are often told that they are beautiful, but this is a comment on what they look like rather than who they are. If we value our girls as more than their appearance, we need to use words that emphasize precisely what we value about them. Perhaps they are helpful, kind, or generous. Developing an identity around being helpful, for example, provides a way forward to developing a more peaceful world.

The same is true for boys. Commenting on how big and strong they are does not go a long way when what we actually care about is their humanity. Instead of emphasizing these qualities that lead to competition and violence, we are better off focusing on what makes our boys helpful, kind, or generous.

If we truly want a better, more peaceful world with sustainable well-being for all, rethinking how we talk to one another is a good place to start.