Head of School's Blog
Last month I attended the Global Education Symposium in New York City. It promised to be an auspicious gathering, as it featured prominent educators from the university setting in this country and beyond, as well as researchers, scientists, and think tank members from around the world. It turned out to be a unique experience for me as I was nearly the only attendee from an independent school. The fact that the registration fee for educators was $50 was also a plus!
The main focus of the conference – the role of technology in global education – provided some revelations. For one, it was clear that those at the university level are scrambling to integrate technology into their programs organically. They are feeling pressure as they see young people entering the technology workforce quite successfully without or sometimes even in spite of university preparation. In fact, given the universality of IT in our lives, it is perhaps already fair to claim that the “technology workforce” is rapidly becoming simply the workforce, a reality that heightened the challenge to the institutions represented there.
Thus, an uneasy subtext of much of the conference dialogue was that a swerve toward a more workplace-oriented or, as we used to call it, “vocational” university experience may be in order if these institutions are to retain their relevance in the education market. And that is a prospect that the typical university or college has a problem with, and for good reason.
Paradoxically, it was also a clear assumption among these educators that the benefits of the liberal arts, with its emphasis on erudition, creativity, and clear thinking, not to mention the pursuit of beauty and meaning, all remain essential to forging both a successful career and a happy life. The question then for colleges and universities: how, effectively, to marry the two, technology and the liberal arts, so that every graduate gains competence in both?
The reports of the various presenters described other features of the educational landscape that add definition to the challenge at hand:
- In America, women continue to be vastly underrepresented in technology fields, both in educational programs and careers, and the extent of this deficit is a uniquely western phenomenon. Other parts of the world are doing much better, while the percentage of female representation in IT in the United States has actually shrunk over the last 30 years. The implications for reduced opportunity for American women in the global work force is therefore, obviously, alarming.
- The preparation of American students for university level work generally, in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) as well as the other academic fields, is perceived as continuing to decline. This conclusion was based primarily on data from the California State university system (23 schools, 470,000 students), usually cited as one of the nation’s best.
- The trend toward increased specialization in IT and the higher order skills it requires, as a prerequisite for a gainful career, continues to grow on a global scale.
Although there is, arguably, more pressure on colleges and universities than on secondary schools to respond to these circumstances, the challenge is definitely there in a different form for us as well. And if there is some comfort in hearing that very competent thinkers at the next level are entertaining the same problems as us, that news shouldn’t lessen the urgency we feel at Whitfield as we prepare our graduates for what awaits them.
I was surprised that in the course of this particular conference I did not hear more specific reference to entrepreneurship, which looms as a promising element of the future of American education. It is a concept at which schools have been reaching for a few years now without many clear results. Understood broadly as the impulse to “create value for oneself and others,” entrepreneurial thinking may provide one key to the successful redefinition of our schools.
The best way to approach the changing dynamics of college, college prep, and the new global economy is as an enormous opportunity for schools such as Whitfield. And the only true failure in this context is to live in denial that many aspects of traditional education must evolve. As we continue, in our school, to ask hard questions about the effectiveness of our curriculum for success in the 21st century, we will honor the best of the past, to be sure. But we will also look for every chance to ensure that our graduates will be ready for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but I loved every second of it.”
If, as an educator, you decided to make good on the wild idea of taking a group of midwestern high school students to China for two weeks, I don’t think you could hope for a better summary statement than this one after the fact.
Last spring, a group of 16 Whitfield students, plus four chaperones, embarked on just such an adventure, one that took us to the heart of Beijing, to Changchun, the capital of Manchuria, to Hohut, the principle city of Inner Mongolia, and to Xi’an, the historic home of the Chinese imperial dynasties and the fabled terracotta army. Along the way our group stayed in the dorms and visited the classrooms of two leading high schools, had an overnight stay with host families, trekked the Forbidden City and (of course) the Great Wall, honed their surprisingly sharp bargaining skills at the famed Silk Market in Beijing, expanded their Chinese language prowess, and experienced every manner of conveyance of modern life: bullet trains, buses, and airplanes for a total of more than 2,700 miles within the People’s Republic. When you add in 15,000 miles of air travel, you could say we covered a lot of ground!
One of the keys to this memorable trip— certainly the best that I have experienced in my three decades of working with young people— was our avoidance of the usual “global experience” programs that provide this kind of travel for schools. Instead, we were able to rely on the international partnerships we have created over the past two years, both on the ground in China and especially through a local Chinese friend, Allan Zhang. Not only did these connections reduce the cost of the trip, they also provided ready-made friendships with our various hosts in China. And if the Chinese are famous for their hospitality, having previous connections already in place only elevated our experience. And then there was serendipity: the fact that our own Mandarin teacher (and alumna), Harmony Bell, had such a strong network of friends in Inner Mongolia, where she taught English to university students for several years, made our visit to that far flung locale the highlight of the entire trip for many of our number. In case you never get there, let me just say that Hohut reminds me of Denver more than any city I’ve ever seen. (Who knew?)
We live in a time when globalization both defines the new 21st century reality and identifies what many people find amiss in our national and personal experience. That is, though this collective seismic event is inexorable, it is also difficult to escape the sense of dislocation it brings to one’s sense of self and country, not to mention the challenge to the world view that my generation in particular has until recently taken for granted.
It is worth noting that this sense of dis-ease is decidedly not the experience of today’s average independent school student, as was made very clear to me as I watched our Whitfield students immerse themselves in the many radically new experiences they encountered on this journey. It may well be true that while the rest of us were fretting about how we – and our country – might cope with all this change, the younger generation was preparing to welcome it as the new normal. In any case, the implications for education of all aspects of globalization are enormous, and the schools that are best equipped to harness the energy and seize the opportunities that globalization brings will be the schools that succeed in meeting job number one: preparation for success, and personal satisfaction, in today’s workplace and society.
We don’t often acknowledge it, but what we’re really after and what we truly wish for our children when we send them to school is not so much knowledge per se, but rather self-knowledge. I can’t think of a tradition, from west or east, that doesn’t value this experience of insight above any other benefit that might result from education, perhaps because self-knowledge represents the best preparation for, and protection from, all that the world might throw their way. Some of our travelers on this adventure discovered that they had no need for further travel in this part of the world; others couldn’t wait to return. Regardless, each returned with some insight that only a journey of this magnitude can convey— about themselves, about their previous assumptions, and about the peoples of the world. And each will have a new appreciation of Keats’ assertion that, “Nothing ever becomes real ‘til it is experienced.”
I have said many times since our return that the absolute highlight of this trip for me was my interaction with these 16 Whitfield students. In them, I saw a toughness, a spirit of cooperation, a patience, and an openness to people and experiences that I frankly had not expected. They rose to each of many challenges with a keen sense of humor, did not shy from genuine physical exertion and, at least in my hearing, never uttered a discouraging word. Their representation of our school and, yes, our culture was indeed something to take pride in.
In recent months the national conversation about character has continued. And as I witnessed last month at one of the country's most important conferences on independent education, the prominence of character education, the effort to equip our students with the personal attributes they need to thrive, has continued to grow in importance as a feature of our schools.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that this emphasis is due in part to the troubling behavior we see writ large in our political rhetoric and on many college campuses. In both arenas the importance of mutual respect – the glue, after all, that holds our society together – seems in dangerously short supply. In addition the shocking violence we have witnessed recently, internationally and domestically, also reminds us that the quality of our lives, collectively and individually, depends on our capacity for compassion, resolve, and resilience – in other words, on strength of character.
As a result at Whitfield we feel affirmed in our commitment to this dimension of our work with students. And though the role of character development has always been a conscious priority of our program, in the past year we have pulled this goal into the center of the curriculum, because we see it as essential both to the academic success of our students and to their happiness and productivity as citizens of our school community, St. Louis, and the world. Ultimately, in the course of their middle and high school experiences, we want to challenge every student to discover their personal mission in the journey of life, to help empower them to achieve it, and to see this journey as one that unfolds in the company of others.
So far this year all of our students have taken the VIA survey of character strengths and used the results to help prepare for their conferences with parents and advisors. The students continue to reflect, through discussions and written exercises, in class and weekly advisory, on the development of their strengths in light of our Habits of Mind and Heart curriculum, and we are asking them to track their growth from one conference to the next. Each faculty grade level team has established age-appropriate goals for implementing the Habits across the subject areas, and the administration has set aside time for teachers to reflect on the effectiveness of this goal setting throughout the year.
The middle school faculty is connecting the Habits curriculum to the year's culminating Exhibition projects at each grade level, and 8th grade English classes will soon begin a unit on personal and community values, and how each drives behavior, as they delve into “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The 9th grade is focusing on collaboration and citizenship, and are tracking their progress in digital portfolios. Tenth grade is working on building self-awareness and understanding themselves as learners; 11th on what it means to provide moral leadership. And as they prepared for an intensive individual service project off campus, currently under way, Whitfield seniors created a resume of the personal strengths that will serve them, and be tested, during this two week experience; this exercise will culminate in a day of discussion and written reflection connecting the Habits of Mind and Heart to their service work.
The real power of our emphasis on character will derive from the fact that this is a community effort, and the success of this effort will depend, over time, on all of the school's constituencies, especially teachers, administrators, and parents. As the columnist David Brooks noted recently in his New York Times Op-Ed piece “Communities of Character,” too often schools reinforce the already individualistic values of modern society, because of our focus on individual achievement in what is typically a competitive atmosphere. Brooks reminds us, however, that we need to resist this tendency. As he puts it, “Most of the time character is not an individual accomplishment. It emerges through joined hearts and souls, and in groups.”
We welcome your comments on our efforts in the area of character education.
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