Dip Your School’s Toe in the Water: 7 Baby Steps to Virtual Course Offerings

This post was originally posted in February. It was edited for content and grammatical corrections on April 12, 2015.

“Dip Your School’s Toe in the Water: 7 Baby Steps to Virtual Course Offerings at Your Independent School.” #edchat @saisnews

Critical hallmarks of independent school education are leaning tenuously on precipices from the Puget Sound to the Florida Keys; from the Island of Oahu to snowy Bangor, ME.  Some at our schools fear the traditional prep school model of small classrooms with traditional learning modes may be swept aside in favor of virtual learning.  Some are shaking in their boots (up North) or in their flip flops (in the islands).  But really, we should not be fearing this change.   Rather  we should embrace it as a critical adjustment to maintain our college preparatory identity.

If you are one of the ones fearing the prospect of online courses at your school, you shouldn’t be.  Online or virtual Learning may well solve a lot of the conflicts at your school, but certainly will not put your school out of business.  Rather than limiting your school or your students online learning will open things up and “expand your backyard.”

I have been studying this type of learning for my school for about a year.  I have known about it over fifteen years ago since I lived in West Virginia.  If you have ever been to West Virginia, you know it is hard to get around.  Folks get stuck in the hallows (pronounce like “hollers”) and no critical mass of population seems close to another in the state.  People in WV like elbow room.  So  it made sense for school systems to find ways to bring people together to learn without physically bringing them together.  In the mid to late 1990’s, West Virginia’s secondary schools and colleges invested in infrastructure that made e-learning possible.  Websites modules and e-mail between students and instructors replaced traditional face to face modes.  Once in a while, learners would converge for a presentation or a face to face with a professor, but generally one could do most of her learning in the comfort of home.

imagesFast forward 15 years and we now have schools across the country that offer no brick and mortar facilities for learning.  Will such schools put independent school education out of business?  I think not.  However, if our independent schools are to truly be college preparatory, our schools need to seriously consider providing online/virtual modes of instruction to our students.  According to recent scholarship, about 80% of all college courses now include some online components.  Furthermore, as of 2012, upwards of 32% of all higher education students took at least one course completely through online means according to “Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the US.” That figure is likely much higher in undergraduate courses.

What will that look like at your school?  Well if you are already following on Twitter, you probably already have assembled a plan for what online courses would look like at your school.  What I hope to do with this post is give you and your leadership team some considerations as you venture in or some reflections if you already have jumped into the pool. Thus, here are Baby Steps Toward Providing Virtual Learning Opportunities at Your School and the thought process behind them.

1. Step One, Credit Recovery: This is easiest place to dip your toe into the water.  Since many our institutions do not have summer school, or at least offer remediation for every course offering, our students turn other places for credit recovery.  Wouldn’t it be better to partner with a veritable online course provider your school.  The family of the student picks up the cost and your school is not left trying to figure out whether the make-up course the student took should count toward graduation.  It also may open up a more sincere conversation about whether students at your school should have access to credit recovery if they fail a course.  Several SAIS schools have a zero failure policy, forcing otherwise worthy students out of their prep school because of a single ding on the resume.  Summer online courses offer a better solution.

Step Two, Schedule Conflict Resolution: Most independent schools take advantage of economies of scale.  However, when we begin to diversify our course offerings with AP, Honors or IB classes, scheduling can get messy.  Conflicts often abound, meaning a less than ideal schedule for some of our students.  Virtual learning offers these students an opportunity to schedule as they normally would by flexing a course so that it does not have to be taken during a set period of the day.  Offering virtual courses in this situation can be a win-win for both the school and the student.

Step Three, Building a Critical Mass of Top Students: Unless your school is extraordinarily large, there is a strong likelihood that some of the courses you would like to offer cannot be offered to your best students because they are not economically feasible. Only have 3 for BC Calc, sorry.  Only a couple want to take AP Stats or AP Psychology, I’m sorry but I cannot allocate a teacher to teach 2-3 students for a full period.  I also think that a class of less than ten really has diminishing returns.  Virtual learning offers a solution to this situation.  An online course provider can assemble the critical mass of students necessary to offer both an economically feasible and learning-rich course.

Step Four, More Diverse Course Offerings: The best educators at the best schools are constantly seeking relevance for our students.  We know the industrial model of education where one size fits all does not develop the best students.  However, sometimes staffing and the dreaded prospect of economies of scale limits us from offering unique courses.  Courses like Law, BioTech, Design Thinking, Organic Chemistry, very specific literature studies, and a myriad of others are the types of classes we should offer, but do not.  However, online providers can offer these to our students when we cannot.  Opening our schools to competent and creative providers gives our students the opportunities we want them to have.

Step Five, Summer Courses, Lighter Semester Loads: When I lived in Honolulu and taught at Punahou, I marveled at the number of students who eagerly signed up to take summer classes in academic core subjects.  In retrospect, it made sense.  After all, we lived on an island that was expensive to leave.  Moreover, if a student took a course or two in the summer, it really lightened her load during the school year when AP classes, sports and arts really made for busy days. Now with online courses, a student can still go away for the summer and pick up a course or two.  Again, this is a win-win for the student and the school. Though the mostly affluent students who attend our schools are not subject to summer learning loss like others, continual scholarship through the summer will likely mean a better academic environment through the regular school year.

Step Six, Opening your Virtual Campus for Revenue Generation: Many of our schools are facing lighter enrollment due to the demographics of lower school eligible enrollees.  Additionally, with healthcare costs skyrocketing, some schools seek creative revenue streams instead of raising tuition.  Revenue generation is key and setting up an online course provider at your school is a viable answer.  The key here is to find populations who would not attend your school, but who might need a class your own teachers could offer through an online module.  Some online providers are now setting up school storefronts where the school can offer their courses and even serve as the conduit to the online provider, generating revenue with very little institutional effort.

Step Seven, Online Consortium of Schools: A critical element in the offering of a robust college prep education is also offering a diverse student body so that each of our students is surrounded by a myriad perspectives.  In some places like Miami and Honolulu this is easily done in our brick and mortar schools.  In others, it is more difficult.  By joining or forming a consortium of schools from across the country and across the globe, a school can widen the idea pool within which its students swim.  Online consortiums like Global Online Academy are doing that now with the biggest independent schools in the country.  However, the $30,000 initial buy-in, steep individual course price, and necessity of having 25-30 students participate per semester, likely means most of our schools cannot jump into GOA.  Instead, we can form our own consortiums of small and mid-sized schools and even generate caucus-style online frameworks.

I spoke in detail about this topic at the AAIS-AISA Biennial Conference on March 16, 2015 at Randolph School with Christin Skidmore, Virtual Learning Director at UMS-Wright of Mobile, AL.  Christin is perhaps the foremost school expert in the area of starting up virtual learning at brick and mortar schools. You might reach out to her as I did to get some great insights into this venture.

In the meantime, if the notion of dipping your toe into the water scarestps band at sunset you to death and if you fear that opening up virtual courses is akin to opening a pandora’s box of gloom and doom at your independent school, look at this picture at my school and know that what we do each day in the brick and mortar cannot be replaced, it can only be accentuated by online learning.

Mike Zavada is the Middle and Upper School Principal at Trinity Presbyterian School in Montgomery, AL.  He formerly held the roles of History Instructor, Coach, Athletic Director, College Counselor and Dean of Students at fine independent schools: Punahou (HI), Randolph (AL), and Palmer Trinity (FL).

Connect 4: Four Things You Know Kids are Learning from Christmas Toys

There may be no better time to revel in toys than Christmas break with three children under the age of 8.  I have to admit I am the guilty kind of dad that can often find excuses like a ballgame or deadlines at school to avoid getting on the floor to play with my children… Isn’t that awful?  But this week the Christmas spirit got me and had me on the floor acting 8 again.  I think we, errrr Santa, tripled the GDP of Denmark this month with Lego purchases for our kids.  We did visit LegoLand in Atlanta to luxuriate in all things Lego. By the way, is it me or have Legos had more comebacks than heavyweight prize fighters in the 1980-90’s, but I digress.

Of course, my academic mind could not turn itself off.   In between sessions of Lego building, Connect 4, and wrestlemania (I have two boys who want to take down Daddy), I have been reading Elizabeth Green’s wonderful book about teaching Building A+ Better Teacher: How Teaching Works.  In the book, a number of teachers and education professors think aloud about what authentic learning looks like.  Particularly captivating is the story of Deborah Ball, elementary teacher in East Lansing, MI.  By all accounts a master teacher, Ball’s brain for teaching works much the same as germophobe works the hand sanitizer: always analyzing risk, perpetually forecasting holes in the system.  Her persistence is exhausting.  Her persistence brews excellence.

My brain felt like that when I was playing with my kids.  I guess I have always valued utility over frivolity.  Yes, it was good that they were having fun, but I wondered to myself “what were they learning?”  Here is what I came up with as I played with my kids on the carpet.

1 & 2. Legos teach dual skills of following directions and project management.  My seven year old daughter said quote “I could build anything with Legos, all I have to do is follow the directions.  There could be a thousand pieces.  Funny, not many Moms and Dads feel that way Christmas Eve when “some assembly required” actually means “those without a mechanical or civil engineering degree ought to solicit professional help.”  Likewise, these Lego setups require the same skills of building project manager or a city planner.  If a piece is lost or broken, weeks can be lost completing the project.  My kids had everything spread out on the floor and knew where every piece went whether they were building a summer home or a Coast Guard Cutter.

My Son Built a Port City over Christmas Break


My Connect 4 Champion sniffing out Red’s diagonal, horizontal classic trap

3.  Teaching kids games like Checkers, Connect 4 and MasterMind help build the strategic minds of children. Two weeks ago, my aforementioned daughter and I were waiting for a table at Crackerbarrell. We had nothing to do but sit in a rocking chair and play Checkers.  After one half hour session, she was beginning to see the patterns and was not easily defeated.  This week as Santa again went retro with our kids and gave them Connect 4, my daughter would not sleep until she beat me.  Early on, I could beat her with simple moves.   She would concentrate on her game plan: build a line of four up the side or maybe a subtle diagonal, and ignore my moves.  I’d pause when a win was inevitable and say “did you not see that?” Or I’d quip “are you forgetting something?”  She couldn’t see what I was doing.  She did not have EMPATHY.  My mind raced as I traced the ways we rue our students lack of empathy and the need for DEEP learning with Design Thinking.  However, after successive hour long sessions playing and losing, she began to learn to think two moves ahead.  She began to balance her offensive strategies with proactive defensive strategies (instead of waiting until I had three pieces aligned to block, she blocked two of mine from becoming a steak of three).  Eventually, she set up traps of her own and started winning games here or there.She was thinking not only about her own thinking, she was probing my thinking, my strategies.  The evening led to perhaps my favorite moment as a dad.  She said “Daddy, this is just like my 2nd grade teacher says when we are really learning well in class.  We are being metacognitive.  We are thinking about our thinking.”  Yes, “Honey, we are, aren’t we!” I beamed back.

4.  Stuffed animals and action figures help children with self-actualization and self-identification.  I was not aware that Beanie Boos were all the rage.  Thankfully Santa did.  Each of my kids got one, but each matched the identity of my individual children in simple ways.  If you have seen a Beanie Boo, you know they have huge eyes.  If you have seen my children, you know that they each have these big

Big-eyed Beanie Boo

brown eyes favoring their mother.  Naturally, my kids were drawn to these figurines because the eyes made them feel akin.  My oldest son had “Slush” a icey blue colored Huskey puppy that appeared equally distant and courageous.  My boy took several deep looks at Slush and said “he is just like me.”

Growing up, I generally eschewed toys for sports.  I learned much about life from pick-up games and the sandlot.  I am afraid that my children will have less opportunity for that in today’s legalistic, 100% supervised world.  I also fear that a time will come when they are like many of the students in my Middle and Upper Schools, tethered to a device for self-actualization and self-identification.  As we know, they will learn much from those devices, yet, it is good to see my kids being kids with some old-fashioned (though apparently now back in vogue) toys and playthings.  It was a Christmas to cherish.  I wish you the same with yours.

Until next time…play happily my friends


Gender Roles at Your School: Are Accommodating Girls and Disruptive Boys Setting Their Future Courses in the “Real World?”

As I have written before, I am a big fan of teaching negotiation and entrepreneurialism in schools.  While many independent middle and secondary schools do not touch on these areas, I think they should.  There are several key elements in these disciplines that are extraordinarily important for college and career readiness of our students.

I was reminded just how important it is to teach negotiation basics at an early age after reading the latest blog post from Harvard’s Program on Negotiation entitled “How to Narrow the Gap: Women and Negotiation.” The post written by Katie Shonk elaborated on three ways women could improve their negotiation skills, acknowledging that women average just 77.4% of the median men’s earnings in 2011.  Shonk wrote her article in order to educate seemingly well-educated women through this perceived weakness.

If one were to look at our schools, one would see several areas similar to the one’s Shonk uncovered that could be remedied with some subtle curricular and school rule shifts.  For instance, I looked at our Middle School disciplinary data for the first semester.  We had a minimum number of referrals which speaks to the good behavior of our middle school students and to the excellent classroom management skills of our teachers.  Looking closer, however, I saw a relative imbalance in the number of referrals of boys to girls.  In our case, boys were about twelve times more likely to be referred than girls.  These referrals were for things like talking perpetually out of turn, disrespect toward teachers, and repeated violations of classroom rules like walking around.  These results seem to validate Shonk’s evidence behind relative female weakness in negotiation.  Shonk writes: “Deeply ingrained societal gender roles lie at the root of the gender gap in negotiated outcomes…In many cultures, girls are encouraged and expected to be accommodating, concerned with the welfare of others, and relationship oriented from an early age. Notably, these goals clash with the more assertive behaviors considered to be essential for negotiation success, which are more in line with societal expectations that boys and men be competitive, assertive, and profit oriented.” 

For boys, it is worth it to possibly disrupt the classroom harmony and the mental comforts of  teachers to promote their opinions.  For girls, this is rarely, if ever an inviting proposition.  The rare girl in school who is competitive, assertive, and potentially disrespectful would likely be ostracized as the women with those perceived traits could be in the workplace.

For boys, the brief moments of conflict are inviting.  They offer an opportunity to earn a badge, so to speak.  In the long run, these opportunities when they stand up in conflict may, in fact, help them in  skill development in areas like negotiation.  My Upper School Dean and I witness this routinely at the end of the semester when demerit counts build and consequences mount.  Brazen boys come in to “negotiate” new terms rather than settle their accounts in full.  While these encounters are equal parts draining and entertaining, they offer a glimmer into what the boys will be like in “the real world.”  It is also interesting to see how the tactics of these boys develop from freshman year, to sophomore and so on.  By the time they are seniors, many of these boys have developed board room- worthy negotiation skills.

Again, we rarely if ever see this from girls and I think it is a shame.  I wonder if my counterparts in all-girls schools witness a different dynamic.  I also try to think if there are other areas where girls have opportunity to negotiate with figures in elevated roles.   Our Academic Dean is female and she also does not regularly encounter negotiations from female students as frequently as males as far as I can tell.  Likewise for our Counselor and Registrar, both females who handle all scheduling conflicts.  I’m thinking these may be great areas for our female students to safely assert themselves with the “power brokers” at their school.

In summary, there are two questions that need to be looked at by school leaders:

1.  How are we preparing our girls to speak truth to power and to stand up for themselves in matters academic, financial, political, etc?

2.  How are we training our teachers on the habits and modes of boys to make it safer for boys to demonstrate their perspectives and learning styles since it is ostensibly beneficial to them in the real world, but reasonably taboo in the school situations they face on a daily basis?

Taken from the fowlerfamilyparryusa.blogspot.com

Taken from the fowlerfamilyparryusa.blogspot.com

I’d love to hear your perspective on these questions @MikeZavada on Twitter

Until next time… if you are a girl, drive a hard bargain.  If you are a boy, behave 🙂

Change Forces Re-Visited: Twitter for Ed. Envisioned Over Decades Ago

image taken from leaders lyceum.com, an organization dedicated to creating unique learning environments and 1 to 1 leadership coaching

image taken from leaderslyceum.com, an organization dedicated to creating unique learning environments and 1 to 1 leadership coaching

If there is anything that is underdeveloped in educational reform, it is the operational knowledge base that should be possessed and continually updated and refined by organizational members.  Leonard (1995) confirms that effective organizations couple their internal problem-solving capacities with constant access to and consideration of external knowledge.” Michael Fullan, Change Forces: The Sequel, 1999.  

Ever the forward-thinking educational provocateur, Fullan started writing over two decades ago about educational reform in an aggressive style.  It is a style that most would take for granted now in education.  Part of his focus for change intended to turn schools inside-out.

“If I had just invented Facebook, Twitter, …. fill in the social media outlet of your choice, I would have struck it big.”  For educators, the time to seek external knowledge is now and there is no better engine to use than Twitter.  Fullan himself could not have envisioned the power of Twitter to capture the vision he had in Chapter 4 of his Sequel: The Deep Meaning of Outside Collaboration.  In the chapter, Fullan expressed zeal for schools with a “absorptive capacity.”  In other words, they could steal great ideas and use them for the benefit of their students.  On page 43, there were four things he said these schools of the future would do would be to:

1.  create porous boundaries

2.  scan broadly

3. provide for continuous interaction

4.  nurture technological gatekeepers

Sounds a lot like educational use of Twitter by our best educators, doesn’t it? Let’s look at how great educators and schools could use these four elements for the betterment of their schools.

1.  create porous boundaries.  Why limit our search for great ideas to education?  Why limit the venues from which we gather creative opportunities?  Fullan, using research from Harvard Business School’s Dorothy Leonard-Barton, suggested bombarding our educators with ideas.  The “new normal” of education today should not be driven by ensuring content retainment.  Fullan’s idea of porous boundaries envisions learners with the skills to filter information through many layers.  If we wanted students who could regurgitate info back to us, then yes a non-porous, sticky surface makes sense.  Three days of instruction and the testing cloud of dust each week would make sense.  Instead Fullan and forward thinking educators would throw hundreds of ideas at learners, have them process, and then act.  In the porous process, ideas would get lost, certainly and temporarily.  However, a few ideas would captivate and the learner would have the opportunity to make new meaning, and more importantly, make progress with the idea.  Twitter allows for that rapid bombardment of ideas to come streaming at us.  We simply take and use what we need and filter through that which we do not.

2. Scan broadly.  How big is your PLN (Professional Learning Network)? Twitter allows us to be on a first name basis with folks from the four corners of the world.  My regular feed shares the thoughts of those in Atlanta, Scotland, LA, the Hawaiian Islands and on to Australia.  I have business moguls and 9th grade English teachers in my feed.  I have middle school girls basketball coaches and NBA coaches in my feed.  I have a slew of entrepreneurs along side classical liberal scholars.  I have creative artists in my feed and I also have concrete bean counters in my feed.  I can expand or cull as I see fit and as my learning dictates.

3. Provide continuous interaction.  One of the foremost educational practitioners on Twitter is @GrantLichtman, author of #EdJourney, a daring action research which features Lichtman getting in his Prius and traveling cross country to interview more than 600 people connected to education in 64 schools over 98 days.  It was a ambitious undertaking.  It was a continuous interaction.  Few of us can take on that kind of enterprise.  However, with Twitter, I can have short interviews each and every evening or even in the early morning with #BFC530, a daring group of educators around the globe who check in every day at 5:30 EST.  Gone are the days of the once a year national or state conference as the only PD an educator can get outside of their school.

4. Nurture technological gatekeepers.  Fullan thought it wise to take care of those who stretched themselves outside the boundaries and who were cutting-edge in their learning.  Much like we give additional support to families and soldiers on the front lines, we need to be mindful to encourage those that go to the edge to bring the ideas back.  My Head of School at Trinity does an excellent job of this and makes it a pleasure to work at my school.  Speaking from Fullan’s vantage point, if I may be so bold, I’m thinking that schools should be exceptionally safe for the tech gatekeepers today.  Instead, those trying to hold on to the past and who blow up mission appropriate ideas that come from the outside should be the ones that should be in jeopardy.  Fullan referred to these folks as the NIH crowd, those who disdain anything that was “Not Invented Here.”

Now would be a great time to reach back and refer to Fallen.  You can find him @MichaelFullan1 or you can go old school and dive deeply into his myriad of change-oriented education books.  A fine synopsis of them can be found at http://www.michaelfullan.ca/books/.

until next time, what is your rate of change over time as you drive change at your schools…

image taken from allaboutcircuits.com

image taken from allaboutcircuits.com

The Tradigital Independent School: 3 Specific Ways Schools are Operating Like Start-ups

Is the leadership team at your school thinking like a start-up?

Is the leadership team at your school thinking like a start-up?

In August, I wrote wondering if our independent schools should operate more like a start-up in light of recent trends in enrollment, the transient teacher workforce, and the dominant role technology plays in education today.  Since that time, my school leadership team has been on the hunt to be more creative, innovative and Biblically focused (per our mission).  We have had some amazing think-tank sessions that have helped us develop a strategic vision.   These discussions and the accompanying knowledge/expertise will help us develop a strategic plan as part of the 2020 accreditation plan upon which we are working.  They are similar to the conversations David Colon, formerly Associate Head of the Collegiate School in Richmond, describes in his SAIS Talk about strategic visioning.

With these resources in mind, I’d like to share 3 of the innovative ideas I have heard of late where schools are acting like a start-up either through innovation or nimbleness not usually seen in schools stuck in the industrial assembly line of education.  Here they are:

* My school, Trinity Presbyterian School, in Montgomery, AL has partnered with Ebsco Media to find creative ways to utilize virtual codes in school and everyday life.  The company, based out of Birmingham, sent some its brightest minds to meet some of our brightest 8th graders in our Design Thinking class.  Currently, students are working on an anti-bullying curriculum complete with holograms and QR codes orchestrated in conjunction with Ebsco.  Eventually, these resources will be prominently displayed on school posters and in school video feeds to help students make their campuses bully-free.

*A consortium of ten excellent independent schools from across the world gathered together to create their own online learning platform for their students at the Global Online Academy.   Ideating, instead of fearfully reacting to the trend of online learning, these schools leverage fantastic faculties and technology infrastructures to control the conversation about learning on-line.  In doing so, they were able provide wonderful content in rigorous courses that have a global perspective.  In operation now for about 3 years, GOA currently has about 50 participating schools and offers wonderful professional development to non-member schools.

*A Christian Independent School north of Atlanta is both filling a need in its community and creating a market for its school by

Don't put your school on an island.  Look for opportunities beyond.

Don’t put your school on an island. Look for opportunities beyond.

allowing home-school students to sit in its AP classes during the school year.  Wisely understanding that home school students in grades 11 and 12 would never enroll by this point in their careers, this school looks at the number of empty seats it would have in its AP classes and allows qualified home school students to attend the courses at a fee.  This is a win-win.  The home school student gets a challenging course she would not normally have access to and the school gets a revenue stream without any additional expenditure.  It is a wise making of a market in a manner of a start-up.

If you have additional ideas for ways in which independent schools can function like a startup, I’d like to here about them @MikeZavada or at #indschstartup

On the Hunt: the 5 Learning Opportunities Gained While Hunting Wild Turkey

On the Hunt: the 5 Learning Opportunities Gained Hunting Wild Turkey

Content from this post was originally published March 26, 2014.  This edition has been edited for minor content and grammatical improvements.

Saturday I went hunting for the first time. As I have written about before, I am fascinated by Southern culture and of late have become somewhat obsessed with the culture of hunting in the South. In Alabama, it is turkey season. I’m told that turkey hunting may be some of the most difficult in North America. Ben Franklin had a point for making the turkey the national bird. They are prudent, have great vision and always have an ear to the ground. One has to be smarter than the birds to bag one, but the experience taught me 5 things that hunting can teach us about student learning. DISCLAIMER: the author makes no claims that the students, teachers, administrators, or their representatives are, resemble, or act as turkeys in any way, shape or form. Further, the author makes no claims to be smarter or more visionary than said turkeys 🙂

What I learned about learning On the Hunt:

1. Preparation and Scouting are Critical in Learning: I’m not sure how many of our students do this, but one should really consider spending a couple of hours doing some advanced research days before she steps into a specific class. College students routinely do this through the course guides and thru conversations with students who have previously had the teacher about what to expect. Somewhere along the line that becomes the norm, but I don’t think that starts until college or at least until high school students begin taking AP classes. I always wanted every bit of a head start before stepping into a graded classroom. Items like summer reading were particularly helpful as a means to decipher what might be on a teacher’s mind prior to stepping into her classroom. Its like recon. I think most students fail to realize the potential power in this practice. In the same way, I spent several hours preparing for my hunt looking at licenscing, tracking tactics, proper weaponry, and several conversations with my guide or others who were experienced in turkey hunting. Additionally, my guide Jeff– the teacher– had scouted the hunting landscape prior and I trusted him. Do teachers garner the same trust from their students? In the best learning situations they do

2. Much of Learning/Hunting needs to be done Silently: Extroverts make the worst hunters. Imagine trying to track and trick the aforementioned turkey with John Candy’s character from Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Either the quiet would kill him or the turkey’s wouldn’t be within a 20 mile radius. There is a definite skill involved with being quiet. Right now, I’m riveted to Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts. The general premise is that American society from board rooms, to pulpits, to classrooms, to most all human interaction fosters a bias for extroverts over introverts. Extroverts are viewed as better for the community. We bemoan the introverted accountant. “Why don’t they have better people skills?” Extroverts are viewed as having better ideas (though they are more likely just louder ideas). One would suggest extro’s are more trustworthy.  They lay their cards out on the table. Cain, however, posits a much different view. She points to people like Rosa Parks, Isaac Newton, Einstein, Proust and other notable introverts who changed the course of history, science, literature and other fields. She wonders in an extrovert-biased society “how much talent and how many great ideas are being lost in the culture of group think?” As a principal, I’m guilty of the extrovert bias in some ways. I abhor the classroom setup where desks are in rows and every student an island to himself. I love the circle, Socratic or otherwise. I love the lively discussion of ideas. Introverts hate it. So we as educators spend time encouraging them to participate with “part of your grade is participation,” or ideas about how to pull out the reticent student. Asynchronous educational means like message boards, twitter conversation, and other online posts seem like game changers by which the introvert could contribute without putting themselves out audibly in the crowd.  Ultimately, my hunting experience makes me want to explore better ways to better value introverts and their preferred means of learning for the betterment of all students.

3. Trial and Error is a proven learning method that should not be undersold. So many times I hear from frustrated teachers who say, “I tried it and it didn’t work. I’m never doing that again.” Rather than frustration, however, I think there should be some glee that comes from trying and failing. Two positive learning outcomes develop from the experience. First, I can rule out the process I used if it was ineffective. That gives me a head start next time with one less outlying doubt. Second, I can reassess my process and pick out the steps that may have been helpful along the way even though the outcome was not what was desired. That gives me a wonderful framework for next time. Students who do this kind of assessment over the course of a semester would wonderfully serve themselves. In the same way, my guide was successful on his Sunday hunt after we had gotten skunked (no birds) on Saturday and he was shutout Friday. By the time Sunday had come around, Jeff had tried about 7 spots over the 830 acre property. He made note of the birds reactions to calls, call locations, feeding areas, hen activity, lighting (moon was 3/4) and other factors. With each strike, he had data upon which to build his next hypothesis where the birds would be. Sunday, trial and error paid off. Early that morning, he follewed the steps he had taken the two days prior as the birds were beginning to fly down out of the tree. This time he set up opposite of his original location because that is what the birds did during those days. By 9:10 AM he had his bird.

4. Those who are unexperienced should seek the counsel of those experienced. In the old debate between whether students learn best from the Sage on the Stage or the Student-Centered Collaborative Model, I tend to favor the later.  Nevertheless, the value of the former should not be ignored.  Our educational systems need both.  My guide Jeff was seasoned and well-versed in his hunting practice. He has belonged to hunt clubs for roughly twenty years. He hunts in other states. He had a great plan. He prepared us well for the hunt. The experienced teacher has all of these attributes as well. Lack of experience, lack of a plan, lack of seasoned teaching does not bode well for students. On the other hand, Jeff didn’t try to shoot the shotgun for me. The hunt would not have been the same if he did not arm me. I would been on a hike bird watching if I was not armed or not licensed by him to fire if we saw a gobbler. As educators, we have to be wary of not allowing our students to take aim during their own learning. If we give them all of the answers through constant direct instruction, if we do not let them come to their own hypothesis, if we so torture them with rules in the process of writing that they are too paralyzed to craft an essay, we have robbed them of the thrill of the hunt.

5. The Hunt itself is as, if not more, important than the Kill. I went out Saturday and only spooked a few hens. I did not see one tom (though we heard many of them) and didn’t fire once. Nevertheless, I learned a great deal. If Hunting is akin to Learning, then maybe Killing is akin to Testing. A lot of our educational system is tied to the outcome. Though I am fortunate to work in an independent school environment where testing is not paramount as the public school sector, I do sense that chapter/unit tests tend to be the end all/be all manner of assessment for many teachers. For many teachers, a test signifies the fulfillment of content. To me, this is an unfortunate happenstance. As mentioned in point #3, trial and error is important. The process of learning is important. The test (and the test grade) is just a small piece of the puzzle. Likewise, I know many hunters who can go a season or two or three without killing and still have thorough statisfaction. Communing with nature, calling back and forth with wise birds, the game, the chase, the preparation of the field, and the camaraderie of being on the hunt with others are each valuable pieces of the experience. In the same way, writing essays, Design Thinking, Harkness discussions, project-based learning, art based on content, cross-curricular enterprises and other modes are valid assessment pieces. While drilling a test may be akin to killing that bird, it is not the only way to prove a lesson learned.

Lastly, I’ll say that educators across the country should consider the principles of the hunt when considering boys in education. Much research has been done on why we are losing our boys in the current educational format. Christian educators are probably also aware of John Eldredge’s wonderful work entitled Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s SoulStep into many classrooms today and you will see some soul-less boys. Venture onto the assembly line of education with bully-proof straight jackets tying down the God-given traits of our young men in the name of engendering a safe school environment and you will not see what God intended for our boys. I can guarantee that boys have the highest percentage of office referrals at probably every one of our schools. Why is that? Yet, take the same boys into the woods on a hunt and you would find savants. Take many ADD/ADHD troubled learners and put them in the woods to learn and you might be surprised by the positive results. We have a lot of work to do in this area for our boys. Hunting is not convenient. It is not supposed to be. Yet, our tired industrial model of education values convenient efficiency over messy depth.  We can do better.

Until next time, Happy Hunting and Happy Thanksgiving!