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Learning to Be Happy
Little pressure here: our humanity depends on it

by DK Holland

Teamwork activates our mental gym in an important way, sharpening many essential non-word based skills—empathy, patience and cooperation—and softening inappropriateness, callousness and renegade behavior. Where words are clearly insufficient and technology limited, especially in a multicultural world, people time with all that entails—gestures, body language and guttural sounds—is part of our humanness. But with our greater sophistication and our increasing social isolation, is our mysticism, our ability to “read” people, been dulled?

Industrial designer Dean Kamen (the genius/college drop-out who designed the Segway) started the organization FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) in 1989 to encourage students (starting in kindergarten) to team up to make robots and specifically to energize American kids to become innovators and leaders while immersing themselves in science and engineering. Each team’s robot is automatically unique since the box doesn’t come with instructions, only a challenge to “do it yourselves” and then travel as a team with your invention to enroll it in a robot competition. Twenty-five hundred teams currently get that box of parts and a deadline. Teams get very graphic with costumes and makeup at the competitions, it’s kind of tribal. And FIRST is making science fun fun fun for boys and increasingly more for girls too; it’s projected to include over a quarter of a million students in 2011/2012 with the support of 90,000 volunteers and 3,500 corporations.

The word civility means “common purpose, sense of community, cooperation.” The Greek origin of civility—civitas—is “learning to live in the city.” Humans are unique in the family of great apes since we are hardwired to effectively cooperate, at least within their tribes. Ironically Homo sapiens also wiped out all the less innovative humanlike apes in their migration path (the Neanderthals, the Hobbits to name just two).

Elementary school educator and highly empathetic human John Hunter invented the World Peace Game in 1983. He wants children to learn through their bodies. He uses a hands-on political simulation in a distinctively low-tech and notably antiquated (tanks and ground troops abound—no drones) three-dimensional, four-tiered model to teach teams of fourth grade students the challenges of cooperation and communication under stress. They dive right in: Global warming, nuclear and oil spills, ethic and minority tensions, famine, break-away republics are all addressed by Hunter’s students. No problem! Hunter gloats, who gives little instruction, acting only as facilitator, “They solved global warming in a week.” In the process of playing such a deadly game, Hunter’s students also inevitably develop a greater sense of realism, empathy, courage, imagination—and civility—without being exclusive. They want everyone to win. And then it’s on to fifth grade.5

I don’t know about you, but, until college, I really hated school. While I started a million clubs when I was a little kid, I remember very few team efforts in school except Phys Ed (it was the ’60s, and it was public school). I was bored and I wasn’t motivated in most of my classes except art where I flourished (gaining the privilege to go out to the pond to draw and smoke). For instance, I had to repeat Latin and algebra over. What a drag. I didn’t get the point of either. Someone tell me how this was relevant to the life of a fifteen-year-old? There was little context. Sitting in rows, reading left to right, reading on paper—in isolation—was so, so boring. It all compounded my overall ennui. And then there were the depressing intimidation factors: comparisons made, fears of not shaping up, not fitting in. None of these conditions were conducive to Debbie Holland becoming a good team player.

Yet now, social skills are in high demand, more essential to some employers than even intellectual abilities. We’re living in a post-industrial age: Cookie-cutter skills are largely passé in the United States. Fully 65 percent of today’s grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn’t yet been invented.6 But if schools are still focused on linear book learning, liberal arts, sitting in rows, being lectured to by an overworked teacher clueless about how to incorporate neuroscience into his/her curriculum (e.g., if you’re teaching about the Great Depression, do it before lunch so the kids are hungry) and technology. Our country is at a grave disadvantage otherwise. Recently I visited a Brooklyn public school’s fifth grade class and there was an interactive white board—covered in notes the teacher had taped to it. Even though she had a PhD in her specialty area, she had no idea how to use the technology provided. The kids responded accordingly. It was a hell hole.

Good teaching 101: Good teachers are both linear (step-by-step) and lateral (associative). Students have to be presented with an array of options, taught to think critically, to question and probe, to think on their feet not just on their butts. Teachers need to know where each of their students are in the continuum, what each student needs to know to move forward: Meet them where they are in their learning process, not where you wish they were. This is a tall order (and answers why many of our best teachers are exhausted, quitting) but when it can be done, good teamwork creates an environment in which learning can happen. One kid’s strength is another kid’s weakness and vice versa. You can ask silly, stupid, obvious questions because someone else may know. And nobody will laugh at you because they know you know something else. And no one will shame you. The student who dances to the beat of a different drum may be able to find out how to bring others into the dance. A balanced, communicating, trusting team is greater than the sum of its parts. Those are the lessons of teamwork and lead to employability and the love of learning. Boy do I wish we'd had that at Amity High.

The computer from Mitra, the 3-D structure from Hunter, the box from FIRST are all full of mystery; they are pure potential, a stimulating incentive to each and every student. Especially if you are encouraged to bring your unique perspective to the group, knowing that you don't have to go it alone is like dying and going to heaven. A team with a problem to solve and filled with highly motivated, happy students (of any age), willing and able to leave their comfort zones to truly expand their thinking, led by a teacher confident to sit back, that’s what good learning is.

If the purpose of evolution is indeed the development of consciousness, we will achieve that only by being open to new possibilities. Open to the possibility of happiness. Early civilizations lived in fear, blaming anything bad that happened to them on external forces—to gods (whom they bowed to) or strangers (whom they slaughtered). More and more we are looking inward, realizing our own complicity in charting our collective future for six billion humans and counting. So what does survival of the fittest look like today? It’s no longer the strongest, the meanest. It’s empathy, our ability to break down barriers, build trust among “strangers.” If happiness is something true, substantive and lasting (e.g., deep human connections, rich lasting experiences) not just simple pleasure which quickly evaporates, then what else does anyone want out of life but to be happy? CA

2.    Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer, narrated by the author,
4.    A nod to Nora Ephron, I Remember Nothing, narrated by the author,
6.    MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions. Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.