NAIS President Talks Education

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It’s minutes before I conduct a Skype interview with National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) President Patrick F. Bassett about the future of education. I haven’t been this nervous for an interview since my cub-reporting days.

Since 2001, Bassett has led the nation’s premier membership organization for more than 1,400 independent schools, as well as 250 affiliated schools and associations internationally. To join and remain active, schools submit to a comprehensive accreditation process every five years. Without NAIS membership, independent schools lack substantial credibility. Most struggle to keep their doors open.

In the winter edition of Independent School Magazine, Bassett wrote a terrific piece, “What it means to Be Fifty,” in honor of a large number of NAIS-member day schools celebrating their anniversaries. Bassett answers what these schools will need to teach in the future, especially if America hopes to cultivate creative thinkers.

“The skills and values that the 21st century will demand and reward are the Five C’s: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, and character,” he writes.

In the education world, I respect few people more than Bassett, whose visionary leadership espouses a compromise between advocates of extreme and moderate reform. He’s a modern-day Benjamin Franklin, and before I ask permission to hit “record” on our call, he tells me to call him “Pat.”

I’m taken a back, but I try my best to remain informal with one of America’s most revered (and humble) educators. I delve in, asking Bassett to provide additional insight regarding a 2005 article he wrote for Phi Delta Kappan, titled “Reengineering Schools for the 21st Century”:     

Employers and university professors demand certain skills and modes of thinking appropriate for the challenges we face in the 21st century. But policy makers and school bureaucrats are increasingly reverting to an antiquated model of education. If we do not change course now, we will fail an entire generation of children and imperil the nation’s future.

For too long, Bassett says, the transfer of knowledge has been teacher-centric. We have it backward.

“In other words, some authority decides what’s important to know, and decides the pace and the scope of learning,” he says. “That’s largely been determined for centuries by textbook publishers. It’s what we call the empty vessel approach. We saw kids forever as empty vessels, and the best method to civilize them was to pour as much as we could into that empty vessel.”

I’m standing up, trying not to interrupt Bassett by telling him how much I agree. I’m thrilled to hear that he strongly disapproves of assessments that require students to regurgitate what they “learn” from a teacher or textbook.

For five years, I have enjoyed speaking with Mark Hayes, my colleague in the English department, about this very issue. We share an intense disdain for textbooks that present just one view while reinforcing the notion that learning is synonymous with rote memorization. We want students to master critical thinking, and we could care less whether they recall obscure facts, which few—if any—will remember once they graduate.

Higher order critical reading and thinking skills are streamlined into what’s really just busy work at the ends of chapters or in the margins.  I reject the argument I often hear from other teachers, “Not using textbooks might work for your subject, but it wouldn’t work for mine.”  I can’t say why some teachers refuse even to consider what their courses might be like without textbooks.

Hayes captures why I loathe teaching AP American History. The course requires a monolithic textbook, which almost always contains 1,000 pages, from which students memorize mountains of information.

Bassett makes plain that he doesn’t encourage schools to adopt the AP curriculum.

But I ask how independent schools could cope, especially with increasing pressure from parents, educators and college admissions officers for students to take these courses.

“That’s exactly the right question to ask,” Bassett says. “That’s exactly the anxiety that the progressive and experimentally inclined teachers fear. It’s entirely wrong, and here’s why: it’s based on assumption.”

Before Bassett utters another word, I know what he means by “assumption.” Too many independent schools fear that if they don’t offer AP courses, students will transfer out to someplace that does, or colleges won’t admit as many graduates.

I appreciate the tremendous competitive environment that heads of school and college counseling offices find themselves in—especially in that only around 2% of students attend independent schools in an increasingly uncertain economic future.

All the same, Bassett says that this is an entirely misplaced fear. Recently, he found around 50 NAIS-member schools that decided to abandon the AP curriculum in at least some courses.

How did they do it?

“They just asked the colleges,” Bassett says.

He points to an interesting trend. Year after year, seniors at most schools apply to the same 20 colleges and universities:

Why don’t you just write those 20 colleges? That’s what these other independent schools did. Here’s what all the colleges said to them. The Dean of Admissions wrote back and said these two things, “One, you should do what the faculty thinks is best because we trust your faculty. Two, we trust your faculty because we track all your graduates, and they all do exceptionally well here. We know you know what you’re doing.

To me, this makes perfect sense. All the same, even if schools are willing to embrace change, I’m dubious about what parents might think about sticking-it to the College Board.

I think too many parents want their kids to take AP-courses less because of how the curriculum fosters critical thinking and creativity—which it fails at miserably—and more because of how an “5” and an “A” in these classes looks on a high school transcript.

Bassett informs me of how parents from the Chapin School, among New York’s most celebrated independent schools, conveyed strong disapproval of a decision to move away from the AP-program.

In response to mounting criticism, Head of School Patricia Hayot gathered parents in the auditorium to show example questions from the AP United States History exam:

One was, what was the Taft‑Hartley Act? You had five choices. So you’re talking about the best‑educated people in the world sitting in that audience, right? Not one of them got the answer right. Not one of them got the multiple choice answer right. Do you know why? Because, who cares?

On the off chance that you do care, The Taft-Hurley Act was a pro-business measure passed by Congress in 1947 that President Truman vetoed as a “slave labor” bill.

Students are also expected to know excruciating minutia, which, according to John J. Newman and John M. Schmalbach’s United States History: Preparing for the Advanced Placement Examination, includes provisions “outlawing secondary boycotts (the practice by several unions of giving support to a striking union by joining a boycott of a company’s products).” The authors mention three additional measures of the law.

Parents were then asked to respond to a creative essay, asking them to choose from one of three epochs during the colonial period, and to create a fictional persona of a woman during this time. It just so happens that Chapin School is an all-girls school.

“The parents got it immediately,” Bassett says. “They said, ‘Oh, my God, yes. We want our teachers to teach this way.’”

Our conversation transitions to how standardized testing, an equally irksome relic, presents another roadblock to the future of education.

In 2010, China shocked the education world, outperforming Finland for top marks on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which tests 15-year-olds around the world for competence in science, math and reading. On Dec. 8, Marion Maneker of MoneyWatch wrote a damning online piece under an equally damning headline: “Why China’s Students Excel and the U.S. Lags Far Behind.”

“The best lesson Americans might take from this latest blow to our national pride is not that the Chinese are beating us but that we’ve lost sight of what we want for ourselves,” Maneker writes.

Manaker personifies the sort of ill-informed gasbag putting the final nails into the coffin of fair, hard-hitting, investigative journalism.

Leave it to New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristoff to set the record straight. In a Jan. 15, 2011 article, “China’s Winning Schools,” the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner writes about his visit to China:

“Many Chinese complain scathingly that their system kills independent thought and creativity, and they envy the American system for nurturing self-reliance — and for trying to make learning exciting and not just a chore,” Kristoff writes.

To be fair, Kristoff admits the he “deeply admire[s] the passion for education and the commitment to making the system better.” I’m further comforted by Bassett, who says that China is now looking at American independent schools for cues on how to embrace effective change.

Bassett mentions the Flipped-Classroom method as an example, where teachers use or make vodcasts for students to watch at home—replacing the traditional “sage-on-the-stage” lecture. In class, kids benefit from enhanced face-to-face time with instructors, while working on labs, problem-sets, reports and other skills-based activities.

Bassett also believes that some sort of blended-learning is inevitable, and that it’s only a matter of time before online learning also becomes crucial to the continued viability of high school education.

“The technology allows for a kind of learning that’s individualized and customized in a way that’s never been possible before,” Bassett says.

I’m curious to hear more about what Bassett thinks about customized learning, and I ask for his thoughts about the Independent Project at Monument Regional High School, a public school in Great Barrington, MA.

Students spend a semester-long initiative investigating self-directed topics in history, science, and math. They study English throughout the program, and teachers from each core department (save for math, for the time being) make themselves available—but only in an advisory capacity. There is no lecturing.

Bassett says that this seems a bit “extreme.” While he is a strong advocate for project-based learning, he doesn’t advise turning over all decision-making to students. Even if education goes in that direction, as a first step, Bassett says that successful schools will embrace a component of project-based learning in their classrooms.

“I’m a huge proponent of hands-on stuff,” Bassett says. “That’s why robotics is so good. It’s not just to learn the theory of robotics, but it’s actually to build something with your hands. That connection between hands and mind is very important, and we’ve lost it.”

Bassett’s remarks remind me of a Sept. 26, 2012 TEDx presentation, in which Gever Tulley, founder of Brightworks, a project-based school in San Francisco, California, speaks about how educators can get students interested in what he terms “engagement-based learning.”

We built a roller-costar with 30 meters of track. We built incredible cars that you power by rowing. And as we were doing this, we started to have some fundamental realizations about how children learn. And one of them, it seemed so obvious, and yet it’s almost gone from education, from traditional education. And I’ll tell you now and when you see it you’ll remember how obvious this is. We think with our hands. It’s true. Thirty percent of our brain is dedicated to processing information from our hands.

Project-based learning fits perfectly with Bassett’s emphasis on communication and collaboration.

“It turns out that you could be the smartest person in the room, but if you can’t collaborate with your team, you’re a roadblock to success rather than an agent of success,” he says.

I agree with Bassett, but not completely. Independent schools must continue to concentrate on finding ways to more effectively foster students writing, listening and speaking abilities. No matter what changes or technological advancements arise, I can’t foresee a future where these skills aren’t highly coveted.

I am unconvinced, though, that collaboration results in more positive outcomes than solo endeavors—especially after reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts.  As this author points out, to realize the power of introverts look no further than Apple co-founder Stephen Wozniak.

I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. If you’re that rare engineer who’s an inventor and also an artist, I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.

Recently, Bassett announced that this is his last year as president of NAIS. He plans to pursue part-time consulting with schools and systems around the world. I have the utmost faith that he will continue to inspire countless thousands, directly or indirectly, with his passion for improving education. He is a true American hero.

As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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