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.

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……