Head of School
Head of School Blog

Usefulness and Relevance

It has been some time since I wrote a memo. I've missed sharing my thoughts.  Currently, I am reading a very interesting book, which I wish I had read when my children were growing up.  The book is Overschooled but Undereducated: How the Crisis In Education Is Jeopardizing Our Adolescents, and it is written by John Abbott. Reading this book has reminded me of the many things my parents, and my school, did right, back in the day.  It also reinforces my thinking about where our schools need to take our youth to secure their success in the future.  What first captured my attention was a story in the beginning pages.  The author tells about a young geography teacher who took a group of boys in the 1960's from a private school in England to spend six weeks living with nomads to study agriculture in rural, pre-revolutionary Iran. 
After the group had spent a week in the village, the tribal leader shared with the geography teacher a startling observation.  He noted that although the English boys were tall, and handsome, and intelligent, they lacked usefulness.  In fact, he remarked that they lacked usefulness both in the village and in their own homes.  His concern continued: they cannot reap, they cannot ride a donkey, they cannot even cook, or sew, or sweep.  And from visiting with the boys, he learned that at home they couldn't boil an egg, or change a spark plug.  Their fathers gave them spending money and their mothers made their beds for them and packed their lunches.  His next sentence reveals what drives my curiosity, why I am writing this memo, and why I am interested in the changing course of education.  He remarked that the English boys "live their lives unconnected to 'real-life' and unnecessary to it."  What an unsettling statement:  unnecessary to real life!  Back at home, the English boys were leading good lives and benefitting from a classic education.  My guess is that they enjoyed traveling to Iran to do service work and help those less fortunate.  Only the "less fortunate" didn't see themselves as less fortunate. In fact, the tribal leader saw the nomadic youth as more relevant.  My thinking is that both backgrounds are valuable, and a combination of both is truly invaluable.  By treating our students to diverse experiences, we are helping them to engage meaningfully in the life they are leading.
The author shared several insights from this experience, insights which coincidentally are driving and shaping our views on education today.  John Abbott poses for this question for his readers: "What should be the relationship between theoretical, book-based learning and experiential forms of learning?"  At St. Martin's we value both, and that's why we emphasize book-learning as well as experiential learning.  Our design thinking curriculum, and our new Center for Innovation and Design, are foundational tools to aid us in delivering a curriculum that is practical, problem-solving, and relevant.
Growing up in the 60s and 70s, we were taught to take responsibility for our actions and ownership for our education.  We were expected to do chores (lots of them) and to have jobs to earn our spending and gas money. School provided training in woodshop, auto mechanics, and home economics.  Our parents taught us to change a tire and change the oil in our cars, to sew, to knit, to cook and to clean. We wrote thank you notes for gifts, and our grandparents corrected the grammar in our letters and returned them to us.  No one went to school to fight our battles.  We were taught to take responsibility and own up to our mistakes.  Raising children was a partnership between home and school.  Our parents and our teachers were a team with a common goal, our education and well-being.  Together, they made us relevant.   
It is odd to think of combining the values of the past and the present to attain best practices for an undefined future.  Abbott tells another story in this book to illustrate his message. He writes of a man who came across a butterfly in his path, trying to free itself from its cocoon.  Out of a sense of concern, the man stoops down and gently uses his pocketknife to free the butterfly.  After he successfully frees it, he sets it on the ground and watches it slowly try to spread its wings.  Eventually, it folds them back and dies.  You see, the work of freeing itself from its cocoon is how the butterfly develops the strength it needs to live and thrive.  The struggle is a part of the journey from caterpillar to butterfly.  Without it, the strength to move forward is absent.  It is the same for our young people.  They need to struggle to develop resilience and purpose, at home and in school.  If we remove all the stones from their path, they will never learn how to catch themselves when they stumble.  And what better place is there for them to stumble than in the loving care of their parents and teachers? Together, we need to provide them with a life's laboratory of experimentation, innovation, insight, spirituality, service, support and challenge.  Together we need to lead them to a future of usefulness and relevance.  It feels good to know that at St. Martin's we continue to find new ways to prepare our students to thrive in college and in life through faith, scholarship and service.  

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