As I write this, I am at the National Association of Independent School’s annual conference in Seattle. Every year, I wrestle with whether or not to leave Pike to come to conferences like this. I worry about untaught classes, email piling up, meetings that need to be rescheduled and more, and yet, here I am. WHY? Our mission statement says, “The Pike School seeks to develop within its community a life-long love of learning…” because we think teachers and parents need to continue to learn, particularly as we live in a world that changes faster than ever before. This conference has helped me think about many important topics.
We began the day by hearing from Bill Gates who spoke of the impact he sees technology having on education. In a letter, he wrote, “Innovation is the means and equity is its end goal.” I love his commitment to use technology and his own passion and resources to make the world a better place for all people. It was inspirational to hear him talk about the primary importance of education in building a better world. He attended Lakeside School, an independent school in Seattle, and told us that since he never graduated from Harvard, Lakeside is the only time he graduated from a school. He credited his teachers with allowing him to follow his passions which did not happen in college and challenged us to be wise enough to know when to push our students and when to allow them to follow their own path. He was asked what skills he believes our students today need. He said that they will need to be able to use the latest technologies to wade through torrents of data to find what is truly relevant. Also, he said we need to help them be life-long learners as they have access to limitless possibilities to become more informed from searching for a quick fact to taking a six hour online course to master some new skill. He reassured many in attendance that person to person contact is often the best method to connect, but the tools we have today do allow us to build connections that were once impossible. Finally, he encouraged us to find ways to let teachers have the time to do more collaboration and research to build ever stronger programs for children.
Next, I heard Soraya Darabi, another independent school graduate, who began her career as a manager of digital partnerships at The New York Times and now leads a mobile application called Foodspotting and reports on online communities for ABC News. She described her life path as a digital native and how her experience could inform our work in schools. She said schools should engage with social media to stay relevant, foster a culture of innovation and participation, increase the internal digital literacy of school communities, and to create positive brand awareness. She was asked about the tension in schools between our desire to have our children read and write in depth and the shortening attention spans of children who have grown up in a Twitter world of 140 characters or less. She did not have time to answer that question, but I do believe we need to think more about that issue. She apologized for making us sit through a 45 minute presentation after saying the best practice model we should follow are the popular TedTalks which are limited to 3 to 13 minutes. Should schools change to adapt to this trend or should we be counter-cultural and help our students be able to read a longer piece or write a paper that would not fit onto Twitter? Food for thought.
The final speaker of the day was Dr. John Medina, member of the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine and author of Brain Rules. He began by acknowledging that much of the press around the new understanding of the way the brain works is hogwash and he went on to say, ” I am skeptical that neuroscience has much to say to teachers, because we do not really know that much about how the brain works in a way that lets us pick up a glass of water.” He said his talk would be about two of his rules, one having to do with exploration and the other about the impact of stress on the brain. Dr. Medina proved that humans are natural explorers, displaying at infancy an ability to acquire information through a series of corrected ideas by telling us that studies have shown that a 42 MINUTE old infant will mimic a parent who sticks his/her tongue out at a child. This natural tendency reminded me of a visit of the editor of Scientific American to my school more than 20 years ago. He chided our science teachers for taking natural explorers and draining them of their curiosity by having them do lots of memorizing of ideas like Moh’s scale of hardness. It reminded me also of Bill Gates saying this morning that sometimes we as teachers need to get out of the way to let children be their naturally curious selves. The second part of his talk showed us how stress can cause literal brain damage by explaining the chemical processes involved. He cited research that shows that one of the greatest predictors of academic success is emotional stability at home. Introducing a new baby into the home can lessen the emotional stability of that home. He believes that by giving parents counseling before the birth of the baby, one can increase the emotional stability of the home which can in turn have a positive impact on the child’s developing nervous system. Even more food for thought.
I am fortunate to have the opportunity to be able to hear such interesting and thought provoking speakers and look forward to talking about what this information could mean for our community as we strive to serve our children and families as well as possible.