The Content Conundrum
Schools are increasingly pursuing a wider range of learning goals for their students, which is a good thing (mostly). They are trying to bring more so-called “21st-century skills” into their curriculum, at a time when those skills are increasingly valued and rare in the world.
However, hours dedicated to learning 21st-century skills create a time crunch unless less one of two things happen: less time is spent somewhere else in the school’s schedule, or the traditional content delivery has 21st-century skills so seamlessly built into it that it doesn’t diminish the rate of knowledge acquisition of the traditional content. The latter option amounts to wishful thinking, for the most part, because it’s hard to focus on two cognitive operations or tasks at once. The dream of essentially doubling the value of instructional time (sidestepping the time tradeoff of traditional content and 21st-century skills) will go unrealized most of the time.
Schools will have to do what all of us have do with our limited time resource: make a deliberate, strategic, and hard choice about what will most influence future success. We need to look at our mission and our values and the promises we make to stakeholders. We need to allocate time bravely, putting it where it will have the most impact down the road. That’s going to be hard, especially for schools who have traditionally used “academic rigor” as the core of their value proposition.
If you know of a school that is navigating the content conundrum well, please let me know so I can learn from them.
(Head of School Simon Holzapfel is currently on a three-week tour of Asia and has invited Darrow teacher and mentor Michael Glovsky to be the guest blogger for Simon Says…)
by Michael Glovsky
Now in my fifth year at Darrow, I am a dedicated member of the Academic Mentorship Program. Mentorship is an often misunderstood area of our academic program; some people think it’s just for help on homework, others think it’s only helpful for those struggling academically. But when mentoring is done well, it is so much more.
Inspired by poet Taylor Mali’s well known work, “What Teachers Make”, I’d love to take a moment to channel my inner Mali and describe for you just what mentors are capable of making.
What do mentors make?
Mentors make a connection. You meet a student in their first session. Maybe you’ve worked with them somewhere before, maybe you haven’t. Either way, you now have an opportunity to develop a close, long-lasting relationship. It is slow at first; maybe they aren’t very talkative. Maybe they think they have “nothing to work on.” But very, very gradually you start to chip away. In microscopic, barely-registering moments, you gain their trust. It starts with a single math problem, or a homework plan, or how you both love Led Zeppelin. (C’mon, who doesn’t?) After that, they are slightly less opposed to reviewing their upcoming homework assignments with you. Perhaps they even allow you to look through the feedback they received on a recent paper, and together you plan how they will redraft.
Mentors make a safe space. You now have a good relationship with this student. They come to you even when they aren’t scheduled. They bring problems to you, seek your advice. So now what can you make? An impact.
Mentors make an impact:
- We make topics understandable.
- We make feedback clearer.
- We make daunting, nebulous assignments feel doable.
- We make kids who worry they can’t do anything, feel they can do everything.
So what do mentors really make? We make a difference.
I devoted the first half of this week to joining a team of nine other New York independent school teachers and administrators doing the best sort of professional development I know—an accreditation at New York City’s Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School (LREI), a pre-K through 12 Progressive school. We arrived Sunday afternoon and spent all our waking hours sitting in classes and talking to students, parents, staff, faculty, administrators, and trustees in order to see if the school’s self-study matched what we were observing. (Darrow went through a similar process in 2014, receiving its reaccreditation from the New York State Association of Independent Schools.)
I drew strength from spending hours in deep observation and conversation at a school that lives its mission to the fullest, from seeing how much Progressive education creates wonder and curiosity in students, and from meeting teachers who are as alive with possibility and energy as their pupils. Independent schools that commit to this sort of self-examination and peer scrutiny deserve recognition and support for competing against a free option, and for literally being worth it to families of every socioeconomic class, all of whom have to sacrifice something to be there.
I write this as someone who attended a great public elementary school and a survived a huge public high school without any lasting trauma. There is something different going on here than I experienced. That something is a truly human-centered design for learning, one that puts students at the center of the experience.
When I mention to people that I believe schools need to work to make their graduates more enterprising, I get two very different reactions: wrinkled noses or “hell yes!”
For half of my barely random sample, the word “enterprising” connotes greed, the worst of capitalism, the valuing of profit above all else. The other half of my sample, usually business people, say, “Of course we want our young people to be enterprising.” They don’t hold negative connotations of the word, apprehending instead its more positive associations, which reinforce their values.
Merriam-Webster provides what I believe are more precise definitions of the word enterprising: “marked by an independent energetic spirit and by readiness to act,” and, “bold and energetic in trying or experimenting.”
It occurs to me that the polarized reactions I receive when using this word are characteristic of the deep divisions in this 21st century America. People seeing the exact same word apply starkly contrasting meanings to it.
So I want to reclaim “enterprising” and restore its original meaning, to free it of the political baggage of our day so that young people, whose well being depends on having an independent energetic spirit and readiness to act, can get on with their experimenting.
Our future depends on it.
I must confess that leading a school in a time of political turmoil and unpredictability isn’t easy. Headlines splash over the gunnels of my desk almost every day, making each step slippery. Making sense of them all takes a lot of work because I am doing so both for myself and for others.
And yet, when I step away from my screens and just spend time with students, I see something refreshing and surprising: they are paying attention but are also focused on their lives further down the road. Many of them are looking past the next four years, past electoral politics in general, and seeking to connect with other people, to build a life of goodness, and to simply understand themselves.
We all should be so lucky.
From her I’ve got my resolution for this year: Practice staying with your discomforts, whatever they may be, and relax into them. Don’t run, or numb, or turn away as you encounter them.
What you find there is what you actually need.