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Friends School of Baltimore Private School Blog

From the Inside out: Reimagining school in the Information Age

This past week, several of my Friends colleagues and I traveled to Long Beach, Calif. for the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) conference. The theme for this year’s gathering was “Reimagining Independent Schools” -- a subject that is near and dear to my heart. (It is also central to our School’s strategic direction, Friends Connects,

Over three days, speakers argued for the urgency of education reform, citing the startling resemblance today’s schools bear to those of a century ago (“How confident would any of us be if our hospitals operated much as they did 100 years ago?”) and offering compelling rationales for re-examining our assumptions about education. Two of the developments undergirding this argument are the easy accessibility of knowledge we have as a result of technological advances and the groundbreaking brain-based research about learning now available through functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, which allows researchers to monitor in real time how the brain processes information.

Consider that just 20 years ago schools were the primary repositories of knowledge, the source, through teachers and printed materials, of nearly all our students’ factual information. Today, the average teenager (or younger!) carries the accumulated sum of human knowledge - quite literally - in the palm of their hand. This epochal shift in the ubiquity of information - both accurate and dubious - demands a similarly dramatic change in the model and practice of modern education. As one aptly titled conference session asked, “If the Answer Is Googleable, Is the Question Worth Asking?”

Rather than memorizing and summoning discrete pieces of knowledge as we have in the past, students must now learn to critically navigate the barrage of information they encounter and must constantly assess, apply, and synthesize it in creative and collaborative ways. Cultivating these skills in our students requires a shift towards more problem-based and experiential learning, a direction we have consciously taken at our School.

It also requires that we embrace the burgeoning science of learning, in our teaching and our professional development. At Friends, we are guided in this work by our partnership with the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning, an institute that helps teachers understand and apply the latest brain research in order to enhance student achievement. Our efforts to deepen student-teacher-family relationships and our move towards greater personalization of the educational experience, for example, are informed by proven research that a feeling of connectedness to the adults with whom they’re working and an enhanced sense of individual agency both lead to improved student performance.

The NAIS conference theme of “Reimagining Independent Schools” is a direct echo of our promise in Friends Connects, to “reimagine the very purpose and shape of School, given the rate and complexity of change that is taking place in our world.”  Tackling this daunting goal involves a willingness to question our long-held assumptions and an openness to reconsider such fundamental structural elements of our work as how we assess student achievement and how we use our time on, and beyond, our campus. Our recent decision to join the Mastery Transcript Consortium allows us to be part of a network of innovative schools and educators who are at the forefront of the national conversation around these issues and who are collaboratively developing a new paradigm for modern education.

Change is never easy and as my NAIS colleagues will attest the challenges of reimagining school are great. Friends is fortunate in that we are a Quaker school; A commitment to “continuing revelation,” through new ideas and possibilities, is steeped in our institutional DNA. We will need to draw upon this foundational tenet as we move forward on this exciting path.

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Starting at Zero: Reimagining Education in America - American Enterprise Institute - June 22, 2018)

The Truth About 'Crisis' in American Education - Forbes (Dec. 31, 2015)

Educators Innovating Learning - Edutopia (April 13, 2015)

 

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Topics: Quaker schools, Quaker education, student assessment, personalized learning, Mastery Transcript Consortium, Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning, NAIS

Final exams: Are we having fun yet? Actually, yes.

Posted by Matt Micciche, Head of School, Friends School of Baltimore on Dec 20, 2018 2:18:29 PM

Exam Week; hardly a phrase that conjures visions of innovation in pedagogy or laughter and collaboration among students. And yet, for 10th grade U.S. history students, all of these qualities were on display yesterday during a most-inventive final exam. Teacher Molly Smith ’82, in lieu of a standard multiple choice or blue book exam, had devised a pair of historical whodunits for students to solve and, in the process, demonstrate their knowledge of history.

In one room students playing the roles of various real-life individuals gathered information to solve the actual murder of a governor in colonial New York.  Meanwhile, in the next classroom over, another group worked their way through an escape room challenge that required them to research and analyze historical incidents from the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

Later when I asked one of the students engaged in cracking the escape room code how her exam went, she furrowed her brow and said, “I thought it was going to be easy, but actually it was really hard – and also fun!”

The stark contrast between Molly’s Project-Based Learning (PBL) exam and those we recall (often, in my case, in still-vivid nightmares) from our own school days demonstrates that, contrary to conventional wisdom, joy and rigor can - and I would argue should - be a common and seamless pairing.  As humans, we thrive on overcoming challenges, and, as we all know, the opportunity to master difficult tasks, particularly in collaboration with others, can be intensely rewarding. Brain research has also taught us* that “play is critical to the emotional and intellectual development of every child.  We must create appropriate opportunities for play at every grade level.”

There may well always be a place in schools for the kind of cumulative production of factual information that the exams of our childhood epitomized. Surely, the ability to summon discrete pieces of knowledge is valuable and necessary, even in the age of Google, when the sum of human knowledge is, quite literally, in the palm of our hands. But we must also make room for new ways for students to demonstrate what they have learned (content knowledge), what they can do with it (analysis, synthesis, and hypothesis), and how these learning experiences will shape their developing hearts and minds. And all educators need to obliterate the false dichotomy between joy and rigor, relegating that antiquated distinction to the ashes of educational history.

*  Mind, Brain, and Education Research Informed Strategies, from the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning

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Project-based learning is a new rage in education. Never mind that it’s a century old. Washington Post, December 12, 2018

8 Play-Based Strategies to Engage Youth in Learning Edutopia, October 16, 2014

 

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Topics: Importance of play, student assessment, final exam, project based learning, joy in learning

In assessing student growth are teachers uprooting the plant?

Posted by Matt Micciche, Head of School, Friends School of Baltimore on Dec 13, 2018 12:17:50 PM

One of the blessings of teaching at Friends is the two hours we give ourselves on the first Wednesday of the month to collaborate across disciplines, divisions, and grades. Known as PLUSS, for Professional Learning to Uphold Student Success, these ongoing professional development sessions are generated by faculty for faculty and provide the space and time to explore emerging ideas in teaching and learning -- opportunities we would not normally have during the busy school week.

For the past six years one consistent component of these experiences has been a shared reading and consideration of a piece of writing on Quakerism, the philosophy upon which our 234-year old school was founded.  On this particular morning, we were discussing “Meeting for Learning; Education in a Quaker Context,” an essay by Parker Palmer, a prominent Quaker teacher and author.

In his essay, Parker makes the case for the Quaker practice of Meeting as a useful construct to envision what happens in our classrooms when we are at our best.  In a “Meeting for Learning,” as opposed to a traditional class, he writes, “the individual is always in relationship, and knowledge emerges in dialogue. It is not only what the student knows, but what the student says back that counts. Here learning happens between persons and not simply within the learner.”

He goes on to point out that, like Meeting for Worship, Meeting for Learning requires time: “We must also bring … a capacity for patient waiting and expectation … Authentic education is not necessarily quick in achieving results, nor are its results predictable in advance.  And education suffers when we keep uprooting the plant to see how well it’s growing. We must trust that growth is happening and have patience to wait it out.”

As we considered these points, my colleagues and I wrestled with just how often in our own classes we “uproot the plant to see how well it’s growing.” Several minutes passed as each of us reckoned with Palmer’s powerful analogy and our unwitting culpability.

Parker concludes his essay with a reminder that resonated with all of us:  “The most important consequence of any meeting is the nurture of community, of recentered and reconnected selves.  Education (as contrasted with training) comes from a community and creates community.” Walking back across campus, I was warmed by the invigorating experience of learning amidst the community of my colleagues, and I couldn’t help thinking about the importance of discussions like this one – and dozens of others during our PLUSS days – in allowing us to envision the environment we seek to create in our School.    



 

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Topics: Quaker schools, Quaker education, student assessment, Parker Palmer

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