11/01/2013 08:43 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Sinking? Time to Flourish

I learned Chandani's story during my gap semester last fall in Bishanpur village, India, when she would come every morning to take out the trash in exchange for a few rupees. She was ten years old, but had dropped out of school without learning anything tangible after just a few weeks due to abuse and discouragement. When I offered to teach her how to write her name, she ran away in fear, equating this type of learning with the prior negative experiences she had in school. As she came day after day, however, we built up enough rapport that she began to feel comfortable enough to write her name, which she learned to write from memory after just two days. On the third day, I gave her a notebook and pen in the morning, and one hour later, a coworker called and told me that she was practicing while the rest of her friends were playing.

I was reminded of Chandani's perseverance at a recent summit hosted by the Transformative Action Institute during an improvisation game focused on building resilience. "We're sinking!" I yelled during the course of the activity. My emotions raced, as I punched the mast, started blaming the captain, and then fell into apathy. After overcoming these feelings, I started looking for solutions, then made a plan to plug the hole, and then ultimately used the situation as a learning experience for how to be more resilient. On reflection, it was positivity and optimism that allowed the captain and I to work together to find a creative solution to our problem that ultimately saved us.

The activity is meant to represent the various ways in which we can respond to adversity and my actions represent various reactions on a scale from negative five to positive five. The first three reactions, negative five, negative three, and negative one, represent anger and aggression, blaming and shaming, and apathy, respectively. Meanwhile, the second three, positive one, positive three, and positive five, are illustrative of taking an action, making a plan, and transforming the "problem" into a learning experience. This exercise draws on research that shows that the way in which we frame problems often determines the decisions we make and, therefore, outcomes in our lives.

The activity has particular relevance to the founder of the Transformative Action Institute -- Dr. Scott Sherman. As a freshman in college, he was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, as a group of gang members brutally attacked him and left him for dead as part of their gang initiation. Scott's own reaction to the situation was an example of a positive five; rather than seeing himself as a victim, he sought to educate and support others in a way that would reduce gang violence. He later pursued a PhD on the science of how people win to understand what elements contribute to success in the context of social and environmental movements. He has used his findings to create the Transformative Action Institute curriculum, which focuses on purpose, well-being, and human flourishing. The curriculum has now been adopted, contextualized, and used by thousands of educators worldwide.

One such educator and social entrepreneur is Eric Glustrom, the founder of two social enterprises: Educate! in Uganda, which serves high school students, and Watson University in the U.S., which is for university students. Both organizations seek to leverage human potential by building the character traits necessary to become changemakers who can actualize solutions to problems in their communities. Using the Transformative Action curriculum, students learn to lead themselves before leading others through scientifically validated modules on empathy, creativity, and resilience.

My experiences with Chandani and some of her peers highlighted the need for an educational model in India that would create a supportive ecosystem of learning for students from disadvantaged groups, which led me to found the organization SEEKHO. We have recognized that social discrimination can strip students of the hope, optimism, and resilience they need to even get in the classroom in the first place. We have combined this understanding of local conditions with the scientific evidence from Positive Psychology and other fields that underlie the curricula of Transformative Action Institute and Educate! What the research shows is that teaching these positive character traits actually increases well-being and happiness in a way that facilitates learning, better health, less prejudiced attitudes, and higher future earnings.

The late Brazilian educator and scholar Paolo Freire referred to our current education system as the "Banking Concept of education," in which children are viewed as "'receptacles; to be 'filled' by the teachers." In contrast to this model, all of the organizations mentioned above are part of a movement to reimagine how our children learn. Transformative Education is meant to draw on students' intrinsic motivation, to challenge them, and to be experiential, fun, and team-oriented. In this way, our hope is that if students find them selves on a sinking ship, either a real or metaphorical one, we will have empowered them with the skills needed to transform and transcend the situation.