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  • Writer's pictureCassie Janisch

SUPPORTING CHILDREN TO "KNOW THYSELF" IS OUR TOP PRIORITY

Thinking about what to prioritize as educators in these times: Yuval Noah Harari (author of Sapiens), in his book “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”, writes about change being the only constant in this century. “…all our old stories are crumbling, and no new story has so far emerged to replace them. How can we prepare ourselves and our children for a world of such unprecedented transformations and radical uncertainties?” He says that the best advice he could give children is: “don’t rely on the adults too much. Most of them mean well, but they just don’t understand the world. In the past, it was a relatively safe bet to follow the adults, because they knew the world quite well, and the world changed slowly. But the twenty-first century is… different. Due to the growing pace of change you can never be certain whether what the adults are telling you is timeless wisdom, or outdated bias”.


What I love about children is their truly genius divergent thinking – they constantly surprise us with the connections they make, and the ways that they problem-solve. We can’t do this as well as they do it. We certainly can’t teach them how to do this, but we can and must support them to trust their own wisdom and knowing, even if we can’t see or understand what, or how that, they see.


Harari goes on in his book to describe the rapidly emerging danger of artificial intelligence, which manipulates people’s deepest emotions and desires with algorithms – AI does this so extensively that most of the time we don’t even know if we are actually choosing something for ourselves, or being manipulated into choosing it by a marketing algorithm. To succeed in this new world, Harari argues that humans will need to work very hard on getting to know our operating systems better. To know what we are, and what we truly want from life, and how to make that happen. “This is, of course, the oldest advice in the book: know thyself. For thousands of years philosophers and prophets have urged people to know themselves. But this advice was never more urgent than in the twenty-first century, because unlike in the days of Lao zi or Socrates, now … Coca Cola, Amazon, Baidu and the government are all racing to hack you….”.


I agree with Harari that our modern imperative as humans is to focus on knowing who we are, both as individuals and as a species, so that we cannot be hacked and manipulated, and so that we find new ways of living and being outside of the matrix of control that threatens to overwhelm us.


So, how can children be enabled and supported to know themselves better?


My key insight at Misty Meadows this year has been about the immeasurable value of group intelligence, which is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. There is a huge difference between an individual exploring a body of material on one’s own, versus what unfolds when a group of humans cooperate collectively. Earlier this year Mike Goddard described the Misty kids as “showing calm cohesion – moving like a flock of starlings” - I absolutely love his metaphor and quote him often. Even when a starling murmuration numbers many thousands of birds moving at speeds exceeding 90mph, they manage to fly in a collective mathematical synchrony that still baffles researchers today. Every day at Misty Meadows we watch our own murmuration of starlings (children) ebb and flow around the school like a colossal, pulsating, harmonious organism – separate, yet intimately aware of each other and the cohesion of the whole. Some are “working”, some are playing soccer, some are making art, some are digging in the sandpit, some are climbing the dome, some are sitting chatting to their friends, some are climbing trees, some are watching snails and insects do their thing, some are jumping on the trampoline, some are teasing each other, and a million other such seemingly separate activities are under way each day; and yet there is a cohesion to all of this activity that is palpable. Even when there are conflicts being resolved, or angry outbursts, or injuries, or bee stings, or just sad moments… There is an undercurrent of collective purpose and harmony that we all experience from being part of this coherent group. Almost everyone who spends time in this space feels this magic each day. The teachers often discuss it. My children tell me all the time that they love going to school – they can’t put the why into specific words. Most people can’t explain it. It’s the wood that you can’t see for the trees.


When adults think about school and learning they prioritize all the measurable things – marks on tests, hours spent at a desk, curriculum covered, pages written or read – and yet I know that the true value of school is not those things. The true value of school is the time spent in meaningful relationship with a diversity of others. We learn so much from the mirrors those others hold up for us, which reflect both what is amazing about us, and the shadows that lurk in us waiting to be healed. Allowing others to help us see our strengths, as well as our vulnerabilities and our flaws, and to support us as we grow what is good and prune what does not serve us, is the priority of our current age. This summarizes the true purpose of going to a school like Misty Meadows.


There are so many benevolent feedback loops in our Misty Meadows ecosystem, many unquantifiable, but observable. Even when there is conflict, frustration and sadness, the resolution evolves us. When there is creativity unfolding, it is exponential. When I ask myself “what is learning?” – I always come back to this unquantifiable magic that we bear witness to each day. Exponentially expanding knowledge and true wisdom cannot but emerge in a self-aware community like this one.


We, who recognize the true value of education and don’t just aim to repeat the past in spite of its limitations, are creating this road as we travel it. It frightens lots of people because it doesn’t look like anything they know or expect to see under the banner of education or “school”. Even many people who are looking for other than what the mainstream offers, cannot recognize or understand the value of what we offer here. We are offering these 21st century children a safe and nurturing community in which they can explore who they are, and truly come to know how to be the best version of the unique human being that they came here to be. We offer them a wide diversity of interesting (and sometimes challenging) peers, a wise and nurturing community of elders, a beautiful natural environment to grow in, thought-provoking concepts and creative materials to consider and explore (and sometimes disagree with), the tools to figure out what is true for them (versus what someone else tells them is true), and the time and space to figure out the contribution that they want to make in the world, outside of what others think they “should” be doing. This can include becoming a doctor or an accountant, but it also may not. It will certainly include self-knowledge and enormous personal growth, so when a child chooses what they want to do with their life from this space, it will in all likelihood be a good and fitting choice for the unique individual that they are… and their light will shine so brightly as a result.


It is hard for us parents to relinquish control of outcomes and trust processes – it requires us to stay out of the fear-of-failure that prevents so much vital transformation from emerging. It is okay to suffer fear and doubt, but I will always encourage you to trust that your children are learning what they need in order to thrive in their own unique life. They are beautiful and curious and wise beyond belief. Let them show us the way to the future without us holding them back with our outdated concepts and ideas (and curricula). They will not fail us or themselves. I know this to be true!




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