Saturday, March 5, 2011

My trip report

This week, I'll be hosting a "what Sarah was doing the last week of February" report. It'll be during lunch and completely voluntary for faculty to drop in. So, what will I tell them?

Others have written beautifully reflective posts about the NAIS annual conference. You can read Meredith Stewart's thoughts about choices here. Jonathan Martin wrote volumes here. Matt Scully, who is practically a neighbor, wrote thoughtfully in the way one would expect an English teacher to on his blog. My frequent partner in crime Jason Ramsden from Ravenscroft school was an official conference live blogger So, what's left for me to write about? Well, the good news is that I write more to organize my thoughts than to broadcast news, so there's still room to work.

I thought I'd start by sharing with faculty what I learned about which I feel a sense of urgency. That's an awkward sentence, a la Winston Churchill.

The first is this: the proclaimed theme of Monumental Opportunities: advancing our public purpose swung from either incredibly relevant to completely irrelevant. However, I enjoyed following the pendulum throughout the conference.

An example in which the public purpose of an independent institution seems clear to me relates to the current testing mania is eating the souls of America's already hard-working children. See Race to Nowhere for chilling examples. Those of us in independent school education have a compelling responsibility to show that it is not relentless assessment and hours of homework that make a school rigorous or drive student achievement. Jonathan Martin, head of St. Gregory's, CWRA administrator Chris Jackson and Lawrenceville Dean of Faculty (and Klingenstein Curriculum Instructor legend) Kevin Mattingly presented a session about the CWRA. The problem with assessment driven education is that you'd better make sure your assessments and your values are in alignment. The CWRA seems to me to be an imperfect, yet better than most, tool for assessing traits such as adaptive expertise, critical thinking and analytical writing. I feel it is imperative that we in independent education adopt this type of normed assessment while eschewing assessments that provide little guidance for growth. When students are willing to work hard--possibly too willing--we owe it to them to make sure that they are working for the right things. Another opportunity to see the conflict between college admissions preparatory and college student success is the study done showing that students who take shallow survey science courses score best on standardized tests, such as those guiding admissions decisions to college. However, students who study fewer topics in their science courses, but engage in that study deeply (such as happens in a project/problem based course) get better grades in their science courses once in college and go on to major in sciences at a greater rate. Now that's a paradox that can relate to a public purpose. What is a college prep institution to do--prepare students to get into college, or prepare them to succeed once there?

On the other swing of the pendulum, there is the fact that sometimes the most exciting innovations in education happen outside of the any institution--independent or public. Khan Academy happened almost by accident, but we in independent education ignore it at our peril. When students can find high quality video clips explaining in a clear, step by step manner how to solve difficulty math problems for free online--we'd better be sure we're not just duplicating that in the classroom. This isn't limited to Khan--the best explainers in the world are now available online, for free. So, if your gig is that you are good at explaining things. . . better start publishing online.

Now what? To me, this means it is time to leverage our strengths that can't be duplicated online. Namely, the relationships we have with our students. There's no way Khan can get to know all the viewers of the videos. However, teachers can certainly get to know their classroom pupils. So--turn the classroom into the place where kids learn how to ask the right questions and find the right problems to solve using the steps they've learned from the master explainers.

My last big take-away came out of the session that I led with an amazing team of colleagues. At this point, it is such a cliche to say that I learned more than I taught, but those cliches exist for a reason--they're true! Peter Gow of Beaver Country Day demonstrated his new teacher wiki site and I was blown away. You can bet that Cannon School will have one of these by the time we've hired our 2011-2012 faculty!

This has already gotten longer than I meant it to, which is probably what will happen when I start sharing with the faculty at school. But, it's a start.

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