Serving Schools, Educators, and Families

What is a school? Intermission

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With seven “verses” down and seven more to go, this seems like a good time to stop and reflect on where I’ve been so far in the current project. I’ve had a couple of revelations and probably should have had a few more getting to this point, and it’s probably a good idea to explore these.

First, a couple of thoughtful readers have suggested that the focus on ideals, as embodied in mission and values, might give the impression—or worse, give schools permission to believe—that having a lofty set of principles is all a school needs to achieve virtue. Spout the ideals loudly enough, especially to yourself, and you don’t need to do much else.

Well, I’d like to put that idea to rest, pronto. A school that wants to survive and thrive, lead and inspire had better carefully and deliberately walk the walk as well as talk the talk. I fear that the world of independent schools is as full of self-congratulatory impulses as any other endeavor, but self-congratulation never built a utopia.

There hasn’t quite been a place to discuss this here, but somewhere between arrogance and abjection lies a place of quiet self-reflection where honest humility and justifiable pride are in balance. If the unexamined life is not worth living, neither is the unexamined school worthy of survival, and the only effective path to the delivery of intentional, internally consistent education is a high level of institutional self-reflection and willingness to adjust policies and practices in the response to changing circumstances and worthy new ideas—to change course. Reputations, to put it bluntly, are not permanent, but a commitment to exploration must be.

I’d also like to talk a bit about the nature of the “school” I’m thinking of. While the model has been brick-and-mortar for the past two or three millennia, that’s all going to change as online and blended learning opportunities proliferate. While the emphasis in virtual education has tended to be on the technology and the delivery methods, I believe that in time online and blended schools will need to provide ethical, extracurricular, and interpersonal experiences that are as powerful as those provided by brick-and-mortar schools. The missions and values underlying the operation of these schools must be robust, internally consistent, and increasingly focused on the total experience of students rather than just academic curricula. The experimental work being done today by some of the virtual high schools, the thriving Online School for Girls, and the nascent Online Progressive UnSchool (see also this presentation by Fred Bartels) will help educators discover ways to deliver some or perhaps all (or more) of the rich experience of the physical independent school in virtual environments. This work is both exciting and daunting.

Of course it’s entirely possible that the independent school of the future will be something else entirely, but I’m willing to stand by what I have already written and will continue to write here as being fundamental elements of sustainable schools, whether their campuses and communities are virtual or physical. The human need to connect will mean that in years to come whatever sorts of entities call themselves schools will, if they are to survive as such, need to create communities of both practice and principles.

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