SOME LESSONS FROM THE WINTER OF 2017

March 29, 2017
by Peter Gow, ICG Executive Director
(This post originally appeared in the ICG’s March 2017 newsletter; it has been expanded and updated for this format.)

The Winter of 2017 has officially ended, though a No’theaster* threatens New England this weekend with more late snow and unseasonable chill. Otherwise the weather was generally milder than normal where it is often cold and wetter than normal where it has been dry, but Winter 2017 showed us far more than just more evidence of climate change. The political, social, and we might even say moral climate has also been in flux in ways that are requiring educators to think even harder about our work.

Where are we? The Southern Poverty Law Center tells us that incidents of hatred and intolerance of all kinds are on an unprecedented rise, especially on college campuses. We must assume that such things are occurring in the K-12 environment as well, just less reported on or perhaps less seen by adults; kids are good at getting around us when they want to conceal what they know to be inconsistent with our best expectations. The current state of things commits us to being observant and active in making our schools truly safe spaces for every student.

And not just climate science but all kinds of basic scientific research are under attack with the president’s plans to cut funding for the National Institutes of Health. Culture itself is threatened by efforts to de-fund the National Endowments for the Humanities and for the Arts, both of which have direct impacts on schools and students. Many teachers, for example, take advantage of the amazing summer coursework offered by the NEH. And many communities’ cultural lives are enriched by NEA-funded events and programs; try tracking the level of NEA funding for performances that your school has sent groups of students to experience, for example.

The theme of the National Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference in Baltimore early in March was “Make Your Mission Matter: From Vision to Values.” Well, every school mission and values statement pledges the institution to do the right thing, to be aware and engaged and (by implication, at least) kind. If ever a community of schools or an entire sector needed to pull together in the service of awareness, engagement, and kindness, it is now. It was reassuring to be a part of so many conversations in Baltimore and to have seem so many crowds attending sessions on social justice, social-emotional learning, and making the world a better place not through 3-D printing (an important feature on the educational landscape, to be sure) but by addressing the human and developmental sides of our work.

There was great buzz at the NAIS conference about the very exciting Mastery Transcript Consortium, which promises to transform the way we think about the evaluation of student learning away from numbers and scores and in the welcome direction of skills, understandings, and habits of mind. A strong group of ICG Partner Schools numbers among the MTC’s founders and current members, and it’s a good bet that close to all of our independent secondary school Partners have been exploring the MTC. We are pleased to note that the Mastery Transcript Consortium is now an ICG Partner Organization, and we look forward to participating in the development and growth not just of the Consortium but of the ideas that underlie its work.

The Word of the Century in forward-thinking schools like those in the Independent Curriculum Group has been “innovation,” and we have tended to see the word in rather conventional terms as we related it to technology and certain teaching methodologies—project-based learning comes to mind—that we have known about but often resisted since the days of John Dewey. But recent thinking around issues of student life and learning, from Carol Dweck’s Mindsets work to films like Race to Nowhere and Beyond Measure—both made by the ICG’s friend and fellow traveler Vicki Abeles—to some of the more stirring commentary on social issues that educators have experienced from the likes of Bryan Stevenson, suggests that we need to bring the spirit of innovation to the way we think about children’s (and teachers’ and everyone else’s) lives—that innovating our way to a better future is going to be all about how we treat each other and not about apps and gadgets.

Spring is now upon us, with no let-up in the strange weather or the paroxysms of political dysfunction and peril to the social contract coming out of Washington. It’s a frightening time, and we need to figure out where we must go and how we will get there in our shared work of saving the world. The schools and organizations that comprise the Independent Curriculum Group must mobilize, as I believe we are  all attempting to, in a concerted effort to get this done. There has never been a time when idealistic, aspirational words, like those of our Partners’ institutional mission and values statements and even our own Principles of Independent Curriculum, ring more loudly as professions of faith in and commitment to both better education and a more aggressively generous view of the world.

*We use “No’theaster” here rather than the more common and media-favored “Nor’easter” in homage to the polymath historian John Stilgoe. If you are ever looking for the greatest book ever written on observing one’s own environment or framing the possibilities of place-based learning (the “Third PBL”), look for Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places.

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