Rethinking educational myths as a progressive school

  • 2022
  • Leadership
  • Teachers
J. Christine Greenberg, Primary And Middle School Principal

I did an interview with the SCMP in rethinking some key education myths:

1) Academic competency is the ultimate goal of education
2) Productivity is measured by industry
3) A compliant student or teacher is a respectful one
4) Winners define excellence
5) Efficiency is equated with immediacy

In the interest of editing, much of the responses were cut off. This week’s blog is the longer transcript that was submitted from the initial premise:
Schools are one of our most traditional institutions because they were constructed with safety and preservation of both the individual and cultural status quo in mind. School systems were built to hedge people "in" rather than to inspire them to venture out so that graduates could enter a work force to serve the "greater good." To keep the education machine running smoothly according to previous generations' rules, we perpetuate a powerful narrative about the schooling experience that at best supports tradition and control, but at worst is to the detriment of our own progression as a species, particularly in our understanding of how we learn on our own and with each other.

1. As an education professional, how have you come to identify the different myths in your field that need to be debunked? 

Education is one of those funny topics that everyone seems to have an opinion on if not for the very fact that it’s probably the one institution that almost everyone we know has had experience with as a consumer (student) and later on, as a provider (teacher). Having worked in this field for about 20 years, I enjoy doing what I can to stay curious about it- both as a parent and as an educational professional. It’s healthy to be a bit existential with the meaning and rationale about the traditions we consider in schools, or that we hold dear as parents about what we expect schools to do for our children. Because I work at The Harbour School, what some would call a progressive school, part of my job has been to be fluent about the decisions we make and why and so I am constantly reading or listening to podcasts about a myriad of topics from education, psychology, learning and human behavior in general. Rethinking these “myths”, whether it’s from conversations with parents, students or fellow educators and they were fun to consider in greater depth.

2. How do you define the goal of education, especially for school-aged children? (referencing Myth No 1) 

Growing up, I definitely believed the first myth. As a student I believed the goal of school was to get good grades so you could get into a ‘good college’ so you could have a ‘good’ life. But life bore out that that wasn’t true. For whatever reason, probably because I had a rebellious streak, I was an underachiever in HS, who became an overachiever at university, so I kind of debunked that linear equation on my own. We also all probably know miserable adults who got good grades and got into good colleges but don’t lead “good lives” because they did what their parents asked them to do-even choosing professions that were acceptable only to do a professional 360 (waste of time and money) once they were out of the house. But then being in the education profession, working with teachers, parents, students and also being a parent of four kids (three now at uni),  I’ve definitely been more thoughtful about the goal of education, which I think is more nuanced and complex than simply offering a fixed curriculum or attaining an academic achievement.
The goal of education is for students to have a wide range of rich experiences that help them get to know who they are as people (their interests, strengths and areas of weakness), while they learn the best way to relate to or work with other people as they develop a sense of agency, purpose and series of habits that support productivity within their own communities some day.
That’s definitely harder to accomplish than be on the receiving end of a curriculum to get an A!

3. Could you give us some examples as to how children could be encouraged to achieve that goal, and also how to apply what they have learned in the world outside the classroom? (referencing The Foundry)

Schools can encourage students to achieve that goal by providing a culture and environment that celebrates excellence across a wide topography of pursuits and projects. One of our values as a school is Redefining Rigor. We push the boundaries of rigor beyond simply the “academic”. Of course it is important to have a foundation in literacy and numeracy, but there’s an overemphasis in schools on these skills to the exclusion of acknowledging other ways to show intelligence or competency. For example, visual-spatial intelligence, emotional intelligence, leadership, the great work at the Stanford d.lab on the design thinking process- these don’t show up in an average “academic class” and yet we would argue for their importance in today’s workplace. Also they are all different ways of helping students to not only find their niche of competency and/or interest, these skills bridge the gap to show applicability of “academic” skills in real life pursuits and projects. Our HS students built a model of a school they designed and 3D printed using CAD in our Foundry for example to include it in their marketing pitch when they fundraised 60K USD from companies here in HK. They received honest feedback from executives and their end game wasn’t a letter grade, it was accomplishing their goal to build a school for kids receiving long term intensive care in a hospital in Kenya. That’s a whole other level of rigor that leverages the academic beyond an academic driver.

4. The world is changing at a fast pace. How should students’ learning progress – both achievements and setbacks – be measured so that they are ready for the future? (referencing Myth No 2): 

We’re changing so fast I can’t help but think of Kurzweill’s Law of Accelerating Returns that likens the algorithm of progress to compound interest. If Kurzweill’s correct, the 21st century will not have 100 years of progress, it’ll be more like 20,000 years of progress! And how do we have a school that prepares for that?
I think of a favorite line from a poem by e.e. cummings: Progress is a comfortable disease. As a society, we tend to define progress as “more is better,” but that can be its own disease actually- mindless churning of stuff before we even have a chance to reflect on what we’ve done. We wouldn’t have the plastic problem we have today if companies had just thought about volume and the length of time for them to biodegrade before they were mass produced. This concept rings true in education too. 
Schools are notorious for requiring kids and teachers to churn stuff out, or stuffing kids with “knowledge” and defining this cycle as “learning”. But real learning is an experience you grow from, and growing takes reflection and reflection takes coaching, consideration and time, which is at odds with squeezing as much product as possible. If one of the goals of school is to provide a range of experiences for students to learn about themselves, -who they are, how they relate, what they want to change about themselves or their environment, how they want to go about changing them- then we have to show we value it in our schools.
At the earliest stages of our Marine Science program, we got the Black Dolphin, which is our sailboat and we had to practically force a good number of our faculty members to do projects on the boat with their students. We had to dispel this myth that a fun field trip or experience wasn’t learning. We kept hearing “but it takes so much time, we have other stuff to do that’s more important,” And I know, as a teacher thinking I’m not doing my job well if I’m not “passing knowledge on.” But you look at all the skills that students pick up from the projects they’ve done on the boat- measuring ocean pH levels, planting artificial coral reefs that they’d cultivated- reflecting on the day’s learning and their reactions to it- all of these have greater impact on this concept of self-discovery than taking just another spelling test. Not that those are bad- I actually love spelling tests, but my point is, not everyone does- and it’s important to have that balance to put everything in perspective so that the kids who are scientifically or spatially inclined understand that about themselves too.
There’s nothing more attractive to an employer, or life partner than when someone is thoughtful about their successes as well as their failures across a range of experiences so it’s a shame when we don’t leave room for exercising this key muscle in our students and teachers within our schools.

5. In a classroom, teaching and learning work in tandem. How important is the student-teacher dynamic in both learning and teaching? How should teachers and students relate to each other? (referencing Myth No 3) 

I think we have to step away from the teacher-student thing for a second and recognise that this myth is universal. We’re really talking about a person to person dynamic, whether it’s a team in the workplace or a team in the classroom. 
Harvard Business Review has an article from 2017 that talks about the importance of psychological safety as a marker of high performing teams and there are two key takeaways with cultivating psychological safety: 1)  “speak human to human” Note the language of equality. It’s not subordinate to boss. It’s not expert to novice. It’s a recognition that both persons, regardless of title, share the same right to being heard, valuing competency, being happy with valid perspectives the other can learn from.
Some of us understand this when other adults are involved, but unfortunately that isn’t always the case when it’s a student-teacher dynamic. Really, it’s a mindset which needs to be infectious throughout the school. So, how should teachers and students relate to each other? As fellow humans, easy to say, hard to do if not for the basic fact most of us attended schools where those in power made rules with expectation we comply simply because of who they are rather than what the rules are for.
When you reframe the narrative especially during difficult discussions from one of doling out punishment to one of care and concern, it’s incredibly powerful because the other person feels valued and seen. The other takeaway from that article supports this is 2) Replace blame with curiosity. The other quote I love I don’t recall who said it- the thing is everyone has their reasons. It’s good for me to remember that when working with colleagues, students or parents and it’s good for students to think that of their teachers and teachers of their students.
There’s more of course, but these are the two major ones that stuck with me. The thing is, one thing you hear in schools and workplaces is- there’s so much to do and not enough time! So investing in something like rapport seems like a waste of time, but my answer to that always is and it’s the same whether it’s a teacher to a student or a teacher relating to another colleague- if you work hard, it means you care about what you do, what good is all that work if they don’t like you? It doesn’t matter how smart you are, or how many hours you spent on Saturday planning your unit, if students or colleagues come to dread you and your subject, whose fault was it and was it worth it? The messenger can mean as much as the message.

6. How can teachers pique students’ interest in the environment? (referencing the Marine Science Center) 

So many ways, but I’ll try to narrow it down to three:

1) By being respected, being likeable. Seriously. Math was my most hated subject all of primary and high school, but in uni, it became one of my favorites and it was all because of the teacher. Referring back to that “speak person to person” component of psychological safety. And I don’t mean that teachers should be pushovers to be liked, not at all. Kids are smart. They know which teachers are invested in them and care a great deal and which teachers are just passing the time. More often than not, it’s the tough love teacher that gets the props, emphasis on love, of course.
2) By generating a question-asking rather than an answer-getting unit. If you make someone curious about a topic, then you’d have half the job done for you. My youngest son introduced me to this phenomenal youtube show called V-Sauce, with genuine questions like counting past infinity or the science of awkwardness. Curiosity is a driver for purpose and passion, so coming up with the right angle takes thought and craft but if you do it right, you’ll have a learner for life rather than one who just googles the answer to be done with learning.
3) People tend to be interested in something that relates to or affects them or those that they love. I care more about the ocean because I enjoy swimming in it. Most of us don’t care about the air unless it’s polluted and someone we know is having a harder day because of it. A great teacher will establish these connections before prioritising any kind of fact-stuffing activity. It’s establishing Why I should care first before addressing the What do I need to know? One of the great outcomes of having a Marine Science Center program with a boat has been that kids and teachers emerge appreciating the outdoors- that other side of HK, the mini archipelago with incredible biodiversity, and they’re more invested in saving it since it’s their backyard. For city kids, that makes for a much richer experience. Our docent program at the school has students elect to feed and care for the animals rather than go to recess. It’s probably not a coincidence that of our graduating Seniors, we’ve had several graduates enter into niche programs like Environmental Studies, Marine Biology and shipbuilding.

7. Many schools may state that they want their students to excel. What is your take on that? (referencing Myth No 4) 

My response to that usually are two follow up questions: By whose definition and at what cost?
These follow up questions matter on the whole because we’re really slow as a society to question success. Traditionally it’s defined as financial security, some level of prestige or social status and usually (especially in Hong Kong) these are super narrowly defined and associated with security and a “career”: doctors, lawyers, bankers vs designers, entrepreneurs, content creators.
So again, ask by whose definition and at what cost. Our definition at The Harbour School goes by my earlier statement on the goal of education- it’s for students to know themselves, be able to work with other people, gain habits and a sense of agency and productivity. Personal bests do not have to be defined by society’s standards. 
Parents sometimes will ask us for our university acceptances as one success marker for our school, and that’s good they should. Since the first graduating class in 2018, our 58 graduates have been accepted to 148 schools from 7 countries with some highly selective programs, and I can say with a great amount of satisfaction that we’ve brought each student to exactly where they need to be to thrive- whether it’s taking a gap year to race boats training for the Olympic trials, a professional music and composition at Berklee College of Music in the US or the highly selective architecture program at UC Berkeley or a shipbuilding course in a 2 year program in Plymouth, I feel really good about the fact where we have a school that actively helps each student define success for themselves.


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