Learning to Be: Reflections from NAIS & UNESCO conferences

If we already know WHY we need to change education, and WHAT changes need to be made, then we have to really examine the WHY…Why hasn’t it changed? What are the obstacles to real change, and from where are these changes originating?

Answers to these questions are becoming more and more clear for me, thanks to the work of Charles Fadel, from Curriculum Redesign and author of “Four Dimensional Thinking”, and Grant Lichtman‘s lastest work for his upcoming book “Moving the Rock“.  I was fortunate enough to meet and engage with both of these educators at the NAIS conference in Baltimore not too long ago.

But before I delve too deep into the answers to the questions above, I want to acknowledge the great influence that UNESCO is doing in this same area. After the NAIS conference, I was fortunate to attend the UNESCO Conference on Peace and Sustainable Development, in Ottawa, Ontario. The theme of the conference was to explore and share our work on UNESCO Target 4.7:

“By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.

During this conference, I was able to meet and engage with educators from around the world, addressing issues of access to education, as well as the purpose and intent of education. The foundation piece to this week was UNESCO’s four pillars of education: To read more about each, click HERE

Learning to know: to provide the cognitive tools required to better comprehend the world and its complexities, and to provide an appropriate and adequate foundation for future learning.

Learning to do: to provide the skills that would enable individuals to effectively participate in the global economy and society.

Learning to be: to provide self analytical and social skills to enable individuals to develop to their fullest potential psycho-socially, affectively as well as physically, for a all-round ‘complete person.

Learning to live together: to expose individuals to the values implicit within human rights, democratic principles, intercultural understanding and respect and peace at all levels of society and human relationships to enable individuals and societies to live in peace and harmony. CLICK HERE for more…

I attended these conference back-to-back, and as a result, am still very much processing the learning from each, and how they inform one another. However, this much is clear: both conferences addressed how educational systems of all levels have moved a significant distance from their true aims and purposes that a significant realignment must take place.

Here is the one big insight that I’ve walked away with from both conferences:

We must deepen the conversation with, and increase pressure upon, the antiquated university and college admissions systems and requirements.

– Over the past 10 years, college and university applications have tripled per individual applicant. What this means is that there are significantly more applications being written, thus significantly more pressure put on each of the eligible spots available. For more read this article from TIME.
– The system demands students to sit a set of standardized tests, which become more and more the focus of students’ learning goals, and of teachers’ teaching goals. This reduces the ability of students and teachers to pursue any of the 4 pillars of education other than “Learning to Know”.
– We must deepen the understanding of the pitfalls of these external, systemic pressures with the parents of our students. We have just emerged into the call for transformative educational practices, but our parents may not have heard that call, nor understand its implications in the lived experience of their child(ren)

I wrote about this issue in my review of Todd L. Rose’s influential (but not influential enough yet!) book entitled “The End of Average”. Click HERE to see that book review. In his book, he writes:

“There is no scientific evidence that a sixteen year old’s performance on a standardized test, or how many churches a seventeen year old helped build in Costa Rica, is meaningfully connected with becoming a Supreme Court justice, or founding a successful start-up, or discovering a cure for cancer…But as long as everyone else is playing the game of averages – and as long as universities and employers continue to play the game – there is a real cost for any student who chooses to play. (Rose, 169)

Powerful words indeed! Both Grant Lichtman, and Charles Fadel echo this call for reform to university admissions as a way to support our teachers and the broader educational reform.

Recently, there are substantial markers of improvement in this area, thus hope!

1) Princeton, and others, have altered their adherence and priority placed on standardized testing: “Please know that standardized testing is but one element of our comprehensive and holistic application review process. We employ no minimum test scores for admission; rather, the entirety of a student’s background is considered in context.” (https://admission.princeton.edu/how-apply/standardized-testing)

2) Grant Lichtman tweeted out that Harvard Law will drop the LSAT from its admissions requirements, and just keep the GRE: From the Wall Street Journal article: “Harvard Law School is continually working to eliminate barriers as we search for the most talented candidates for law and leadership,” said Dean Martha Minow in an announcement of the decision. “For many students, preparing for and taking both the GRE and the LSAT is unaffordable. All students benefit when we can diversify our community in terms of academic background, country of origin, and financial circumstances.” (https://www.wsj.com/articles/harvard-law-school-to-allow-applicants-to-take-gre-1489015936)

3) Susan Cain, who spoke at NAIS, explores how introverts can help find their way into the admissions process by first looking at schools that suit them. Here is her podcast on this topic. In it she explores how introverts don’t have to adopt celebrated leadership that stands out on applications. Rather introverts can stand out in different ways so that they can ‘differentiate themselves’ and be true to who they are.

4) In his latest book, Four Dimensional Thinking, Charles Fadel argues that the purpose of education needs a rethink, a realignment. At NAIS, he actively called upon Heads of Schools, Guidance Councilors and educators to lobby their government, to lobby the colleges and universities to reconsider how realigning their practices of admission can better serve their own purposes.

So, and I go back to my book review of “The End of Average”, here is the advice from Judy Muir, admissions consultant to the best and brightest (Rose, 168). “[Because] the process is set up to ignore everything about the individuality of the student; it is all about average, average, average…teens sublimate their own identity in the pursuit of that facade…

What I always tell them is that the only path to a life of excellence is by understanding and developing your own unique individuality. (Rose 168)

Or, through the lens of UNESCO, this is ‘learning to be’.

One of the action steps that we are taking at my school is to deepen this conversation with our parents. We’ve invited in some incredible Old Girls (aka alumna) to speak about their pathways to their career, and what characteristics and qualities are valued there. Recently, we had Natalie Green, Head of Industry at Google Canada. She spoke about the wayward path that brought her to this role, and about the divergent thinking that her new role requires. A powerful lesson for our Grade 7 & 8 students, and for our teachers and parents.

Nat Green, Head of Industy at Google Canada, speaks to students about thinking differently

What are you, or might you be doing to support this conversation with your stakeholders?

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