Education Feature: Mastery of Skills and Cultural Change


By Jack Creedon

Now that school has officially started, we have a chance to catch our breath. Parents, faculty and students alike have settled into routines, and we can focus our attention on the daily business of teaching and learning.

It has been hard to ignore the weekly news unfolding around the Varsity Blues admission scandal in California. While everybody seems to have an opinion about the behavior of the adults in this unfortunate situation, I wonder if parents and educators might also reflect on some of the possible root causes in our school cultures that led a host well-educated people to made a series of poor decisions on behalf of their children.

I think many of us in education would agree that the college admission process borders on being out of control. There are just too many stories about students, and unfortunately now parents, who have succumbed to the frenzy and angst that seems to grow more intense each year.

David Gleason’s book, At What Cost? Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schools, describes eloquently the explicit and implicit assumptions we have endorsed in our public and independent schools. He argues that we leaders in education have consciously created the systems, promoted the expectations, and celebrated the importance of certain kinds of achievement to the detriment of the students we serve.

Admittedly, parents of those same students have petitioned for, financially supported and in some cases demanded curricular changes for the sole purpose of improving a son or daughter’s chances of getting into “the best” colleges and universities. Unhealthy class schedules loaded up with the maximum number of AP courses, exhausting test preparation, and inflated lists of extracurricular activities are aggressively compiled. And then we express surprise and concern that our teenagers report feeling stressed and burned out at 18.

What to do? Frank Bruni’s Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be reviews the leadership ranks of America’s most successful companies. His study demonstrates that “success” at the highest levels in America is not dependent upon graduation from the elite colleges and universities in our country. Based on the data, Bruni urges us to take a long-term view, to encourage our children to be life-long learners and to see education as a pathway to a more engaged and interesting life rather than as a formulaic, overloaded, high stress program with the sole purpose of college admission.

David Brook’s The Road to Character describes the importance of leading a life and accomplishing goals that one might imagine being celebrated in one’s eulogy rather than collected and promoted in one’s resume. How different this is compared to the approach endorsed by those involved in the Varsity Blues scandal.

As educators we have to ask ourselves, and then challenge parents, to consider the kind of curricular changes that will help us teach students a different model, one that is based on genuine learning, self-discovery and being other-centered as opposed to totally self-centered. Such a model would still encourage high levels of learning and mastery, but promote the value of learning as a pathway to living a better life rather than simply earning a better living.

Everybody acknowledges the importance of educating today’s students so they can compete successfully in the global economy. We need our medical, legal and business professionals to be highly skilled in the delivery of their services on behalf of improving their own lives and those of others. But there is increased research emphasizing the importance of cultural competency (CQ) in addition to the skills traditionally associated with IQ and Emotional Intelligence (EQ).

Why not embrace a curriculum that recognizes the importance of understanding different cultures, traditions and belief systems? In our increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, let’s place a high value on demonstrated expertise in working across cultures.

In Cultural Intelligence. CQ: The Competitive Edge for Leaders Crossing Borders, Julia Middleton argues “The balance of cultures is shifting, merging and clashing. In this New World, the leaders who will be prized are those who can cross and connect cultures – leaders who understand multiple worlds.”

Instead of accumulating a long list of AP courses, for which “more is better,” why not develop second and third language fluency? Rather than creating an inflated list of extracurricular activities that parents demand and schools are forced to pay for, redirect those monies and energies into international exchanges and travel, starting in elementary school. And make the cross-cultural visits more than academic tourism. Connect students with local families and age appropriate peers. Encourage the use of the native language and do more than visit historic sites in a 5 day dash through an international city or countryside.

What would happen if we took seriously a school’s responsibility to develop an educated citizenry along the lines of Thomas Jefferson’s thinking? What would our curricula look like, from kindergarten to 12th grade, if we educated students to collect information, weigh the merits of the evidence, consider the perspectives of others, and formulate a different viewpoint that is articulately and respectively argued?

In our current system, we claim to work towards those virtuous classroom goals, but we insert those methodologies within a system that counts courses completed instead of competencies mastered. What would we have to do to convince college admission officers to consider mastery of skills as opposed to the evaluation of the list of the most rigorous courses a school offers? One must hope that would instill a different level of motivation for students to learn compared to our system now that rewards one’s ability to recall memorized information within a three hour period of time on a Saturday morning.

Immersing teachers, students and parents in an educational system developed to foster a love of learning and a mastery of skills designed to improve the lives of others would be quite different, requiring true cultural change. That’s an ambitious goal, but one worth striving towards in light of recent developments.

Dr. Jack Creeden is the Interim Head at Whitby School. He is a longtime independent school leader who has written and spoken extensively on governance, strategic planning, and cultural change in schools.

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