Making or Growing: An Educational Crossroads
Did you make good grades in high school? As a parent, do you want your son or daughter to make good grades? Do you believe that the role of education is to make a meaningful life for the learner? Is it the responsibility of Trinity-Pawling School to make its students learn?
In his insightful book, Let Your Life Speak, the educator and spiritualist, Parker Palmer asks thoughtful questions as to how we regard education, learning, and meaning in our lives. Do we make our lives, he asks, or do we grow our lives? As a history teacher and Headmaster, I am intrigued by these competing questions and believe there are profound differences between the two. I suggest that the first question reflects an industrial perspective of looking at our lives; whereas, the second question reflects more of an agricultural perspective. In terms of education and school culture, I believe there are significant differences between these two perspectives.
I am not alone in suggesting that, for more than 100 years, the state of education in the United States has been distinguished by its correlation to the industrial age and an industrial way of looking at the world. Learning and schools have been departmentalized. Too often, there is an assembly-line approach to teaching and learning in the sense that students must learn this or that at this age or that age. In the world of high stakes educational testing, there is a “seal of approval” that a student has or has not received the necessary amount of knowledge in a particular area. Students are often segregated into different categories, or classes, based on an assessment of the quality of the product of knowledge.
In many learning environments, there are both explicit and implicit messages that students are given that can reinforce a culture of perfection -if I do not (or my child does not) make good grades, then is there something wrong? If students and teachers are responsible for “making” something, then should this be without blemish? Increasingly, students and parents in schools are entrapped by this perception of perfection.
By contrast, a growth oriented approach to teaching and learning acknowledges that there are stages, or seasons, involved in the cultivation of learning. Lessons are reinforced and the learner is challenged to take ownership of the material through meaning and experience. Mistakes and shortcomings can be seen as seeds of new learning and growth, rather than blemishes that point to something that needs fixing. Challenges are opportunities for growth, rather than solely an exercise to fix toward a goal of production or an image of perfection.
Recently, I spoke to the students in Chapel about my experience in chemistry. I failed most every assessment that I took in my junior year of high school. Nonetheless, I worked harder in that class than any other in high school. In terms of my grades, the effort was to no avail. I received low grades on most every exercise. I learned important lessons, though, in this process. I learned that pre-med would not be the course of study that I should pursue in college. More importantly, though, I learned that I possessed an ability to persevere, to stay committed to something despite disappointment and failure. This emerging self-awareness helped me to grow an understanding of the role of resiliency in my learning and maturation process and how it cultivated, in time, the emergence of greater self-confidence.
Trinity-Pawling aspires to be a growth-oriented school. What a student knows is not nearly as important as how that student learns and the meaning that is derived from this learning. This is why project-based and experiential learning are increasingly playing a deeper role in the learning environment at Trinity-Pawling. Progress is not something that is made at Trinity-Pawling. Rather, progress is the result of growth that has many different nutrients, including challenge, care, compassion, confidence, creativity, and character.
Perhaps most importantly, true joy comes from the discovery that we are learning and growing as human beings. Learning that is directed toward growth leads to opportunities of self-discovery, a deepening sense of self-awareness, and joy. To be sure, there is satisfaction that comes from achievement and goals are important to compel growth. True joy, however, comes with the revelation that life has meaning and is a journey of growth. At Trinity-Pawling School, we aspire towards such growth to reveal the greatness that exists in each of our students as learners and as Children of God.
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