Headmaster's Thoughts

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  • Headmaster's Thoughts: January 2020

    Since it is now 2020 (Happy New Year!) and Jayme and I started York Prep in 1969, I was pondering on what has changed in education over these last 50 plus years. The answer is that so much has altered the way education is delivered today to high school students, along with changing attitudes about the value of such education, that any attempt to go into detail requires a book (which I do not have the qualifications or attention span to write). The other factor inhibiting a full study is that we are in the middle rather than the end of the effects of the changes that have occurred. Trying to make a statement about a process that is in the act of evolving, is not the most sensible. So, historically, some changes that have happened will have a permanent effect, while other changes that have happened may disappear and, in hindsight, be recognized as a temporary fad.
    But clearly, technology is not a fad. The development of computer hardware and software, still in comparative infancy, has had a major impact on what we do in schools. It has highlighted the reality (which I firmly believe) that facts, in themselves, are less crucial than ideas. I have said before that if what I teach in ethics could be learned from Google, then it is a bad class. Teaching is creating questions, examining ideas, and pushing students to think original thoughts. It is challenging students to be curious about the world around them. There are, of course, facts involved. It would be impossible to discuss the themes in King Lear without first reading King Lear. But, having read it, a good teacher guides a class to go beneath the narrative, and study the themes and appreciate the wonder of this work of genius. Yes, one should know when Shakespeare lived, and knowing that Lear was written around the time of the Gunpowder Plot in the Reign of James the First (of England, James the sixth of Scotland…same man), is helpful although not crucial. But these facts can be looked up. Knowing them does not make anyone a Shakespearean scholar, any more than knowing the distance between the Earth and the Moon would make one an astronomer. The computer has lessened the importance of simple factual knowledge because facts can be looked up on demand. So the computer has brought the idea of the concept of a subject into the foreground. As I write this piece, I can spell check it. I appreciate good spelling, but that alone does not make one a writer.
    Technology has, of course, seriously impacted the students at school. They have increasingly retreated from direct human interaction to texting (or using Snapchat or Instagram) on their phones and computers. I find this sad but almost inevitable. The loneliness of adolescence is replaced by a virtual reality of many “friends”. Certainly children are more able to receive directions from their parents via their phones (the plus side); sadly these directions may be sent in the middle of an English class (the minus side). I fear that students are too easily manipulated by the selling component of the internet, whether it is sex or a product. Adolescents are the ideal consumer. On the positive side of the wonder of technological improvements, are the majestic scenes of nature on television, and, let us face it, the opportunity to write a blog like this which some people actually read. A mixed bag at the moment.
    Moving on, since technology would take up so much space that you would deservedly be bored (if not already), the other major change in the last half-century is that we all now accept that children learn in different ways. In my view, the old concept of intelligence is a word that has lost most of its meaning because of the different talents of young people, and the multitude of ways those abilities can be tested. So a child, who grew up when I was young, was quickly dismissed as having little academic potential if they needed extra time to complete a test. How wrong that was! Some of the most talented minds need extra time to complete these “timed” tests. Given that time, they can produce all the right answers. And for extra time, you could substitute the accommodations of a calculator, a spell checker, an oral exam, and so on. In fact, there is a good argument that students with learning differences are more creative than others since they have been forced to compensate. One thing we now know for sure (and did not in 1969) is that the old concept of intelligence has nothing to do with the real talent of students with learning differences. Everyone learns differently. I cannot write this essay with music or virtually any background noise, whereas other people can only write an essay with some background noise. I suffer from hyper-focusing. This served me in good stead in formal exams when silence was the rule. Whether it works in real-life decision-making is highly debatable. We are struggling for better methods of seeing how bright each child is, but we may be chasing a chimera, and there may not be a “best” way.
    What else has changed since 1969? Well, educators have been put in their place. No longer on any pedestal at all, they are seen, correctly, as specialist service providers. That means they are in the cohort of plumbers, doctors, electricians, and lawyers. We are primarily a service industry country and education neatly fits into the paradigm. Less respect is the simplest way to describe this attitudinal change. Selfishly I may want to return to those days when teachers were trusted more, but that is not going to come back any more than politicians, doctors, lawyers, police, and accountants are going to regain our total confidence.
    Finally, because trust me I could ramble on, the role of schools has changed. In 1969 we did not have social workers or school psychologists. School nurses were rare, and learning specialists did not exist. When the New York Legislature decided that students should be inoculated, schools were charged with enforcing this law and punished if they did not. We were similarly responsible for reporting parental or sibling abuse. The obvious reason why was because we could be relied on. We were there! Schools have become more holistic, or, in a different version of the same scenario, we are now functioning as assistant life coaches, practitioners of urgent (or sometimes not so urgent) care, homework helpers, learning diagnosticians, and generally even parents’ assistants. We just do more, and this is a positive role in a society where the pressures for both parents to work is so strong. Did Ozzie and Harriet’s world ever exist? I doubt it. But there was a television show where the mother (who was the homemaker) waited with cookies and milk for their children to come home from school. The father came home in a jovial mood and spent his time focusing on his children’s lives, and popping in was always an avuncular relative who dished out family wisdom whenever needed. The family lived in a nice house surrounded by a white picket fence in a…this is getting ridiculous. That world was a make-believe world, but school is not make-believe. Your child is upset. We are there. Your child feels ill. We are there. Your child has problems with issues that I do not want to list. We are there (or, we should be there). School is a community in a much more real sense than it ever was 50 years ago.
    So, in the end, I like to think that we know our students better than educators did in the past. We see them more as individuals. It is easier to improve a child’s life if you know as much as you can about them. In that sense, education today is far superior than it ever was, but that is only my opinion. One thing has never changed and never will; you cannot do this job if you are not an optimist.
    Happy New Year!
    Ronald. P. Stewart  
    York Prep School