I have written a summary of our Next Generation Learning strategic initiative for the UPrep website. The initiative has five areas: New Models of Time, Interdisciplinary Learning, Social Justice and Educational Equity, Social and Emotional Learning, and U Lab: a Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Please read the summary here or click on the image below.
It’s often said that off-site retreats promote social bonding, and they do. Students form new friendships, particularly important in a class drawn from 45 different elementary schools. Yesterday, I drove out to Fort Flagler State Park to join the new sixth grade class for their retreat activities. I saw the students interact in ways that help develop additional skills that will serve them well in their classes and community life at UPrep.
The genius of a retreat lies in the unique combination of structured and unstructured activities. To a student, a school day is largely structured, with objectives, activities, and outcomes largely designed by teachers. Time outside of school is either structured like school (soccer practice or dance rehearsal) or completely unstructured (going to the park or the mall with friends).
A full retreat day consists of only a handful of time chunks: breakfast, group activities, lunch, choice time, dinner, and evening activities. This contrasts starkly with the many divisions of the shorter school day. At a retreat, the adult presence is always there but in a role much less directive than a classroom teacher. Retreat chaperones set the guardrails for student activities, and then students are left to themselves to move activities forward.
At the retreat, these semi-structured activities provided the ideal training ground for the development of interpersonal and reflective thinking skills. I saw students work together to solve collaborative challenge activities. They communicated, supported, questioned, thought creatively, celebrated successes, and grappled with failures. At other times, students together figured out how to erect tents, protect picnic tables from the rain, cook dinner, assign cleanup duties, and more.
During choice time, groups organized activities like pickup soccer on their own, with just a little support from nearby adults. Assigned groups worked together to design, practice, and deliver skits in the evening. Teachers led individual reflective activities, and students were always free to find an introspective spot in the forest or on the beach during choice times. Informal groups decided to comb the beach for jellyfish, crabs, and skipping stones. I have never before been asked so many questions about ocean life!
Students experimented with different friend groups, using the socially conducive spaces of walks through the forest, collaborative games, and choice time to get to know a good number of their new classmates. Compared to the rest of the school year, these groups were unusually fluid, loosely structured by campsite but encouraged to mix and reform over the course of the three days.
On Monday, students will return to the regular school schedule of classes, clubs, rehearsals, and sports. The relationships and skills developed during the retreat will carry over into math groups, science projects, and dance performances, among others. The memory of interactions at the state park will encourage them to approach school life with confidence, knowledge, and an open mind.
In most schools, when you finish the highest grade, you graduate. Graduation, even in elementary school, signifies the completion of a phase of education and a progression to the next one. Even multi-division schools have adopted the phrase “moving up” to describe the completion of one phase of education without graduating.
Whether graduating or moving up, students grow enormously during these transitions from one division of education to the next. Fifth, eighth, and twelfth grade students are clearly the masters of their domains. They skillfully navigate their school communities, serve as role models to younger students, and naturally assume leadership roles and responsibilities.
Come autumn, these same students pour themselves into their new schools (or divisions), senses on high alert as they learn the routines, social cues, and personalities in their new educational environments. In just a few months, maturity, capabilities, and independence leap forward.
Why are these transitional moments so powerful for many students? Common sense suggests that students respond well to being treated more like adults. Each division brings new levels of independence. Middle school students are freed from direct supervision and make their own way from one class to the next. High school students gain off-campus privileges and either drive or take public transportation to school. Expectations for self-sufficiency in academics and social life increase. The markers of adulthood become increasingly common, and markers of childhood fade away, as students progress through school.
A more subtle effect also exists. Novelty is a powerful trigger for learning. Our brains are wired to pay attention to differences from the norm. As a results, students tend to fully engage themselves with the new educational environments in which they are suddenly immersed. Sadly, this effect is impermanent, though it seems to last longer for some students. The same may be said for the last months in the previous division. Culminating events such as the last play, the last playoff, and graduation leave lasting memories for their novelty and uniqueness.
These moments of transition and novelty may also inspire introspection and reflection. Our college office frames the search process as a personal journey of self-identification and then finding a match from among the thousands of colleges out there. Capstone projects and student presentations provide a stage to showcase one’s strengths and identity.
Teachers of these newly arrived students tend to exhibit a curious paradox. Staying in place while students move in and out, teachers view incoming students as the youngest and newest of the bunch, relatively unskilled and immature compared to their older peers. This effect is subjectively exaggerated beyond what is objectively true.
While incoming students clearly have yet to learn the ways of their new division, they have just come from a grade in which they were regarded as highly capable. Follow these students from one grade to the next, and see what I mean. Exacerbating the effect, teachers tend to receive students from multiple, different schools in their classes, meaning that the group as a whole possesses an even smaller set of common skills and knowledge than the teacher might prefer.
As you welcome new students this fall, just remember: each was likely regarded as very capable, mature, and reflective just a few months ago, and they now arrive highly attuned and eager to figure out their new school environment and be treated more like an adult. Relate to them accordingly, and you will likely get the most from them in these early months. Onward!
In this TED Talk (courtesy of @mdlev), Benjamin Zander describes and demonstrates the “transformative power of classical music.” David Perkins would be proud! Without explicitly saying so, Zander revels in one of Perkins’ favorite educational principles: that teaching should reveal the structure of the discipline to students. Zander finds in classical music the power to elicit human emotion through chords and melodies and argues that this is what makes classical music relevant to important to all. In this brief talk, Zander hones in on a “big idea” in the discipline, one of the principles on which classical music rests, which should be taught in any course on classical music!
Originally published in Happenings, University Prep’s community magazine.
The school’s mission continues to light the path toward the future of teaching and learning at U Prep.
Since 2004, University Prep has been “committed to developing each student’s potential to become an intellectually courageous, socially responsible citizen of the world.” As the world has changed rapidly, the nature of excellent teaching and learning have evolved in response. The U Prep mission, written with a changing world in mind, remains as vital than ever. University Prep’s new strategic plan upholds the mission and sets a course for the design of our students’ future educational experiences.
Developing Each Student’s Potential
Since the school’s founding, we have understood that students thrive in a supportive community based on relationships. Belonging and healthy self-concept allow a student to strive for intellectual courage. Today, we now have a more detailed understanding of why relationships and introspection matter. One student remarked, “I was nervous at first to complete group work. Once we began to understand how each other worked, I really genuinely enjoyed it.”
So-called “soft” skills have also found “hard” evidence in neuroscience and educational research. Empathy, communication, and collaboration help students work more effectively with classmates and establish strong relationships with teachers. Interior skills such as emotional self-awareness, self-regulation, and growth mindset help students navigate challenges that they encounter. Students who possess these skills think more positively about their school experience. “The activity at the senior retreat helped break down stress. People seem more human this year.”
What motivates students to fully engage with learning? “Really interesting topics motivate me to do the work.” “I trust my teachers, because I see them every day.” In a landmark 2001 study, researcher Denise Pope found that many high performing students were just “doing school,” performing reasonably well but without true engagement and at a high cost to emotions and health. We continue to develop our student support and counseling programs and will train teachers to integrate social and emotional learning within classes and advisory meetings. We have also begun a process to reimagine the school schedule and calendar year.
What is intellectual courage today? U Prep has long engaged students with advanced subject matter, abstract concepts, and public speaking. Today’s world demands new skills, in addition to these essentials. The challenges that our society face — among them global conflict, climate change, and economic turbulence — will play a large role in the future. In addition to academic mastery, skills and habits such as versatility, creativity, initiative, and purpose will allow our students to thrive.
The real world is not neatly divided into distinct subject areas such as English, math, and fine arts. Contemporary problems benefit from different perspectives and the recognition of their interconnections. Historical, scientific, cultural, linguistic, computational, artistic, and kinesthetic thinking are required to understand our increasingly complicated world. Strategic Plan 2020 calls for increased opportunities for interdisciplinary study by emphasizing collaborations among different subject areas and a multidisciplinary approach within existing classes. “We loved Art and Social Change and learned more than we could have imagined,” one student wrote.
Individuals who recognize opportunities and take action to seize them have “agency.” This year, a group of interested students encouraged the history department to offer a greater variety of course options, one student successfully proposed a student-led course in social entrepreneurship, and many students completed action projects in courses such as Civics, Physics, and Environmental Ethics. As part of Strategic Plan 2020, we plan to grow our programs for independent projects, mentorship, design, and community connections.
Through our community service program, the full student body dedicates three days each year to direct service across the region, from food banks to bike repair. We devote equal attention to the health of our internal community, particularly through the school’s values of respect, responsibility, and integrity. Strategic Plan 2020 asks the school to extend its work for social justice and educational equity. A number of teachers have led the way, introducing social justice units in all subject areas, from human rights in English classes to cultural identity in visual arts. Thirty-three Rainier Scholars are enrolled at U Prep (next year, we will have a record breaking thirty-seven), and we are comprehensively addressing how to provide the highest quality educational and social experience to all of our students.
While globalism is hardly new, both the world and U Prep continue to grow more global every day. Our Global Link students learn cultural competency through cultural immersion experiences overseas (and in the case of Middle School students, a very different part of the country). This year’s students remarked that they learned to “keep an open mind,” “try new things,” and “observe without judgment.” Sixth grade geography students have shared presentations with students in other countries, and Upper School Global Online Academy students have collaborated and studied with students in other states and countries. “The diversity of perspectives in our own country really surprised me,” one student remarked. Our strategic plan calls for continued emphasis on global and cross-cultural topics.
This past school year, Strategic Plan 2020 emerged from the wisdom and experiences of faculty, students, staff, parents, and trustees. This coming year, the faculty will identify the best, next evolutionary changes that uphold the mission and enhance learning opportunities for our students.
Originally published on the NAIS Annual Conference Online Community.
I experienced an inspirational story of innovation at the NAIS Annual Conference last week that filled me with optimism about the future of educational change in our schools. Doris Korda and Scott Looney (Hawken School) described an alternative high school program built around entrepreneurship and then unveiled an ambitious new project to reinvent the high school transcript and convince colleges to learn how to use it. I left feeling that we are indeed experiencing a moment of significant transition in independent schools that will help more students fully realize their potential. Then, I walked across the street to the Metreon.
Moscone Center’s giant, floor-to-ceiling east windows face the Metreon. You are forgiven if you think that it is just a Target, but the giant company only recently arrived. In 1999, Sony opened the Metreon in order to reinvent the urban mall as an entertainment/education center. It was a bold, unique pilot project. Original tenants included the first Sony Store, the first Microsoft store, an educational exhibit titled “The Way Things Work,” and a theme park-esque food court and play area based on the Sendak book, Where the Wild Things Are. The architecture was modern, and technology was everywhere. Kids danced on an interactive game projected on the floor, and kiosks sold the latest tech gadgets.
Despite much fanfare, the project stumbled out of the gate. Within a year, some stores left and were replaced. In 2006, Sony sold the building to Westfield, and in 2012, the mall company remodeled the space into a more recognizable form. An upscale, international food court and the aforementioned Target swallowed up the spaces formerly devoted to technology showcase stores, and the Wild Things gave way to a plainer, rentable, event space. Only the multiplex movie theater on the top floor and two of the food court options survived to this day. The building exterior now features red bulls-eyes, marking Target’s current experiment in downtown retail spaces.
Where did the Metreon go wrong, and what lessons can schools take away for their own innovative projects? Though my expertise lies in schools, not urban retail, I can see likely reasons. Sony invested huge dollars, $85 million according to SFGate, in the high stakes gamble. This must have led to massive pressure for the project to bear financial results right away. Successful innovations start small, with low-cost, low-risk pilots, to protect the innovation in its early stages and allow it to flounder, improve, and mature.
The financial model was apparently flawed from the start. In 1999, showcase stores did not make money (at least not until Apple Stores broke through). The added entertainment value of educational exhibits and storybook restaurants work in venues that charge admission, such as theme parks and museums. While design for innovation must welcome creative ideas, it’s equally important to confront practical realities later in the process and have a viable business model.
Sony attempted to change deeply embedded cultural habits of people wholesale and quickly. Even if Sony had protected the innovation longer, and the project was based on a better financial model, people’s shopping and entertainment habits still would not have changed in a short time. Successful innovations take a more personal, and longer-term approach to cultural change.
Will Hawken’s entrepreneurship program last? Will the mastery transcript consortium redefine the college application? We have learned a lot about innovation in education in recent years. I suspect that they have a better chance than that mall across the street.
Metreon’s shattered dreams (SFGate)
San Francisco Metreon 2.0: ‘Mall Of The Future’ Gets A Face Lift (Huffington Post)