Journey to Middle Earth

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Recently I was lucky enough to revisit New Zealand. I had visited there a number of years ago and was struck by its beauty, the warmth of its people, and the quality of its schools. Since my last visit New Zealand has gained more fame through the Lord of the Rings film trilogy and the Hobbit series, both of which were filmed there. It has stood in, quite nicely, for Middle Earth and the Shire. And I can tell you it is just as magical in reality as it seems on the screen.

But once again, what I found most powerful about New Zealand were its people and its schools. I have told people that while I have visited schools in over 50 countries, I had yet to find any that I would trade for the ones in America-except for New Zealand. There are other countries that offer high spots, such as Finland and its overall quality, or Singapore with its emphasis on science and math, but the one that tugs at my heart is New Zealand.

One of the first things you notice when you visit a school in New Zealand, regardless of socio-economic factors at work in the neighborhood, is that the children are barefoot. Even when it is quite cold, most of the children are running around barefoot. In our litigious country it is hard to imagine a school that would allow that. What if they cut their feet or break a toe? Such concerns don’t arise there. But I found the reason they are so prone to going barefoot is the influence of the Maori culture.

Let me take a “bird walk” here for a minute and tell you that the Maori people, who were there long before Europeans arrived, have maintained great influence in the country. Most of the place names are Maori and a lot of the sensibilities of the country are Maori. One of the things that you see very quickly is that New Zealanders have a wicked sense of humor. I think it is because they have combined droll British humor with teasing and playful Maori humor to create a unique and wonderful way of looking at the world. Many of the Maori spiritual traditions have likewise found their way into the mainstream culture.

Which brings me back to the barefoot issue. When I finally had the temerity to ask why the children always seem to be barefoot, I was told that it helps “ground them.” This is true literally, but it is also true figuratively. New Zealanders are very tied to the Earth. The country has a powerful agricultural economy, and the raw beauty that surrounds the people makes them very aware of the Earth at all times. The Maori worship many aspects of the Earth-the mountains, the rivers, the ocean that surrounds them, and what have you. They want the children to grow up grounded. And I have come to believe that is why I fell in love with their education system. It is well-grounded.

In New Zealand, social and emotional learning isn’t something they try to add to the school day-it is the school day. Everything they do is tied to children’s feelings of well-being, cooperation, and happiness. That is not to say they do not emphasize the other aspects of learning. It just means they do not think the rest of learning matters if the child is not “grounded” in knowing who they are and having a sense of their connection to one another and to Mother Earth.

student at desk

Every school I have visited starts their description of the school with their values, and their values start with a core of social and emotional learning. A school we visited in Rotorua gave us a list of qualities they want the children to have when they leave the school. These qualities start with confidence. They want their children to have confidence in themselves and their own ability and to be strong and confident around their peers and adults. They need to be able to speak their mind, to express what they want for their future, and to ensure they have options. The second set of qualities center on social interaction. They should be able to help others, to be able to trust and gain friends, to be respectful as well as gracious and well-mannered to others. They should have compassion and empathy for those around them. They should be able to lead as well as be a team player. They should know what is wrong and stand up for what is right. The third set of qualities center on being lifelong learners, and this where they lead into the academic aspects of the school. But even there the first quality for learning reading or writing or math is to have a love and passion for it.

Now certainly most of our schools would tell you they have most of these things in mind for their learners but I would challenge you to find many that start with the social and emotional qualities and see them as the center to any other learning. On a visit to another school on an island near Auckland, the principal spent most of her presentation to us talking about student voice. She saw that as the center of everything the school should do. And she ran her high school using the voices of the students as the directive for their work.

student listening

While I was there we visited a museum that covered the culture of the New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. The guide told us that the Easter Islanders were so tied into their spirituality that they carved monolithic figures dedicated to their gods. But to put them in place they had to cut down trees to use as rollers to move these massive stone carvings to their appointed place. Eventually in their effort to thank their gods for their beautiful island, they cut all the trees on the island and destroyed their environment.

Another lesson came from New Zealand itself. Initially there were no predators on the island that many of the birds-most notably the Kiwi, the national bird-became flightless because they didn’t have to worry about escaping. Later, when humans came to the island, they introduced animals that were more predatory, and much of the bird population was wiped out.

student with puppet

I fear that in our effort to emphasize formal instruction and our use of testing to create accountability, we are destroying the environment of schools to promote the learning that really counts-the need to be human. I fear in our effort to worship the gods of accountability we are destroying the very fabric of childhood. I also fear that by creating schools that only emphasize what’s in a child’s head, they will forget what’s in their hearts and become helpless and unable to spread their wings and fly. That would be the true tragedy.