August 2009

The Times reports today on an “intriguing conclusions: “On average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”   The finding comes form a meta-analysis report prepared for the Department of Education, and, it is important to note, that most of the comparative studies it considered were done in educational settings above K-12 education.

Over the 12-year span, the report found 99 studies in which there were quantitative comparisons of online and classroom performance for the same courses. The analysis for the Department of Education found that, on average, students doing some or all of the course online would rank in the 59th percentile in tested performance, compared with the average classroom student scoring in the 50th percentile. That is a modest but statistically meaningful difference.“The study’s major significance lies in demonstrating that online learning today is not just better than nothing — it actually tends to be better than conventional instruction,” said Barbara Means, the study’s lead author and an educational psychologist at SRI International.

This is an important, short article, and offers much food for thought.   I think the inferences the article draws are correct– that on-line learning is going to continue to grow, and is going to play ever larger role in both university and, though less so, in K-12 learning.      But it is fascinating to read some of the reasons for the “real promise” of online education.   One is that they provide  “learning experiences that are more tailored to individual students than is possible in classrooms.”  We need to make classroom learning more tailored to individual students in our classrooms to compete.   Second, online learning “enables more “learning by doing,” which many students find more engaging and useful.”   (more…)

imageAt a recent faculty professional growth session, we test-drove our new Critical Friends Group protocol, and one of our teachers presented to her colleagues a dilemma she was having: how to teach her AP course in a way that fully prepared her students for success on the AP while also developing the curriculum in such a way to promote greater student engagement and more “learning by doing.”  It was great to see her confront this conundrum, and to see her colleagues advise her on possible options.

But it is not just a dilemma for her; every US school which is purposefully bringing its curriculum into greater alignment with the best of contemporary thinking about learning is struggling with this question.    Tony Wagner in his book The Global Achievement Gap confronts this question squarely, and answers it when he quotes favorably an AP expert:

“The AP is old-fashioned.  It tests robotic memorization of well-established facts, plus essays on discrete topics for which there is supposed to be one right answer.  I want to see more opportunities for students to have more topics to write about, and to have to do more research and analysis– link issues, see patterns, follow ideas over time.”

The Independent Curriculum Group is a new, leading edge organization setting the pace for the project of best aligning intentional education planning with contemporary, research-based best practices.   (more…)

At St. Gregory, we are embarking on a vigorous effort to advance our school’s educational program in the direction of Tony Wagner’s vision of Schools That Work.  Like Wagner’s schools that work, we recognize the urgency of our students mastering a new set of skills for success and survival in this challenging new era. To facilitate this change in our student learning, we are setting out to lead not by directing new lesson planning, but by developing and implementing new tools for measuring and reporting our students progress in developing these skills.   We believe that what gets measured gets done.

So, it was with great delight this weekend that I saw emails from some fine St. Gregory teachers sharing their draft development of a new detailed rubric for Tony Wagner’s Seven Survival SkillsCheryl Pickrell in particular, a middle school English teacher here, took the lead, and I have pasted in her list below– and I invite any and all blog visitors to comment here on the blog to give us feedback (Please!)

Cheryl gives her acknowledgement to the inspiration and influence of a Connecticut teacher named Jackie Whiting who has published online some excellent rubrics.

(I also invite visitors here from other schools to use and adapt our rubric, just so long as you give acknowledgement to Cheryl Pickrell and St. Gregory College Prep.)

1. Critical Thinking / Problem Solving

  • Make connections
  • Perseveres (or doesn’t give up), Effort
  • Applies past knowledge to new situations (more…)

Part of my own internal dilemma as I seek to evolve toward becoming a 21st century educator is my own passion for ancient civilizations and traditional, liberal arts education.   Sometimes it seems that 21st century learning requires us to replace entirely content with skills, and to substitute forward-looking scientific learning for backward-looking history.  But I revere the accumulated wisdom of our world’s civilization, and I delight in the study of what brought us to where we are today.

But this is another place where I must avoid my tendency to falsely and mistakenly dichotomize; this is where I have to push harder to seek out the reconciling synthesis that lurks beneath superficial thinking like that of the previous paragraph.    Studying philosophy can indeed powerfully train 21st century minds to ask better questions and think deeper.  A good example is an article in this week’s Education Week, called “Philosophy Students Explore Big Questions,” which discusses developments in the teaching of philosophy at the secondary level. (more…)

I enjoyed a very fine and stimulating lunch with a St. Gregory board member today, a parent of two children who are in elementary school, a few years away still from joining, potentially, our school.    I appreciated his clarity and focus on what his goals are for his children’s middle and upper school education.

He wants to partner with a school which will:

  • instill in his children a life-long love of learning;
  • which will develop in his children the strongest of leadership skills;
  • and which will assuredly educate his children to their full capacity, challenging and serving them as far as they are able to go in every curricular area.

Worthy goals, all, and ones which I think our school can now, and can in the future still better, fulfill for his family and others.

I enjoyed my first of what I hope will be many Senior Lunches today, eating with our 12th graders in the Dining Hall and discussing what it means to be a senior and a leader of fellow students.  Rather than telling them what I thought their leadership responsibilities should be, I asked each of them to share with me and their peers what they thought it means to be a senior and a leader.  Following are some of their many, wonderful, thoughtful and creative, answers:

Leadership means encouraging younger students to find their own interests, and encouraging them to be themselves, not follow the crowd.

Leadership is about encouraging other students to be more involved in school, in sports, and in activities. (more…)

I haven’t read the book yet, (I will be ordering it soon), but that doesn’t stop me from expressing delight at the premise of Alison Gopnik’s new book, The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life.    My enthusiasm is based on the recent review in the Time.

Gopnik is a favorite of mine from her previous work, The Scientist in the Crib, and because of the charming lecture she provided to the parents at my previous school,  a lecture based on that book.  In one of my favorite passages from that book, she explains that children don’t just play-act as scientists—they truly are scientists:

“Children create and revise theories in the same way that scientists create and revise theories. We think that children and scientists actually use some of the same machinery.”

At first glance, one imagines the book’s title to have just a single meaning: this is a report from scientists who got into a crib, metaphorically, to learn about children’s brains. But no, the book’s second meaning is just as important—children in the crib are themselves scientists, puzzling out how the world works by trial and error, by hypothesis and experiment. (more…)

Opening music, U2 “Beautiful Day.”

Good Morning St. Gregory

Welcome to 2009-10—what I fully expect to be an excellent year in the history of St. Gregory College Prep.

I am so excited to be here—This is an exciting school with a forward looking faculty and board, and a whole lot of people who are really, seriously committed to your learning.    It is a place where students flourish and where you do such cool things—in the science lab, in the writing classroom, on the ropes course, in the dance studio, on the sports field, in senior internships and trips to Kenya.    It is a place where you, our students, ask each and every day great questions. (more…)


Pat Basset published this week a very useful list of the seven myths about independent schools; ourAdmissions Director was so impressed that she asked me whether NAIS would publish them in an attractive format which we can use to send out to prospective families.   The myths are, as follows:

Independent schools are (1) only for the rich, (2) not the ‘real world,’  (3) unaffordable,  (4) lacking in diversity, (5) only for kids with social problems, (6) only for really smart kids, and (7) not part of the community.

Excellent points, all.   Pat is especially good about how our schools are not, and should not, be part of the “real world:” they are, and should be, better than the ‘real world:’

The real world is, sad to say, unsafe, unstructured, and — worse than values-neutral — values bereft. The independent school culture is, ironically, counter-cultural in the sense of establishing a values matrix that runs counter to the child-toxic values of the popular culture and amorality and immorality that surrounds us.

I’d love to see Pat add an eight myth to the list, and I know it is one he is very attuned to: “independent schools are (educationally) preserving a tradition of excellence, perpetuating a legacy of learning.”   We need to militate against the public perception (see the Simpsons!) that we are stuffy traditionalists, that our schools are your father’s Cadillacs.    Instead, as Pat is doing with his public speaking on Dan Pink’s work, we need to reposition ourselves as educational innovators akin to High Tech High and the like: that we are where students are best learning 21st century skills of critical thinking, real-world problemsolving, innovation and creativity, and collaboration.

Click here for a view of my School Year Opening Faculty/Staff Meeting presentation.

Below is the video I showed the faculty this morning, seeking to set a tone for the year:

The New York Times today has a nice piece celebrating the move toward a digital schoolhouse.

Textbooks have not gone the way of the scroll yet, but many educators say that it will not be long before they are replaced by digital versions — or supplanted altogether by lessons assembled from the wealth of free courseware, educational games, videos and projects on the Web…

“Kids are wired differently these days,” said Sheryl R. Abshire, chief technology officer for the Calcasieu Parish school system in Lake Charles, La. “They’re digitally nimble. They multitask, transpose and extrapolate. And they think of knowledge as infinite. “They don’t engage with textbooks that are finite, linear and rote,” Dr. Abshire continued. “Teachers need digital resources to find those documents, those blogs, those wikis that get them beyond the plain vanilla curriculum in the textbooks.”

I applaud most everything about the article and the schools featured:  digital textbooks in particular, relying on open-source material and laptops/ netbooks/ kindles/ smartphones to access and manipulate those “texts” are fast-in-coming (and yet at the same time overdue!).

But I am going to express a single hesitation: that we not lose the incredible importance of the interpersonal development that is at the core of the schoolhouse experience.  There is a place for on-line learning, but here’s calling for it to be a narrow place for most students, and that the much larger place be reserved for schoolhouse environments where teachers advise and inspire and mentor and coach students to places they never could go otherwise because of the personal, (live, vital and vibrant) role they play in the lives of their students on campus.   Students, too, learn enormous amounts from each other when in a safe, dedicated space to personal growth and exploration– and while the online social networks can add to these non-virtual schoolhouses, they cannot supplant them without losing something vital.

As always, I am looking for insight into the project of education for innovation.    McKinsey recently published a piece on “Asia and the Elements of Innovation” by Eric Drexler, and I want to borrow from his some important points.   A society must have the “human capital” for innovation, he says, and  then he sketches out his suggestions for this:

1.  “Scholarly students have a status among their peers like that of athletes in the United States and run little risk of being marginalized, ridiculed, or beaten.”  Essential.

2.  We must avoid teaching by drill, “which tends to dampen the critical thinking and spontaneous habits of thought that generate innovative ideas.”   We have to see that arts education, and the promotion of creative thinking in all disciplines, actually have critical value-adds to the project of educating for global competition, because they will instill greater capacity for “spontaneous habits of thought.”

3.  We need leaders to have deep and broad backgrounds in science: ” As science and technology grow in importance, it becomes increasingly important for leaders to have a good understanding of these disciplines. Among US legislators, though, a background in science and engineering is exceedingly rare. In France, it is common. In Taiwan, many legislators have doctoral degrees in science or engineering.”   Let’s continue to drive educational reform in the direction of the sciences for all students, a scientific education that is rigorous, challenging, and committed to innovation.

Cover ImageRegular readers here know of my appreciation for Tony Wagner’s book, The Global Achievement Gap.  Here at St. Gregory this year, we are having all teachers and administrators read it for their summer reading, and soon we will embark upon a year-long consideration of its implications and applications for our teaching here.  Wagner’s book concludes with a summary overview of the qualities of “Schools that Work:” those schools, such as High Tech High, that do work in successfully closing the global achievement gap, and it is certainly my intent to ensure that our school, St. Gregory, continue to be, and ever more, a School that Works.

In describing them, he provides several  different lists of their attributes, but here right now, I want to discuss and reflect upon the last such listing: the qualities of their schools that are “strikingly different from what we see in most schools today.”

1. They have a learning and assessment focus.   This is something we are putting at the center of our attention here; we are using the slogan “Focus on Teaching and Learning, with Kids at the Center,” and we are discontinuing any use of precious all-faculty time for “business as usual meetings.”  Instead, all such time is to be focused upon enhancing student learning.  As for assessment, the highest priority for our Academic Committee’s agenda this year is a wholesale revamping of our report cards and “reporting of student learning” in order to bring us up to 21st century standards of assessment and reporting (to guide us in this work, we are employing Guskey and Bailey’s Developing Grading and Reporting Systems for Student Learning.” (More to come about this book, and this work, in future posts).

2. Motivation:  “Students are motivated to learn through a combination of three distinct, interrelated incentives.  First, the adults in their lives…have close relationships to students.   Students in all three schools are not only well known by their teachers, but are in advisory groups with a teacher… Second, opportunities for students to explore their questions and interests are a driving force for learning.  Third, learning is a hands-on in these schools.”    Motivation cannot be an afterthought, we have to raise it up to an essential focal point. (more…)

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