In our society, we dedicate a quarter to a third of life to learning things we need to be successful, productive and happy adults. School is supposed to give us the tools accomplish that.
What does that mean in reality?
When the trustees hired me for this job in 1994, I had never used a laptop and I did not own a cell phone. Can you believe they hired me? How can someone who was so completely uneducated in key elements of the society of today be qualified to teach children to be ready for the future? Is it because he can use a slide rule? Maybe. Do you know why? Because life is full of adventure our education should make us adventure ready.
Our children’s lives will be an adventure. Just as ours has been. Adventure is not a thrill ride at Disney World. Thrill rides are fun, but you know they are safe and you will walk happily to the next ride. Adventure is when you do not know the outcome. You do not know the path. You are not sure of the risks. You may get lost. You may get injured. You may fail and have to turn back, if you can, or, if not, keep going. You may triumph spectacularly; you may succeed famously. You may get bored on the way, but it is never dull.
So what must students do over the next 12 years to be adventure ready? The old joke of the tourist who asks the older New Yorker how to get to Carnegie Hall is applicable. Practice is the inevitable reply. Students need to practice adjusting to changing circumstances. They need to practice close collaboration with others who have different skills and information. They have to practice critically evaluating the problems before them without becoming overwhelmed by their own preconceived notions. They have to practice strategic planning and thinking.
How? Not all of this work happens in a school building. I love whitewater canoeing for adventure practice. Every rapid is different. Even the same river will behave differently based weather and water level. Even the best get dumped. There has to be teamwork and sometimes the adventure comes in a strange way. I remember one warm spring day in New Hampshire, a week after the last snow of the season. We pulled up our canoes after an exciting day. Mt. Washington glowed white over us as we pitched our tents and went to sleep. The next morning our canoes were gone—the river had risen overnight. My sneakers had been on the bow seat of my canoe. I learned two important lessons in adventure in one night: always secure your equipment, and keep your crucial gear close to you. This has become part of the adventure checklist for my life every day.
Starting at the beginning, what life lessons do Junior Kindergarten and Kindergarten students learn? I would argue that in the younger years we teach the key elements that all learning and life is based upon.
Here are Robert Fulghum’s top 10 from his book, “All I need to know in Life I learned in Kindergarten.”:
1. Share everything.
2. Play fair.
3. Don't hit people.
4. Put things back where you found them.
5. CLEAN UP YOUR OWN MESS.
6. Don't take things that aren't yours.
7. Say you're SORRY when you HURT somebody.
8. Wash your hands before you eat.
10. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
All good advice, but more seriously, our youngest students gain the ability to use tools to increase understanding. They learn not only to share, but also to listen and to work with others. They gain keys to symbolic communications, and they develop the habits of mind that allow them to be active learners. There is a reason for the correlation between time in pre-school and post-secondary success.
Elementary and middle school provide the next level of skills: How to learn. How to communicate, how to order things. Literacy, numeracy. How to listen and ask questions. Analysis and synthesis. Through middle school, students will have learned the foundational skills upon which all learning hinges. Historically education stopped at this point. You were on your own at the age of 13, and by the way, that was about a third of your life.
We now see middle school as the halfway point--and after ten years at our prices, an expenditure of almost half a million dollars. If the hard work has been done by then, what is that next half million for?
There is no absolute answer for all students. Lives, cultures and experiences around the globe dictate different responses. Even in American schools, there are those who favor teaching vocational skills that can lead to useful and possibly lucrative employment over the training of the heart and mind. That can be welding and plumbing or coding and web design or more. Personally, I feel that vocational training should be the last stage of education, whether it is law school or vocational tech. But I digress.
High school and college prepare people to function effectively, independently and happily as adults in the economy and society of their time. The next years of education are thrilling. Students gain physical and intellectual freedom without full responsibility. They combine independence with ideas and skill development with diverse and exciting experiences. It can be a scary time, stressful sometimes – change is always stressful and all they do is change, but it is always exciting. One of the great pleasures of starting our high school has been to see joyful growth to adulthood up close in people who are not your own children.
I believe that to be prepared for a life of adventure, there are two basic baskets that young people must be ready to handle with dexterity.
Basket #1 contains the things that never change. In shorthand, let's call that the human condition. It is what you want from life at its most basic. Love, shelter, fellowship, sustenance, meaning, beauty and community; these are essentially the same things that our ancestors wanted, and what our descendants will want too.
Basket #2 is filled with the things that never stop changing. Let's call that the society. This basket says that the venue in which they will attain basket #1 will be very different from what we see today.
In basket #1, Birnham Wood always comes to Dunsinane. In basket #2, adventure is completely unpredictable.
It is easier for us as educators to ready young people for basket #1; classical education focuses on preparing students for what is eternal, and it is essential. One can argue whether it should represent 50% of the preparation or if it should be more. There is no wasted effort in this basket--no going down the rabbit hole of a soon-to-be-obsolete skill or technology, and it is readily available. It is found in the ancient texts. Micah asks, "What does the Lord ask of you? Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly before your god.” Buddha teaches The Middle Way and The Four Noble Truths. It is classics like Macbeth or Huck Finn. It is Chekhov and Confucius.
Schools can prepare students for basket #1 through exposure to the wisdom of the past in the context of a vital and developing peer community. We explore the crucial struggle in life to reconcile the needs of the individual with requirements of the community to build a greater good.
While humans can be both deeply egotistical and at the same time easily swayed by “group think,” our job as a school is to ready young people to be neither and to encompass both. They need to gain a strong sense of self, the ability to think critically and work collaboratively. There should be no scrimping on history, science, literature or philosophy. There are always opportunities in life to take time out and learn a new skill. There will be times when an existential crisis comes up suddenly, and requires them to draw on the wisdom of the ages in moments. It takes years of preparation in order to be ready.
It may seem that it is a luxury to spend time reading classics, enjoying works of art, debating the issues of the ages with intelligent peers as your main and very necessary job. (Wouldn’t you like to have that as your main job now?) We know what a rare privilege it is, and we also recognize that it needs to be done.
We also know that a philosopher without practical skills is a luxury that few can afford, so we must also ready for that second, and harder to define, basket -- the society and economy of the future.
Here is what we do know about the future. Half or more of our students will do jobs that do not exist today. Half or more of them will begin careers in industries that will be substantially disrupted during their lifetimes.
I am a science teacher, and when I took physics as a high school junior, I did all my calculations using something called a slide rule. It was an amazing device. It was a foot long and light weight, and had close to no carbon footprint. You could even clip it to your belt. Really cool scientists had round ones that fit in a shirt pocket.
The market for slide rules in the U.S. was around a million a year. Then in 1974, a little company called Texas Instruments came out with a handheld calculator, and the slide rule was history. The people who made them lost their company. The people who taught you how to use them lost their jobs, and those of us who lovingly used them were left with a well-learned useless skill.
Another example: the smartphone you use was invented just shy of 10 years ago. Think of all of the different jobs and industries that have grown up around this little device. When the parents of our eighth graders chose this school for Junior Kindergarten, they did not even know about smartphones. We did not have any programs that would prepare students for what would be a defining device in their lives today. The world of adventure requires that you be able to find allies who bring different skills to bear. You will have to work collaboratively over difference to generate new concepts, new ideas, new solutions. Comfort with difference means that you have to learn early what it means to feel “other.” Tolerance of difference is not enough; you have to be difference. You need to live and experience being other and not being in control. You can live 12 time zones away from home with a family in a country you don’t know, with people who speak a language you don’t know, and eat food you have never eaten-- that is other. It can be found right here, when you enter communities where you are other and lean into that experience.
Adventure requires invention. That is why we build project-based learning into the regular life of our school. That is the point of the “Summer Homework” for the younger kids. During the summer, they can learn so many things that we are not able to teach in the safe confines of a school. Older kids can get a job fixing cars or caring for animals where you use your hands and backs as well as your minds. I loved working for a commercial fishing operation in Canada. You never knew what the sea was going to do or what was going to come out of the nets. (The money was great too.)
An internship in a fancy office, shuffling papers and fetching coffee, is not an adventure. Students get to work safely inside all school year. They should be able to place themselves somewhere where they can reinvent themselves. Where each morning they are a little scared by the challenges and each evening are happily tired. As the admission director of the Columbia School of Engineering said this summer to our trustees, it is better to bag groceries and meet a thousand different people a day than to do something safe and scripted that looks good on paper.
Adventure does not happen only during the summers. It is Lab Day at GCS. It is tutoring on Saturdays at GO. It is a service-learning project where you learn about human trafficking here in New York and help to stop it.
If you are a parent, losing the control of the safety of your child’s path is very hard to do, but if they are going to be able to live a life of adventure, they will need to choose their own.
As parents and educators, we will have done our job well if at the end of the day, when our students are confronted with the unfamiliar, they have learned enough so that they can ask questions and understand the answers; work collaboratively over difference to develop new new concepts and new ideas; and most important, feel good about themselves as people. That only happens when they have a healthy mix of both the wisdom of the past and a readiness for adventure.