Thursday, March 3, 2011

Redefining Preparatory, an article written for the Grandview Preparatory School community

Redefining “Preparatory”
By: Tiffany Della Vedova, Academic Dean
October 6, 2010

When we opened our doors a little over a decade ago, it was with a specific vision. Our founders, Gene and Carolyn Ehlers, sought to create a learning environment which would uniquely engage students on an individual level by synthesizing the traditional with the innovative. They imagined that preparing a student for college did not have one set track. They also had the foresight to know that the preparation necessary for success in college and beyond would evolve quickly with the changing world. Even still, none of us knew in the year 1997 just how quickly the birth of new technologies would affect the future of our schools and the future and present lives of our children.

We find ourselves today having to look at the world through the crystal ball of prediction, and speculate from trends and the consensus of experts exactly what our children will need to know in order to succeed at the highest level in college and beyond. To redefine readiness each year for our students, we revert back to the vision of our founders, marrying the conventional with the revolutionary. Further, when we speak of academic readiness, it is never mutually exclusive to character growth. The combination of these values and skills is evident in our school creed and in each lesson taught in the classroom.

The value of connection is ubiquitous within our community. The beginning of our creed, “Together we build our future” takes on many meanings. In Advisory, our students learn the importance of having a mentor as they experience the process as a mentee. This helps them come to understand their own role as mentors to the younger students at Grandview, and in some cases to each other, as they engage in peer tutoring and take on leadership roles within the school. Together also means a partnership between the teacher and the student, the home and the school. We seek to connect our students’ life experiences with their classroom ones, individualizing their learning paths by tapping into their viewpoints and interests. Likewise, we endeavor to engage parents in the learning process, often assigning “home learning” which involves family discussion or parental feedback.

This year, we have also taken the concept of connection a step further, helping our students to see online networking and collaboration in an academic light rather than a purely social one. Through the implementation of Google Apps in our school, our middle and upper school students now receive and submit work electronically, develop their own online learning portfolios, and collaborate in real time on live, shared documents. A Forbes magazine blog earlier this year highlighted the rising trend in online collaboration, citing a Gartner prediction that online meeting and collaboration will replace 2.1 million airline seats per year for business travel by 2012. The same article revealed the creative ways in which large companies such as Accenture and Proctor & Gamble are using online technologies, ranging from video conferencing to simulated product launches. We strongly feel that adding online collaboration to our definition of preparation will only give Grandview graduates an advantage heading into the next stage of their lives with such practices on the rise.

Understanding the way we connect with each other and our learning helps our students make important decisions as they connect the choice to the outcome, whether that decision be which club to join or when to sign off Facebook and take notes in class. Part of our mission is to provide choice and to empower students to make choices each day, in each moment, and to understand the responsibility associated with each decision along with the outcomes of even the smallest ones. At the high school level, our students are reading the book Blink which explores the decisions we make on instinct and in the span of two seconds. When we recite our creed, we state that we understand that “choice is responsibility” and that “we must choose wisely”. The truth is that sometimes in life, we have to make choices quickly and at other times, we have the luxury of time and research, but what we hope to impress upon our students is the need to think about these choices and to use the tools available to make them and understand why we are making them. Subsequently, instead of structuring their every move by preventing choice, we place them in situations to use their best judgment thereby fostering this essential skill.

In the classroom, we can see evidence of this focus through differentiated instruction methods in which students have some level of choice in the way they receive and demonstrate mastery of learning. When faced with the choice of whether to make a model or a video, we hope that students will think about how they learn best and decide which is the path best suited for their success.  Students also learn to experiment with different methods of studying. Research tells us that variation in method and location of studying are conducive to higher success on tests. In one study, students who studied the same material twice in the same setting performed poorer on a test than students who studied the same material twice in different settings. Brain researchers speculate that this is a result of our brain forming different associations between the material and the learning environment to help us remember; therefore, the more associations built the higher the learning outcome (Carey, 2010). This means that the old method of mandating a student sit at the kitchen table until finishing their work each day may get the work done, but may hinder deeper absorption of the material. Instead, maybe students learns that by associating vocabulary with dance moves or the times tables with a rap beat, it becomes easier to remember. The critical element is creative experimentation and individual ownership over the process as our students get to know themselves as learners.

In a video talk which has since gone viral, Sir Kenneth Robinson, renowned creativity specialist, accuses schools of “killing creativity”. Of the various reasons parents choose Grandview, one of the more important is the commitment to the creative growth of our children. While several schools at the local and national level have cut Arts programming, we have continued to add courses to our visual and performing arts curriculum at all levels. The July 2010 Newsweek report on “The Creativity Crisis” exposes the prevalence of such cuts at the national level along with the sacrifice of creativity-centered learning to test prep in the midst of our test-centered, achievement-oriented educational climate. Authors Bronson and Merryman reference our national fixation to compete with China and quote a faculty member of a major Chinese university as saying, “You are racing toward our old model [of skill and drill]. But we are racing toward your model, as fast as we can.” IBM recently identified creativity as the number one indicator for leadership, and it is easy to understand why…because the one thing that has yet to be outsourced is American ingenuity and creativity. And we believe it begins in the classroom, where students learn to comprehend and synthesize with freedom and appreciation for divergent approaches.

Regardless of the changes surrounding our children, we are confident that as they accumulate the skills we are providing them, they will move forth with the readiness to succeed in a triumphant way. The final measure of this success will not be found in test scores or grades, but in their confidence and sense of self. For this, we turn to each other as a reminder to fill them with purpose and lift them up each day. Excelsior ad Augusta, ever upward to honor!  

Referenced Works:
Bronson, P. and Merryman, A. (2010, July 10). The Creativity Crisis. Newsweek. Retrieved from http://www.newsweek.com/2010/07/10/the-creativity-crisis.html
Carey, B. (2010, September 7). Forget what you know about good study habits. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/07/health/views/07mind.html
Mitra, S. (2010, January 29). CIO priority: virtual collaboration. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/2010/01/28/telepresence-entrepreneurs-citrix-technology-cio-network-virtual.html
Robinson, Sir K. (2006). Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity. TED Talks. Retieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html
        

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