Leaders in education and research talk compassion and big ideas at TED conference
on June 15, 2011
Big ideas about education and emotion flowed through the Craneway Pavillion at the TEDxGoldenGateED conference over the weekend. The ideas found a receptive audience in the roughly 700 in attendance at the Saturday conference that attracted teachers, parents, therapists and others from throughout the Bay Area. The day included a packed schedule of speakers, performers and workshops that revolved around the central theme of compassion.
In the literature for the event, the organizers called compassion “humanity’s stickiest emotion.” Defined as a devotion to enhancing the welfare of others, speakers at the conference had a variety of takes on the subject, presenting scientific and psychological research on the biological and environmental underpinnings of compassion as well as examples of compassion in action in schools and communities.
The day-long conference was organized by the Prospect Sierra School and the Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley, and organized under the banner of the annual TED Conference held every year in Long Beach, California that features short presentations from artists, entrepreneurs, activists and academics on a wide range of topics. TEDxSF, an independent group affiliated with the national TED organization, selected the speakers for the Richmond event.
The presenters came from a variety of backgrounds including education, social sciences, the non-profit sector, music and the arts. All of them took a different approach to explain, or give examples of, compassion and empathy.
For Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and director of the Greater Good Science Center, compassion comes down to a hormone in your brain called oxytocin. “It’s a little sequence of nine amino acids produced in the hypothalamus that goes through your brain into your body,” he said. “It helps you read other people’s emotions, it helps you trust, it helps you be generous and cooperate.”
Rather than look to brain chemistry for compassion, Mary Gordon looked to a small action by a young girl, Sylvie, who saw her friend June being mocked for having “geeky and babyish” shoes before school. “Sylvie felt so hurt and humiliated for her friend that when the recess bell rang, she went over to June and asked is she could wear one of her shoes,” Gorden told the audience. “And that powerful, empathic action taught every single child in that playground that if you hurt my friend, you hurt me.” Despite the small act of courage to stop bullying, Gordon says that 85 percent of children don’t know what to do when they see bullying happening in front of them, so they do nothing. Her organization, San Francisco-based Roots of Change, runs programs to teach emotional literacy and empathy to children.
Researchers discussed the developing understanding of compassion and empathy within the sciences and social sciences, and teachers, artists and non-profit leaders discussed the role that compassion plays in their own work. Some, like singer-songwriter and TED fellow Meklit Hadero, teacher Jeff Duncan-Andrade and Pixar president Pete Docter were local to the Bay Area. Others came from further afield, including Ani Chöying Drolma, a Buddhist nun who founded a school in Nepal to support young nuns, and Brian Bordainick, who has garnered press by raising funds to build a multi-million dollar football stadium open to the public in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward.
While some ideas presented were lofty or ethereal, Jeff Duncan-Andrade’s presentation was firmly grounded in his experience as a teacher at Mandela High School in East Oakland, a charter school that has used compassion and empathy as the starting point to designing a curriculum. He said that the trauma that his students regularly suffer by growing up surrounded by violence and entrenched poverty makes them twice as likely to show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder than veterans of the Iraq war. “And what are we teaching them in schools? What’s the conversation about? Test scores. Attendance. Quantifiables, things we can measure,” he said. “It’s little wonder why little children like these are not willing to engage in that process.”
The program at Mandela was designed to focus first on the children’s emotional needs and improving their material conditions to build the school as a hub of sustainability and security in their lives. “The problem that we have in our education system today is that it’s based on a model of rugged individualism. But our program doesn’t ascribe to that,” he said. “Instead we tell young people that we need you. And you need each other.” He said, the school’s curriculum returns results. Over the eighteen years the school has been open, he’s seen the return of his students to East Oakland as doctors, lawyers and teachers when they are older. And by focusing on student’s emotional and material needs, rather than test scores, those scores, as well as matriculation rates, grade point averages and attendance all increase markedly, he said.
Attendees were able to interact with presenters in workshops, to respond to the presentations by sketching, drawing, or writing on large white sheets of paper tacked to the wall. They drank water from old wine bottles with labels that read “Compassion,” and at the end of the day, they were encouraged to keep the conversation going, to take the ideas with them and encourage compassion wherever they lived and worked.
This story was first published on our sister site, Richmond Confidential.
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