An Integral Approach to Affective Education

Frank MarreroArticle, Cognitive, Education, Education, Emotional, Journal of Integral Theory & Practice Leave a Comment

The author uses twelve AQAL dimensions of education as described by Sean Esbjörn-Hargens to approximate a “report card” for evaluating any curriculum with an affective focus. This completeness is not just an academic exercise but shows the practicality and advantage of an Integral approach in the real world. Four affective educational models will also be examined using Integral perspectives. The features of these programs will be measured using an example of an Integral assessment of their strengths, foci, and weaknesses.


I was disheartened in my youth by the superficiality of my education. I both read and heard stories of heroic and initiatory cultures and peoples, yet it seemed to me that my popular culture delivered a fake version of the real education I was hoping to find. This led to decades of religious and cloistered life, devoting myself to personal growth and spiritual studies.

While in my seminarian and religiously renunciate years (1978-1988) of spirited education in the ashram of Avatara Adi Da, I served in the educational sphere as teacher, principal, curriculum developer, and priest. I was simultaneously a student of Adi Da and a teacher of children—and I observed the pedagogical transmission from both directions.

Avatara Adi Da led me by intense loving and simplicity of being into a radical responsibility and inherent happiness, and I was party to the great blessing of caring for, educating, and pastoring almost three hundred children to adulthood. A quarter century later, they are impressive friends and their maturity is evidenced by their praise of the upbringing they received. Avatara Adi Da’s genius, together with the depth of feeling I observed in those children, have always inspired me to create ways of bringing religious wisdoms into the secular world of public school. For twenty years, I developed and experimented with a curriculum on character development known as The Royal Games. While I received moving praise from scholars, educators, parents, and children, teachers were reluctant to take on “another!” curriculum.

Three years ago, I took up teaching in the inner-city of Richmond, California. This school was under extreme duress in many ways, the worst of which were their poverty, penurious state support, cultural violence, and the pressures made by the 2002 No Child Left Behind legislation of the Bush administration. The brutal environment affected every decision I made in curriculum development. Every instruction was evaluated as to its effectiveness in these harsh learning conditions. This ability to be effective at the lowest-common-denominator level actually empowered my decisions. My theory was that if my pedagogy and curriculum worked in the harshest environment, it can work anywhere.

Through the intensity of spending every day “in the trenches,” I came to agree with my critics. Teachers (at large) cannot take on another curriculum. (They need less work, more help, and a real salary.) Therefore, for the past three years I have striven to mold the curriculum into a writing program, addressing all the quadrants of the Integral model. In addition, this curriculum serves the growth of individual authenticity and emotional fluency, and is aligned to the California State Standards and State writing requirements. This way it would blend into what teachers were already doing. By these pressures, The Royal Games morphed into Big Philosophy for Little Kids.

Emphasizing that any (new) curriculum needs to blend in and help, the aim of my present and future work is to relieve teachers of extra work and provide them with a meaningful and powerful theater wherein to exercise reading and writing standards and techniques. To this end, Big Philosophy for Little Kids exercises the most important Language Arts standards that are accounted for on the yearly state California Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) test (as well as my district’s three writing assessments). By addressing these practical, academic standards, along with personal and social issues, this curriculum moves toward an Integral approach.

In Big Philosophy for Little Kids, the sophisticated use of myth, the writing requirements, and the California State science standards of the curriculum give it (in its present form) a gravitas at the fulcrum of the concrete operational stage as it emerges into the early formal operational stages of development, usually in the fifth and sixth grade levels. However, I used it successfully in my distressed, inner-city school setting at the fourth and fifth grade levels. It is scalable across the elementary and middle school grade levels. Combining myth together with authentic writing fosters the “concrete” early grades’ maturation from exterior-rule to interior-role and also strengthens the early formal operational use of metaphors (grade 5+). By such artful nurturings and challenges, the individual is accelerated in evolutionary development.

Over the last twenty years, I have engaged versions of Big Philosophy for Little Kids from inner- city schools to religious ones, from middle-class campuses to privileged institutions. It is designed to exercise a rich variety of California language arts and science standards while acting as an évocateur for affective issues. Addressing the needs of the day, Big Philosophy for Little Kids is designed to raise test scores, writing and expressive arts, and emotional intelligence. Within my classes, I see marked advancement, sometimes miraculous (top scores moved from 3% “Basic” to 68% “Advanced” and “Proficient” over the year). My classes have consistently outpaced similar classrooms in data from standardized tests in both language arts and mathematics. These data are not only local to the school but also within my district. (A most recent math assessment revealed my class to have produced more than twice as many students at the Advance and Proficient levels than the District norm.)

To promote any curricula (and particularly an affective curriculum), we must situate it within a framework of education and pedagogy, within a spectrum of psychology and philosophy, and within a social and cultural context. This is no small task and especially difficult in emotional, religious, and spiritual arenas that frame affective education.3 Fortunately, the latter phases of Ken Wilber’s work (1995-present) gives us just the kind of integrating clarity that defuses conflicts and allows the brightness of every intelligence to shine forth. Wilber’s AQAL model is like a Rosetta stone, making it possible for many languages from different quarters and altitudes to communicate easily.

It is the proposition of this article that societies do not need to flee modern superficiality and return to pre-modern or traditional belief systems to inculcate and inspire our progeny. Rather, humanity can move forward and critically re-construct the genius of our heritage in an inclusive and rational manner. This allows us to set the traditional, modern, and postmodern sensibilities within a broader growth whereby we appreciate and inherit the best practices of those three epochal voices, even as we jettison their limitations. We accept and winnow; we inherit the goodness of each voice and continue to grow. Because the Integral model is based on a spectrum of developmental growth and in all major faculties of human development, the Integral framework allows us to conduct a much more clear conversation about pedagogy. In giving our children the many inheritances of feeling, emotion, wisdoms, and spirit, we can validate their own understanding even as we loosen the crippling grips of provinciality, modernity, and postmodernity and allow for new perspectives.

The Integral framework provides us with an interdisciplinary language whereby we can clearly communicate about the controversial and often confusing issues surrounding the interface of cultural history, social systems, developmental psychology, pedagogical philosophy, and affective education. The AQAL model is not the only “integral” model, but I find it to be most useful (in spite of its intellectual challenge).

To his credit, Wilber is adamant that the map, as bright and clear as it may be, is not the territory:

“One thing is important to realize from the start. The Integral Map is just a map. It is not the territory. We certainly don’t want to confuse the map with the territory—but neither do we want to be working with an inaccurate or faulty map. Do you want to fly over the Rockies with a bad map? The Integral Map is just a map, but it is the most complete and accurate map we have at this time.”

No matter how accurate the map, we must explore the landscape directly. With as clear a view as we can gather, we must then work within the fields of pedagogy. At this critical time in human history, it seems crucial that we re-construct a pedagogy of affective development in our homes, in our places of worship, and even in our pubic schools. I hope to contribute to this effort and inspire others to do likewise.

Frank Marrero

About Frank Marrero

FRANK MARRERO is a public school teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. A veteran of inner-city trenches as well as ashram schools, Frank has been developing curricula to nurture affective strengths for a quarter century. He holds a Masters in the Arts of Teaching and also teaches in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at John F. Kennedy University. Frank and his wife Julia are the proud parents of two bright children, Salem and Ella.