Jim Tracy, who heads Cushing Academy, seems to this observer to have become a very important thought leader, change agent, and provocateur for our industry of independent K-12 schooling.   Tracy is probably best known this year for the press he got over his decision to ban books from his school’s library, replacing them with e-readers, a decision that jarred many bibliophiles.  I believe, however,  it is important that he be recognized for his many other innovations and thought-contributions, both to within NAIS and more broadly to the 21st century educational movement.

One was an article he wrote last summer, a fine piece in Independent School, arguing for a form of strategic planning that was narrowly focussed on finding  (from Collins) your inner hedgehog, that thing which you can be most passionate about,  be best in the world at, and can offer you a great advantage.  He described a process for doing so at Cushing that we borrowed from last fall, to determine our new message and mantra at St. Gregory: Creating Leaders and Innovators for the 21st century.

Tracy presented at NAIS on the topic: 21st century education: Preparing the Transition Generation for Leadership

My notes from his talk are below; my own editorial comments are in italics.

“To educate today is to teach change. We teach amidst a whirlwind of transformation.”

Tracy explains he is determined to put 21st century learning into every part of the school.

The new generation: how they are different?   Today’s kids are not little “us’s”.   They are really different; they are the digital natives.   They don’t have much fear, they have comfort with tech and change, they have no secrets, and they WANT to use their own devices in the classrooms.

4 Areas for Change:

  • New Institutional Structures
  • Skills
  • Technology Driven Innovations
  • Curricular Innovations

New Institutional Structures:
Tracy: We have the ability to be more permeable than every before, and it is important to be more partnered with universities and other institutions.  Cushing has made excellent progress partnering with Oxford University, and other such collaborations he reports are coming soon.  Freeware, open source, shareware, publishing on-line, making the school intersect with the broader public in so many ways.   Tracy also explains that he has a form of Skunk works and groups of students who meet after school to consider how the school could/should change.

Skill Sets for 21st century students:

  • Meta Data Gathering: One skill is not drawing data from silos such as books, but from meta data gathering, aggregating from data bases.  Students can instantaneously search millions of sources; it is not relevant to go from book to book on the bookshelf.  Even as the school has removed all books from the library, Cushing has increased library staff by 25% to better guide students through these online data sets.   As Tony Wagner and many others have argued, accessing and analyzing information is a critical survival skills for the 21s century; schools need to become more serious than ever at teaching our students to make sense of the voluminous information available on-line.
  • Bias Recognition: as they look at so many sources, students need to sniff out bias in them.  Look at newspaper headlines from all around the world and consider the multiple vectors of perspective.   Intermingled: Cultural Pluralism and Cultural Complexity.
  • Play! Underemphasized in the canon of skill sets for the 21st century, other than Pink who famously endorsed this “Sense,” our students should recognize that learning is a form of play.  Richard Feynman is a great example of learning as play, and to play to learn.  By being at play, students can be most creative.
  • Civility:  there is such a loss of civility in our world today, and it is so important.  Nothing more corrosive to US and international life than the decline of civility.
  • Economics, Finance, Entrepreneurship
  • Comfort with accelerating change, and adaptability.
  • Communication Skills, including public speaking.  Public speaking is not only continuing to be important, but more important.
  • Critical Thinking: As important as ever, if not more so.
  • Leadership/Heroism.
  • Electronic literacy.
  • Students as content creators, not passive recipients.

Tracy’s list fascinates me; it takes us further than most other lists, it takes us deeper and more thoughtfully into what our students need to be learning.  I too think that our students must be powerfully able to draw information from the internet, critically think about it, collaborate with it, and then use it to create, then present, new information.   I think they should have fun doing so, and I think they should be empowered with great digital tools to do so.

I will add too that our new articulation at St. Gregory, Creating Leaders and Innovators, speaks to and captures many of these themes.  Clearly leadership is present,explicitly and implicitly, in many of Tracy’s items; but Innovation is there too, particularly in that wonderful last bullet: 21st century learning, particularly now in this second decade, is more than ever about students not just using the internet to collect information, but using it, and using powerful digital tools, to create new content, as innovators.

Technology Innovations:
Tracy: Libraries are now ubiquitous; every student has a laptop and is on-line with wifi everywhere on campus.  We not dialing down the library, we are upgrading it.  We reconfigured the physical library to make the space more relevant as students now have and carry with them their own libraries everywhere– accessible anytime from anyplace via their laptops.   The old library can now be a learning commons, an agora, for coming together learning on-line together.

I love books: I love, love, love them.  Books will continue to have a place, certainly, in schools and in learning, and it will be important especially for students to enjoy literature on good old fashioned paper.  But reference works, dictionaries, nearly all non-fiction of any kind: increasingly it is the way of our world that they can be better accessed, more widely, and kept more current when they are read on-line.   I think Tracy makes a great point: it is not about doing away with libraries, it is about dramatically expanding the library that is available to all of us– with better tools, better skills, better utility.

Tracy: We are still the authorities, but the classroom can now have multiple focal points of authority in different specific areas.  We are still the content authorities, but kids can be technological authorities.

“Global Learning Using 21st century Tools,” Cushing’s dynamic ning is showcased: the thing about the ning is that it is not just a blog post, but it a highly social medium, and kids really interact, collaborate, and come to OWN their ning.

Curricular Innovations

Tracy: We are beginning to look hard at the AP, and the trade-offs inherent in that curriculum.

We are moving toward Real-time education, responding to the events of the world; immediately diving into studies of Haiti, for instance, after the earthquake.

Important to begin to ask: Do we really need to have all students do the same sequence of math and science?.  Should all students necessarily do calculus if they will not use it? Shouldn’t we reconsider whether some students would be better prepared with upper level math courses in statistics and applied math? Finance?

Humanities are still very much at the central, but with a renewed committment to use the humanities to explore over-arching themes: What is relationship of individual and society?  What is uniquely human as machines get more human-like?

Tracy suggests it is time to begin querying the predominance of a grammatical focus of foreign language, and that it is time to shift the emphasis in foreign language studies from vocabulary/grammar to cultural fluency and sophistication.

Let’s also revisit Athletics, and see it also as leadership training: discipline, teamwork, ability to lose and get up the next day to play again, again and again.

Students need to become their own media creators.
Collaborative learners, individual learners and swarming leaders.
More interdisciplinary learning is essential as we seek to empower our students becoming innovative, integrative thinkers.

Tracy’s conclusion: Too often, we ask our students to leave the 21st century to enter the 19th century in our classrooms, and tell them that this is most important, but they know that it is not pertinent– our schools needs to live in the 21st century.

This was a great session, very invigorating, and very impressive.   I am eager to learn more about the exhilarating educational reform happening at Cushing, and hope that there might be opportunities in the future for our schools to work together, along with many others, in the endeavour of advancing 21st century learning for our students.