This past Friday, Catlin Gabel hosted the PNAIS Fall Educators Conference, a one-day event featuring three keynote speakers, over 20 school-led breakout sessions, and about 600 attendees. The conference planning committee did a tremendous job in securing three distinguished speakers who addressed the conference theme of multicultural education from very different perspectives.
Molecular biologist Dr. John Medina made two very pointed arguments: brain research does not inform education at all; brain research has some very specific recommendations for education. It was refreshing to hear a keynote speaker not overstate the implications of his own research. Medina emphasized the idea that each learner is unique, and teachers must have the capacity to detect what each learners needs in order to be most effective. He named this skill “theory of mind,” also known as empathy, and asserted both that we can assess and train teachers for this skill.
Dr. Yong Zhao, professor of education, challenged the notion that American education is behind that of other nations such as Singapore, Sweden, China, and India. Although these countries do test better in math and science, they fall short in teaching creativity and entrepreneurship. Each of these countries is attempting to make their education system more like that of the United States by creating more free time for students and increasing elective course choices. Though I appreciated Dr. Zhao’s counterexamples, I found that he glossed over the unacceptable achievement gap in the U.S. and the role of economic and military power in the continued global dominance of the U.S. creative class. In this way, he fell into the same trap as most politicians and major press outlets, focusing on global competitiveness at the expense of other purposes of education, such as democracy and equity of opportunity. Dr. Zhao mentioned that he is moving with his family to Portland, so perhaps we will see more of him in the coming years! (Update: Dr. Zhao is keynoting at NCCE next year.)
Dr. James Banks, professor of diversity studies, presented a powerful retrospective of the history of multicultural education in the United States, explaining how assimilation did not work well for immigrants of color, how the loss of culture leads to a vacuum that many seek to fill, and how reports of the death of the nation state are likely premature. He reinforced the critical importance of teaching alternative perspectives on historical events and supporting students of color as they navigate U.S. culture and its educational system.
The speakers reinforced ideas that I have worked to implement in schools for years. Teachers by and large still struggle to work with the variety of learners present in their classrooms. Only a few truly integrate heterogeneous group teaching strategies as a core feature of their instructional techniques. Too often for their reputations, independent schools offer insufficient expertise in broadly-used teaching techniques, such as optimal group sizes for activity types, multi-modal instruction, previewing, and formative assessment. Heavy reliance on tutors and the departures of some students who don’t perform sufficiently well indicate how some school programs do not meet the needs of all of the leaners that they admit.
Dr. Zhao’s emphasis on creativity, choice, and problem-solving found a friendly audience at the conference. Certainly at Catlin Gabel, one can see principles of progressive education in action, for example in the high frequency of experiential educational activities or the emphasis given by a number of school leaders and teachers on teaching social justice, equity, leadership, and the responsibility of good decision-making inherent in a democratic society.
We have further to go to reach the educational ideals presented by Dr. Banks. The school dynamics that encourage assimilation and/or exclude certain students are by definition always present in independent schools. Independent schools must engage in diversity professional development and student work every year, as an ongoing, everlasting project. Only in this way will students feel able to fully share the richness of their experiences at school, and only in this way will schools fully benefit from the richness of their students.
These three gentlemen filled me with hope, even while they aroused my critical commentary. I return to school Monday ready to continue the hard work of helping an excellent school become even more excellent, and supporting all students to achieve the richest educational experience possible.