I was recently invited to speak at the September meeting of the Troup County Republican Party at its educational forum. My comments were well received by those attending the meeting and I’ve had a few members of the Academy family ask me to put the speech on my blog. My goal in the speech was to give a synopsis of the Academy’s approach to education. I hope you enjoy it.
Who has ever been white water rafting? I ask because one of my favorite activities each year is our middle school white water rafting trip. For those of you who have been rafting, you know what it’s like, you and the other participants experience, hopefully, very brief and very intense periods of time where the raft is going through a set of rapids. While all of you are able to exert some influence on the raft’s direction, ultimately the river is stronger than you. After you complete a set of rapids, there are periods of tranquility and calm where the you look back, assess what went well and what can be done better in the next set of rapids, which are usually around the next bed in the river.
In the last 15 years or so, the field of education’s new normal has become just like a set of rapids. The world is changing so quickly that many of us in education feel as if we are living in a state of constant change. The Academy is dually accredited through the Southern Association of Independent Schools and SACS Advanced Ed and among these groups’ members schools, the challenges facing schools are a frequent topic of discussion at conferences and seminars. You can probably guess the two factors that are having such an impact on our industry, technology and the recent economic crisis.
Who has a smartphone? Hold it up if you do. Now think about this as you look around the room. In the palm of your hand, you hold the entire accumulated knowledge of the history of humanity. Now think about when you were in school. What did you do if you had a research paper assigned in a class? For most of us, we went to the library and dug through the card catalog, or consulted the encyclopedia at home, or asked the librarian to help us get started. Students now, and this even applies to my five-year old daughter who’s in Kindergarten at the Academy; students today can find several thousand sources for a paper in milliseconds with their phone, while they wait for their ride home after school, as they sit on the bench in front of school. Technology has changed the way students learn and the way we teach. Our job is to prepare the school’s 260 students for the world in which they live. At LaGrange Academy, we want to prepare our students for their future, not our past.
While we are talking about technology and its impact on education, guess what piece of technology had the largest impact on education in the last century. The bubble answer sheet. Scantron revolutionized the way data was collected and analyzed, as well as the speed with which it could be analyzed. Student ability, as well as school performance, could now be determined through the use of multiple choice tests. To a degree, life became multiple choice in 1948. While I think we would all agree that life is not multiple choice, the SAT and ACT are, and they are still the main gateways for college admissions. The problem is that the tail now wags the dog. Schools often follow the adage, “What gets measured is what gets taught.” Tests drive instruction in ways that mean many systems just teach to the test. What gets measured is almost exclusively content, and until recently, we measured the recall of information.
When was The Battle of Hastings? Look for the answer with “1066.”
What trait is shared by all alkali metals? Look for answer about one electron in outer shell or high reactivity with water.
For us at the Academy, one’s more likely to see the following question, “If you have 100 feet of fence and want to build a dog pen with the largest area, what shape do you construct?” It’s about critical thinking and problem solving skills; things you want your employees to be able to do in the real world.
Life isn’t multiple choice and school shouldn’t be either.
It’s a circle by the way for the dog pen.
At the Academy, our reason for being is to prepare our entire student body for college. That’s our one goal for all 40 faculty members. Therefore, while we do make sure our students are familiar with multiple choice test formats, we are much more concerned with ensuring our students graduate with the skills necessary to be successful in college and life than spending an inordinate amount of time prepping them for a series of standardized tests each year. We spend our day teaching, not teaching to the test. And we have had 100% graduation, 100% college acceptance, and 98% college matriculation rates for the last decade, since the occasional graduate goes into the military after graduation.
So what do we do to ensure our youngest students, the four-year olds in Pre-K, are prepared for college and life when they graduate in 2029? Think again about changes in technology over the last few decades. Now try to get your crystal ball to focus that far into the future. If yours works, please let me know. I might as well be using the Magic 8 Ball so many of us played with as children. There is no consensus on “21st Century Content,” but there is near universal agreement on a short list of skills and the ability to utilize technology well. Those skills include:
Content is still important, so we spend time on that, but students need to also be taught how to access and select information. The ability to use or apply information in new ways is very important. On top of all of that, we partner with our parents to ensure our students are taught to make ethical and moral decisions in a world very different from the one most of us grew up in. A quick question: What do you think is the perennial number one reason parents put their child in a private school? Every time the question is asked- safety is number one. Let me tell you a story that illustrates that point at LaGrange Academy. Once a month we have a faculty meeting and each year around February, the faculty bring up an issue that really bothers them across departments and divisions- elementary, high school, Art or AP Bio- doesn’t matter whom. The issue is book bags cluttering the hallway. Let me repeat that- the biggest pet peeve of my teaching faculty year after year is the fact that the students leave their stuff laying all over the place like they are at home. And you know what, they are at home. They are at home where they are known, and cared for, and nurtured, and encouraged, and loved, and safe to leave their laptop in the hallway knowing it will be there when they come back hours later.