I just returned from the annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). It is a time to catch up with colleagues from across the country, hear some great speakers and interesting workshop presenters, and learn about trends in our profession. Some years, much of my time is taken up by hiring interviews, but such was not the case this year as we have only two positions available and in both cases, have strong pools of candidates. The conference always conflicts with our eighth grade show which is an event I have never missed, so I did miss the last full day of the conference, taking the red-eye home, only to find school canceled because of power outages associated with a big windstorm. (Fortunately, the second night of the play was rescheduled for Monday night.) I thought I would share some of the ideas from the conference.
The first speaker I heard was Michael Walker, head of the K-8 division of Punahou School in Hawaii, the largest independent school in the country with a student body of 3700. His talk was titled “Brain research as a Foundation for Strategic Planning: Designing Healthy Schools”. His concept was to explain briefly how the brain works, then to say what the repercussions are for teaching and finally to discuss how we should allocate our resources, including time, in light of the first two ideas. To get us started, he had us build a neuron out of pipe cleaners. He went on to explain that companies like Coke are doing brain scans of people watching their commercials as a way to see what has the most impact while directors of horror movies are using those same scans to make editing decisions about their movies. Mr. Walker then described several ways in which what happens in schools does not always match what is best for the brain. For instance, he cited studies that show play is a prerequisite for learning. As an example, he cited the successes of NASA scientists of the 1960’s who grew up in a time where they were allowed to tinker with objects, taking them apart and seeing what made them tick, something that is not as prevalent today. He cited statistics to show the importance of regular exercise and its ability to fight off mental disease and help the brain generate new neurons even as we age at a time when many schools are cutting PE programs and recess (not Pike, thank goodness). He told us about something called Nature Deficit Disorder where children are negatively impacted by not being in the outdoors enough. Punahou used that information as it designed its campus (he acknowledged it was much easier to do that in Hawaii). At Pike, it is why we do get the children outside even in the winter for PE and recess. During his talk, he referred to the following books: Brain Rules, Play, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Spark, and Last Child in the Woods. In a time when some are advocating less time for play, physical activity, and creativity in schools in the name of improving scored on standardized tests, I found Mr. Walker’s presentation most interesting.
The conferences keynote speaker was Arianna Huffington. I admit to knowing who she was but not knowing much about her. She spoke about why in spite of having real concerns about the future she maintained an optimistic view. She encouraged the audience to have “joy triggers” like reading a book or going for a run to use in tough times. She talked of an older friend who told her, “I had such a great life; I wished I realized it sooner.” That could apply to many of us. She explained Jonas Salk’s idea that we are moving from Epoch A of competition to Epoch B of collaboration. She gave as an example of hope that Teach for America is having to turn away thousands of Ivy League students because so many young people are looking to serve the needs of others. Finally, she quoted Lincoln from his second annual address to Congress when he said, “As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.” She encouraged us as educators to do the same as we prepare our students for the future.
Another speaker was Mimi Ito, a cultural anthropologist of technology use, who holds doctorates from Stanford in education and anthropology. Her most recent book is Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media. Her basic message is that we need to understand that a great deal of learning already takes place outside of the classroom. Our children are connected 24/7 which means are homes are more porous than ever to their friends, news, information, entertainment and more. She encouraged educators to see this fact as an opportunity rather than a threat. She distinguished between “friendship driven participation” (Facebook, MySpace, etc.) and “interest driven participation” where people with common interests are drawn together in pursuit of knowledge about their particular interest. She went on to say that we had grown up in an era of “supply push” where information was pushed on us by teachers, parents, and the media to an era of “demand pull” where the internet allows us to be pulled into areas of interest. It is in this latter arena where she encouraged teachers to find ways to encourage, facilitate, and celebrate children to follow their interests and use them to teach important skills. At the end of the session, a teacher asked whether the world she described would not be splintered and could lead to a society without any common beliefs or understandings. I left with a great deal to consider.
The beauty of a blog is that it is of the moment. My hope here was not to come up with answers or new programs but rather to think about new concepts. The joy of this type of professional development is that it gives us time that may not exist in a typical day to step back and look at the larger picture. I have some new ideas for my history class that I will share as they come into clearer focus.