One of our desires at St. Paul’s is to be transparent in what we are doing educationally. It is important for you to understand our vision and what has gone into shaping what we see as educationally critical for your sons and daughters in the coming years. And so I will be joined on this blog by a team of professionals who will, in the coming weeks and months, share their vision, expertise, anecdotes, and wisdom with you on a variety of topics including education, admissions, alumni, faith, and more.
I recall sitting in a college freshman English class in 1966, my thoughts focused on the challenge of completing the first required paper and getting it typed and submitted on time. The obstacles before me included no ownership of a typewriter and no proficiency in typing. Finishing the handwritten draft was not a problem, but how would I see the assignment through to completion? With some modest effort and adolescent creativity, the deadline was met only to have the paper returned with numerous red marks and scrawled comments from a graduate assistant looking to impress the professor and clearly put me in my appropriate academic place.
Now, almost fifty years later, as I embark on my first effort at a blog post, I had to be sure of the definition of a blog so that I could be considered a worthy “blogger.” Webster offers the following definition: “a Web site on which someone writes about personal opinions, activities, and experiences. A Web site that contains online personal reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer.” This description was reasonable and vaguely similar to the style of my weekly newsletters to our middle school parents. Webster may be “old reliable” but this is 2016 so checking other sources for definitions was prudent. The Urban Dictionary’s definition left me a little unsettled and questioning if this was really a good move for the start of 2016. “A meandering, blatantly uninteresting online diary that gives the author the illusion that people are interested in their stupid, pathetic life.” Wow. For fear of being described as stupid and pathetic (which is what I felt after the return of that freshman English paper), I looked for a third definition that just might convince me to forge ahead in this writing endeavor. Tech Target’s description saved the day. “A blog (short for weblog) is a personal online journal that is frequently updated and intended for general public consumption. Blogs generally represent the personality of the author or reflect the purpose of the Web site that hosts the blog. Topics sometimes include brief philosophical musings, commentary on Internet and other social issues, and links to other sites the author favors, especially those that support a point being made on a post.”
This last definition supports what we want to accomplish as we move forward with our St. Paul’s School blog.
Much has been written in the first 15 years of the century about the skills that your sons and daughter will need to be successful in an age much different from the typewriter and slide rule skills of my post high school experiences. Patrick Bassett, former President of the National Association of Independent Schools, has spoken often and passionately about the need for 21st century schools to make the following shifts in their approaches to teaching:
- Knowing to Doing
- Teacher-centered to student-centered
- The Individual to The Team
- Consumption of Information to Construction of Meaning
- Schools to Networks (online peers & experts)
Bassett contends that when these shifts are made we focus on outcomes that are meaningful as opposed to the memorization of “stuff” to simply obtain a good grade on a test. The outcomes he refers to include creativity, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, character, and cosmopolitanism. He suggests that these start with teachers developing a mantra that is designed to be “less us and more them.” Noted psychologist, Jean Piaget, suggests that, “It is not the role of the teacher to correct a child from the outside, but to create conditions in which the student corrects himself. Whenever you are about to intervene on behalf of a teachable moment, pause and ask yourself, ‘Is there a way I can shift more agency to the learner?’”
What is this agency that is referred to in so much of today’s educational writings? Russell Burt describes agency as the power to act or to become informed, empowered, or enabled learners. If agency is about the student taking more responsibility and ownership for his/her learning, then what is the role of the classroom teacher in this process and what is the most appropriate academic environment for this agency to develop? Simply, students are more apt to develop the mindsets associated with agency when they feel a sense of belonging in a subject, classroom, or school. In addition to this sense of belonging is the feeling that they have the capacity to learn and that their participation is valued. Additionally, student agency occurs through curricular approaches that are engaging, relevant, and meaningful while fostering competence, encouraging collaboration, and placing the teacher in the role of a facilitator who promotes mastery.
The St. Paul’s middle school has been working hard over the past few years to move students in the direction of more ownership of their learning or increasing student agency. Student agency is not about success with every academic attempt, but more so about developing the mindsets necessary to experience and overcome adversity – the reality that exists in all of our adult lives on a regular basis. Agency is best acquired when knowledge is applied (“doing” as Bassett would say) to more than one academic discipline simultaneously. This interdisciplinary application is real-life, meaningful, and requires that students utilize the 21st century skills previously mentioned. One example of this approach is the 8th grade Family Crest project that spans the disciplines of history, science, English, and art.
Boys begin this project by researching the origins of family crests in history class. This begins with the ancient Romans who used insignias on shields to help identify military units. Moving to 12th century England, feudal lords and knights rode into battle with shields and banners adorned with symbols of those for whom they fought. For the next hundred years what became known as “heraldry” spread across Europe, changing a simple battlefield symbol to a family legacy. As you can imagine, fighting, battles, and war are of interest to all the boys and it was easy for them to engage with this project. Add the opportunity to use the CAD process for creating their own family crest and the challenge of using the laser cutter, router, and other woodshop tools and you have a project that captured the interests of all the boys. This video gives you a visual of the fun and application of knowledge found in this project.
Project-based learning such as the 8th grade Family Crest project, experiential learning found in service projects and ropes course initiatives, reading your poems at a 7th grade poetry night, delivering an 8th grade speech to the entire middle school, or the authentic assessment found in creating an audiobook in 6th grade English class to add real-world interest to improving reading fluency all lead to student agency. This is made possible because of the empowering efforts of the teachers and the surrounding community of peers who offer feedback and insights within the context of a caring and supportive relationship. Becoming a lifelong learner requires the development of intrinsic motivation born out of the individual realizing that he has the capacity, mindset, and skills to be the agent for his success.