The Headmaster’s Blog is an opportunity to offer thoughts and reactions to various topics on education, articles, school events, or any other thought that might be relevant to our lives as members of this community.
This blog will be one aspect of that lens into our community. Comments and commentary offered here will represent both my own opinion and the thoughts of others as considered by me. As with any blog or commentary different opinions and varied positions will be presented, so we welcome the discussions that it will surely generate. With a great education, comes a culture of inquiry. I may ask many questions without coming to a clear conclusion, since some questions are too big for an absolute answer. Perhaps, the best way to describe this blog is that it will include taking some risks – which is what we inspire students to do here every day.
When Hollywood character Elle Woods gave the graduation speech from law school in Legally Blonde, she joined the throngs of real graduation speakers who refer to “passion” at commencements across the nation each year. With the end of any academic year come the obligatory references to following your dreams, pursuing passions, and improving the world one good deed at a time. While cliché, these lofty, even imploring statements are meaningful; for each year, schools and colleges graduate students and send them onward to the next stage of their lives. As with each New Year, commencements are a moment where students can create a new start – a tabula rasa. Ahead are new friends, new adventures, trials and tribulations, and the great unknown. Daunting, yes, but exciting – invigorating. Assuming that we have done our job here at Perkiomen, those we are graduating in a few short weeks are ready to take on the challenges the lie ahead. Ready not because we have taught them Latin or Frost, Calculus or biology, but because as students become alumni, we know that they have the skills and resilience to approach any risk with aplomb. So, while graduation speakers, headmasters, valedictorians, and parents may seem de regueur in their tired clichés, we must also recognize that the time-honored tradition of “pushing the chicks out of the nest” requires an annual ritual of giving them all the skills, knowledge, confidence, and resilience to go forth, succeed, and find a degree of happiness in the world beyond home – beyond Perkiomen, the proverbial “nest.” As we say farewell and Godspeed to our seniors, we know that, like spring, another class is approaching – a class that must be hatched, raised, and graduated from the warmth of our nest here in Pennsburg. While the Class of 2013 prepares to depart with all the appropriate fanfare and celebration, we already look forward to welcoming the Class of 2014 with its unique gifts, personalities, leadership styles, achievements, and even trials. So, while James Russel Lowell stated, paradoxically, that “universities are places where nothing useful is taught,” we know that much of the learning here at Perkiomen is beyond the pages of books and is about living and learning together, as members of a community. So, good luck, and Godspeed Class of 2013 and welcome Class of 2014.
Technology – the bane of existence for some, a silver bullet in education for others. The ongoing debate regarding the need for, use and ubiquitous presence of technology in our schools has not passed Perkiomen by. Faculty members have had many discussions about the use of tablets in the classroom – as educational tools and as a progressive means to improve the educational model in place at Perkiomen. After extensive discussion, an exhaustive review of articles, and discussions with colleagues at schools with tablet programs, the decision was made to bring tablets to Perkiomen. This decision was not an easy one – for we recognize that there is scant research on the benefit of this technology, and we know that previous technologies (television, desktops, laptops, Activboards etc.) have not necessarily improved the success of students. We also know that many countries with little to no access to technology produce, in aggregate, stronger mathematicians and writers than American schools. Mark Bauerlein, Professor of English at Emory University and author of “The Dumbest Generation,” stated “today's digital generation is becoming insulated in its own stultifying cocoon of bad spelling, civic illiteracy and endless postings that hopelessly confuse triviality with transcendence.” Our job, then, is to ensure that the college preparation for which we are known remains intact and is improved by this new(ish) educational tool. To that end, our faculty are spending their Spring Term with iPads in hand, working in teams and cohorts to learn the technology, teach the technology, and expand their expertise of it. Plans are underway to purchase relevant and meaningful applications that support teaching and learning in classes from Introduction to Latin in grade six to AP Calculus BC. Faculty members are reviewing texts to ensure that the maximum possible are available in electronic form. Institutional Technology is improving wireless access and connectivity across campus. While concerns about technology and its use in the classroom abound, we know that students excel when given relevant assignments, meaningful assessments, and the opportunity to take an active and creative role in their own learning. As Perkiomen moves forward with an iPad program, students will remain at the center of the learning and the iPad will be a tool to ensure ongoing relevance, risk-taking, creativity, and independence, even as we continue to expect traditional skills in reading, writing, rhetoric, critical thinking and analysis. As Michel de Montaigne stated in his 16th century tome “On the Education of Children,” a tutor should permit “his pupil himself to taste things, and of himself to discern and choose them, sometimes opening the way to him, and sometimes leaving him to open it for himself.” The iPad tablet will give both the “tutor” and the student opportunities to open the way to learning here at Perk.
It has been a few weeks since my return to campus from the Klingenstein Center of Columbia University. After two weeks of research, philosophical discussions, and time with only 17 other heads of school from around the world –spanning from Maine to Thailand, and from California to Germany – it has taken a few days to reconnect here at Perk. In a career spanning nearly 25 years, this opportunity stands out as unique. To think deeply, discuss issues, teach future leaders in the master’s program, and research a topic in depth allows time for reflection and consequent actions. As I return to Perkiomen and re-engage, I am pondering the many lessons learned in New York and thinking of ways to enhance the great work already being accomplished here. With research completed on homework, always a controversial topic, we will empanel a faculty committee in 2013-2014 to review homework and its place in the lives of Perkiomen students. With many opinions out there concerning the topic of homework, (see Alfie Kohn as one vociferous opponent), there is a great deal of contradictory evidence to consider. Overall, though, research indicates that homework is likely overused and underutilized simultaneously. Homework is overused in the sense that it can be “busy work,” comprised mainly of work sheets, too many math problems, too much reading, and too much eating into students’ free time; time they could be spending reading books of their own choosing not to mention time they could spend with their families. On the other hand, homework is likely underutilized – too little in the way of meaningful, creative, innovative opportunities for students to explore theories, ideas, and concepts through independent research on a topic. In today’s world, access to information is nearly unlimited, so leaving open-ended assignments gives students a sense of ownership. In some research, the idea of “too much of a good thing” is referenced – especially in mathematics. It is true that practice and repetition have some benefit, but how many problems must as student solve each night to become proficient? These are the facts, ideas, and questions we must ponder as we seek to provide a stimulating learning environment at Perkiomen. As we reexamine our homework policy, we will utilize the extensive research available and determine the best use of this American tradition for our global student body.
As entrance to college has become more and more selective over the past twenty years, the amount of homework assigned, especially in college preparatory schools, has increased dramatically. The grade in which homework begins has dropped to Kindergarten in some independent schools. SAT scores have stagnated, recess has all but disappeared, outdoor “free time” after school has gone the way of the Dodo Bird, American children have become more obese, and mathematics and science results for American students have deteriorated.
Why this diatribe on homework? Well, as an honored recipient of a Klingenstein fellowship, I am in the first hours of a Leave of Absence from The Perkiomen School. Preparing to join a group of only 20 heads of school from around the world at Columbia University, I feel honored for an opportunity to spend time with colleagues away from the daily operations of school and to immerse myself in growth and renewal as a school leader. A key component of the fellowship is immersion in an intensive research topic; mine is homework.
Like any experienced teacher or leader, I have evolved over my 25-year career in independent school education. I once believed that more homework equaled better teaching and improved learning. I once felt that loading on homework was a sign of self-discipline and a work ethic worthy of the finest colleges. I learned over the years, though, that the length of a school day and the amount of take-home work had little or nothing to do with success in school or with developing intelligence.
Research, though, is not about opinion or, even, experience, it is about quantitative analysis and taking the time to consider both sides of a subject in some isolation and with other experts sitting around a table reviewing and debating facts. My time at Columbia University will be spent with colleagues considering issues such as homework and other topics necessary to the success of our respective schools and students. Perhaps I will come away of the opinion that “homework is dead” or, perhaps, that “homework has a valid place in our lives.” I suspect that I will come away with more questions than answers, but then, my educational philosophy is one of educational inquiry, so such a non-conclusion conclusion is par for the course. And isn’t a great education one where the thinking and learning is ongoing and rarely finite?
To take a look at the ongoing, heated debate about homework, here are some resources to ponder:
As I depart from this very chilly campus, I know that the students are in the capable hands of the dedicated, highly competent faculty and staff who care for them every day. I also know that this fellowship is a rare opportunity, a gift even, for me as I continue my own process of life-long learning and dedication to our students.
The school’s website offers a portal into the school for all of our constituencies: prospective families, current families, and alumni. This portal is designed to give people access to information – admissions applications, fast facts, calendars, news, and even how to donate. The site is meant to connect people – contacts, homework pages, and announcements for events and meetings. The site also provides alumni the opportunity to reconnect with their school – to see Perk as it evolves, improves, and serves it’s students today and into the future. Finally, the site is meant to offer opportunities to understand and experience our ethos – our educational philosophy, our community values, and our character expectations.
As we embark on the use of this new blog and a new website, I look forward to offering thoughts on various topics. I also look forward to building stronger bonds of connection through this site – bonds between the school and alumni, families, and students. Stronger bonds, even through technology, can only enhance a Perkiomen education and provide our students with the increasing opportunities for success they richly deserve.: