The Science of Progressive Education

At this significant moment in the life of our successful school, we have a choice to make. We can let fast followers catch up to us, or we can leverage our progressive history, our commitment to inquiry and experience, and our independence, to reimagine how we can be even better. What will distinguish a Catlin Gabel student and graduate in ten years? How can we question and challenge what we believe to develop new insights? What structures, processes, and distinctive ways of working will sustain our excellence?

These were some of the questions I considered as I traveled to San Francisco recently for the 2016 National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Annual Conference. Four Catlin Gabel colleagues and I joined over 5,500 educators from around the country to explore topics including technology integration, social justice, and educational innovation. I have been to this conference over 20 times in my career, and I was struck by the dynamism and variety of innovative programs and concepts being shared and discussed.

It was particularly helpful to be at the conference this year as we are in the midst of strategic planning at Catlin Gabel. Over the four days I engaged with school leaders from all kinds of schools all over the country. Numerous conversations convinced me that we are on the leading edge of defining educational excellence and opportunity.

The conference also gave me the opportunity to meet with fellow school heads in two influential organizations: The Malone Schools Network and the Global Online Academy (GOA). The Network is a diverse national consortium of 40 schools that promotes broader access to academic excellence. Over the last decade, the Malone Foundation has given each Network school a $2 million grant for financial aid endowment. The GOA designs and delivers high quality online courses for students around the world and professional training for teachers. As one of ten major independent schools who founded the GOA, we sit on the governing board and join with peer schools in exploring promising new ideas in education.

In those meetings, and in other sessions, I heard schools discuss how they are eager to engage students in meaningful and relevant learning, reduce lecture-style, content-focused teaching, redesign traditional methods of assessment, and address impediments to innovation caused by the college admission process. I am excited to see these shifts in independent schools. We know that an entrepreneurial economy, adaptive technologies, changing demographics, personalized learning, and economic inequity are shifting the landscape for schools like ours. We have proven that we can deliver value for our tuitions, characterized by small classes, inspiring teachers, and effective college preparation. But we all know that hunkering down to conserve those strengths amidst the winds of change is not a strategy for the future. If we are to continue to be relevant, we must be willing to make educated guesses and make changes that will make a positive difference for our students.  

As we drive forward with our strategic planning process, I see opportunity to rediscover the science of progressive education, a disciplined approach to forming hypotheses about teaching and learning and testing them for efficacy and value. We need to make more connections across discrete academic subjects and begin to erase the line between co-curricular and academic learning. We need to restructure the school day and school year to foster student engagement and teacher collaboration. We need to support ongoing research and innovation, and design new ways for students to demonstrate what they know and can do. We need to focus more attention on our relationship to the natural environment. And we need to become more engaged in our city and community to inform student understanding and model our commitment to democracy. These opportunities were beginning to emerge in San Francisco; they are quite clear here at Catlin Gabel. 

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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?