Archive for School change

The Smartest Kids In the World

Each summer, U Prep faculty members read a choice of three books to kick off the professional development theme for the following academic year. This year, our professional development theme is “Teaching for Understanding,” defined as curriculum design and teaching practices that lead students to acquire deep, enduring understanding of subject matter and skills. The first book, The Smartest Kids In the World, asks what the United States high school education system can learn from comparisons to three countries: Finland, South Korea, and Poland. Written by a journalist, the book meets our summer reading criteria of readability, thoughtfulness, and connection to our professional development theme for the year.

book-photo-smartestSome authors, it seems, try to write a book from material that would have done just as well as a magazine article. The Smartest Kids In the World is no such book. Impressive in scope, Amanda Ripley explores and connects several topics worthy of a full volume. Ripley begins by explaining the origin of the PISA test, the basis for recent comparisons of student performance among different countries. In several subsequent chapters, she tells the stories of three American high school students who each study abroad for a year. The three stories weave in and out through chapters organized connected to principles from education research. Making specific connections between research and practices supports Ripley as she explores the implications of the three students’ experiences. The appendices provide information useful to parents, such as Ripley’s take on things to look for when you observe a school and what PISA reveals about beneficial parenting habits.

Ripley repeats her primary message throughout the book: national education reform is possible, because here are three countries that have made massive changes over relatively short periods of time. Finland rocketed up the standings by overhauling its teacher selection, preparation, and induction programs. Poland committed to rigor and student accountability in order to emerge from the damage wreaked by political instability. South Korea is portrayed as two systems: formal schooling that students largely ignore, plus night tutoring centers that do the real job of teaching students. Ripley, the journalist, observes, summarizes, and then concludes, lending support to her recommendations.

Ripley sees several lessons that the U.S. should learn from these three educational systems. High expectations are critical for both teachers and students. Ripley’s students find themselves behind as a result of moving from the U.S. to these countries. National testing enforces high standards, leading to rigorous study habits and high quality instruction. Each of these countries has a high-stakes, national exam toward which students are constantly working. Unlike in the U.S., the national exam has direct career implications for students, so that they have high motivation to work hard and succeed. High standards for teachers make it possible to uphold high standards for students. Finland’s teacher education programs have high entry requirements. In South Korea, a second, the most effective night tutors profit directly from these business ventures. Poland provided teachers with curricular freedom while implementing more rigorous standards.

Common Core notwithstanding, the U.S. education system is primarily directed by individual states. Can these reforms, found in other countries, work in the U.S.? Ripley finds such a state in Minnesota. This completes her argument: if three U.S. students find more rigor abroad, and a U.S. state can similarly improve, then this must be the way to go. At the same time, Ripley pulls no punches in her criticisms of the dominant mindset in U.S. education. Ripley repeatedly cites examples of a failure to commit to high standards, hold students individually accountable for their performance, and select the best teaching candidates and prepare them thoroughly for teaching.

Ripley’s argument passes the “common sense” test. High standards, teacher preparation, and accountability certainly makes a good formula for improvement in education systems. The book also serves as a useful introduction to international comparisons. As a New York Times best seller, this message has broad reach. However, her book is less useful for the purpose of making actual education reform in the U.S., as Ripley’s argument skirts a number of important additional questions required to reform education systems.

Let’s start with PISA, the foundation for these international comparisons. Does PISA predict future economic success for individuals? The path to employment in the U.S. is very different from other countries. For some industries, high school math preparation may lead directly to professional success, particularly in those professions in which accurate completion of tasks is most important. However, new, information-based industries have fueled more recent growth in the U.S. economy. Procedural, and even conceptual, mastery of high school curricula may not build the thinking skills that individuals require to be economically successful adults. Ripley does not extend her thesis to adults and their professional success.

With all of the education scholars that Ripley cites, her omission of Yong Zhao is particularly notable. Zhao also compares education systems in other countries and finds that some, like China, are actually looking to reduce their emphasis on rigor, performance, and long hours of study and emulate the U.S.’s focus on education options and creativity. While the two approaches reflect different conclusions from international comparisons, Ripley could strengthen her position by addressing Zhao’s work.

While Ripley supports her main points well with evidence, some minor points read as pure opinion. Her argument that students in other countries have gained strong conceptual mastery and critical thinking skills is not well-supported. Any standardized test is limited in its capacity to measure higher-order thinking skills such as making connections among different ideas, inventing new ideas, and identifying themes within and among disciplines. While the PISA may do a better job of assessing higher-order thinking than other tests, the format has unavoidable limitations. Ripley also does not address the subject area strengths in the U.S., for example literary analysis and writing, which typically do not receive as much attention in other countries.

U.S. education systems emphasize choice and student direction. Diverse elective course offerings are a hallmark of U.S. schools, allowing students to personalize their own education based on their interests. The emphasis on choice continues into college. Is this part of the reason why the United States has succeeded in generating dominant, new industries over time? In most other countries, students commit to a specific professional track early and subsequently lack the flexibility to shift disciplines as they learn more about themselves and as national economic needs change. Finally, Ripley’s suggestion that teacher kindness towards students undermines teaching effectiveness is suspect. While the U.S. system places the burden of motivation on individual students, and does not serve all students equally, it also offers many avenues for achievement and excellence. Many examples exist of benefits to students who have strong relationships with their teachers.

With The Smartest Kids In the World, Amanda Ripley makes an welcome contribution to popular education literature. Now the opportunity exists for U.S. education systems to give teaching higher status and support in order to achieve higher standards and student success that most would like to see.

Cultivating Innovative Leaders Slides

Here are the slides and bibliography from the School Leadership Summit presentation that Carla Silver and I made on March 28.

Screen Shot 2013-04-09 at 10.38.19 AM

Download the PDF

Join Us for Innovative Leadership

I will be co-leading this summer’s seminar on Innovative Leadership, offered by Santa Fe Leadership Center and Hillbrook School Center for Teaching Excellence. It would be great to see you there. This seminar is a great opportunity to engage deeply with ideas of innovation, risk, creativity, and school change, within a retreat setting, and along with 40 thoughtful colleagues from other schools. Seminar leaders include Carla Silver, Greg Bamford, Ryan Burke, and me. Guest presenters will include Jump AssociatesThe Grove Consulting, and Patricia Ryan Madson.

Innovative Leadership
June 23-27, 2013 :: Silicon Valley, CA

Flip.Shift. Disrupt.

  • Why innovate? What forces or compels us to innovate?
  • What are the qualities of innovators and how might I develop these qualities in my own leadership?
  • How can I develop a culture of innovation at my school?
  • What are sustaining and disruptive innovations on the horizon?
  • How do I implement innovations and manage the full spectrum of responses from my community?
  • How do I distinguish between sticky innovations and passing fads?

Learn more and register

Determinism in Academic Technology

Week 1 of E-learning and Digital Cultures has focused on technological determinism and its corollaries, social determinism and uses determinism. Technological determinism is the idea that technology itself causes personal and social change. The theory is reductive, simplifying the cause of complex social and cultural changes to a single factor. Expressed in different sub-forms, technological determinism insists that technological advancement is inevitable, affects all parts of society, and operates outside of our control. Technology gains anthropomorphic qualities.

Uses determinism takes a similarly reductive approach but give sole agency to people and their activities. People, not technology, cause social change and shape technology itself to their ends. Social determinism suggests that political and economic factors shape technology. One may see social determinism expressed in terms of digital divide and political power theories for the evolution of technology.

I find this perspective incredibly helpful in clarifying current debates in listserv discussions, education technology conferences, and faculty meetings. Technology is often portrayed monolithically, a single concept that can be described in one word. Technology determinists appear on opposite sides of the debate. Technology evangelists, particularly those who sell technology products, spread powerful messages that the evolution of information into digital form by itself transforms society. The world is now flat, we live in a technology revolution, and our future is impossible to predict–all because of undersea fiber-optic cables. Techno-critics portray technology as a false god, leading us to distraction and consumerism. Our society is in decline. For both techno-enthusiasts and techno-critics, neither individuals nor organizations or society have agency or can shape technology. Neither side of the debate rings true for me.

Most education technologists are uses determinists. In contrast to technological determinists, they assert that technology itself has no independent agency. It is “just a tool” that can be used for good or evil. They feel that master teachers can bend technology to their will, directing it entirely toward the service of teaching and learning. In this view, teachers should first identify learning objectives and then select the technology tools that will best support them in a straightforward, linear process. While this view is helpful to appropriately place technology within a school, it can also be used to control technology or keep it out of the classroom. It also does not do justice to the challenge of artfully using technology, which requires a nuanced understanding of how a technology-rich environment is different from a technology-poor environment.

Social determinists argue that countries and corporations use technology to control others, brainwashing us through media to further their ends, exacerbating the divide between haves and have-nots. In this view, although anyone can learn to program, CEOs rule. Twitter does not cause revolution; rather, governments flip a switch and cut it off when it suits them. In this view, technology companies are seen as having huge power to dictate school program through product features, terms of service, and licensing requirements.

Where does the truth lie? Probably somewhere among all three of these ideas. Social and cultural change is too complex to be affected only by single factors. The interaction of society and technology is multifaceted and changing. Individuals, societies, and technology all have some causal agency and are all affected by the others. We have the power to exert some control over our environment, while at the same time, our environment changes us to some extent.

Two extreme positions dominate much of the national debate on education technology. At one end, technology determinists argue that if only schools had more computers, the positive effects on education would emerge automatically. At the other end, both techno-critics and skeptical teachers argue for keeping technology at arm’s length, limiting its effect on the classroom as much as possible. School leaders can move such conversation to a more productive place by both acknowledging the partial validity of any deterministic viewpoint. Some truth exists to any of these perspectives. At the same time, any education discussion is incomplete without balance among the different determinist viewpoints.

Some leading education technologists focuses largely on positive uses determinism. Some have even written books to say so. Let’s take a look at three authors who explore uses determinism to different degrees. In Hamlet’s BlackberryWilliam Powers explores individual agency in a technology-rich world, suggesting that people have faced similar crises of technological change and information overload for all of human history. Powers’ explanation balances the different determinist views, accepting that new technologies have an effect on society, while in time, society responds and shapes technology to serve its ends. The key, Powers argues, is critical thinking and attention — building the discipline of mind to unplug, keep perspective, rediscover the self, and act intentionally in our busy world.

In Net Smart, Howard Rheingold also keys in on attention but advises that we build our mental discipline while using technology rather than by stepping away from it. He ascribes more agency than Powers to the individual and less to technology. Rheingold suggests simple techniques to pay attention to your use of technology, such as setting a timer to remind yourself to check your attentional focus, practicing meditation and yoga breathing techniques, and getting better at filtering useful from useless incoming information. He proposes that attention and mindfulness training become part of the required school curriculum, a 21st century literacy, if you will.

In Now You See It, Cathy Davidson takes attention mindfulness one step further, arguing that the very definition of focus is changing from an industrial-era concept of single-minded attention to an interactive, interpersonal kind of attention more appropriate for a highly connected age.

School leaders who understand the different determinist extremes may better navigate the hazardous waters of education technology change in schools.

A Brief History of Design Thinking

Each of the past two summers, I have participated in workshops on a method for program development called design thinking. You may have heard of it, as it has been the subject of workshop presentations at education conferences, articles in education publications, and faculty retreats. In this article, I recount the history of design thinking in independent schools as I understand it. Call it “Design Thinking: West Coast Edition,” if you will. I would love to hear your experiences as well. Then, in a second article, I plan to tell the story of design thinking here at U Prep, particularly the experience of applying design thinking theory to on-site practice.

Design thinking has its origins in the world of business, specifically product design. A better chair, shoe, or building design have been common subjects of design thinking over the years. IDEO‘s David Kelley is cited as the pioneer of design thinking. Concurrently with explorations of design thinking, independent schools were engaged in a process of “professionalization”, looking to learn from business practices such as employee expectations, employment, and evaluation. The Summer 2011 edition of Independent School featured the theme of “Developing a Professional Culture in School.”

Independent schools were perhaps also attracted to the prestige of a national leader in design thinking, Stanford University. The Institute of Design (a.k.a.,, and its offspring IDEO, reached out to schools as early as 2009 (12), and a number of independent school leaders visited and attended their workshops.

A smaller but also prominent school is also located along the Peninsula south of San Francisco, Nueva School. The school came into contact with the Stanford, found that these ideas resonated with its practices of experiential education, and decided to make design thinking a core feature of its instructional program. This led to the development of a dedicated space for prototype fabrication, hiring of a program director, and the integration of design thinking methods throughout the school’s curriculum. Nueva staff took design thinking one step further, adopting it as a process for learning environment design, and began to train its own staff as well as those from other schools. This led to several much-cited conference presentations, Nueva’s summer institute for design thinking, as well as its Innovative Learning Conference.

The 2012 NAIS Annual Conference featured workshops on design thinking (12). Architecture firms developed design thinking partnerships with educators (12). Mount Vernon Presbyterian School used a community-based design thinking workshop to inform the redesign of the school’s library and held a Design Thinking SummitRiverdale Country School and IDEO offered a free online course in design thinking and published an educator’s guide to design thinking. A number of schools began to try design thinking in classrooms and community projects (1, 2). Personally, I have been involved in the design thinking work of Santa Fe Leadership Center and Leading Is Learning. You may be interested in some upcoming Leading Is Learning events, a free webinar on Jan 30 (offered with Whipple Hill) and a design thinking event in June 2013 at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School.

We have engaged with design thinking in a number of ways at University Prep. My next article will explore these efforts and investigate the differences between attending a workshop on design thinking and implementing it in school practice.

Qualities of School Technology Leaders

To become technologically sophisticated, a school must have at least one person employed who possesses high competency in three areas: education, technology, and leadership.

Mastery of education is essential so that a school’s technology program always serves the school’s educational mission. People who are experts in technology and leadership but not education may lead their schools down false paths, committing to technologies that do not ultimately serve the school, and perhaps alienating teachers and school administrators along the way.

Mastery of technology is essential in order to navigate the many technology offerings that purport to improve education, and in order to keep pace with this rapidly changing field. People who possess education and leadership skills but not technology may appear tentative or skeptical about adopting technology tools within a school.

Mastery of leadership is essential in order to guide a school through change processes and build support among the school’s leadership team. People who possess education and technology skills but not leadership may have great ideas but become frustrated when others do not adopt or support them.

This person’s position will depend strongly on how the school’s leadership team is designed — the relationships and distribution of responsibilities among the different school leaders. This person could be a technology director, academic technology director, division head, head of school, academic dean, dean of faculty, or director of innovation.

The school that lacks such a person will struggle with technology, for example by exhibiting marked inconsistencies in how technology is used or hardly adopting new technologies at all to support teaching and learning. School leadership would do well to identify whether the school already has someone who fulfills this role, whether an existing faculty or staff member could grow into this role, or whether the school should hire someone new to introduce this role.


Pat Bassett on Schools of the Future

In this TEDx talk, Pat Bassett outlines a vision for schools of the future, which feature process, collaboration, and creativity, among other skills. Like many other presentations on this topic, the purpose of the talk is largely inspirational.  Bassett shares examples to demonstrate that a new paradigm for schooling is emerging and implies that you should get on board! Little time is given to how a school makes fundamental changes to its instructional program. What may we take from this talk to inform the process of school change?

First, let’s take a closer look at Bassett’s examples. Where do they exist within the instructional program?

An international school: a robotics program in third and fourth grades

Falmouth Academy robotics program: submersible robot

St. Mark’s School: inflatable donut grenade launcher

Snowball grenade launcher competition, 6th grade school community event

St. George’s School Da Vinci summer camp: wedgie-proof underwear

Dan Meyer, throw away the textbook

Watershed School (Colorado): grade 6-12 expeditionary learning

Lamplighter School (Tennessee), grades PK-4: fourth grade egg business,

Rio Grande School (New Mexico), grades PK-6: sixth grade forensics

Teton Science Schools: the park as the subject, three- to seven-day programs for school groups

Moving the Classroom Outdoors: book on outdoor learning

Nueva School (California), grades PK-8: design thinking

NAIS Challenge 20/20: pairs U.S. with schools in other countries to work on 20 global problems

Fay School (Massachusetts), grades PK-9: Water Walker

Montessori School of Denver (Denver), PK-6: malaria solution

ISENet: PLCs and crowdsourcing lessons and curriculum, Buckley Othello curriculum

FoldIt: computer game to contribute to research by solving protein structure problems

What did you notice? Elementary and middle schools? Ancillary, co-curricular programs? High schools, particularly the core instructional program, are notably absent. What else did you find?

Why do we tend to see more instructional innovation in the earlier grades? Perhaps teachers and parents see a broader purpose for education in the early years, to develop in children not only basic competencies but also a love for learning and understanding of how to succeed in school. Perhaps grade level teams are strong in the life of the elementary or middle school teacher, whereas the high school teacher primarily works within a subject area department.

In high schools, why do co-curricular programs such as robotics exemplify the qualities of creativity, communication, and collaboration, and core classes do not? Does the pressure of preparing students for the college admission process cause teachers to narrow curricula and teaching methods? Do schools overly recruit teachers who have acquired advanced degrees in the traditional six academic disciplines?

What, therefore, can one do to encourage greater innovation in high school programs? Here are some ideas that I have seen schools begin to implement.

Strengthen grade-level teams in the high school. What faculty meetings and other opportunities may we create for teachers to coordinate content and teaching methods within each grade level? May we adopt an organizing theme for each year of study?

Design collaborations between innovative co-curricular programs and subject area teachers. Robotics and other experiential programs have experience creating learning environments outside of traditional subject areas and college prep expectations. What lessons can discipline-based teachers learn from co-curricular programs and integrate into their programs. What outright collaborations between co-curricular leaders and subject area teachers may we facilitate?

Broaden the definition of the academic discipline. In college, architecture, philosophy, economics, and environmental science are disciplines, too. Why should high schools restrict themselves to science, history, art, English, languages, and math?

Network with other teachers and schools. Join a consortium of schools attempting to innovate in similar ways. Encourage teachers to get off-campus and visit other schools and organizations. Encourage the development of a broader conception of the purpose of education in the high school.

Visit colleges. Let’s update our understanding of college prep. What are colleges doing today, and how has instruction changed from when we attended college?

Reward risk-taking. Fund new curriculum initiatives. Build risk-taking and experimentation into professional evaluation criteria. Avoid denigrating experiments that fail.

Celebrate alumni accomplishments. What have our alumni accomplished in their adult lives? What high school experiences were most helpful to them in college and beyond? Let’s identify what qualities of our school programs our alumni most value. Let’s also notice what they fail to mention.

Read and explore together. Encourage a culture of common reading and investigation of new educational methods in one’s faculty. Fund professional development, and set aside time for exploration of the purpose and execution of teaching.

Develop common purpose. Reductionist as they may be, catch phrases such as “experiential education,” “life prep,” and “design thinking” serve as a common rallying cry for faculty, students, and parents, strengthening our core purpose and reminding us of what the institution stands for.

What other methods do you use to encourage innovation in your school? What has worked, and what has not worked?

You Say You Want a Revolution?

originally published in the Santa Fe Leadership Center Monthly Newsletter

You Say You Want A Revolution?

by Richard Kassissieh
Richard Kassissieh is the Director of Technology and Education Innovation at Catlin Gabel School in Portland Oregon. He is a member of Los Sabios, the SFLC advisory board, and will be a facilitator at the Innovative Leadership Seminar, Summer 2012.

I returned from last week’s NAIS Annual Conference abuzz with asense of potential and possibility for substantial educational change. If
you did not attend, innovation was the conference theme, and presenters from across the country shared many projects that featured student-centered instruction and 21st century learning. I felt more momentum for significant change in classroom instruction than ever before. Have independent schools begun a wholesale shift toward new models of teaching and learning?

In the same week, an article titled “Twilight of the Lecture” ran as the feature in Harvard Magazine (Lambert, 2012). In the article, a Harvard physics professor described his discovery that student independent and group work promotes learning better than lecture. For those interested in innovation and teaching and learning, this news may be discouraging. How can we be in the midst of a revolution in instruction if college instructors are just now considering an alternative to the lecture?

We have seen a parade of impressive, though small-scale, educational initiatives over the decades, such as global programs and Maker’s labs. However, over the same period of time, these changes have lived on the periphery of the instructional program at most institutions, while the core instructional model, informed by persistent educational beliefs, has remained unchanged. If a high school educator from 1950 were suddenly transported to the present, he would find today’s typical classroom very familiar. Can we do anything to give the latest wave of school program innovations more staying power, a greater chance to become part of the fabric of the school program?

Innovative practice necessarily starts small, as the most innovative teachers try out new ideas, take risks, and make mistakes. How does an institution scale the ideas generated by a small group of pioneers up to a whole school program? First, we must recognize that the exploratory spirit of the pioneers is either diminished or completely lost when others are asked to implement an idea they did not invent. The remainder of the faculty is unlikely to find the new ideas as inspirational and self-evident as do the pioneers who adopted them.

In one implementation strategy, the pioneers spread out to the departments and programs responsible for implementing the innovation (Carrigg, Honey, and Thorpe, 2005). These individuals may be able to sustain some of the pioneering spirit and original purposes of the innovation as widening circles of people implement the ideas.

Adopting a new form of teaching requires an experienced practitioner to feel like a beginner again. Some of the most critical thinkers in one’s faculty will be willing to become beginners if the new program is thoughtfully constructed, carefully explained, and critically evaluated. Providing substantial time for discussion and preparation will also help thoughtful practitioners feel ready for these new experiments. Teachers may also appreciate the flexibility to modify aspects of the new program to be responsive to their local context.

Second, we must organize other parts of the school to support the initiative. How many good ideas have we seen fail for lack of space, time, funds, professional development, parent communication, or teacher evaluation? The less-than-glamorous work of organizing support programs behind an innovation must be completed with careful attention. Support activities may include funding sources, classroom modifications, technology systems, and professional development days.

Third, attention to the innovative practice must be maintained to ensure a long life for the initiative. An official curriculum can lose much of its original design as it passes through the “multilayered curriculum” (Cuban, 2012). Teachers determine what is actually taught, students determine what is actually learned, and assessments determine how the effectiveness of the curriculum is measured. This requires the instructional leadership of the school, the pioneer group, and all of the teachers to continue to design, share, and assess their work on the initiative over the span of years.

Schools may make a strategic effort to sustain the most effective innovative projects. Teacher support, program alignment, and long-term attention can transform pilot projects into permanent programs.

Further reading:

Carrigg, Fred, Margaret Honey, and Ron Thorpe (2005). Moving From Successful Local Practice to Effective State Policy.

Scaling Up Success: Lessons From Technology-Based EducationalImprovement. 1-26.

Cuban, Larry (2012). The Multi-layered Curriculum: Why Change Is often Confused with Reform.

Kassissieh, Julia and Rhonda Barton (2009). The Top Priority: Teacher Learning.Principal Leadership.

Lambert, Craig (2012). Twilight of the Lecture. Harvard Magazine


Are Independent Schools Innovating?

The theme of innovation pervaded this year’s NAIS annual conference. Keynote speeches looked toward a different future, some schools shared innovative projects, and more responded enthusiastically and expressed the desire to participate. Does this mean that significant numbers of independent schools are substantially changing their educational programs, or not? Brad Rathgeber thinks so. Kevin Ruth says, “not so fast.”

How would we know whether school innovation, speaking broadly, is a movement or a fad? How high will adoption peak, and then how far will it fall? One way is to track stories about school innovation. However, this dialogue seems insufficiently complex to allow one to understand the mechanics or results of innovation. Many reports of innovative practice feel similar. A singular leader invents a brilliant idea, an unknown number of teachers embrace it, and students are transformed by the experience. The focus of the presentation is usually on the idea itself, and the argument for effectiveness is often circular and unsubstantiated.

Another approach is to find quantitative studies. These take years to develop, but as we have seen with studies of youth and social media, the results can be extremely compelling. I am not aware of significant quantitative studies of program innovation in independent schools. Are you?

A third is to gather the wisdom of others. Many colleagues have worked in our schools for decades and may speak authoritatively about whether schools are substantially different from before. Speaking personally, I hear them say that schools have changed significantly on the surface but the core values have remained pretty much the same. Thinking more broadly, some scholars suggest that secondary education in the U.S. has not changed for decades.

I would love to hear about rigorous study of independent school innovation, quantitative reports of broad trends, or other useful information on this topic. Specific information about this innovation trend will surely help us facilitate the best of it within our schools.

Lessons Learned from Progressive Education

The progressive-traditional education debate makes for provocative discussion, but in reality effective educators blend different educational theories to reach their students. Actual students in actual classrooms are not reduced to a single theory of education to the exclusion of others. Here is the first of at least two blog posts that describe aspects of different education models I have found valuable in my work in education.

Progressive education emphasizes student experience, construction of knowledge, thinking about learning, and the development of lifelong learning. Progressive educators worry that too many students have lost interest in the conventional curriculum, particularly at the high school level. Schools can design more engaging, effective programs that appeal to all learners.

I first started teaching directly after college in a teacher intern program at an independent boarding school. I taught two sections of ninth grade Biology and met daily with an experienced teacher mentor. I was pretty unprepared to teach but did my best to convey and assess the content. When I walked past the classroom next door, I was often captivated by the discussions in Bill Z.’s ecology class. Students developed questions about the campus pond and then designed independent research projects to answer those questions. Class time was spent at the pond, over lab equipment, or in group discussion. Students were highly engaged, defying the stereotype of the non-AP kid. I wondered whether I could make my classes this engaging.

I took my next teaching job in Botswana. The curriculum there was not progressive, tied to the U.K. O-level and A-level programs. However, the school itself was imbued with a strong social justice orientation, founded on non-racial principles during the height of apartheid South Africa. After school activities commenced at 2pm, and students were required to pursue sports, service, and clubs equally. I have not yet since seen a school with such a comprehensive commitment to community service. Global citizenship and cultural competency have since featured prominently among my educational values.

The Stanford University School of Education provided me with access to the study of experiential education, educational equity and school change theory. Nine months of intensive study with experienced professors and student peers helped me develop a comprehensive internal framework for my view of education. I wanted to design educational environments to enhance student experience, assess learning, and prepare students for a democratic society.

I took my next position at a San Francisco public charter school that had opened only the year before. Coming on board in the school’s second year was a real adventure in painting, lab construction, curriculum development, and building new information systems. Growing a school from one grade level to four required a ton of work and many long days. It also provided an opportunity to found a school on new assumptions about students and learning. I have never experienced a stronger commitment to success for all students, experimentation with teaching methods, and heterogeneous student groups. These principles of educational equity became permanently ingrained in my educational philosophy.

Becoming a technology director helped me further explore progressive educational methods using technology tools. I came to see so much potential for electronic tools to connect learners and prepare students to fully participate in a democratic society. Schools that feature students as content creators and teachers as facilitators came to feel so possible, if not likely. Expansive electronic information sources, online discussion forums, multimedia publishing, communication networks could be used to support full student participation and experiential learning.

My current school embraces the term “progressive” in both public-facing materials and internal discussions. We highlight so many examples of active student exploration of knowledge, reflection about one’s own learning, interdisciplinary study, 21st century themes, and school as community. Global education, urban studies, outdoor education, and sustainability all have a place in the curriculum and often dedicated staff. The school also has a tremendous arts program, truly an equal to the other departments and a statement about the vital importance of instruction for arts literacy, creativity, and discipline.

Progressive education has played a significant role in my education history, but it is not the only relevant theory of practice. In the next post, I will explore cognitive psychology and its effects on my conception of learning theory.