A Curriculum of Kindness

This article was inspired by my conversations with Louka Parry and David Penberg. It was published in IntrepidEd News on 1 October 2021.

Sometimes I fixate on a subject or idea and find myself buying a bunch of books and watching videos to feed my curiosity and further my understanding of a single topic. Recently, there are two that keep calling me: ancient wisdoms (such as Buddhism, Taoism, and First Nations cosmogonies) and quantum mechanics. I don’t pretend to grasp all the richness and complexities of either, but I keep learning enough to keep myself interested. 

This is an article that is intended to provoke thinking by suggesting that we reconsider the experience of school to make kindness the curriculum, to define success as to how our kindness contributes to the world. We’re not talking about a greeting card or a fortune cookie. I propose that placing kindness at the heart of all our thinking and actions is based on the foundation of interconnectedness that has its roots in both ancient wisdoms found across the world and the latest science. There are theoretical as well as practical (and future-saving) reasons to emphasize kindness over the models of education we have today.

Ancient wisdoms and quantum mechanics appeared thousands of years apart and, at first glance, one would think don’t have much in common. We might associate the latter with the opaqueness of long, abstract mathematical formulas and the former with people venerating trees and the wind. We might get caught in the dichotomization of tradition and progress, two value-laden terms: many mental models see traditions as holding us back and a drag on the linear march of humankind, while progress is understood as inevitable and good for humanity.

Yet ancient wisdoms and quantum mechanics at their core ask many of the same questions, one of which is “how are we interconnected?” This question of interconnectedness is linked to impermanence, which is also a theme central to both.

There is so much to say about the deep substance of both the ancient wisdoms and quantum mechanics, but both have the potential for taking one down the proverbial rabbit hole. If you are interested in pursuing those journeys, there is a section at the end of the article with additional explanation.

Let’s pass on the rabbit holes at this juncture. For ancient wisdoms and quantum mechanics alike, there is only one absolute truth: nothing exists on its own, independently of all other things, because reality is relative and consists of countless phenomena interacting with countless other phenomena instantaneously and immaterially. This means that everything is interdependent and there is no beginning and no end (since nothing can create itself). This is in line with Einstein’s theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, ancient philosophies, and many First Nations cosmogonies.

The point I am trying to make is that when we say that everything is interdependent, we are not being woo woo—the interdependence of all things is the basis of our most current scientific understanding of how the universe works. What’s more, while this brief historical hiatus of science is using technology and equipment that is more and more sophisticated to understand interdependence, it is actually reframing understandings that date back millennia.

Hence why the tension between tradition and progress is a false one. 

So if the universe and everything within it is made of phenomena that are immediate, immaterial, and interdependent, one simple question arises that reconsiders everything: if we are interconnected, why would we ever act in a way that is harmful to others (including other living species)? That would be illogical, even absurd; when we harm others, we end up harming ourselves. When we do good unto others, we do good unto ourselves because there is no singularity and no binary either; we are all entangled and interdependent. This is not a greeting card, this is millennial wisdom that is backed by bleeding-edge science!

What if kindness was the curricular goal and the measure of success because we realize it is illogical and an illusion not to be kind to others?

I am going to switch gears and talk about what this means for schools: If our interdependence is a pillar of wisdoms of thousands of years reinforced by contemporary science, why are we still assessing students as individuals? Why are we still trapped by reductionist frameworks that treat everything as independent parts? Why do we believe that we can measure both position (marks) and velocity (learning trajectories)? Why are we assessing kids against isolated and decontextualized “skills”.* 

Can we move beyond the individual and recognize we don’t exist independently of others and the world? Can we assess that way? Do we even need to assess?

What if we embraced our interdependence and re-created school, re-wrote its narrative so that it became a place to learn how to contribute to others and the world, by which we would be contributing to ourselves because there is no separation.

What if instead of a curriculum of disciplinary knowledge, we created a curriculum of kindness?

What if the destination was kindness and we filled our tanks with knowledge, skills, dispositions to maximize kindness?

Kindness would be put to the service of contributing to our communities. Kindness could be what leads to learning how to protect the fish in the river. Kindness could lead to writing a story to take the reader on an uplifting adventure. Kindness could create systems to check on each other and make sure that we’re ok. Each of these ideas would find purpose in kindness; not achievement, competition, or merit, but kindness. Each of these ideas could bring in traditional subjects working together, including biology, chemistry, technology, literacy, humanities, social sciences, language, math, statistics, art, design…. 

This is more than project-based learning. It is a cultural shift away from the self and an embrace of our interconnectedness. This takes Otto Scharmer’s idea of going from ego-system to eco-system to another level, where the eco-system is all living things because we should be part of all living things. It is contributing to the bio-collective—every living thing who has an interest in the healthfulness of the planet.

Imagine a school where you are assessed on the positive impact of your thinking and actions on the community. Imagine a learning environment driven by an ethic of contribution. Imagine a world where success was defined by kindness. 

Kindness is the one thing that everyone can do, no matter where you’re from, your race, class, gender, origins, financial situation. It is the great leveler.

Meritocracy would crumble.

A curriculum of kindness is possible. A curriculum of kindness is necessary. 

We can document what we’ve learned, how we’ve learned, what we’ve done, and go further by telling the story of the impact we have had on the community through our contributions, through kindness. 

And the best part is that “we” can be a person or a group because there is no separation, we are interconnected.

Yes, this is a radical shift in thinking. Yes, a curriculum of kindness would take us away from being student-centric to being bio-centric because we would work toward all living things, not just the individual. We are kind because we are part of the interconnected whole. We can either start building now, or wait until the real cataclysm of the meta-crisis hits us, the one that brings together climate disaster, socio-economic injustice, and isolation—which are all linked.

Will Richardson likes to ask “why school?” I’ll ask another station: “why learn?”

Since ancient wisdoms and contemporary science are built on the idea of interconnection, the answer to the question “why learn?” must take into account every member of the bio-collective because each of us is both a part of the bio-collective and the bio-collective in its entirety. There is no separation. 

Why learn? If not for kindness, then why?



Additional explanations of ancient wisdoms and quantum physics – the Rabbit Holes

According to Buddhism (as well as Taoism) and quantum mechanics, the universe is not made of solid, distinct entities. We tend to think of objects as existing in themselves, but according to these wisdoms, it is an illusion of the mind necessary for us to be able to make sense of the world. Our minds simply cannot process the nonexistence of one universal reality. Our brains distill information from all the sources captured by our senses so that we may function day-to-day. Time, for instance, only exists as a relative concept because it is different depending on the speed at which we are traveling or how strong the neighboring gravitational force is.  Even space shrinks the closer we get to light speed. As such, “true reality” depends on interactions with factors outside our consciousness (beyond our ability to perceive). Our “reality” is constructed of that which we are able to perceive and our brain comprehends, about 10% of all the stimuli we encounter. 

The Buddhist principle of Pratityasamutpada states that everything arises as a result of dependence upon multiple causes and conditions. Nothing can be its own cause because this would signify that things could create themselves ex nihilo, which is illogical. The Mahayana philosopher Nagarjuna points out that if something could exist independently of all other things, causality could never operate on it and it would be stuck in its own static and permanent condition forever (and this goes against the Second Law of Thermodynamics). 

The idea that you cannot step into the same river twice is one of the most simple metaphors to understand change.**  According to Buddhism, what we see, what we perceive, is nothing more than phenomena. Phenomena have no intrinsic existence (that is, they are immaterial) because their nature is that of dependence on other phenomena: they are the constant interaction of all things, neither appearing nor disappearing, but rather changing all the time. Phenomena follow the laws of cause and effect of countless interdependencies and reciprocities that exist beyond time, because if they were subject to time—that is, existing for even an instant—they would be static in that instant and therefore not be subject to change in that instant, which is impossible since change is constant. The Four Noble Truths are the basis of Buddhism’s purpose: to lessen our attachment to the reality we see, which is an illusion based on our clinging to permanence, which cannot exist because everything is an immaterial phenomenon. 

Quantum mechanics also concludes that the universe is both immaterial and interdependent. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle tells us that it is impossible to define an electron’s position and its speed at the same time. Accordingly, the position of an electron only exists as a probability until it is observed, meaning that this position is dependent on the subjective conditions of the observer and her tool of observation (and therefore the consciousness to observe). If a position only takes form when it is observed, then it does not exist independently of the observer. On the other hand, the act of determining the position of the electron means that we cannot know its speed. This means that we cannot talk of “objective” reality because we can only capture a “subjective” aspect of the electron (position over speed or vice versa). If there is no objectivity, there is only interdependence because the object needs a subject to observe it.

Even weirder, two photons shot in opposite directions act in exactly the same way no matter how far apart they are (meaning they travel away from each other at the speed of light). This is “spooky” stuff (but also the EPR (Einstein–Podolsky–Rosen) paradox that Alain Aspect disproved in 1982). Yet when we think that all particles were bound together in the singularity of the Big Bang, it makes sense that they must still be so now. (Many First Nations refer to this original source.) Quantum mechanics is the science that proves that nothing exists independently, that everything is interconnected no matter the distance that separates parts. There is no materiality, just phenomena of interactions and probabilities. Through these probabilities, there is uncertainty, because we simply cannot know. This seems scary, but probability is everything and everywhere in the universe, from subatomic particles to the largest stars that are made of countless atoms. 

Interconnectedness is what makes the universe because it is the other side of our coin. Since phenomena are immaterial and timeless (as in, they are not bound by temporal boundaries), they are the constant interaction of all the parts of the universe at every level; they signify the interconnection of everything and the constant change that ensues because of that interconnectedness, everything acting on everything. This eliminates deterministic thinking because there is no longer cause and effect. There is no beginning and no end. Time is a construct of the human mind. Uncertainty is not scary. It is the world we live in. 


Footnotes

* Here are some of my favorite standards from actual report cards: “The student is able to research to build and present knowledge” “ Able to design scientific investigations,” or “Demonstrates a command for grade-level conventions.” What do those even mean? No indication of the purpose of the research, how it connected personally, the impact the presentation had. Same for this scientific investigation that no one explained whether it would contribute to the community. I won’t even touch “grade-level conventions.”

**This phrase is attributed to Heraclitus, who walked the earth at the same time as the Buddha, and who thought the universe was in perpetual motion and that everything moved without beginning or end.

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