The topic of school change is ever present and active. During this year’s opening faculty meetings, U Prep teachers discussed five books that describe the leading edge of school change. An overall theme emerged from the books. In the present era of rapid change in society and the failure of state standardized testing to improve education, educators are once again designing instruction with the student at the center of the learning experience. In this article, I highlight the related ideas from our five summer reading selections that most resonated with our teachers.
The group that read 5 Minds for the Future (Howard Gardner) expressed particular interest in multidisciplinary, thematic inquiry. Most real-world questions that speak to student experience require multiple disciplines to fully address. As an example, the group speculated that the fine arts would be a particularly good subject to integrate with other academic subjects. They then questioned the value of the academic departments that we currently have. Would students be better served by multidisciplinary, thematically-based departments that focus on the higher-order skills we desire for our students? One can imagine departments along different lines than our current academic subjects: logic and reasoning, ethics, data analysis, and so on.
Both the #EdJourney (Grant Lichtman) and 5 Minds discussion groups addressed the value of experiential education. Echoing Dewey, the groups upheld the value of direct engagement, questioning, analysis, and presentation for student learning. In an age of ubiquitous access to information, students most need to learn to ask good questions and identify patterns in the world. When we invited three students to make the culminating presentation of our opening meetings, they spoke to the great value of the experience-based, study away programs that they attended last year.
These same two faculty groups considered the need to restructure the school day and calendar year to support experiential education and deep learning. Running five to seven class periods in a day, while a rational compromise among different interests, ultimately undermines depth and continuity of study. What schedule might better serve students? The books included a number of possible alternatives from schools across the country.
The concepts of agency, risk, challenge, and failure generated much teacher interest. As one colleague has wryly noted, “failure is not an option” at high-performing independent schools. To avoid failure, young adults may take the less risky route, focusing on more on completion and compliance than on intellectual engagement. The student who stays quiet in class in an effort to identify the “right answer” misses the opportunity for personal growth and advancement. Both Loving Learning (Tom Little and Katherine Ellison) and How Children Succeed (Paul Tough) tell the stories of students who set ambitious goals, exhibited optimism, developed resilience, and overcame obstacles. Real learning requires meaningful challenge within a supportive environment.
Listen to enough great stories of student learning, and one thread is sure to emerge: student agency. When students are the primary actor in their own play, they shape meaningful parts of their own education, rather than having education done to them. Student choice, student leadership, project-based learning, and other examples from Loving Learning and other books explain how schools may design opportunities for student agency and passion.
How may teachers effectively lead classroom conversations about race if both they and students feel uncomfortable and ill-equipped to navigate such topics? Each chapter of Raising Race Questions (Ali Michael) discusses a concept or skill essential to teacher cultural competency. The two faculty groups that read this book expressed the conviction to engage with the tough questions that come up in class discussion, whether expected or not. They identified the elements required to make this journey: development of positive racial identity, identification of “hidden” race dynamics in subject matter, teacher growth mindset, intersectionality, and norms for courageous conversations.
In a recent article, Brian Hart exposed the flawed design of most faculty professional development in independent schools. At U Prep, we align professional development and planning days around central themes, so that a teacher may build understanding of key concepts, and design and test methods of practice, over time and in collaboration with colleagues. The summer faculty reads carry forward last year’s professional development theme of Teaching for Understanding into this year’s strategic planning work on Next Generation Learning.