The Potential of our Strategic Priorities

Facing an ever-more unpredictable future, our students not only need a solid academic foundation; they need the skills and habits of mind which will equip them to ask insightful questions, analyze information, think creatively, communicate in compelling ways, and work with all kinds of people.

This fact is at the heart of our two new strategic priorities: deepening our commitment to experiential learning and creating an unrivaled educational laboratory. Last month, I sent to our community an introduction to these priorities, and since then I have been banging the drum at divisional back-to-school nights. I want all parents and guardians to know what they are and where we are heading, and because I believe they will be transformative for our students.

These two concepts are not new to Catlin Gabel, but we must commit to them with a new and deeper sense of purpose. They are core features of a progressive education model that we know is best for students and teachers, a model more powerful than the traditional content-focused model still prevalent in too many schools.

Experiential learning increases student engagement, deepens understanding, requires students to apply what they know and can do, and teaches both academic skills and “noncognitive” skills (such as resilience, creativity, and teamwork). Deepening our commitment to experiential learning means that experience in and of the world will drive learning, not just information acquisition. In the fourth grade, students engage in a “Why Portland?” study that examines the relationship between people, places, and environments. What influences and opportunities have drawn people to Oregon? How do personal and group identities affect migration, the profile of our city and state, and Oregon culture? Students explore these questions through a multi-disciplinary approach, including self-surveys and family interviews, personal artifacts that reflect their cultural heritage, guest speakers who share life experiences and backgrounds, writing poetry, producing videos, and touring and mapping Portland neighborhoods. This year, students will visit the CENTER in north Portland, where students from many schools come together for community-based experiential learning. There our fourth graders will begin to learn about the rich history and controversial gentrification of the Albina neighborhood. These various experiences teach academic skills such as writing, research, geography, and media production, as well as interpersonal, communication, and cross-cultural skills.

In the sixth grade, studying probability is not a textbook-based math experience. For the “Casino Day” project, students are asked to design and construct a game of chance. To determine if it is a “fair game” the students must calculate the theoretical probabilities for their game and then gather actual data so they can compare this to the experimental probabilities. The fifth graders enthusiastically provide the experimental data we need by playing each game. Student choice, self-direction, open-ended opportunities, and trial and error help the sixth grade students make sense of how, when, and why probability is useful. The games that the students design range from clever variations of roulette wheels and carnival games, to complex coded programs that look like slot machines. The “Casino Day” project provides a creative opportunity for students to use probability in a real life situation, practice their presentation skills, and to introduce the fifth graders to the middle school.

An educational laboratory supports teacher innovation, brings discipline to experimentation, defines valuable outcomes, employs research and evidence, and aligns resources. Being an educational laboratory means that we will intentionally use research and experimentation to improve a Catlin Gabel education. Last year, for example, the Beginning School faculty researched the concept of big body play, which is essential to motor skill development and spatial and social awareness. Could we expand our outdoor spaces and play equipment to make them more dynamic and less static? Teachers visited other schools and playgrounds, read literature on outdoor spaces, and began to experiment introducing various elements, from logs to tires to large student-built woodshop projects. Teachers Sia Haralampus and Jennifer Marcus received a grant to reimagine the courtyard space outside of the kindergarten classroom, and spent a week during the summer uncovering overgrown and underutilized sections to create more open space for imaginative play. This year teachers will observe how children use the space and the elements and adapt them to ensure that vigorous big body play is a feature of every child’s school day.

Last spring, Upper School math teacher Kenny Nguyen and senior Lara Rakocevic ’16 (now a freshman at MIT) conducted an independent study research project, examining the tension between family life, student well-being and achievement, as well as student reactivity to daily stressors. What types of daily behaviors increase/decrease students’ emotional reactivity to daily stressors? What are the characteristics of students who are the most/least emotionally reactive to daily stressors? While the pilot sample was small, they did gain insights into the relationship between gender, homework and stress and how mindfulness practices might buffer emotional stress. This year, honors statistics students will build on the pilot work and hope to present in the spring on the results of their ongoing analysis of student stress triggers and coping strategies based on data collected here and at other schools.

These examples of engaging experiential learning and student-focused research illustrate the potential of our strategic priorities. Experiential learning methods deepen and enhance academic learning, beyond the obvious benefits they provide in programs such as outdoor education and class trips. Laboratory structures and methods lead to new and better ways to serve our students and effectively deploy our resources. These two priorities point to a future when what we do is even more intentional and demonstrably effective. In the months to come, we will push ahead with energy and purpose, always with the student as the unit of consideration.

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The Future of Education?

This spring’s pivot to full-time remote learning sparked many questions about school, from the profound and challenging to the mundane yet urgent. The most fascinating question to me during this time has been: What will this mean for the future of education?