Head of School Blog
If we stand back from the rhetoric associated with educational reform, what do most parents really want for their children?
Based on my many years of 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.
As a college student in the mid-1970’s, I remember being undaunted by the article from a national publication that was affixed to the door of the Philosophy Department office. I no longer remember the title of the article, but the gist of it can be summed up as follows: “No jobs in sight for Philosophy Majors.” Happily, since I was part of a generation that was empowered by the idea that our job was to improve the world, if not to save it, I was not deterred by such an apparently dismal employment prognosis.
In a teaching career now spanning 40 years, I have had the privilege of observing first-hand the ways in which philosophy plays a key role both in learning and in decision-making. In everyday life philosophy has been traditionally understood as “the love of wisdom,” and as a academic discipline it is also associated with “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence.” Although these are pretty abstract ideas, there is lots of research to show that they are nonetheless relevant even to young children.
I have been struck in recent years at the way in which Data Analytics have come to play a more prominent role both in real world solutions and in the popular imagination. This is a promising development, but I believe that it is becoming increasingly important to balance the data-driven approach with a philosophy-driven approach. And while there seems to be general consensus that the roots of what I shall call “Big Philosophy” may be found in the respective traditions of Socrates and Aristotle, there is little consensus about the origins of “Big Data.”
Let’s consider the idea of Big Philosophy and the way in which it has helped to shape both our thinking and our culture. As the widely recognized father of Philosophy, Socrates is best known for promoting a logical method of inquiry focused on discerning goodness and morality from abstract principles. Socrates did not actually write anything down, so our understanding of his work comes from the devotion of Plato, one of his star pupils. Plato then became the teacher of Aristotle, whose major contribution to Big Philosophy was a focus on actual things and particular phenomena.
The origins of “Big Data” are less clear. According to a February 2013 New York Times article by Steve Lohr (The Origins of ‘Big Data’: An Etymological Detective Story), efforts to trace the origins of digital data have proved elusive, credit having been taken variously by economists, data scientists, and academics. That line of research is far beyond most people’s scope of expertise, and yet as 21st century citizens we are all linked to each other in an enormous and inextricable web of information exchange.
My point here is that GPS devices are able to tell us where we are with astonishing accuracy, but they are not very good at telling us where we should go. Similarly, while Netflix long ago pioneered the idea that our quality of life might benefit from personalized movie recommendations, most of us are now over-saturated with such information and thirsting for algorithms based on word-of-mouth or other less scientific measures. As we adjust to living in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, we will all need to stay in touch with our natural/biological intelligence as well.
In addition to such perplexing existential questions, on a practical level we are also witnessing a dramatic breakdown in American civic institutions. From my standpoint as an educator, I believe that there is urgent need for schools and other educational organizations to more closely align the innovative power of Big Data with the enduring benefits of Big Philosophy. Data experts can glean important patterns from unprocessed information, but in isolation they are unlikely to resolve the thorny issues of contemporary life.
My hope for America is to bring together the best of our emerging science with the best of our still-relevant philosophy. In technical terms this will require a reconciliation between Aristotelian logic and Socratic dialogue; in more everyday language, a willingness for people to reach out across the conceptual aisle. In realpolitik and in academia, the only viable pathway for a pluralistic future is to bring together these two powerful forces. How lucky that contemporary American society is filled both with talented data experts and with sensible philosophers.
In 5th Grade Leadership Class we have asked the students to look ahead to the year 2067 and to imagine that they are receiving individual Lifetime Achievement Awards. In writing Acceptance Speeches for these awards, we have encouraged them to imagine that they are looking back at a lifetime filled with successful attention focused on the specific issue that they have always cared deeply about. By way of example, here are some of the issues that are important to our students:
- Political Justice
- Athletic Accomplishment
- Support for Teachers
- Support for Scientific Research
- Access to Educational Opportunity
- Women's Rights
- Animal Rights
- Equal Pay for Equal Work
- Climate Change
- Sustainable Architecture
- Protection Against Child Labor
- Protection Against Homelessness
It is gratifying to realize that the children of this generation really do care deeply about a broad range of important values and virtues. Not only are they aware of many relevant challenges and opportunities that they will face in their own futures, they are also mindful of the ways in which they may choose to express their best possible adult selves. By way of example, here is but a small excerpt from one of the student's speeches:
It is my absolute honor to accept this world wide ice skating award; for my love of this remarkable art. I use my skates to express how I feel, what I like, what inspires me. I tell my story. I skate, to feel the tiny ice shards fly all around me, the chill, the worry, the voice....
It doesn’t matter if you are passionate about dogs, cats, horses, homeless, equality, yourself, or nothing at all; if you are passionate about it and you put your heart, soul, and love into it; you shall become amazing and hopefully, one day you’ll be standing where I’m standing, making a speech just like me. Passion. Hope. Wonder. Curiosity. Wit. Humor. And most importantly; friendship. You don’t just go in and you are instantly the best at what you just tried. You might show serious promise, but you’re certainly not the best. You just go out there, try something new, and if you like it, be the best you that you can be about it, and if you don’t, there’s always tomorrow.
I just watched a Ted Talk entitled Are You a Giver or a Taker? by Adam Grant. At the risk of wrongly paraphrasing, I found fascinating his use of the work "pronoia." I believe that this is an invented word, but it certainly sheds positive light on another pathway toward Best Possible Selfhood. According to what I heard, Mr. Grant defines pronoia as "the delusional belief that other people are plotting your well-being." He juxtaposes this to a more familiar term -- paranoia, going so far as to say that "they're going behind your back and saying exceptionally glowing things about you." The context of Mr. Grant's research is in studying organizations and trying to differentiate between the impact of agreeable people as well as disagreeable people, people who are "Givers" as opposed to those who are "Takers." As he concludes at the end of the talk, "In a culture of Givers, this (the presence of pronoia--emphasis mine) is not a delusion but a reality." Happy pronoid thinking to everyone!
I started my morning yesterday with a scheduled coffee conversation in the school library with several dozen CHS parents and staff members. Although this get-together had been scheduled many months ago as an opportunity to discuss the expected transition to the Trump Presidency, none of us could have anticipated that the weekend immediately preceding would be marked by such strong reactions to the Executive Order temporarily banning travel from seven Muslim-majority nations. Though this was not the only topic of conversation, certainly it played a big role in the feelings and reactions of the group. Eloquently and candidly, many of our parents expressed the ways in which they are trying to find the right balance between informing their children of important and newsworthy events while protecting them from potentially confusing and alarming information. We learned that some families have been actively participating in public marches and demonstrations while others are trying to maintain as much normalcy as possible. Once again I was grateful for the level of honesty and humanity that is so much characteristic of our community.
Our faculty and staff gathered on Friday afternoon to talk about Inauguration Day 2017. I did my best to prompt the conversation with questions such as the following: how did it go? how were they feeling? in what ways had the children been wanting to talk about the Inauguration? The premise of this conversation was clear -- i.e., that neither the workplace nor the classroom are appropriate venues to discuss politics as such, but rather to acknowledge that the norms of American political life are being challenged and subject to dramatic reconsideration. We wondered together what the Best Possible Inauguration Day experience might have looked like for the children and shared examples and perspectives from across the grades. As elementary educators we recognized that we were facing an age-old dilemma with a 21st century twist: was it our job merely to initiate civics lessons into the curriculum or perhaps more intentionally to confront the awkward, if not contentious, aspects of a modern democracy? I’m not sure whether or not we can claim credit for the Best Possible Inauguration Day experience, but I was proud of the way in which our teachers engaged so respectfully with each other and responded so thoughtfully to this emerging challenge.