Head of School Blog
In a profession where the importance of learning is paramount, the need to unlearn is one of our greatest paradoxes. In infancy and toddlerhood we make constant discoveries both about the physical world and about the ways in which our bodies interact with it. As we grow older and eventually begin the process of formal schooling, our learning extends more broadly to socialization, knowledge acquisition, and language. Only in early adolescence does the great process of unlearning become both necessary and possible.
The 6th grade social studies curriculum at our school serves as a culmination of a multi-year program and marks an important milestone in the students' ability to unlearn. Having studied the migration journeys of some seminal populations in American history (Shakers, Lowell Mill Girls, Mormons, Irish, Chinese, Native Americans, and African Americans), our students are armed with information and prepared to examine bias both in their own thinking and also in the way in which history is written. It is exhilarating to listen to their classroom conversations and to witness the explosive power of unlearning:
Maybe my image of those people was unfounded.
Now I realize how much I need to pay attention to stereotypes.
We always make assumptions about other people, but these assumptions are often founded on distorted information.
I believe that the mandate to unlearn extends far beyond the study of cultural and historical bias. In fact, I would argue that the greatest threat to an enlightened society is an unwillingness or inability to examine information and to challenge conventional paradigms. For me, this applies no less to physical science than to political science, no less in the arts than in advocacy. Our 6th graders have had an important early exposure to this kind of reflective examination; looking ahead, my hope is that they and their future teachers will carry with them the promise of unlearning at all times.
Our 5th Graders just celebrated their year together with a memorable recognition of the many ways in which they are connected to each other, to their teachers, and to their families. Following a Google Classroom assignment in which each of the 32 students was responsible to write “Warm Fuzzies” to every other child in the class--as well as to themselves (making a grand total of 1024 compliments), they gathered with their teachers and families in our Community Gathering Space. In preparation for the group activity, the students’ expectation was that these compliments would need to be “kind, true, and specific.” By the time that they joined teachers and parents for the group activity, they had already spent several fruitful few days compiling their thoughts in advance. Sample comments made reference both to everyday friendship as well as some specific acts of kindness:
I really enjoyed your playing with me at recess. I hope we can do so next year.
I love your positivity. Thank you for helping me with my sewing.
I have known you for a long time and you have always been extremely kind by helping me clean up the number chart.
I admire how you always have a smile on your face and know how to go through any situation.
After the students shared their reflections about each other in a structured yarn-based web of interconnectedness (vintage 5th grade teacher excellence!), the floor was left open to parents and teachers alike. For me, this was an unforgettable lesson in what we must have in mind when we imagine any real-life version of Best Possible Childhood Selves. None of the adults spoke about strong achievement in math, nor was there any reference whatsoever to performance relative to others. On the contrary, during the entirety of this quite-beautiful ceremony, there could have been little doubt about the qualities that everyone seems to find most compelling: kindness, compassion, curiosity, imagination, and self-belief.
I haven’t conducted this experiment with other similar groups, but I am confident that this same pattern would result in many cultures and communities. If our individuality were to be defined by differences in thought and action, then our common humanity would be defined merely by differences in interpretation and style.
I haven't followed the career of Ariana Grande with anything but passive awareness, but I have followed the news from Manchester Arena with great interest. It is indeed jarring to imagine the violence of a musical event attended by teenagers and adults alike. In watching this evening's CBS News and the images of a vigil in the city's Albert Square, I learned more about the genuinely multi-cultural population of that city and was quite moved by Scott Pelley's commentary: "Turns out the secret of the civilized world is not United We Stand; it's Divided We Stand. Richer, stronger, for our diversity." Seemingly universal and certainly inspiring, I greatly admire the spirit of ordinary citizens who join together in protest or in celebration of peace and freedom.
This week in Leadership Class we asked the students to analyze the cumulative results of their recent research into ten open-ended but hypothetical leadership dilemmas. According to the research design, some of the data was quantifiable, while other aspects were explicated as reasons and ideas. In considering the implications of hypothetical situations as well as real-life scenarios, the students were quite perceptive about the relationship between quantitative data and qualitative information. After dividing them into small groups, we challenged them to think big and to present their ideas for possible submission to a "Grade 5 International Leadership Symposium." The image above is an example of a very preliminary conceptualization of what a fully developed symposium poster might eventually look like. Watch this space in coming weeks for updates.
Last Friday I had the pleasure of discussing our leadership program with the Upper School teachers (Grades 4-6). Since the further refinement of this program has been a Strategic Plan goal for us, we thought it would be a good time to update each other on progress and perhaps even to seek greater clarification. My ongoing assumption is that leadership development may manifest itself both in curriculum and in community life, so I was eager to test this idea against the backdrop of actual evidence. The first part of the conversation focused mostly on non-classroom activities: reading and math collaboration between older students and younger ones -- formalized in our school as Learning Partners, public speaking and debate at Community Gatherings, caretaking of younger children in Extended Day, opportunities for creativity and responsibility in Winter Clubs, Girls on the Run, spontaneous events such as Talents Shows, scheduled performance opportunities at All-School Assemblies and Concerts, Student Ambassadors at Open Houses and Parent Coffees, 5th grade Leadership Class with the Head of School, and 6th grade speeches at Graduation. This list is not complete but is intended to provide a sample of the broad range of activities available to students.
The conversation then turned to classroom-focused activities across the core subjects. Note: because this meeting included homeroom teachers and not specialists, we focused naturally on the core subjects of language arts, writing, math, and social studies. In 4th grade literature the students explore leaders and followers by looking through the lens of characters’ action and motivations, while in 4th grade social studies they examine the idea of positive leadership in the Medieval Ages and the Renaissance by examining fundamental questions (i.e., Who Holds Power?). In 5th grade the students take their learning to other classrooms in the school, most recently creating partnerships in math with the 3rd graders and in poetry with the 2nd graders. Leadership Class in 5th grade also brings together abstract themes such as justice and creativity with everyday assignments across the subjects. Finally, the 6th grade research project serves perhaps as the capstone experience for our entire program. With a conscious international focus, this project impels students to study change-makers throughout the world with a eye toward inspiration, virtue, and goodness. For me, the conversation helped to reinforce the idea that leadership is a powerful lens through which we can attempt to point our students to their best possible selves. Our hope is that this focus is the rule rather than the exception and that everything they associate with Chestnut Hill coalesces through this lens.
If we stand back from the rhetoric associated with educational reform, what do most parents really want for their children?
Based both on experience and observation, I believe that there is nearly universal agreement among parents that children benefit neither from lack of flexibility nor from lack of structure, neither from too much testing nor from too little. Some schools take the approach that the best way to educate children is through the careful development of skills, and many fine programs have been developed across many different parts of the curriculum. The caution here is that few of us would claim that skill development alone can prepare children for a fulfilling life. In recent years a popular alternative is for schools to focus on the attainment of standards. This approach has gained great momentum in some sectors of society, but most experienced educators hold a healthy skepticism about the tradeoff between rote memorization and genuine understanding.
Given the challenges of educating children in the 21st century, what are the ways in which elementary educators may help children to become their best possible selves?
Thanks to transformative technologies and ever-shifting cultural norms, the mechanics of 21st century learning are indeed different from more traditional models. That said, I believe that the goals of education today are no different from in years past. Most parents recognize that schools need to be about more than training, and few educators would argue that accelerated curriculum is itself a solution. My hope is for young people to acquire knowledge in traditional subjects, to develop academic and non-academic skills, to become self-aware and self-regulated, and to emerge from childhood with wisdom and good judgment. As Lao Tzu and others have suggested, the path to enlightenment lies both in knowledge of self and in knowledge of others. To me, this is the part of teaching that is most special and most worthwhile.
The human brain has allowed our species to thrive in a biologically competitive environment where physical conditions are often harsh and unforgiving. A quick scan of the evening news will reveal that our accomplishments are marked both by extraordinary kindness and unimaginable cruelty. How can the same DNA give rise to such discrepant behavior? What does it mean to acknowledge that we are capable of such mutually incompatible beliefs.
Thanks to a career in education and an interest in the nature of human nature, I have come increasingly to believe that our very survival depends on an ability to make discernments between things that are different. For example, a young child trying to learn about new foods will wrestle with sweet versus sour. Similarly, the pre-adolescent trying to negotiate new social relationships will struggle with conformity versus nonconformity. And, as every sensible adult will attest, the dilemma of career inevitably raises the question of happiness versus success.
It is paradoxical that this ability to discern difference is both what elevates our humanity and also what gives rise to our inhumanity. To put it in another way, if we think of ourselves as discernment machines, we may better understand the convoluted mechanism by which we so often disagree. In seeking to become our best possible selves, we must learn first how to discern and how to disagree. This is a sloppy process and, while it does not lead to humane results in all instances, it does guarantee that human nature will be expressed and sustained in a multitude of forms and cultures.
Whether in the classroom, the lunchroom, or the family room, elementary school children are well aware of the difference between learning about things and actually doing them. In the primary years children are satisfied to do learning for its own sake; indeed, the very act of learning generally becomes its own act of doing. To put it another way, learning and doing at this age are essentially the same thing. However, as children grow into what we typically call upper elementary, they begin to realize that some approaches to learning, while important, may no longer be sufficient to fully hold their interest. They need their learning to feel relevant (consciously or unconsciously), or at least to sense that it involves a meaningful amount of doing. For most students there seems little doubt that this transformation becomes complete by the time that they reach middle school.
In working with 5th graders I am always curious about their evolving understanding of the inflection point between learning and doing. Although the following question from a recent assignment asked the students to write a paragraph relating specifically to their study of leadership, I believe that the answer below sheds light on much of what happens in a child's metacognitive journey from merely being a successful learner to becoming one's best possible self:
Are you more interested in studying leadership or in practicing it? What's the difference?
I'm very interested in studying leadership and practicing it. I find that they're both very good things to be interested in as well as helpful. In my opinion, practicing is a little more effective. For one, when you're practicing it you're also studying it as well. When you're studying you're learning about leadership. When you're practicing you're trying it out, as if you were in a situation that you had to take action. When you're practicing leadership you're also learning more about it, and you're learning the good and not so good things about leadership. I think I am more interested in practicing it because when you're studying it you're only learning what to do in those situations.
When young children think about being their best possible selves, they are blissfully unrestrained in their enthusiasms. And while the range of "best possible young person's behaviors" may be limited generally to following rules, being kind to others, and showing respect for community norms, I find it remarkable that young children bring so much positive energy to this endeavor. Equally important, their goodwill seems to manifest itself both at school and at home. Their aspirations are relatively limited, and their benchmarks are rather straightforward.
This is not to say that young children are always consistent in their attempts to reach "best possible selfhood," nor that the challenge does not become more complex as children grow older and turn into sometimes cantankerous adults. So what happens in our journey toward adulthood? Why does it seem that few adults are so brashly confident about being their best possible selves as compared to children? One option is simply to conclude that the ideal of "best possible selfhood" is attainable only for children and that such an ideal is simply not possible for adults. After all, the one-dimensional aspirations of our youth become far more complex and far more idiosyncratic as we grow into self-defining, self-actualizing adults. If our behavior as children may be measured against the yardstick of adult expectation, it is not at all clear by what measure we would evaluate ourselves as potentially "best possible adult selves."
To me, the delineating factor between childhood enthusiasm and adulthood equivocation is that of destiny-choosing. As young children we rarely imagine that a destiny is ours to choose. Indeed, those rare children who do engage in such thinking may be thought of as "old souls." Either way, as we eventually grow into adulthood, we find ourselves blessed with some substantial freedoms while potentially saddled with some equally daunting burdens. I believe that this destiny-choosing aspect of adulthood is precisely what allows us to breathe new life into our childhood aspirations, but I also recognize that it can become overwhelming, if not paralyzing. The best elixir I know of is simply to spend time with some enthusiastic children.
It has been consistently rewarding to follow the engagement of (and to learn from!) our 5th graders in Leadership Class, and in the activity previewed above it has been especially fascinating to observe the way in which they make choices about things of value. It is clear that they are all excited about doing a project as a whole class on a topic of mutual interest, (i.e., environmental protection, animal rights, women's rights, religious freedom, racial equality), but before we choose the topic we are focusing on the standard or standards by which we might evaluate our success afterward.
The children's response to this exercise has been both encouraging and authentic. No one chose Option #3 as a top priority, but otherwise they are evenly split among all other options. And while they are not reluctant to voice their arguments convincingly, they have been fair-minded in listening to others and sometimes in changing their opinions. To me, this is the ideal scenario whereby engaged and independent individuals must draw on others to do their best possible work. Quite spontaneously, they have identified connection between Options 1-5 and Options 2-4.
As we bring the students together in these groupings for the next part of our planning, I have assured them that I will be responsible to make sure sure that we satisfy the conditions of Options 3: the premium on original research. They may not like the idea of doing "research," but they are nonetheless quite natural in their inclination about "doing" research.