TEACHING AND LEARNING
Learning is best achieved and reinforced through active, student-centered approaches that engage students to construct their own meaning. Often schools use transformational language to merely reinforce traditional modes of instruction via content delivery, employing educational gimmicks to reinforce rote memory of teacher delivered information. True student centered constructivism engages students, guided by superb teaching, to construct their own meaning. This is particularly important today given the explosion of both content creation and access.
I believe in purposeful blurring of lines between the roles of student and teacher. Students often learn best through collaboration; and conversely, teachers often teach best when learning alongside their students. The ideal learning environment often involves students engaged in a production-team approach, exploring new ideas, new concepts, and new relevance to today's world, while employing a rich array of new technologies to produce their knowledge. The best teachers are subject matter experts who skillfully design project-based learning experiences for diverse learners.
Active and authentic student learning can extend to real-life contributions. Many schools have community service curricular components, but I seek to extend this via social responsibility that contributes to repairing the world. Student work that has real purpose outside of the classroom to an authentic audience can benefit others in meaningful ways beyond simple admiration. I believe strongly in finding ways to craft authentic projects in all academic disciplines. There is no end to the possibilities of student work that provides service and real meaning to others. The authentic engagement, motivation, and pride of work from such projects also generate learning that is both strengthened and relevant.
One example comes from my work leading The Urban School’s oral history program. Telling Their Stories: Oral History Archives Project was a complex all project-based approach to learning. Students learned history through engagement with witnesses and made even more meaningful via the end goal of publishing these professional-style video oral histories to a worldwide audience. I believe strongly in finding ways to craft authentic projects in all academic disciplines.
I work to surround myself with people who are far more knowledgeable and competent than I am in their various areas of expertise. This involves careful hiring – and sometimes removal – of faculty and staff to craft a team of professionals working to support a common set of aspirational goals. The key to success is building the confidence in the team so they are able to move forward, make decisions and/or recommendations rather than wait for me. This is not easy! I very much embrace the ideas within the recent book, The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside Our Schools, which outlines a mindset of empowering those with responsibility and high challenges, rather than micromanaging and putting up roadblocks. Schools should be places of constant change, growth, and newness – a vibrant colony of ever-evolving innovation, and thus leading a staff to build this culture is critical. I believe that most of us have capabilities that far exceed what we realize, and therefore, as a leader, I need to work to uncover potential, help my staff think out of the box and build an environment that embraces constant movement and improvement.
The most compelling challenge to 21st century independent school leaders is how to re-craft the relevance of education given exponential changes to the access, production and delivery of information, as enlightened by rapid growth in brain-based cognitive research. This poses a host of challenges and opportunities, not to mention the need to wrestle with the budgetary adjustments these kinds of changes will require to run financially sustainable schools. Other compelling current issues facing school leaders include:
- The need to re-think traditional learning spaces – from individual classrooms to entire campus facilities – in order to support more collaborative, team, project-based, hands-on, and constructivist learning.
- How to sustain and build financial and ethnic diversity given escalating tuition and cost of living, especially in urban communities.
- The need to rethink faculty professional development given growing pressures on faculty to embrace new learning paradigms.
- Building multiple study options for students given increasing knowledge about diverse learning modes and styles, especially in the middle and high school years, and in ways that parents understand.
At the core, I believe that educational change is best implemented through careful correlation of desired change with the school's mission, vision, and core values. I have seen schools across the nation attempt to embrace change without critically assessing their unique situation in light of their own institutional doctrines. Innovation is best embraced when the changes advance the school's mission rather than implemented as a reaction to external pressures. At the extreme, desired significant educational change may require revisiting and re-writing mission, vision, and core values through the strategic planning process.
MENTORING, SUPERVISION AND PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
The key to success in working with teachers is to help build their sense of confidence by receiving feedback from a variety of people and being encouraged to self-reflect. This often challenges traditional professional development that focuses more on developing skills as opposed to developing awareness. Obviously direct skills instruction has an important place within modern-day professional development. I support models, however, that nurture organic growth over time to develop skills and practices that do not necessarily come naturally. This most often involves encouraging alternative classroom techniques, methodologies of information delivery, as well as finding new ways to engage students in effective learning activities and homework assignments that are more meaningful, engaging, and purposeful. In high schools in particular, where teachers most often excel at the knowledge of their discipline, the majority of the support they require generally centers on technique rather than content.
There are multiple ways to help faculty improve their craft – which often involve helping them understand the student learner. One method is to guide teachers to “get into the shoes” of their students, what I call a “cognitive mirror” approach, that is, seeing for themselves how others perceive their actions. In fact, this notion of viewing from another person's perspective is a general philosophy that I embrace in all aspects of treatment of individuals, whether they are students, teachers, peers, or friends. One classroom method that works extremely well is the use of “lesson study.” This technique involves video recording the students rather than the teacher during a class session. The teacher can immediately navigate through an entire class session to see students and their reactions to every aspect of that lesson. Paired with guided reflection and constructive mentor sharing, teachers often can see the successes and challenges of their lesson on specific students. Maximizing non-evaluative feedback from purely observational visual and written notes of an observer, paired with appropriate self reflection and collaborative engagement with a mentor, often leads to improved practice gained from a sense of self-discovery as opposed to prescriptive remedy.
EDUCATIONAL CHANGE AND TECHNOLOGY
Educational change is best implemented through careful correlation of desired change with the school's mission, vision, and core values. I have seen schools across the nation attempt to embrace technological change without critically assessing their unique situation in light of their own institutional doctrines. Innovation is best embraced when the changes advance the school's mission rather than implemented as a reaction to external pressures. At the extreme, desired significant educational change may require revisiting and re-writing mission, vision, and core values through the strategic planning process.
Universal Design Theory postulates that most learners benefit from many of the same techniques and tools used to help compensate students with learning differences. Modern technology can, when implemented correctly, help students achieve more powerful learning through enhanced collaboration, communication, organization, and production tools. Deficits in any of these areas impact the total learning experience of students. A highly disorganized student will invariably fail to regularly access her assignments, and therefore will suffer academically unless her organizational issues can be compensated. A learner with poor verbal or written communication skills will be unable to effectively demonstrate his knowledge and learning unless he has alternative ways to express his learning. Modern technology, combined with new brain-based research that is shifting our understanding of the diversity of learning, can help compensate for these and other weaknesses to strengthen the overall success of the student. For example, speech recognition software can dramatically enhance a student's ability to compose with her voice and therefore help to expose her true learning and understanding.
I believe in the importance of multimodal instruction. Teachers who regularly practice techniques that seamlessly intertwine visual and auditory stimulation – and, when possible, tactile and olfactory – helps the broad range of learners in the classroom. Although differentiated instruction plays a growing importance within the school curriculum, I believe that nearly all learners benefit from instructional practices that provide multiple entry points to the same pieces of information. In its simplest form, this can be achieved by projecting notes during classroom discussions. Taken to the next level, teachers directly support many students when they make available a rich array of classroom instructional material as accessible archives for student study. Freed to more actively participate, the highly visual or auditory learner who can revisit notes, presentations, video and images after class is more likely to learn the material.