Oct 212015

Last Thursday evening, a packed theater of parents and educators from Hillbrook and the Los Gatos Union School District joined together to watch “Most Likely to Succeed,” one of the most widely discussed educational documentaries to appear in several years. The film chronicled High Tech High School, a San Diego-based charter school that has been at the leading edge of conversations about the future of education.

DSC_0366Produced by filmmaker Ted Dintersmith, the documentary focuses on the project-based learning approach at the heart of the High Tech High experience. Through the experiences of two classes – and two students in particular – we see what it looks like when student learning is revealed through public displays of understanding, including a student-written and directed play and an elaborate, multi student-designed artistic installation that merged engineering and historical theory. One student’s inspiring success with the play, coupled with the other student’s struggles, failures, and ultimately success with the installation, highlights the engagement, student ownership, and real world learning that is at the heart of the educational experience.

Central to the documentary’s argument is a refrain increasingly heard from educators, corporate leaders, and thought leaders across our nation – the skills that students need for success in life are changing. As technology has made a growing number of jobs that highlighted muscle and intellectual prowess obsolete (as they noted in the movie, now that IBM’s Watson has conquered chess and Jeopardy, what’s next?), schools need to focus on the skills that are fundamentally human. What are those skills?

Courtesy of @MLTSFilm on Twitter.

Courtesy of @MLTSFilm on Twitter.

An article in this past weekend’s New York Times, “The Best Jobs Require Social Skills,” argues that what we learned in preschool is the key to success in the work world. Cooperation, empathy, and flexibility  – skills commonly taught in early childhood programs – are increasingly understood to be essential skills for lifelong success. “Work has become more like preschool,” the author Claire Cain Miller insists, noting that “Jobs that require both socializing and thinking, especially mathematically, have fared best in employment and pay.” She points to the work of James Heckman, a Nobel-prize winning economist, who argues that “character, dependability, and perseverance are as important as cognitive achievement.”

At Hillbrook, we have always believed that social emotional skills are as important as academic achievement. From Kindergarten study teams, where they learn to work together as they explore shared passions, to the 8th grade play, where the entire class comes together to produce a complex theatrical production, we create numerous opportunities for students to work together and to focus on being their best, both as individuals and as a group. So does it work?

Last May, we reconnected with the class of 2011 as they prepared to graduate from high school and head off to college. We asked them to talk about their memories of Hillbrook and how it had prepared them for high school, and created this video to help tell their story.

In addition to talking about how well they were well prepared academically, students spoke glowingly about how they were known as individuals at Hillbrook, and they remembered the emphasis on communication and collaboration that clearly positioned all of them to thrive in high school, despite attending an incredibly diverse set of high schools. Perhaps the most memorable line in the video for me is from the student who notes that Hillbrook taught him to learn how to learn, a skill that will ensure success in whatever environment he finds himself.

As a school, we are incredibly proud of the accomplishments of these extraordinary young people, and yet watching “Most Likely to Succeed” I am reminded that we need to keep asking ourselves how we can continue to provide an extraordinary educational experience that remains vibrant and relevant in a world that is ever-changing. As they note in the movie, we are increasingly preparing children for jobs that do not exist today.

Equally as important, we are educating children, not designing widgets. As Sir Ken Robinson notes in the film, education is like gardening. We need to create the conditions to help children grow and thrive. Mary Orem, one of Hillbrook’s  founders could not have agreed more. “As the twig is bent, the tree will grow,” she often said. 80 years later, we continue to heed her words.

Aug 252012

One of the joys of parenthood is the opportunity to see – or at least catch a glimpse – of the world through your child’s eyes. This past summer, I had one of those moments as I watched Piper, our youngest, interact with a horse at a stable. The horse was in a stall, eating, with its head at her eye level. The trough was located next to the fence so that, if she wanted to, she could reach through and touch the horse’s head. I watched her standing a few feet away, sizing up the situation. Should I move closer? Should I reach in? What will the horse do? Piper moved a bit closer to the horse and stopped, so that she was standing less than a foot away from the horse’s head.

The horse – a classic, tourist-trail-riding horse that was used to being touched, prodded, hugged and ridden – barely raised its head as she approached. He took a quick look, decided there wasn’t anything to worry about, and went back to eating. Piper moved even closer so that she was inches from the horse’s head, nearly face to face. The horse barely registered her presence. Ever fearless, she leaned in and gave the horse a quick hug and a kiss on its nose.

As I watched this short scene unfold, what struck me was the sense of wonder that drove Piper’s actions. She was exploring her world, interacting with it, and trying to understand what would happen as she did. Her reaction to the horse letting her not only hug it but kiss it was unbridled joy. She laughed, clapped, took a step back, and then hugged the horse again. She had made a friend and was overjoyed by the experience.

One word that seemed to capture the moment? Curiosity.

It is at the heart of all learning, discovery, and growth. We hold it up as one of our four core values, and we consistently challenge members of our community to strive towards understanding the word in all its complexity and nuance. In fact, we think curiosity is so important that it will be our school-wide theme for the 2012-2013 school year.

From my perspective, curiosity involves three key concepts – a sense of wonder about the world, a recognition that what we don’t know far exceeds what we do know, and a desire to spend life relentlessly asking questions and seeking answers.

At some level, the challenge for schools is less inspiring curiosity in our youngest students – like Piper, our early elementary students are overflowing with wonder, a desire to ask questions, and an eagerness to understand the world – but in sustaining that curiosity as children move further along their educational journey. At Hillbrook, we have always been deeply committed to an education that nurtures curiosity and inspires a lifelong love of learning.

This past week during our opening faculty meetings, I had an opportunity to hear countless ways in which teachers spent their summers striving to satisfy their own curiosity. Tinkering at the Tech Shop, leading a group of Hillbrook alumni through the rain forest in Ecuador, studying music in Ghana, exploring the teaching of reading and writing with colleagues at Teacher’s College at Columbia University, and discovering the power of games with internationally renowned-speaker and educator John Hunter. Our faculty are true lifelong learners, continually asking questions, seeking new answers, and reveling in the exploration process.

Next Wednesday at our opening Flag, I will challenge each member of our community to approach the 2012-2013 school year with a spirit of curiosity. As parents, I encourage you to not only celebrate your child’s curiosity but to consciously model your own curiosity when appropriate moments arise. We all need to adopt a “curiosity mindset,” one that values learning, growth, risk taking, and exploring what we don’t know, instead of a cautious mindset that plays it safe and focuses on things we already understand.

Whether a student is entering Hillbrook for the 10th year or for the first day, they all have new things to learn, new people to meet, unexplored problems to tackle, great book to read and re-read, and concepts to revisit, re-engage, and understand with a new set of eyes.

At the close of our opening faculty meeting, I shared the following T.S. Eliot quote:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Welcome back – I look forward to a year of exploration, curiosity, adventure and an opportunity to know each of you and our school again for the first time.

Sep 232011

Last Sunday’s New York Times cover story, “What if the secret to success is failure?” spread quickly among the educational community. In fact, given the magic of online publication, I received my first link to the article on September 14 (four days before it was “published”). Since then, I’ve lost track of the many e-mails I have received encouraging me to read it and the many retweets that have appeared on my Twitter account.The story focused on the efforts of one independent school – Riverdale Country School – and one public, charter school operator – the KIPP schools – to focus on the importance of teaching and fostering character. In an age of accountability narrowly defined by standardized test scores, these schools are making the argument that we are focusing on the wrong thing. As Riverdale Head of School Dominic Randolph noted, “This push on tests is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human.”

The schools identified seven traits – zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity – that have been shown to be good indicators of lifelong success and happiness. Of particular note, these character traits focus on what researchers refer to as “performance character” versus “moral character.” While moral character – fairness, generosity, integrity – is certainly important to teach, studies have suggested that the presence of these performance character traits are strong indicators of a person’s lifelong success.

At the heart of the article – and what, I think, generated so much interest among parents and educators – is the question of how we can teach and foster these performance character traits. That is where the provocative title question comes from – is it possible to be successful without experiencing failure?

The question echoes the conversation we have been having as parents and schools for the past 10+ years about the need for students to experience setbacks, struggles and failures in order for them to develop the resilience they need to be successful in life. Books like Wendy Mogel’s Blessing of a Skinned Knee, Madeline Levine’s The Price of Privilege, and Carol Dweck’s Mindset all explored slightly different parts of this equation, but all came to similar conclusions, namely that as adults we need to create opportunities for children to face trials and challenges without overprotecting them.

Reading the article last weekend, I found myself seeing much of what we strive to do at Hillbrook reflected in the advice. “Take risks,” we tell students on a regular basis, establishing the expectation that learning involves pushing outside your comfort zone. Our Social Emotional Learning program focuses on teaching students to be reflective young adults with a high EQ (emotional intelligence) to complement their academic skills.

At the same time, I had to pause when I read the following quote from Dominic Randolph, “The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure. And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.”

How often do students at schools like Riverdale or Hillbrook truly experience failure? As parents and educators we would be well-served to keep Randolph’s question in mind.

A final thought. Monday night my 1st grade son, Jackson, learned to tie his shoes. I wish I could say it was one of those magical parent-child moments, where we showed him what to do and after a few tries he figured it out and triumphantly tied the shoes.
On the contrary, it was a messy, emotional, roller coaster ride. Each time Jackson failed to figure it out, he fell apart, throwing himself on the floor, saying he could never do it, tears flowing. Finally, after 30 minutes – which felt more like three hours – he figured it out. Through his tear-stained face a big smile emerged.

It was a powerful reminder of what learning looks like. Carla and I can’t take any credit for making it happen – while we showed him what to do, he was the one in the end who had to figure it out. And he did.

The experience is one I hope to remember for a long time. If it at first you don’t succeed……