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It’s Not About the Grades: Landscapes for Learning Beyond Schooling

The heart of my story, “It’s Not About the Grades: Landscapes for Learning Beyond Schooling” is about living with integrity, authentically, as the true me who I was born to be. It’s about how my essential nature was co-opted by society’s values of competition and comparison. It’s about my long journey of loss and recovery. It’s about living from my soul, from love, from the inside-out, not from the outside-in in order to please the world and its egocentric values (Plotkin). It’s about my story being common, maybe a little too familiar.

“Doing You” is the best and most efficient and effective way to truly serve others. When you know who you are, you can understand how to take care of yourself. It’s an ongoing process of awakening and awareness. You are your own best teacher for life across the landscapes that are here for your trials and errors, transformation, and transcendence– your learning.

If we look at our life experiences as opportunities for learning, we are empowered rather than victims.  Ironically, by exposing ourselves and being vulnerable and afraid we become courageous, strong, and flexible. We learn and change and grow. And that is who we are– constant change, growth, becoming, like a flower-petal blooming (Choudhury). Beneath that gorgeous blossom is all of the hard work of waking up–the mud: the practice of brutal honesty required, the struggle, the doubt, the resistance, and the failure that is intrinsic to the beautiful reality of being human and being truly alive,flourishing. What is flourishing? It’s meaning, purpose, passion, and vitality. No mud, no lotus (Hahn).

My story is unique, but not unusual. I see lots of others traveling the same path I was on– unaware, disconnected from their core self, and not knowing how or where they might find the tools to awaken and live truthfully, despite appearing “normal” and “successful.”  The details differ but the journey is the same. I see that we are educating and raising kids the same way I was raised–to the detriment of the true self and the unnecessary suffering that results from such disconnection.

Teachers (including parents), by explicitly promoting approaching life as a learner, not just an academic achieverwill provide kids with a more complete education–one of character not just career, wisdom not just knowledge and information, in order to live, love, and appreciate (gratefully) each moment– the present moment, instead of focusing so much on what kids are going to be “when they grow up”. Kids need to be here, now (Ram Dass). We all do.

I wish I had such an education earlier in my life, awoken to this truth about building the courage to stay connected to my essential self and gaining the tools to practice living my truth.

I wish someone told me there was this thing–” truth,” that existed within my inner landscape waiting as potential to be actualized and that it was my responsibility to “do the real me” instead of merely copying models or crafting myself into something valid and legitimate in the estimation and judgement of others.

I wish I had a warning that I would suffer because I am human, and then also be taught that to lean into, explore, and learn from that suffering would be the exact antidote to the type of worse suffering that would persist if I ran away– which I did and so many of us do without even realizing it.

Is learning by direct experience about one’s own human nature and character too spiritual? Is becoming authentic, truthful, and true the humanities education for the 21st century we need to quell the postmodern relativism that prevails?

We should encourage students to trust teachers less and trust themselves more.

We should guide them to go inward to travel their inner landscape, beyond the eyes and judgment of schooling, to see clearly their pure essence which is love, allow it to unfold as their witness, and then stay out of the way of such unfolding. Instead, we interfere with narrow expectations and an obsession with grades, measurement, comparison, and competition. We co-opt authentic learning with too much schooling.

We should not steal their suffering, but rather show them how suffering is done better so they can suffer less or at least not unnecessarily.

We should educate them such that unconditional love of oneself is the norm rather than the exception.

We should teach them more yoga.


Dass, Ram. Be Here Now. (1971).

Choudhury, Bikram. Bikram Yoga Teacher Dialogue. (2002).

Hahn, Thich Naht. No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering. (2014).

Plotkin, Bill. Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World. (2007).


Self-realization (Wikipedia, Merriam Webster’s Dictionary)

Self-realization is an expression used in Western psychologyphilosophy, and spirituality; and in Indian religions. In the Western, psychological understanding it may be defined as the “fulfillment by oneself of the possibilities of one’s character or personality.” In the Indian understanding, Self-realization is liberating knowledge of the true Self, either as the permanent undying Atman, or as the absence (sunyata) of such a permanent Self.

Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines self-realization as: Fulfillment by oneself of the possibilities of one’s character or personality.In the Western world “self-realization” has gained great popularity. Influential in this popularity were psycho-analysis, humanistic psychology, the growing acquaintance with Eastern religions, and the growing popularity of Western esotericism.

In Hinduism, self-realization (atma-jnana or atmabodha) is knowledge of the true self beyond both delusion and identification with material phenomena. It refers to self-identification and not mere ego identification

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Educating Human Beings or Human Doings?

What kind of learning do you value and why?

I value the kind of learning that helps people live qualitatively well as authentic “human beings” not just as skilful and knowledgeable “human doings.”

Unfortunately, our current American public schooling system continues to dedicate most of its attention, time, choices, actions, deeply-ingrained habits, and resources to raising a.k.a inculcating kids to become “human doings”– performers, accomplishers, achievers, competitors.

It is no wonder there’s no room for wandering attention (you’ve got ADHD), day-dreaming (you’ve got ADD), imagination, entrepreneurial thinking or attitudes (you’re disrespectful because you won’t do what you’re told; you don’t get the freedom to try it your way because I am grading you and comparing you to your peers), failure (you’re a low achiever), risky behavior (you’re a discipline problem- probably your parents’ fault), uncensored speech (you can’t make mistakes when trying to learn new concepts or experiment with new vocabulary when it may possibly offend or “oppress” others who feel victimized by your trial and error process), or love and affection (you’re too human, and not business-like enough, scientific/robotic enough) in a typical high school classroom. All of these characteristics of a genuine learner are unwelcome challenges to the status quo and fear-inducing to those who tow the party line as cogs in the wheel of the established institutional tradition.

You are just waaaay too human if you are an authentic learner.  Not to mention that the whole project of schooling takes place inside, where everyone is routinely disconnected from fresh air and open spaces (hence Nature Deficit Disorder), protected within the institution, using square, little desks in rows within square, little rooms that kids get four minutes to travel between for 8 hours per day for 180 days per year with few exceptions. And we wonder why kids are literally losing their minds? Could the current mental health crisis among adolescents and teens (and everyone else) possibly be related to what we value? to what we pay attention to? to how we define learning? to the kind of learning we actually value? to how we raise and school our kids?

We do schooling really well. We just need to decide whether or not we want to balance schooling with learning. Are we willing to rethink our priorities? I don’t think these two things– schooling and learning– are mutually exclusive.  A conversation about more balance seems necessary, but such a conversation requires open minds and hearts, rationality, and humility among all of us.

Psychoanalyst, Carl Jung once said, “Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.” I ask, What are you paying attention to, superintendents? school committees? students? teachers? parents? Can each of us stop with the unconscious, habitual day-to-day to reflect for a moment or so about what we are paying attention to each moment, each class, each day, each year? Might we stop the same old same old busyness of schooling to do an honest self-evaluation of where we actually put our attention? How much attention? How much time spent? Why? Are we happy amidst the school shootings and mental health crises in our schools? Are we going to continue to hire more special education staff, more social workers, more nurses to bandaid the problems with our kids, or will we self-reflect on our values and priorities? What kind of an education do our children need today, in this new and very different world?

Part of my mission at Landscapes for Learning is to revitalize a love of authentic forms of learning among young people who may be disillusioned with, bored by, or being made sick (emotionally, psychologically, physically) by the traditional structures and forms of public high schooling in America with its inherent over-emphasis on inculcation (what to study and how to think about selected studies) achievement, testing, grading, and competition.  Simultaneously, the stories recorded in the podcast are a celebration of the quality lives of ordinary individuals who are healthy and personally fulfilled as they pursue their life-long process of self-actualization.  Many of my guests’ authentic learning and teaching experiences differ from their schooling experiences and/or place their formal educational experiences within a broader and more appropriate context of life-learning. This is a good thing to know– not just for kids so they don’t get discouraged by school but for their parents who might broaden their understanding of the purpose of education for their children, and for schools to keep their role in the learning process in perspective as well.

I’d like to ask parents of adolescents to become more conscious about about what kind of learning they value for themselves first of all and subsequently for their children. What is your definition of learning? Is it the same as schooling? Do you want your child to learn how to learn and to love learning, or do you want them to behave, do what they are told, get As or better scores than the next kid, and get into Harvard? You don’t have to go along with the traditional modes of schooling (that are too familiar to your own) because everyone else is! If you feel that your child is stuck in the system, that you are powerless, I am here to tell you that there are things you can do and choices you can make to optimize your child’s schooling experience without having to home-school or un-school them. Don’t play the grade game; don’t make your child do unnecessary homework that is a waste of time that may be better spent (perhaps outdoors or socializing with peers without adult supervision). De-emphasize “getting your schoolwork done” and emphasize learning when talking to your kids. Start journaling; teach your kids to journal about their personal learning rather than making time for only academic learning. Write your values. Answer, “why am I educating my son or daughter?” To what end is your child being educated? To be “X” or to do “Y?” What’s your “why?” You can also model self-inquiry, share your own journey to self-awareness and self-knowledge and discuss its connection to other forms of learning in your life. Make the distinction between schooling and learning clear to your children and live a life of learning while keeping schooling in its proper place.

I’d also like to prompt schools to self-reflect on the type of learning they value– this is not the same thing as having a mission statement or school mantra written in the handbook or posted in the entryway to the school, but whether they are consciously living out the kind of learning they purport to value each and every day, in each choice and decision they make, for each child for whom it affects. I hope to begin a discussion with schools and parents about the “why” of educating kids– their specific intentions for their children/students and to where they put their attention on a daily basis, class by class, moment by moment. Is learning really the focus, the value that’s being lived out day in and day out, or is more time, effort, energy, attention, and reflection focused on  schooling– that is, but not limited to– grading, coverage of curriculum, and achievement (college acceptance rates, drop-out rates)? What are the priorities? How much professional development time is dedicated to using new grading systems, new administrative technologies, new methodologies for implementing the same curriculum, assessment, analysis of data? How much time is dedicated to teachers for them to implement real change and personal growth and creativity? How much time is given to the “who” of teaching? Observe your institution for a day, a week, a month, write down what you see happening among students, teachers, support staff, and administrators. Notice (without judgment) what your organization is spending its time doing and talking about. Then sort through how much time is spent on schooling and how much on learning. Confirm what your institution actually values– that is, what it lives out, in action, on a day to day basis.

If we fail to value self-knowledge and exploration of the inner landscape and all we do is over-focus on the externals– grades, achievement, administration, controlling our environment to solve the problems that live within each of us, how will kids learn how to learn about themselves? How will they understand anyone else if they don’t know their own human nature? How will they do any of this essential interior work if they are over-scheduled with building their resume for college entrance or held after school to complete work that is entirely irrelevant to them but required curricular content aimed at the imaginary “average” student? How will they learn how to be decent, healthy human beings if they are consistently directed toward and overwhelmed by human doing?

It’s crucial for us as a society that each one us know ourselves as deeply as possible and take individual responsibility for our own lives, as a priority above and beyond any sense of belonging to a group we might also naturally feel. “Us and Theming” is one of the problematic paradigms of our time, that through which we interpret the world and that which informs our notions of tribalism, identity politics, political correctness, free-speech, mental health, addiction, education, parenting and much more. How can you know you belong to a group if you don’t know, firstly, who YOU are as an individual? How can you “know” that you “know” who you are if you don’t understand the nature of “knowing” or what forms of “knowing” exist?  How can you understand human nature if you don’t understand your own human experiences? How can you answer, What is the “right” relationship of the individual to society if you don’t understand what it means to be an “individual?” How do you figure out what “right” means? Perhaps we need to shift our focus from developing intellectuals to developing ethical and wise human beings.

Through real life stories of ordinary people, the Landscapes for Learning podcast is meant to illustrate and concretely demonstrate the value of many other forms of learning and teaching that happen outside of school environments– across the landscapes beyond formal education. The podcast also places special emphasis on discussing with guests how they explore and travel their inner landscapes, which is learning about oneself throughout life. Learning about one’s inner life, about one self, finding and living according to wisdom and one’s moral compass is also a lesson in what it means to be human and therefore how to understand and connect with other humans, other individuals who are like you, but not exactly you.

In addition to the podcast, the coaching curricula and support I am creating and plan to offer on the site soon is meant to assist parents and students in designing individual education plans to better balance the aims of schooling with the more authentic value of learning, including more curriculum focused on teaching individuals how to explore their inner landscapes through journaling, employing the principles of yoga, metacognitive reflection, and other techniques.

If you are interested in finding ways to help your student, your son or daughter, or an educator you know engage in an important and ongoing conversations about learning, the need for a shift in values, and a re-balancing of priorities between schooling and learning, or if you would like to contribute to the development of this site and its mission, please subscribe to below where you will receive regular updates in your in-box (not too many!).

Sincerely Yours in Learning,





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Dear Efficient Utilitarian Student,

Dear Efficient Utilitarian Student,

It’s not your fault that you were raised with the great American values of utility and efficiency. These values are enacted and followed by virtually everyone around you– your parents, your school, your government; they’ve been enacted throughout most of American history, especially in the Industrial Revolution, in the world of corporations, and throughout most of modern and contemporary society. And, the invention of the internet along with new information technologies has exponentially accelerated and reinforced these values (and created so much distraction that you have no ability to sit quietly long enough to reflect honestly about values).

It’s not your fault that you have been influenced by these external forces. You never really had a choice. These values, on the surface, are fairly important, but, unfortunately, when these two values become an approach to learning, their effect is devastating. If utility and efficiency are intrinsic to how and why you learn, there’s probably not a whole lot of room for mindfulness or appreciation.

If your goals are expediency and efficiency when it comes to learning something new, whether a concept or a skill, you’ll miss the pleasure of authentic learning, the appreciation of the subtleties of that concept, idea, or skill. If it’s all a hurried process of finding what you can use, you may miss developing an appreciation for language, numbers, angles, the concept of infinity, the way your body works, or F.Scott Fitzgerald’s writing style. Again, not your fault, as we “educators” have invested in this thing called “time on learning.”

What about slowing down to savor all of your learning experiences, even the painful and boring, for no other reason than to remain open to learning itself and to learn for the sake of learning? What about lingering over a piece of art, wrestling with a difficult mathematical concept or skill? You don’t have to “do” anything with these learning experiences except experience them, and they will benefit you regardless of your desire to utilize them in your own pre-planned way. Please, slow down, and just enjoy learning, without expected payback or any added value beyond mere appreciation and present moment awareness. This approach may affect you in unanticipated and sometimes unwanted ways, but it will lead to the best sort of growth.


Think about meeting a new student in your school, a stranger. If that person doesn’t fulfill a social or other goal for you, will you tend to, because of efficiency and utility, ignore that person? If you do actually meet this person and efficiency and utility are at the forefront of your mindset, are you narrowly fixed on only the aspects of this person that will potentially benefit you? Are you contemplating how this person can potentially help you in achieving your individual goals?

Can you consider the possibility of slowly and mindfully taking in everything about this person, thinking about him as a fellow human being who suffers and loves and hopes and wonders and experiences loss and smiles and cries and puts on his socks and shoes everyday, just like you? Can you take the time to focus— to appreciate the details of her face, her eyes and the contours of her cheeks and jaw line? Are you interested in this person as a person, or are you only focused on how useful she may be to you; what he may be utilized for? And, are you dismissing this person too quickly  (using stereotypes) because you can’t waste your time getting to know them beyond a surface introduction? Or are you deeply engaged and intrigued as if your were looking at exquisite art?


Are you, Efficient Utilitarian Student, while in your classes, thinking to yourself:

“Hurry up and get to the point.”

“How can I use this information, this experience, concept, idea, skill to get an A ?”

“Is this going to be on the test?”

“I wish the teacher would just hurry up and tell us what we need to know for the test and forget all the other extra or irrelevant stuff.”

“I hate working in groups with other people because it negatively affects my grade.”

Efficient Utilitarian Student, you are missing so much beauty and joy in your life! You are missing out on how deliciously long a moment can feel and the way life can unfold before you within each and every one of these precious moments! And for this, I apologize. We have steered you wrong for too long. But, it’s not too late!


Now that you are more aware, you might try to approach your learning the way you might walk along the beach and enjoy a sunset, or the way you might climb a mountain and survey those tiny flowers that make you question how they could stay alive so far up amongst nothing but rock, or how you might fish on an enormous lake where the water looks like glass and everything around you is still and quiet.  Live out that sense of wonder, curiosity, openness to experience, where likely the last thing you are focused on is expediency or how any of these experiences, these moments, may be utilized.

If you took the time to read this letter, I hope you found something useful in it.

Sincerely & Apologetically,

Your Teacher

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Just a thought…How Higher Ed. Can Help the Natural Landscape

After reading “Ending Extracurricular Privilege” by Olga Kahzan in December 21st issue of The Atlantic Monthly, I realize just how much influence higher education has on the values, beliefs, behaviors, habits, and choices of their incoming students as well as their parents and their high schools. (I mean, I know the competition among students over grades has completely destroyed the joy and authenticity of learning and creativity, but…)

I’ve seen the administration and school committee where I work (and my children’s high school) consistently respond with, “How high?” when colleges and university admissions request that they “jump.” You want global studies? Done! You want cross-curricular courses? You got it! Study abroad programs? Yes! Right away! Community service? Of course! And a substantial portion of the job of an entire department (Guidance) is to help students create these required stellar resumes starting in 9th grade. By grade 11, it’s too late! That’s a lot of resources geared toward shaping kids to meet college admissions expectations.


The personal qualities and characteristics colleges seek in candidates almost always become the secondary school community’s goals which are aimed at raising and shaping teens’ behavior and time, at least from what I have witnessed. And it’s not an entirely bad thing! Achievement and service are valuable. It gets out of control when it’s forced or completely ingenuine. I believe intention does matter, especially when it’s a gauge of character. When kids are competing against each other over who can gain more community service hours to best the other’s resume? Umm… no. That doesn’t seem very “communal.”

The extracurricular resume of students is a map of how they spend their “free” time beyond the strictly academic realm. Many times, I might argue most times, students complete obligatory community service hours for the sole purpose of their resume and its desired effect on college acceptance. How can admissions officers know which student has genuinely community-oriented values?


It also appears that schools require community service because that will help their students gain favor with college admissions; they build it into the curriculum, if you will. Kids have no choice in the matter or they don’t graduate. I have heard the following, and other versions of the same from students: “I have to get my community service done or my parents will kill me.” Is that service or forced labor? This is only one of the issues Richard Weissbourd raises in the article; he raises several others worth considering.


It’s rather impressive that higher ed has such power to motivate kids to complete service, and work, and play sports, and join clubs, and do well in school (c’mon, you know that kid, those parents), so what about requiring applicants to go green– to serve our earth, to be 100% focused on full immersion in the wild, or to nurture the natural landscape and all it’s living creatures, or to provide evidence that they recycle and show that they moderate or eliminate their carbon footprint, and somehow show that they don’t support (via consumerism) unhealthy and corrupt business practices that harm the environment, including all its life forms?

It’s just a thought.