Transforming Traditional Ideas About Educating Children With Concepts From Buddhism
Education is of the foundational aspects of a well-functioning society. Countries like Norway and South Korea have concluded part of their economical and societal growth has come from strong investments in their educational system. This is in contrast to the United States, where experts have lamented test scores and infrastructure. Some have even argued the United States is in the midst of an educational crisis.
To deal with this complex situation there have been a plethora of strategies for developing school systems. Many educational institutions are taking approaches that look at every aspect of how a school operates.
Middle Way Education has developed a curriculum that uses the teachings of Buddhism and offers free instruction and teacher resources online. They also opened Middle Way School which utilizes these strategies. World Religion News spoke with Noa Jones, the executive director of Middle Way Education, to discuss the integration of Buddhism into education, what separates Middle Way from other programs, and how they are providing cutting edge pedagogy to students across the globe.
World Religion News: How would you describe the mission of Middle Way Education?
Noa Jones: There are two different organizations. There is Middle Way Education and there is the Middle Way School. Middle Way Education has a bigger mission to create pathways for traditional Buddhist wisdom and knowledge to enhance modern education for the benefit of this and future generations. To carry out that mission MWE is building a comprehensive education model in which Buddhist wisdom traditions are merged with progressive education in a contemporary setting. The Middle Way School is like a laboratory for Middle Way Education. We are using the Middle Way School to create a model of Buddhist education for children which will be made available through Middle Way Education for people who want to start their own schools. MWE also does teacher training, camps and hosts a global website for Buddhist educators.
WRN: You said the school is a laboratory. So, you mean teachers could take the curriculum and pedagogy and use it in different subjects, not just religion or history?
NJ: Yes, the Buddhist view is interwoven through our teacher training, our materials, our curriculum development. We do have a list of what we call “Dharma Fundamentals” which are concepts and practices that by the end of their education, the students will know and understand, but we probably won’t start direct instruction until 4th or 5th grade. Until then it’s really about how we teach, the quality of the teachers and atmosphere, rather than what we teach.
WRN: How do you describe how you teach?
NJ: Essentially it’s about attunement and spaciousness. We are working on creating a developmental model based on the latest in neuroscience and taking into account past discoveries about development and fusing it with the Buddhist ideas of wisdom and neurosis. The teachers will be very connected with their students understanding where they are in their development and then offering those students an education based on who they are as human beings.
In addition to this, we have the Five Domains of Learning, which align with the five elements. So, the science domain is related to the element of water. Water can be very fluid and pervasive but it can also be very sharp. So, science has a very precise quality and it also can be a very fast, speedy. element. Or overly sharp like ice. We also look at student through the same lens as being very sharp in the classroom but then maybe causing some fights for example. We try to see the wisdom aspect of that aggression, to see that there is something deeper happening with that student trying to come out and it’s manifesting perhaps in some aggressive behavior. But through the training we see that this student just needs an outlet for something else that is very wise. It’s a less judgmental approach to the student.
— Middle Way Education (@middlewayedu) July 29, 2018
WRN: It sounds like not only is it a model for curriculum development, but it also is a model for classroom engagement for dealing with potential disciplinary issues. That seems like a complete model for how to create a school system.
NJ: Exactly. It’s what we call a “new reform model.” My hope and dream is that one day it will be as recognizable as something like Waldorf or Montessori.
It is the whole package. How to set up your classroom, what your principles are, how to hire, how to conduct the staff meetings, disciplinary issues, and an evaluation assessment — all of those issues will be addressed within this model.
WRN: Have you been able to track this program yet and see positive results?
NJ: Not yet. We opened on September 6. So, this is a big experiment. But we are very focused on tracking. We hired a very experienced education researcher to document the process who will be in the classrooms every day.
My lead education consultant has been running a Buddhist preschool in Colorado for the last 23 years. She has a lot of experience with these principals. She also helped start another Buddhist school in Colorado that was based on these five domains of learning.
WRN: What makes this different from other educational institutions?
NJ: Well for one thing we are explicitly Buddhist. We have the support of lineage masters from not only from the four Tibetan lineages but different from all three yanas or traditions. Having all this support make a big difference. In terms of pedagogy, it’s emerging. We definitely appreciate a lot of things that Montessori and Waldorf have to offer but we will not be a Waldorf school nor a Montessori school.
I think the thing that differentiates us really is our reliance on two key Buddhist principles that underlay everything we’re doing, not just in our classrooms but with our teachers and how we establish the organizations. Those two fundamental things are Bodhicitta and Shunyata. Bodhicitta is the principle of altruism. Whatever we’re doing, we’re doing for the benefit of others. Shunyata is a fundamental belief that nothing exists independently, which is a really big subject which is probably the biggest distinction between us and not only other schools but Buddhism and other religions. It is akin to the idea of everything being connected. We don’t call it interdependence. So that really informs how we relate to each other, how we relate education and how we relate to the world.
WRN: Where do you see that future?
NJ: People all over the world have expressed interest in opening Buddhist schools. We already have interests in Singapore, Brazil, Taiwan, China, and Europe. Many of these different sanghas have tried to do smaller scale programs but it takes a lot to open a school. Because of the support of Khyentse foundation and our local community, we are able to really do this in an organized, comprehensive way backed by research and we hope that we will have something we can share with them in a couple of years.
In the meantime we launched a networking site, a global hub for Buddhist education for children. Here other communities can find or upload resources, training modules, checklists, lesson plans, videos and much more. We already have 100 contributors signed up. As we start churning out our materials, we are going to make them available online using this platform for free to whoever wants it.
WRN: What need is that filling for online resources? Are there instructors who would like to provide it but don’t have the time? Or is it that you think the curriculum development can help supplement what people are already doing?
NJ: I think it’s a mix. I think that what we’re doing can help supplement what other people are doing for sure. What we are doing takes time, money, and really good human resources. It’s a big undertaking and Buddhist communities don’t often have the resources, plus they’ve got other responsibilities. Not many have had the luxury of investing in these professional education specialists to create something new. To scaffold a curriculum and pinpoint the methodologies that best fit a Buddhist education in the modern world takes time. Montessori took 20 years to develop. We’re only starting with pre-k and first and second grade at the school and add a grade every year. We will try and through our successes and failures, very carefully build the curriculum. We will share whatever we can along the way but I see it as something that will evolve a lot over time. I really hope it can benefit many people.
WRN: You’re working with a lot of different international institutions. Is there anything that requires you to change the material for cultural differences? Are you translating the information?
NJ: Because our pilot school is in New York, it is naturally quite Western-centric but we intentionally hired an international staff and students are studying Chinese language. We are very much geared towards the next step, which is to bring in the different cultural aspects of Buddhism. We are clear on the fact that this will be exported to other cultures. A lot of what we’re doing is almost like creating menus. Creating an infrastructure with a view and then creating menus. e.g. Here are several math curricula that we think are good and adaptable that are approved globally, and this is how we would adapt it. We really do have an eye towards that export phase. But at the same time, we are trying to keep it very tailored to the community here.
WRN: What is something on the website that would resonate for everyone quickly? What should a visitor look at first?
NJ: There are so many great articles and resources on the site it’s hard to choose. I encourage people to just browse around. I also recommend that everyone go see the documentary on Mr. Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. He is so good at explaining why it’s important to listen to children and to love them unconditionally. This is a big part of our methodology too.
WRN: One of the big issues in education is testing. How are you able to integrate Buddhist teachings and still be able to follow state standards for test scores?
NJ: We definitely intend to meet all state standards. There will be some years where we intentionally are a little bit behind on specific, particular chosen issues or subjects and then there’ll be places where we’re ahead of the standards. We intend to use assessment not as a punitive tool. I think it’s important that students know where they stand but they don’t feel judged. We want to make sure that they get a proper, well-rounded comprehensive education. But we are not going to be testing them on their meditative skills or like anything that (laughter).
WRN: If teachers or administrators are interested, could they integrate particular elements of the program or is it a holistic model?
NJ: First, they would have to be a bit patient until we are ready to start disseminating things. But then we will offer all of it to be cherry picked as much as people want. You’re not going to get as much out of it if you don’t understand child development and if you don’t have a contemplative practice of your own, which is a big key to the success of this model is that our teachers are practitioners.
You can’t be teaching mindfulness if you don’t have a mindfulness practice. You can’t just read a book about karma to your students and expect them to be excited about it. You need to embody the understanding.
I’m all for the mainstream mindfulness programs entering the school right now. But it has its limits. I feel there’s so much more potential if you can go deeper, if you can connect it to lineage and tradition, which is what we’re trying to do. It’s mindblowingly interesting. We’re happy to support mindfulness programs. We’re also happy if people want to take the full package.
WRN: Do you find because you’re dealing with younger ages it’s easier for them to comprehend these concepts than adults?
NJ: I can’t really answer that. They do feel things very deeply. And they are naturally very curious, they love learning. I think children tend to be more in the moment and in their bodies and very absorbing. They just tune in to the quality of the relationships around them. For example, when somebody says, “I’m sorry” but they say it with a tone that seems like they aren’t really sorry. The child doesn’t care about the words. All they feel is that tone. That’s why it’s really important that people who are with children have genuine hearts of kindness, be genuinely attentive, be non-dualistic in their thinking, and non-judgmental when teaching. Children absorb that. Adults are less absorbed and they like the logic and reasoning. They want to hear the fact.
WRN: Are there any misperceptions you are worried about with the program or the mission of your organization?
NJ: The program is too young to know what people’s misconceptions are so far. Some people might thing we’re not serious about education that we’re “too Buddhist.” Then some people might think we’re not Buddhist enough, that we’re just a mindfulness and compassion school program. Or they may think we have some agenda. We’re all and none of those thing. I think it’s also important to note that we are completely ecumenical. We aren’t promoting one particular school of Buddhism. At the same time, we’re not blending them all in a blender.
My teacher once used the analogy of mixing salt and sugar. Just because they look the same doesn’t mean that you eat them at the same time. So even though Thai and Tibetan Buddhism are based on the same principles, they are very different. They taste very different. We don’t want to mix it all together and whitewash things. We want to really present each tradition in entirety. We’ve have tremendous support and enthusiasm from all corners of the planet. People are really excited and want to know more about what we’re doing.
WRN: If someone is interested in getting more information about the program and school where should they go?