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ON THE SCENE: Rethinking education at Northwood School

December 10, 2015
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Ever wonder why school curriculums are organized the way they are? Why we learned geometry after algebra, then calculus, or chemistry after biology, or some of these topics at all? Or divide students into classes? Not to mention, what's the purpose of national education standards?

We have the Germans to thank for that as a result of their trying to figure out a way of beating the French under Napoleon III, which to the surprise of most European and American leaders they did in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Under the leadership of Otto Von Bismarck and Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, the Prussians not only won, but achieved their greater aim of unifying the German States.

In the aftermath, it was realized that Moltke and the military leadership were extremely effective in conducting bold maneuvers of massive numbers of men and equipment, often on short notice, an ability possible because they had previously revolutionized how they educated their soldiers. One of the people inspired by their approach was Charles William Elliot, then president of Harvard University.

Article Photos

Matt Norfolk and Andrew Quinn
(Photo provided— Naj Wikoff)

Elliot had begun studying the European educational models in the early 1860s during a two-year leave from Harvard while in Europe principally with the goal of improving his finances. While making money didn't catch his fancy, their educational models did, especially what was taking place in Germany.

Back in the United States, the classical educational approach, often led by the clergy, was not meeting the needs of our increasingly industrialized society. Like today, many corporate leaders were saying the educational model did not meet their needs. As a consequence, leaders in business were not inclined not to send their sons to college, much less give money to endow them, a crisis indeed. Elliot was elected as president of Harvard to address that crisis.

The outcome was the establishment of the Committee of Ten by the National Education Association in 1982. Chaired by Elliot, their recommendations featured the 12-year model and curricula that, though tweaked by Common Core and the like, are still in use today. In light of the loss of manufacturing jobs overseas, increased use of robotics and computerization that are eliminating an expanding array of traditional work as exemplified by the advances in driverless cars, the question is: Is this nearly 125-year-old model for educating our youth obsolete and, if so, what should replace it?

Northwood School Headmaster Michael Maher, Head of Faculty Marcy Fagan and International Student Program Coordinator Laura Finnerty Paul invited the regional educational community to the school Thursday, Dec. 3 to pose just that question. The conversation began with a screening of producer Ted Dintersmith's and director Greg Whiteley's documentary "Those Most Likely to Succeed," and continued in an informal setting at the home of Maher.

"We see this screening as a chance to get local educators together to talk about something of critical importance," said Maher. "The subject matter is a huge driving force in the new direction for Northwood. I think what the filmmakers are saying is that in this age of innovation where traditional skills are not as relevant as some of these soft skills are, these needed qualities of character can be realized in a new paradigm."

The average cost of a college education today is $100,000 for a four-year "moderate" in-state public college to nearly twice that for a "moderate" private college. Such an education used to guarantee a good job. Today, for nearly half who graduate, it does not. Dintersmith and Whiteley's premise is that the problem lies not in the economy but how we educate people - that the old model developed by the Committee of Ten no longer works.

The film proposes an alternative as exemplified by San Diego's High Tech High. There standardized texts, tests, curriculum and grading has been replaced with a project-based learning and student-focused curriculum model.

The challenge is that corporations desire employees that can think on their feet, work collaboratively, are willing to take risks and learn from their mistakes, and who are creative. These are soft skills that the current educational model does not value as a basic set of skills to learn. In the film, two ninth-grade classes are followed over the course of the year, classes begun by having the students rearrange the room to fit a Socratic method for stimulating critical thinking.

"We, the educators at Northwood, Lake Placid, and the surrounding region, are all trying to do a better job on how, for instance, we integrate technology into our classrooms," said Laura Finnerty Paul, who pitched Maher the idea of screening the film and inviting the local educational community. "We can't throw out the whole system and create what High Tech High did, but we can take an understanding of what those collaborate skills can do and apply them. I already see the benefits of the collaborative work my children do over at the middle school."

"I felt that the film was definitely made to provoke thinking on how to transform modern education to a better place where we can do more innovative things," said Marcy Fagan. "I took away that we really need to be open to giving more ownership to the students and letting them run with things, letting them make and learn from their mistakes, and not be in control as much as a traditional teacher would be."

"I thought the film was great," said attorney Matt Norfolk. "It opened my eyes to different ways of educating our kids. I think it's great that someone's thinking outside the box. I think there should be some kind of blend (of the traditional model and High Tech High's approach). I liked the Socrates approach to teaching a class, but I think it can't be just that structure, it needs to be a mix."

"I thought the film showed very forward thinking," Holly Kostoss. "I think the general method of teaching doesn't teach to the kinesthetic learner, so I think a lot of students that have a tough time with traditional methods would not only do better but excel in the methods proposed. I'd like to see an integration of the two approaches. I thought it was amazing that Northwood School invited so many to see the film. I'd like to see a greater awareness of everything that Northwood has to offer."

"Thought it was a great film," said Trish Friedlander. "I think it's great for one school and I wish all schools were like that and went up to colleges, but if everyone doesn't buy into that learn-by-doing, then it's difficult to make work. I totally agree that's how kids learn."

Northwood plans future community engagements.

 
 
 

 

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