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Soul-filled teaching and learning

Steve Van Bockern

To fully develop the potentials of youth, we must address not only the academic dimension but the needs of the heart and the soul. This article suggests that success is more than teaching to the intelligence quotient (IQ) and emotional quotient (EQ), but we also must attend to the soul quotient (SQ). Recognizing that many traditional practices in schools “stomp on souls” of students, the author provides a description of how soul filled education might transform teaching and learning.

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.
- Albert Einstein

Reflect on this question: “If you had the power to ensure your students or children would learn one thing from you, what would it be?”

Repeatedly, teachers and aspiring teachers alike give value-laden answers like honesty, responsibility, respect, tenacity, capacity to learn, caring for others and self, emotional competence, and discipline. A few will indicate “learn to read or write.” I have never had teachers indicate they would want their legacy to be students who remembered them for teaching them to divide fractions, diagram sentences, or memorize the Provinces of Canada. But, equally absent are those who suggest it is our job to help our students answer the big questions: Who am I? What do I love? What are my gifts to give? Knowing I am going to die, how should I live? (Muller, 1997). Vaclav Havel (1994), writer and former president of the Czech Republic, suggested that classical modern science describes only the surface of things, a single dimension of reality:

We may know immeasurably more about the universe than our ancestors did, and yet it
increasingly seems they knew something more essential about it than we do, something that escapes us. Experts can explain anything in the objective world to us, yet we understand our own lives less and less.

I am discouraged when my students’ learning seems to scratch only the surface of things. There are days when my teaching could best be described as “flat.” I walk out of my classroom, shake my head and ask, “What was that all about?” I am like a cartoon character with bubble speak; words float in the air and have the appearance of being connected to my mouth. But the words are not my words. My students know it and I know it, and we simply come to an announced truce: If you don’t bother me, I won’t bother you. Teaching and learning is not much fun, let alone life giving, on those days.

It seems that in this age of academic accountability (No Child Left Behind, among other mandates), education does not attend consciously and intentionally to that which matters most. Why do we not teach to the heart and spirit, those things that touch us deeply, what might be called soul-filled teaching and learning?

I have always had a particular bent when it comes to questions that get to the deeper issues of life. A brother who died young, close friends who left this world way too early, and my dogged perplexity with issues of compassion versus accountability may have been the impetuses. I have always been interested in thinking about how I bring soul questions to my students while respecting the idea of separation of church and state and the deeply held beliefs of my students’ families (Kessler, 2000). I wonder if I have become too good at it. Parker Palmer (1998) writes about how people separate their inner lives from their outer lives. In effect, we learn to live in two worlds and we teach our youth to do the same. We are not meant to live divided lives. How can teachers stop this dehumanizing behavior of fragmentation? How can we move from bubble speak to teaching and learning that is soul-filled?

It seems counter intuitive to objectively describe what is in many ways indescribable and mysterious. But to extend the metaphor of measurement, let us focus not only on intelligence quotient (IQ) and emotional quotient (EQ) but also on soul quotient (SQ). See Table 1.

Table 1: Comparison and Contrast of IQ, EQ, and SQ

Quotient (IQ)
Quotient (EQ)
Soul Quotient
Focus Intelligence Emotions Spirit
Associated names Binet, Gardner Goleman Palmer, Lantieri,
Marshall, Zohar
Assessment Objective, scientific Subjective Subjective,
Emphasis Thinking Feelings Senses
Location Mind, rational brain Heart, emotional brain Soul, body
Whose responsibility to teach? School Home and school Temple, mosque, synagogue, church

Thinkers since Descartes (1644) have contended that, if something exists, it can be measured. Alfred Binet (1916) attempted this with human intelligence, creating a test that primarily measured verbal and mathematical thinking ability. The Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test carved out an argument that there is a group of people who score above the average number of 100 and an equal number of people who score below. Suddenly we all could be compared to the norm. The test was considered scientific and objective. At its best, it helped schools with student remediation and at its worst, it labeled and sorted kids. Howard Gardner (1983) was prominent among those who challenged the idea that intelligence was solely the providence of verbal and mathematical ability. He asserted that there are multiple intelligences.

While there is a long history in education of attending to emotional learning, Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ (1997) created renewed interest in something as subjective as human emotions. Feelings left the realm of “soft science” and became worthy of important research. The education of the heart took on new meaning. With the advent of brain imaging techniques, researchers were able to go beyond the traditional experimentation with laboratory animals and subjective analysis of human behavior and actually begin to physically map the emotional centers of the human brain. Goleman provides evidence that emotional intelligence is a stronger indicator of human success than is IQ. He defines emotional intelligence in terms of emotional awareness of self and others, personal motivation, and the ability to be in healthy relationships. Goleman’s analysis of the research suggests that EQ can be taught. The home, once the traditional training ground for emotional competence, is now sharing that responsibility with the schools.

The recent history of soul-filled education has not made inroads in public education. In fact, there has been resistance to such education because it is associated with religious training, the traditional task of families, temples, mosques, and churches. While there has been extensive research on moral education and development (Kohlberg, 1981; Coles, 1998; Lickona, 2001), SQ is only beginning to be addressed in relationship to how it might play out in our schools.

Schools with Spirit: Nurturing the Inner Lives of Children and Teachers (Lantieri, 2001) gives perspectives on soul-filled education. Such schools honor the uniqueness of each child. Students and teachers search for their passions. Different ways of knowing, including intuition, imagination, and creativity, are honored. Leadership is collaborative. Personal growth and change is valued. Time for silence and stillness is created. Teachers are as attuned to whether a student has found purpose in life as they are to achievement scores.

Through extensive research, the Search Institute has generated a list of forty assets that protect children from risky behavior and encourage positive development (Benson, 1997). Some of the assets relate to soul-filled education: service to others, participating in community, creative activities, caring, and having personal power, a sense of purpose, a positive view of a personal future, and compassion for others. A number of these assets are affirmed in Zohar and Marshall’s (2000) definition of a spiritually intelligent person. Spiritual intelligence entails a high degree of self-awareness, the capacity to be inspired by vision and values, a sense of service, and the ability to face and use suffering. It has a holistic view of life, appreciates diversity, can stand against the crowd, is spontaneous, and seeks answers to “why?”

If I back out of my academic training and ponder my definition of soul-filled teaching or learning, I am left with “I know it when I see it.” Just as easily I know it when it is not happening and, in effect, schools are stomping on children’s souls. Examples of soul stomping abound. A physical education teacher approached me after she attended a daylong workshop and shared this story:

I agree with your idea about how meeting the needs of kids is so important and it is up to the adults to help them get those needs met. But that doesn’t always happen in this school. For one year, I’ve had an ongoing battle with the janitors to keep the bathrooms filled with toilet paper. The kids are forever complaining that there isn’t any toilet paper. And it is true. When I go to the bathroom, I take my own roll from the stash I keep in my office. I’ve done everything I can think of. I’ve talked to the janitors, the principal, and even the superintendent. They tell me they will look into it but nothing ever changes.

I recently told the superintendent that I was going to write a letter to the school board after the latest incident that happened with one of our students. She was in the bathroom, no toilet paper, and started yelling for help. After sitting for ten minutes, she started crying, screaming, and using every obscenity that school girls aren’t supposed to know. Guess what? She got written up for swearing and not making a respectful request. She spent two days in detention!

The PE teacher was close to tears as she finished the story. “It is always the kids who suffer when the adults don’t do their job,” she told me.

Here are some other signs that soul-filled teaching and learning is not happening in a school:

Unless I get too smug about my ability to detect soul-less teaching and learning, I only have to remember times that I stomped on kids, even my own. I remember asking my fourteen-year-old daughter, “If you could ask an important big question and get it answered by tomorrow morning, what would it be?” I was hoping for something insightful, something that proved my powerful parenting skills. She had several questions. “Who am I going to marry and what kind of car will I drive?” Well, I shifted my gears rather quickly because she did not respond the way I had hoped. In my self-righteous little professor mode, I invoked Dr. Martin Luther King’s statement that people mistakenly judge success by salaries and possessions rather than by the quality of our service and relationships to others. That pontificating was a big mistake. I should have been slow to speak and quick to listen; but when stuff just falls out of my mouth without thinking, I have not respected the voice of others. Soul stomping. Soulfilled teaching is all about honoring the child’s questions without always answering and without always fixing.

I have seen soul-filled teaching and learning:

Students will be reluctant to share their soul-filled questions unless they feel the adults in their lives are on the same journey. Openness requires some caution. I am not suggesting we carelessly air all our existential questions; developmentally, kids are often in a different place. Secondly, we must be careful not to confuse potential proselytizing with honest exchanges. Finally, calculated soul-filled lesson plans are doomed for failure. It is “in the moment” that we experience the depth of our longings, our desires, and our being. Engaging in soul-filled learning and teaching means that adults need to find ways to nourish their own spirit. A quiet walk, a good run, playing, painting, meditating, or writing may provide part of the answer. Try to find ways that clear the mind of the random stream-of-conscious thoughts that never let us rest. Doing so allows us to hear our questions. On good days, my teaching can nourish. When I find myself in the moment and recognize that these children are sacred beings, I get a glimpse of the mystical.


Benson, P (1997). All kids are our kids: What communities must do to raise caring and responsible children and adolescents. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Binet, A. (1916). New methods for the diagnosis of the intellectual level of subnormals. Vineland, NJ: Publications of the Training School at Vineland. (Originally published 1905 in L’Annee Psychologique,12, 191-244.) See

Brendtro, L. K., Brokenleg, M., & Van Bockern, S. (2002). Reclaiming youth at risk: Our hope for the future. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Services.

Coles, R. (1998). The moral intelligence of children: How to raise a moral child. New York: Random House.

Gardner, H. (1983) Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books. (2nd ed. Fontana Press).

Havel, V. (July 4, 1994). From a speech at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. See VaclavHavel

Kessler, R_ (2000). The soul of education. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Kohlberg, L. (1981). The meaning and measurement of moral development. Worcester, MA: Clark University Heinz Werner Institute.

Lantieri, L. (Ed.). (2001). Schools with spirit: Nurturing the inner lives of children and teachers. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Lickona, T. (2001). What is good character? And how can we develop it in our children? Reclaiming Children and Youth, 9, 4. pp. 239-251.

Muller. W. (1997). How, then, shall we live?: Four simple questions that reveal the beauty and meaning of our lives. New York: Bantam Press.

Palmer, P (1998). The courage to teach: Exploririg the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Zohar, D., & Marshall, I. (2000). Spiritual intelligence: The ultimate intelligence. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.


This feature: Van Bockern, S. (2006). Soul-filled teaching and learning. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 14, 4. pp. 218-222.