'Want to avoid the rise of a new extremism? Values-based schools and a 'cosmocentric' education are the key'
By Neil Hawkes on 27 February 2018
This grassroots movement is finally being adopted around the world – and not before time, writes one pioneer of character education
"The future lies before you, like paths of pure white snow. Be careful how you tread it, for every step will show" – Unknown
My wife Jane and I were in Iceland recently, where we gave a presentation at a conference called "The Spirit of Humanity". People from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines were brought together to consider how we could promote the flourishing of humanity by focusing on what is happening that is positive. Our presentation was given with teachers from Álfaheidi School, a popular Icelandic values-based school for children aged 1 to 7.
The highlight of the presentation was a video that showed, in ways that words fail to do, the nurturing power of a school that is founded on positive human values, attachment, empowering relationships and a creative inner curriculum, which gives children a range of meaningful foundation experiences for life. The video, through simple photographs of these young children living their values, touched the hearts of the audience and was met by spontaneous applause when it ended. There was a powerful intuitive understanding that if all children received a similar education then humanity could be transformed.
We believe that young children are close to the soul of humanity and need our support to maintain their inquisitiveness, openness and natural desire to learn and experience. Values-based education (VbE) and its inner curriculum focuses on the human spirit, our essence, all that is unseen but is real, such as thoughts and emotions, experiences that create awe and wonder and the realisation of the connectedness of humanity.
When my colleagues and I developed the first explicitly VbE school in Oxfordshire, I knew that there would be people who would think it a distraction from the school's core business or that such a emphasis should not be the focus for mainstream schools. I also knew that in order to satisfy the misgivings of many, I would have to demonstrate the impact of VbE as a practical philosophy that would effectively combine a knowledge and character-based curriculum.
Professor Terry Lovat, from Australia, visited the school and wanted the work he witnessed to influence the development of education in Australia. This he did, with an investment of $40 million in the process. The impact of the initiative was researched and the benefits were firmly established.
'A quiet revolution': Values-based education
In the UK, I was invited to conferences to talk about the differences that having values central to a school's life made. The work started to find root in many other school communities and so a quiet revolution began. I was convinced that systemic change would be slow, as the national agenda was focused on raising standards through a process of naming and shaming those that didn't meet the criteria laid down for attainment in the basic subjects. I was criticised by some education leaders for my grassroots approach, rather than being more strategic in convincing politicians and other opinion leaders to support my views.
I decided to continue working under the establishment's radar, holding on to the view that real change will happen when enough school communities are values-based and the benefits are clearly seen by parents and the community. It is at this point that the political system will take the work seriously, as they have to take account of the wishes of their constituents. This slow process is now nearing a tipping point as we see that the movement for placing character development at the centre of education is being taken seriously. Most people now appreciate that our future depends on the character traits that are nurtured in families, schools and universities. As the professor of ethics at Tartu University in Estonia said to us, an education system should be judged by how young people turn out 30 years later. What sort of people have we produced? What has been their contribution to society? What is our hope for the future?
From our experience, we see that so many people live a life with an existential vacuum, without a meaning and purpose that drives their thinking and cautions their behaviour. Many seem subject to the whims and influence of minds that reinforce the limiting aspects of humanity. We observe that if so many people feel disenfranchised, unheard, unvalued and deeply without peace, then political leaders are elected who reflect this internal chaos. An extreme example of this phenomenon was the rise to power of Hitler after the First World War.
Although this seems pessimistic, we actually remain optimistic because we can see a counter-movement being spawned. This movement is nudging towards a transformation of human consciousness, and is one that is built on the understanding that, although we appear separate from each other, we share the same consciousness. Such an understanding means that we have an equal responsibility to each other. It prevents us from using our limbic responses, such as fear and mistrust, to label others that we don't know as enemies. To survive on a planet with such a vast population, we have to cooperate and ensure equity in terms of resources and wealth; otherwise, competition for resources leads to war, famine and disease.
Children led by 'self-energy'
Our understanding is that children need to be given a set of life skills that will help them access their internal worlds. This will enable them to be led in their thoughts and actions by what we describe as self-energy, which is the innate healing energy that is at the core of our being. People who profess a religious tradition may call this energy soul or spirit.
We believe that the starting point for education should be based on forming good relationships and understanding how we create them. Early childhood education has recognised the primacy of such work, but those who don't understand or appreciate the stages of child development often want the focus of schooling to be on other things, such as basic writing or reading skills. Of course, neither is mutually exclusive, but we have seen in schools that first promote the development of relational skills that other basic skills follow more naturally when good relationships have been established first. We urge that this pedagogy is continued and developed throughout the stages of education, with secondary school-aged pupils being supported to delve deeply into values awareness. For instance, in lessons they will consider how to face and help resolve the ethical dilemmas of the 21st century in preparation for their lives as adults.
We propose that values-based education is the first educational methodology in the world that nurtures both the spiritual awakening of people, through practices such as reflection/mindfulness, and the higher orders of consciousness, which take people from a focus on themselves (egocentric) or their group (ethnocentric) to an understanding of the interconnectedness of humanity and the natural world (cosmocentric). History shows how a lack of understanding about the importance of these two aspects working together has led to people not reaching their human potential, resulting in disharmony, violence and war. In other words, peace does not come about if someone has a spiritual awakening, if they have not reached the higher orders of consciousness; leaving them locked into an ethnocentric worldview, driven by such thoughts as "to be saved, everyone has to believe what my group believes". If the same person has a cosmocentric understanding then they will respect the ideals of others.
In order to release the creative dynamic of human consciousness and take the lid off pupil potential, we encourage parents, school leaders, teachers and support staff to see the importance of schools having a prime focus on the development of wellbeing and resilience through the Inner Curriculum, which we believe is the missing link in education.
Our mission is to support children and young people so that they will become values-led adults and parents of the future, accessing their innate self-energy as they embrace values-based living. We are convinced that if each of us learns how to integrate our internal world then the positive impact on the external world will be profound, as humanity will become more integrated and enable us to live in harmony.
We hope we have given you enough information so you are able to enhance the wellbeing and resilience of yourself and others by implementing an Inner Curriculum, which we are confident has the power to enhance individual lives and the sustainability of our wonderful world.
Now, over to you...
Neil and Jane Hawkes are authors of The Inner Curriculum: how to develop wellbeing, resilience and self-leadership, published by John Catt Educational. Neil is an educational leader, thinker and social commentator. He is the originator of the Values-based Education (VbE). His previous book, From My Heart: transforming lives through values, is a celebration of the success of his work worldwide