College Preparatory School for Girls Grades 3-12

Head's Notes

Susanna A. Jones

While most education books focus on public schooling, I believe I should be aware of the broader thinking about education and, while Holton stands out as a very effective educational institution, we should always be looking for ways to improve. What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers Across America by Ted Dintersmith and In Search of Deeper Meaning: The Quest to Remake the American High School by Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine both offer insights worth considering. Dintersmith, who is described as "one of the nation's leading voices on innovation and education," visited all 50 states, meeting, in the process, with 12 governors, half the state commissioners of education, half the state legislatures' education committee chairs, and over 100,000 teachers, students, parents and interested citizens. His goal was to find and share examples of the kind of teaching and learning he thinks American children need to prepare them for the age of innovation. Mehta and Fine, through their tour of 30 schools and conversations with more than 300 students, teachers, adminstrators, etc., aimed to find evidence of deep learning.

Dintersmith is worried about the obsolescence of our current educational system, whose foundation dates back to 1893 reforms instituted to prepare students for factory work in the industrial age. We should replace this system, he argues with one that incorporates what he calls PEAK learning, whose four characteristics are:

  • Purpose – Students attack challenges they know to be important, to make their world better.
  • Essentials – Students acquire skill sets and mind-sets needed in an increasingly innovative world.
  • Agency – Students own their learning, becoming self-directed, intrinsically motivated adults.
  • Knowledge – What students learn is deep and retained, enabling them to create, to make, to teach others. (xvi)

While I would describe Dintersmith's book as a popular work—almost a call to arms, Mehta and Fine take a scholarly approach. Like Dintersmith, they have concerns about the U.S. educational system: little improvement in standardized test scores, mediocre showings on the international PISA test, and a lack of engagement on students' parts. In addition, outside forces have increased the value of deeper learning. Economic changes now require higher skill levels for most jobs than was true a generation ago. Young people need to be prepared to address complex global problems and deal with the technology revolution (from the information and disinformation perspective). Finally, they see equity as a force for wider emphasis on deeper learning since its value is clear, but to the extent it has been achieved, it has generally been among higher tracked and more affluent students.

Sounding much like Dintersmith, Mehta and Fine call for "education that asks students to think versus education that asks them follow directions, and education that has purpose and meaning for students versus education that does not." (11) Their formulation for deep learning involves three elements, "mastery, identity, and creativity." By mastery, they mean gaining a strong foundation in a discipline, including not only knowledge of content, but truly understanding how that discipline works, how knowledge is structured along with the ability to recognize patterns within the content, and being able to transfer knowledge, meaning actually using it in some way. It means acquiring a level of expertise. This might sound like where one gets in graduate school, but there are ways, especially if one emphasizes depth over breadth, to get secondary-school students to that point. It both takes engagement and promotes engagement and, once achieved, it is very empowering. Identity addresses how the learning connects to oneself, through intrinsic motivation, by the ways the learning connects to a person's own identity, and ultimately how it becomes "a core part of the self." (16) Teenagers are searching for their own identities, exploring who they are and how they fit in the world. I think we can see how deep learning could be part of that process. Creativity comes in being able to apply knowledge to create something, an ability that generally requires mastery to achieve. They give the example of taking "an analysis of how a play is written" and "writing a play" yourself. (16) You can easily see the crossover between Dintersmith's PEAK learning and Mehta and Fine's deep learning.

While reading these books, of course, I have asked myself what Dintersmith, Mehta, and Fine would find if they visited Holton. Would they observe PEAK learning? Deep learning? I believe they would, although I know they wouldn't see every student having such experiences in every class every day, nor would I expect them to. As Dr. Lisa Damour reminds us, we can't—and shouldn't—expect girls to love every class they take. That said, we should expect our faculty to be creating PEAK learning and, at the upper grades, deep learning.

Previously, I shared several examples of civics education that certainly meet these criteria: The fifth-grade political party project, the eighth-grade Public Policy Project, and the senior government course's "participation project." We could find others across the School, such as the Lower School Design Technology curriculum and the 10th-grade term paper, in which English students can choose to write about almost any topic they choose. In another example, after observing an Advanced Biology lab that involved DNA splicing, a peer (from another department) described the girls receiving " sophisticated tasks so that they can go out and make contributions in whatever field they choose, including those that have long been male-dominated." Moreover, he noted, "Those who don't choose STEM careers...are learning life skills about trying one's best, correcting mistakes, collaboration, and transferring knowledge to a specific task."

Seventh-grade "Problem Solving" also provides a great example of this kind of learning. The course starts with learning about problem solving in general and then moves onto technology as an aid to problem solving. Then the students identify a problem that is preventing a country from realizing one of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. Choosing something they really care about, they research what is happening on the ground and narrow their focus to a problem that an app could address. Then, they engage in design thinking as they develop their ideas, getting feedback from their peers. Finally, they translate what they have on paper to programming language, both HTML and Javascript, and ultimately create an app. Here are two examples:

Econ App is a babysitting cooperative app. The developers felt that the one of the problems preventing the goal of education for all is that many girls are expected to care for their younger siblings. The app provides a platform for these girls to team up and create a schedule for sharing childcare so they can attend school most days of the week.

Clean Living is a location-driven app that puts the user in touch with all the means for reducing their personal carbon footprint through their transportation choice. This includes finding bus and subway schedules, ebike memberships, and carpooling groups in their city.

I hardly need to explain how this course engages students in mastery, identity, and creativity, as well as PEAK learning.

On an institutional basis, we decided to move away from Advanced Placement courses because we believed that our teachers can create curricula that will better serve our students, both in college and life, with exactly the kind of learning that Mehta, Fine, and Dintersmith promote. We were early members of the Mastery Transcript Consortium (which Dintersmith highlights) and have been moving toward competency-based education for several years.

All this takes work, rethinking, to some degree, how we teach. At the same time, it connects in powerful ways to values and practices we have espoused for a long time. We're fortunate to be an independent school, free to choose the path we believe best meets our students' needs.