by David Bryan, Head of School
Over the next several months, you will begin to hear about some of the things ‘on deck’ for the coming year. In particular, we recently announced that next year would bring several new educational initiatives in the areas of curriculum and pedagogy. All involve different approaches to education, and all take advantage of tools that simply did not exist when those of us with a wrinkle or two were students.
Tablets, Tablets, Tablets…. With the help of a very generous New Roads family we will be creating a one to one Android Tablet Program at Malibu Middle School. Each student and faculty member will be given a powerful Android tablet fully loaded with all the applications required to do (or, in the case of faculty, to present) his or her academic work. Teachers and campus director and master teacher, Evan Beachy, already are hard at work designing an academic program that takes full advantage of the technology and the most current innovations in teaching and learning. What we are likely to see is a view into one future of education. Books, educational videos, online communication, projects, music and art … all available on the screen in front of them. Not learning at a distance, not learning from teacher at some remote location, but learning that will maximize the possibilities offered by technology with teachers and classmates engaged in face to face collaboration.
Curriculum not Classes … “We know what they are supposed to learn, so why does it matter where they learn it?” Of course we are all used to thinking of school in terms of grade levels. Tenth graders are not eleventh graders. Second graders are not fourth graders. Certainly there are some developmental realities that make this true;young people’s emotional worlds emerge and develop is complex ways. There are good reasons for terms like “the terrible twos;” every parent of teenagers know that you can practically ‘set your clock’ by eighth grade.
But so often in our schools, classes and subject matter divisions have historical roots that are more a matter of convenience and the structure of the universities from which teachers come than wise lines drawn to enhance our children’s progress. In the coming year, our Santa Monica sixth graders will reap the rewards of that simple insight and more. Under the leadership of Joe Wise, the Director of our Center For Effective Learning, and Middle School Director, Dan Weslow, and in conjunction with partners from GameDesk and SMALLab Learning[i],our sixth grade faculty and curriculum will be freed - both literally and figuratively – from some of the walls that often stand in the way of student learning. Immersed in curriculum and enhanced by software they will help design, students will learn by creating projects and grappling with questions and ‘puzzles’ that they formulate, guided by teachers who know what our students need to master to succeed in later years. Students’ daily experiences – their learning – will be kinetic, lively, challenging, and fun, taking full advantage of games and gaming technology.
Entrepreneurs and Interactive Media … So often young people develop passions for or fascinations with one or another activity or idea. Surely you see it at your house. At mine it was skateboarding. Young people seem to be willing to spend endless amounts of time reading about, thinking and speaking about, learning about, practicing and creating things that relate to their passions. They have ‘tigers by the tail.’
How sad that so often what school requires of them stands in the way of those passions; how sad that their passions fall outside of the school’s curriculum. But do they have to? One of the rooms we are hoping to create in the new building at the Santa Monica campus is something we have been calling our “E- Room.” E for entrepreneurial; E for enterprise; E for electronic. Borrowing from models around the country – Stanford’s Institute of Design’s d.school being perhaps the most widely known – we will be beginning our Interactive Media Program next year. Beginning with an app-creation class and growing from there, and with our E-Room as its anchor, high school students will be invited to allow school to enhance their passions rather than be at odds with it. Students will produce the content of their education rather than simply consume it. Facilitated by faculty and student collaborators, students will be encouraged to create – perhaps an invention, perhaps a product, perhaps a design, perhaps a business, perhaps a campaign – propelled by their imagination, congruent with their goals.
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Okay, I don’t know about you, but when I hear anything that sounds like almost every commercial for “new, bold and exciting yada yada yada,” I get a little skeptical … okay… more than a little. “Yeah right! Another ‘new, bold and exciting’ basketball shoe. Another ‘new, bold and exciting’ video game. Another ‘new, bold and exciting’ soft drink.” Face it… ’new, bold and exciting’ does not come along very often! But in this case … in the case of the above, I think our initiatives will bring some very interesting – dare I say new, bold and exciting – approaches to our children’s education.
… Yes.. and you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out that they all seem to rely heavily on technology. And if there is one thing we all know about emerging technology … FAST! FASTER!! FASTEST!!!
So is that it? Is the future of New Roads all about technology? … all about speed?
At this time of year, I often feel the weight of time, the rush of time. I suppose it’s difficult not to. We are surrounded by it, saturated by it! Zero to 60 in _______ seconds. My printer prints 30 pages per minute. Our copiers make 65 copies per minute. People in the office are excited because soon we’ll have an even faster one … and it is networked so we don’t have to “waste all that time” walking to the printer. Email. Email pushed to my phone! “Can I get a notification whenever a message is sent to my email?” And how about those new, bold and exciting Google Glasses.[ii] I can be speaking to you AND surfing the web at the same time!!
At school, parents want their children in Algebra in 8th grade. “How else can they get to Calculus before they apply to college?” Students want to get ahead. Honors this, Advanced that … “How many AP’s does the school offer?” Over the next weeks, teachers will be rushing to ‘get those final assignments in’ … it is, after all, the end of the year. “I need to make sure I cover _______ by the time the semester ends, or next year they won’t be able to _______.” Students scramble to complete whatever remains incomplete. “Can I still make up the work I owe you from February?” … teachers get crazy, kids get crazy, parents get crazy!
It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that education is not really supposed to be all about speed, about quick answers, about solving problems quickly using cool gadgets. All of that is fine, but that’s not what it is about!
What if we took this seriously. What if we took a step back before we added yet another this or that to an already overbooked, overscheduled, over-goaled, overcrowded educational plate. Is there another possibility? Another way? After all who can argue with the value of the quick and facile mind.
In fact, although we do not think much about it, there is another consideration, another world. There are kinds of knowledge other than the sorts we so often associate with school. There is so much more to learn. And I want to ASSURE YOU, we have not and will not lose sight of that!
Wendell Berry – essayist, poet, novelist, farmer – speaks of this when he writes about the need to teach and learn things that can only be learned slowly, things that we simply cannot learn quickly, that we cannot learn with the speed we have come to expect from excellent students doing excellent work in excellent classrooms in excellent schools. David Orr, professor of Environmental Design at Oberlin College, refers to slow knowledge. For many of us, it has become difficult even to imagine what these two gentlemen might mean.
In his book The Clock of The Long Now, Stewart Brand tells a story of the Swedish Forestry Department reporting in 1980 to the Navy that the 20,000 oak trees they had ordered were ready for delivery. The trees were ordered in 1829. “Absurd!! Wait 150 years for an order to be ready!?! No one would do that. It makes no sense!!” But ask any carpenter over the age of forty-five, and s\he will tell you that “lumber is just not the same as it used to be.” Although we have been able to breed trees that grow taller, straighter and faster, mature wood – wood from trees that have grown slowly – is very different. It’s stronger. It shrinks less. It is … well … it is just better. You just can’t grow that sort of wood quickly. I do not know whether the story is true, but I want it to be.
It is all but impossible to really have this conversation with most educators – New Roads faculty and staff to the contrary. Speed is all but synonymous with human progress, with being ‘smart.’ Knowing the answers quickly gets you higher SAT scores, higher AP scores, and in so many places, gets you into Honors classes. Surely it is good to be able to find the area of this and the perimeter of that … very quickly. To solve the chemistry or physics problem very quickly. To know when the Treaty of Versaille was signed, who signed it, and why… very quickly. We applaud those who can code quickly, who can write quickly, who can gain acceptance to college early … those who can quickly recite all the states and their capitals, the Presidents and their Vice Presidents? Their wives? Their home states? ?
Schools try so hard to stay current, to stay up with the times. Schools are often criticized for not having the “latest this,” the “newest that,” the “most recent just-came-out-with-it.” State of the art computers, projection units, the newest science equipment, the latest math-manipulables, the most recent language learning software, information access, communication equipment …. Cutting edge technology. Cutting edge methods. Cutting edge … whatever. One year it’s speed reading. The next it is Kumon math. Community Service. No … Service Learning. No … Community Action. No … Community … blah blah blah.
But why? Why do we want to insist that our schools ignore the slow, the enduring, that which has taken lifetimes to learn, centuries to learn, civilizations to learn? Why should our schools ignore wisdom, driven instead by media, markets or elections?
How much more important is it to learn how to evaluate evidence, to recognize patterns when direct observation reveals nothing? What are the qualities of character? Of beauty? How does one bring about justice? What does a careful and thoughtful evaluation reveal about our ethical landscape? What does it take to sustain a community? To be kind and compassionate? How do we listen to the whispers of the world? The whispers heard by animals before an earthquake? The whispers heard by farmers before a rain or a particularly hard winter ahead?
Years ago I wrote this.
“There are so many ways in which our lives are better than they have ever been before. Our food is safer and more plentiful, we have warm homes, public libraries and freedoms to explore and express the likes of which were never before contemplated. But the problems we face today are many. And our children are afraid that during their lifetimes they will see the end of what matters. Indeed this may be true, if … well … if the wrong things matter. Our children are living at that time we began hearing about when we were their ages. A time when the earth would warm because of our industry. A time when heavy reliance on oil and other fossil fuels would have an end in site. A time when clean water and clean air would no longer be guaranteed. Problems … big problems. But cultures have confronted big problems before, the solutions to which were neither obvious nor inevitable when they came. The difference now, the difference and difficulty for our children, is that our collective memories are short. We look to quick fixes, to fast knowledge for hope. But the belief that tomorrow can be better does not come from the last gadget, the last innovation, the last faster-better-best fix. Our hope comes from our collective memory of the past. The glue that holds community together, the glue that invites the soul, the glue that holds all of us together are those things that seep in slowly.”
And so next year, at New Roads, you can count on all of this. Yes indeed our technology will be enhanced, our programs will be slicker and more engaging. But I assure you that next year- as has been true every year since I have been here – the NEW, BOLD and EXCITING will also be SLOW!
[i] Educational researchers and creators of games that enhance student learning.