Convocation 2016

We held our Convocation last Friday September 9th and I wanted to pass along the remarks given by our Head Prefect Matt Danner ’17.

Hello everyone. For those of you returning, I hope you enjoyed your summer, it is great to have you back, and to the new students and faculty, Welcome to The Gunnery.

So far you have reached your point of destination. 99 Green Hill Rd, Washington, CT. You have unpacked your bags, registered for classes, been through orientation, met your dorm parents, teachers, advisors and peers,  you have joined a co-curricular and you have made it through a few nights in a dorm with no air conditioning. Well, not a bad start considering that everything you have experienced in the last few days changes from here on out. You will be juggling tests, homework assignments, practices, rehearsals, games, among other things. From this very moment on, your point of destination is endless. Try as many new things as you can, reach out to the people you share interests with, and ones you don’t. Expand your knowledge to everyone, and most importantly, enjoy what The Gunnery has to offer. Continue reading

Barry Schwartz on Wisdom

In his 2009 TED Talk, Professor Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College, put well something I’ve been thinking about a lot: “At TED, brilliance is rampant. It’s scary. The good news is you don’t need to be brilliant to be wise. The bad news is that without wisdom, brilliance isn’t enough. It’s as likely to get you and other people into trouble as anything else.”

In his talk, which I recommend highly, Schwartz provides multiple examples of what he calls, quoting Aristotle, “practical wisdom.” It is, I think, what Frederick Gunn was aiming at when he said that character is the goal of education. That wasn’t an obvious claim when he made it and it isn’t obvious today, even as we try to stick to it. “‘Practical wisdom,’ Aristotle told us, ‘is the combination of moral will and moral skill.’ A wise person knows when and how to make the exception to every rule…A wise person knows how to improvise…” It’s important to watch or listen to the talk for the examples Schwartz provides–diverse enough that they hit every walk of life.

There is an important resonance between Schwartz’s claims and those by David Brooks that I highlighted in my recent blog posts. Educational theory today, from what I can tell, focuses almost entirely on creating brilliance but very little on nurturing character or practical wisdom. Schwartz rightly points to the KIPP school movement as a terrific example of an attempt to develop character–practical wisdom–in students but, as I’ve written elsewhere, the thought leaders of KIPP, who I consider heroes, by the way, are in other ways part of an attempt to redefine character not as practical wisdom but as practical skills. This attempt to redefine character as skills captures well the thrust of educational theory today, at least as it applies to independent schools. We should celebrate it for the good it is doing–identifying the skills students need in order to succeed in the classroom and in life–without calling it character.

Instead, we should figure out what it looks like to help students develop practical wisdom in the ways in which Schwartz and Brooks describe it, alongside and amidst helping students become really good at physics, languages, history and interdisciplinary thinking. Not surprisingly, Schwartz emphasizes that if you want students to grow in practical wisdom, they “need to be mentored by wise teachers.” How do we determine that a prospective teacher is wise? Still working on that.

I do think it’s worth pointing out that this isn’t a new question. I think, among other things, it means that we should be reading as much Aristotle as we are Dewey and Dweck in graduate schools of education.

Other practical steps Schwartz recommends in developing practical wisdom:

“Celebrate moral exemplars…” and,

“perhaps most important, as teachers, we should strive to be the ordinary heroes, the moral exemplars, to the people we mentor. And there are a few things that we have to remember as teachers. One is that we are always teaching. Someone is always watching. [Ted Sizer] The camera is always on…[students] need to learn to respect learning. That’s the principle objective. If you do that, the rest is just pretty much a coast downhill. [debatable!] And the teachers: the way you teach these things to the kids is by having the teachers and all the other staff embody it every minute of every day.”

(Following Schwartz’s TED Talk, two moral exemplars he mentions, Ray Anderson and Willie Smits, are well worth the time.)

Frederick Gunn said, memorably, “we teach that which we are.” He was on to something. I don’t know how much Aristotle he’d read, but he knew how to develop practical wisdom in his students and lived it himself. He knew that the collection of character traits embodied by the person who is always learning (and not just learning in order to patent the next widget but learning in the whole-life-sense), the humility it requires, was good for students and for the world.

The focus should not be just on the individual. As Schwartz states in his conclusion:

“Wanting to do the right thing in the right way for the right reasons. This kind of wisdom is within the grasp of each and every one of us if only we start paying attention. Paying attention to what we do, to how we do it, and, perhaps most importantly, to the structure of the organizations within which we work, so as to make sure that it enables us and other people to develop wisdom rather than having it suppressed.”

May we create schools that aspire to this.

Watch Schwartz’s talk because he puts it better than I do.

David Brooks, Schools and Wisdom (Part 1 of 2)

David Brooks dedicated his October 16, 2015 New York Times column to the film “Most Likely to Succeed” and, implicitly, to the question of the ends of education–meaning, what are high school educations for? What are its purposes? I enjoy a lot of what Brooks writes and folks on campus have had to put up with me quoting him even more often than usual since his book The Road to Character appeared last spring. So I was particularly glad that Brooks addressed “Most Likely to Succeed.” A couple of people closely involved with the film’s conception and production I know well, and they are great, thoughtful educators. From what I can tell in the film, the school it features, High Tech High, is an impressive model of pedagogy. The students and faculty that animate the film do amazing things in the classroom–which, by the way, look nothing like traditional classrooms. I recommend the film highly, particularly if you can watch it with a group of educators.

The film reflects the latest and greatest in educational theory, and therein lies the problem. Educational theory today–and maybe always, but I don’t know it well enough to make that claim–does a great job on means–the Xs and Os of how to teach, incorporating the most recent neuroscience, findings from positive psychology, etc.–while remaining fairly silent on questions of ends and purpose. We know we need “to prepare students for a global, interconnected, 21st marketplace,” and we do. But we also have a responsibility to prepare them to identify, once they enter that world (if not before), where they want to go in it and the reasons underlying the path they choose. As most adults for whom being employed is basically a given know, setting out to be “a productive worker” will leave a person empty at precisely the moments in life when one most needs to know one’s purpose, or at least to have a sense of how to begin identifying one’s purpose.

Brooks focuses his critique not on broader questions of purpose but on important and fundamental assumptions that animate all schools and classrooms. “What matters is not how well you can collaborate in groups,” Brooks writes, “but the quality of the mind you bring to the group.” Amen. It is easier to teach and assess (easier is different from easy) the former than the latter. He goes on to point out that the film “ignores the distinction between information processing, which computers are good at, and knowledge, which they are not.” And with his next sentence, Brooks gets to the heart of the matter: “If we want to produce wise people, what are the stages that produce it?” It’s not clear to me that we, at least in independent schools, have agreed that we want to produce wise people. That would actually be a fairly interesting discussion to have. It would lead quickly and obviously to the question of how we define wisdom. That would be a really important, fun conversation to have. I think that doing so would upend so much of the momentum of educational theory today–a momentum that is increasingly good at information processing but not at wisdom.

Brooks’s suggestions for how to structure learning so that it leads to (or at least points students toward) wisdom diverge from much of the current thinking in schools and graduate schools of education today. I won’t spend as much time on each of these as they deserve but will at least try to start.

Brooks suggests that we have to begin with “basic factual acquisition.” This statement of the obvious has gotten lost within schools these days as we hear increasingly that in a world where we can pull up the latest information on any topic at a moment’s notice, it’s more important that students know how to find the right information and how to use it once they find it then that they memorize facts. (I hope I am doing at least a basic level of justice to this assertion. This is the “skills versus content” dichotomy in which skills has emerged as the clear winner even though, in my mind, it’s a false dichotomy. Certainly rote memorization with no larger purpose is not the goal.) Of course, any argument for “core knowledge” (Brooks’s phrase) leads to accusations that we privilege one culture over another in the act of choosing (the dead, white, male literary cannon with which many of us grew up as an obvious example). But Brooks is on to something in pointing out that to understand American history, for example, a student needs to know that the Civil War preceded the Progressive Era. We should not give up on this too easily and, in fact, need to make up some ground. Doing so while helping students and faculty acknowledge the cultural power plays involved in emphasizing some information over other information (an inevitable, unending process) is critically important, to be sure, but the fact that we have to make those choices shouldn’t prevent us from doing so according to the purposes and goals we identify for our schools.

More to come. In the meantime find out more about The Road to Character.

Would You Recognize Frankenstein If You Bumped Into Him?

Our optional faculty summer read is Neil Postman’s The Disappearance of Childhood. Written in 1982 and re-released in 1994, the book argues that childhood—as an idea or social construct—emerged with the invention of the printing press (1440) and that the invention of modern communications technology–the telegraph, radio, television, and advertising, in particular, caused its disappearance.

Some of you are nodding right now while others of you find this so intuitively ridiculous that you’re about to click on to something more relevant. Hang tight, doubters.

Even if you’re skeptical about Postman’s central thesis, it relies on a contributing thesis that has broader significance for all of us. It’s the kind of thing that, if true, is not waiting around for you or me to assent to it. In other words, It’s not a question of taste—and as much as almost everything these days seems to be decided based on taste (beets, kale and brussel sprouts weren’t trendy ten years ago…) I hope we can still agree that there are some things (like gravity and most other laws of physics) that aren’t up to us.

Postman argues that the technologies humans create inevitably act back on their creators. A relationship that seems one-sided (humans create something—the ax, the car, the telegraph–and those things do what we tell them to do) is actually reciprocal (the things that we shape end up shaping us and our culture, often in profound ways that happen gradually but become ubiquitous such that we don’t question them…and those who do sound like scaremongering idiots or Luddites).

I’ll quote Postman for a bit:

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REDEFINING SUCCESS: Preparing a Generation of Graduates for a Life of Meaning and Purpose

This article originally appeared in the Moffly Media 2015-2016 Independent School Guide

As tuitions rise in independent schools and in higher education, attempts to evaluate the return on investment will only increase, and rightly so. But the pressure to define and measure success leads parents and schools to rely too much on short-term, quantifiable metrics. Moreover, it risks preparing a generation of students for employment success while leaving them unprepared for life.

Great schools define success broadly. They not only equip students with the practical skills they will need to adapt to the global dynamism of the 21st-century marketplace, but also, and even more importantly, they equip students to thrive throughout life.

Amidst the steady drumbeat of concern from technology industry leaders, pundits, and politicians that American students cannot compete in a global market for jobs, it is understandable that we – parents, students, and the schools that serve them – often define success by standardized test scores, grades, college matriculation or a first job. News reports and industry leaders remind us repeatedly that American students lag behind students from other countries on the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s PISA test. (Never mind the fact that Connecticut Association of Independent Schools data from 2013 demonstrates that independent school students in the Nutmeg state actually tied for first in global measures of competence in mathematics – equal with Singapore.) But in the rush to beat Finns, South Koreans and Poles to create maker spaces, purchase the latest 3D printer, and create STEAM programs, we exchange outcomes for purpose and neglect the development of character in its deepest sense.

Redefining Success

[Read more]

What Are Schools For?

I recently had the opportunity to hear Professor Rebecca Chopp speak at the National Association of Independent Schools annual conference. Prof. Chopp is currently the Chancellor of the University of Denver and the former President of Swarthmore College and Colgate University. I was particularly taken with Chopp’s emphasis on the importance of residential colleges in American higher education. For all practical purposes, Chopp made an excellent argument for boarding schools in a room full of day school teachers and school leaders.

Her comments that day led me to look up her most recent book, Remaking College: Innovation and the Liberal Arts. For people who like to think about education—past, present and future, American and global—this is a compelling read. The book is a series of essays adapted from talks delivered at the 2012 conference at Lafayette College entitled “The Future of the Liberal Arts College in America and Its Leadership Role in Education around the World.” Chopp’s essay comes first. Entitled “Remaking, Renewing, Reimagining: The Liberal Arts College Takes Advantage of Change,” Chopp avoids the typical breathless rhetoric of change for change’s sake that often captivates people in education writing on the topic. Chopp writes clearly and efficiently so I will let her speak for herself, at the risk of extended quotations:

The ‘distinctively American’ tradition of residential liberal arts colleges rests on the foundation of an early social charter between American higher education and democratic society…With each wave of development, higher education evolved to serve one great mission: educating leaders and citizens to realize their individual potential and build their capacity to serve in a democratic society. These dual goals—supporting the development of the individual and cultivating the common good—are inextricably linked through the belief in and practices of freedom. In the American narrative [note: this will be a novel concept to some readers but it’s important], freedom combines the pursuit of individual passion or fulfillment with service to the common good. Individuals are free to be themselves, but this freedom, expressed in a wide variety of ways, is for, not from, service to the common good (emphasis in the original). Over time, the main components of this historical narrative became consolidated into three primary principles that form the foundation of what we know as residential liberal arts education: critical thinking, moral and civil character, and using knowledge to improve the world.

Yes! (With a caveat.)

Reread the paragraph and replace “residential liberal arts colleges” with “boarding schools like The Gunnery.” Though to my knowledge Mr. Gunn did not write about a charter, his life and work embody an understanding of the relationship between education and democratic society. Easy to say, then and now, but much more difficult to do and to live out, as he did and as he trained his students to do. He created a school precisely to guide students to realize their individual potential and serve society—he saw the two as inextricably linked. Mr. Gunn knew and espoused the life-giving notion of freedom summarized by Chopp—that real freedom is not simply a lack of restraint, the ability to do whatever you want whenever you want but, rather, freedom within good and appropriate limits and the freedom to serve others rather than simply serving oneself. (Now, there are a few very good, important questions here that are for a future post, maybe: Where does this freedom come from? What makes it possible? And who says it should be other than the freedom to do what I want, when I want it? Certainly, today, the dominant definition of freedom people live out is freedom from any restraint—just ask, well, anyone.) Mr. Gunn knew that true freedom always comes at a price, though a price that’s often hidden, and that with a price comes obligation (a heavy word, to be sure). In Mr. Gunn’s case, he was born one generation after America’s revolutionary heroes defeated the greatest military power of the time, so perhaps that animated him. Today, we (in the U.S.) exist at least an arm’s length from the true cost of freedom and so have emptied the word of so much meaning and power.

And Chopp is right to point out the triumvirate of critical thinking, character, and using knowledge to improve the world as the often unarticulated purpose behind American higher education, aims that boarding schools still hold to today. I think these aren’t the best terms—each is a Rorschach test unto itself that tells you as much about the person using them as about the terms themselves. Rather than “critical thinking” I have started to use “wisdom” as the end towards which I think boarding schools ought to aim, and I’ve been thinking of “character” as something like the combination of wisdom and courage—the wisdom to know the right thing to do (or, at least, to try to know the right thing to do) and the courage to actually do it. And “using knowledge to improve the world” always frightens me a bit. That’s what eugenicists were trying to do, for example. And though their logic held, for the most part, their first principles were deeply dehumanizing and wrong. (I know that sounds all judgy but I’m willing to say that removing groups of people from the planet because you don’t think they will be productive is wrong.) I don’t yet have a good substitute for “using knowledge to improve the world” but I would like to find something more humble. (That’s the caveat.)

I haven’t explained what residential educational environments have to do with any of this. For that I’ll wait for a future post.

Movin’ Out

Move out day is a strange one on boarding school campuses. There is a palpable change of energy. To borrow a metaphor from my wife, it’s like stepping off of a moving sidewalk in an airport. The experience begins the night of or day after graduation when the senior class departs. “They’re launched!” And, “there goes thousands of hours of love, sweat, and tears—I hope we did a good job; I hope they make good on what we imparted.” But the rest of the student body is still here and they have exams to keep them focused, ideally—review sessions, study groups, project management in action. And it’s also time for them to pack up and leave. As the day-today-unfolds you can feel the energy dissipate. Only then do you realize that you probably couldn’t have kept that pace up for much longer—students and adults both. Most of the time, it’s the best kind of tired (for my first two years as boarding school student, it wasn’t a good tired because I completely frittered away the exam period). This year, largely due to how well the class of 2014 finished, it seems like a very good kind of tired among the adults.

And today it’s time for those parents who drove to campus to feel tired. (I was always headed to an airport for a plane ride home—my stuff was as packed as it was going to get, my room as clean as it was going to get, and, though I’m not proud to admit it, my parents didn’t see the room deposit again.) Inevitably, students manage to slough most of the hard work on to mom or dad. Mom and dad vow “not next year.” Inevitably, it’s hot and muggy, as it will be in August when we move back in. Inevitably, everyone wonders how they accumulated so much stuff over the course of the year and resolves not to do the same next year. Right.

And, hopefully, everyone takes a moment to recognize how much growth occurred over the course of the year—how much students learned about life and learning; how much teachers learned about teaching; how much leaders in all areas—students and adults—learned about leading. It’s safe to say that none of us had the year we expected—there were triumphs and failures we couldn’t have expected and a whole lot of normal stuff in between. The point, at the risk of cliché, is how we respond to the unexpected as well as what we make of the hum drum day to day. And, with another year under our collective belts, the point is also to gather our learnings—at least the equivalent of pausing as we hike up a mountain to look back and take in just how much we’ve accomplished, and how our perspective and our ability to proceed has changed and improved as a result. As that sage observer of high school, Ferris Bueller, once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Too true. My sincere congratulations to our now summering students on a great 2013-2014! The faculty are now evaluating the year, finishing their assessing of underclassmen end of term work, entering comments, and participating in year-end meetings with summer a couple of steps away—filled with rest, for sure, but, for most people, with opportunities for development and growth.