There were two reasons for psychology faculty member Benina Gould to attend the Dalai Lama’s Mind-Life Conference early this month. The personal reason is that she’s a practicing Buddhist.
The professional reason was that the conference’s theme, “Emerging World Citizens,” dovetails almost perfectly with Gould’s own research on how to educate people to become global citizens.
Gould is one of the few researchers examining how Muslim youth perceive their own choices, and has recently conducted surveys of the internet use of Muslim youth, and how it impacts their attitudes and perceptions, in Indonesia, Pakistan, and the United States.
Too often, Gould says, we try to shape children to the outcomes we want (whether “ a successful career” or “not to support terrorists”) without consulting them as part of the process – so she says she was thrilled to find a strong community consensus at the Mind-Life Conference to do just that.
“There’s a feeling, even in America, that young people really have not done well with all the competition and the testing, that suicide rates have gone up, that there’s all kinds of problems with prescription drugs and that alcoholism has increased dramatically,” Gould says. “So I was very pleased to see contemplative education being looked to as an alternative, training teachers about doing mind-body work with young people, and taking a much more holistic approach.”
Those hoping to improve outcomes for kids have their work cut out for them, though, as two themes at the conference made clear.
First, “It’s not really new information, but it’s crucial information: by and large in this country the age of puberty is now at the average of 11 years old instead of 14 or 15, so between puberty and when the adolescent brain develops for better decision making, there’s this huge gap of time,” Gould says. “That means there’s a lot more time in a potentially dangerous period that previously was four or five years at the most.”
What this means, Gould said, is the second point: that teachers need to be better trained to understand developmental issues with young people, “so that we don’t’ look at them by age but by development. If kids have real trouble at home, or been traumatized, they may also be late in their developmental stages, and it’s better to formulate programs around those developmental levels than around reading groups or SAT scores, or whatever.”
Perhaps most inspiring of confidence, Gould said, was the recognition that teachers at every level need to be better supported. “I saw the kind of support for teachers that, at the academic level and the high school level, they never get,” she said. “That’s extremely encouraging: teachers spend the most time with our kids, and they’re the most underappreciated people in our country. If any of this research is going to be implemented well, it will be because they get the support they need.”