Incredibly excited that Edutopia has published a synthesis of our observations about education!
You can check out the article here: https://www.edutopia.org/article/lessons-learned-from-great-schools-around-world-will-minton
Incredibly excited that Edutopia has published a synthesis of our observations about education!
You can check out the article here: https://www.edutopia.org/article/lessons-learned-from-great-schools-around-world-will-minton
“It’s not just about paper achievement anymore. It’s about the holistic development of the child. But if you are to nurture the holistic development of the child, what is it you need to acquire to be effective? You need to understand your learner, you need to understand the learning and teaching context, you need to have an education philosophy, you need to think about what you can improve on in the classroom, you need to know about what is important for learning and what is not important. You need to know all those things. And it’s not easy.”
Dr. Chua is an Assistant Dean at the National Institute of Education in Singapore, and she spoke with the casual thoroughness of someone who has been thinking deeply about these topics for years.
We had been looking forward to this visit ever since we began to learn about Singapore’s education system. Singapore’s students score near the top of all international assessments in both academic performance and happiness. Consequently, NIE has a reputation as one of the best education schools in the world. We were curious to learn more about NIE’s approach and we felt honored that they had invited us to visit.
A Values Based System
“I would like to establish that ours is a values-based education program. It’s very important that our teachers are anchored on values. So we have a values-based program where student-teachers get to know more about themselves as teachers, what matters to them, what is important to them. They develop their own teaching philosophy.”
Dr. Chua went on to explain that, of course, they also have courses about pedagogy, academic content, behavior management etc… and she described the field experience as the spine of the program. But it was clear that this emphasis on values, the type of teacher they want to be, created the context for everything else that transpires in the program.
There is an understanding at NIE that the job of an education program is much bigger than just telling teachers what to do and how to do it. They know that in order to be effective, teachers must have a clear sense of who they are, why they do this work, and what their own personal vision of success looks like. This is probably one of the biggest differences between teaching and other professional occupations.
Inquiry v. Reflection
“I asked myself, ‘In the end, what is the most important thing that we need to equip our teachers with?’ They need to own their practice in the classroom, but beyond owning their practice, they need to know how to go about refining it for the benefit of the students. The inquiry process is fundamental because, regardless of the changes in the teaching and learning environment, this will help them help the students.”
The inquiry process Dr. Chua describes begins with a question and then employs a variety of factors: conversations with colleagues, observations, anecdotals from students, and quantitative data, to explore that question. All of this information is framed by the original question and filtered through the teacher’s education philosophy. And that last part, which grew out from the values piece above, is of critical importance, “Teachers make decisions all the time for our learners. So it’s very important for them to be clear on their teaching identity, to know their teaching philosophy. Because those are the anchors that will help them make their decisions and will help inform their inquiry.”
In the United States, we talk a lot about reflection and we talk a lot about data. But in the U.S. our reflection is often either too amorphous or too mechanical, and it is nearly always narrowly focused on ‘standards mastery.’ Our reflection is rarely driven by personalized questions, because the question is always the same: “What standards don’t students get?” This type of reflection makes a kind of logical sense, but it also leads to faculties who roll their eyes at the prospect of another data meeting and generally feel disconnected from the priorities around their own development.
By contrast, the inquiry system at NIE is both more intensive and more nuanced. It recognizes that the complexity of teaching means there are a variety of questions that can be asked, and since teachers have more ownership over the process, they are also more motivated to follow through with it.
Paths for Professional Advancement
One of the most interesting structural differences between the education systems in Singapore and the United States is in the opportunities for professional advancement. In the U.S. we don’t really have a system. Individual principals handle promotions in their schools however they want to. Teachers interested in district level jobs must stay on top of openings. Most teachers go through their whole careers without anyone asking them about where they want to be five years down the road. Many teachers leave the profession because they don’t see a path forward.
Singapore used to have a similar situation, but they realized that in order to increase the professionalism of the teaching field, they would need to create more defined tracks for advancement. They created three: 1) Leadership, 2) Teaching, and 3) Specialists
In a teacher’s second or third year, their principal will begin talking seriously with them about what track they are most interested in. Whichever track they choose will lead to them getting additional training in that field. The leadership track can lead to them becoming a principal or superintendent. The teaching track leads to work as an instructional coach or master teacher who supports people at a number of schools. The specialist track is more focused on content and can lead to developing national curriculum for the Ministry of Education.
In the U.S., we often talk about the need to increase the professional status of teaching. But we normally limit that conversation to teacher pay. I think normalizing paths for professional advancement would do at least as much for teacher retention and morale as more pay would.
“Teach Less, Learn More” and the Importance of a Coordinated System
While researching Singapore, I discovered that the national education motto was “Teach Less, Learn More.” I really loved the power and simplicity of those four words, but I had a lot of questions about how that idea had been rolled out to schools. I believe in the spirit of “Teach Less, Learn More,” but I also know that if someone is teaching less, then they are covering less content. I asked Dr. Chua about the potential tension between depth and breadth in a system that is still ultimately tied to standardized tests. Her answer gave me even more respect for Singapore’s education system, “Yes, during any implementation we need to be mindful that there will be a transition. There was talk, ‘yes we want to teach less, and learn more, but our syllabus hasn’t been reduced enough to create the time for students to acquire knowledge on their own.’ But slowly, because this is an evolving thing, the syllabus is constantly being reviewed to see how much can be cut. And today schools have different learning environments, but I think fundamentally they all recognize that it’s not all just about content knowledge.”
So the system identified a priority and all of the parts of the system began to adjust to better align with that priority. And this is something we saw over and over again in Singapore: there is a very high level of coordination between individual schools, NIE, and the Ministry of Education. Each of these three partners work together with a degree of common purpose that is hard to imagine in the United States. The result is that reform nowadays follows the maxim, “Bottom up initiative, Top down support.” This spirit was echoed during actual school visits we did as well. It’s really quite remarkable.
Our conversation with Dr. Chua ranged over a number of other topics. We shared stories from the other schools we visited and laughed about some of the common challenges we face. And something we said triggered Dr. Chua to share some final thoughts as we were about to go, “There are a lot of things that distract us from what’s important. A lot of times, the urgency of something doesn’t mean that it’s the most important. But we tend to do the urgent rather than the important, because doing the important takes time, and it takes time to see the results. But how are you able to move away from the noises and focus on the important and not the urgent so that, in the years to come, we can see the types of learners we want to see?”
Urgency is a buzz word in a lot of education circles, and I agree with the reason why. Incremental progress is too often synonymous with low-expectations. But I also think that there’s a lot of truth in what Dr. Chua is saying here. Sometimes focusing on the urgent can have a simplifying effect that keeps us from the bigger, more important, context of what’s possible. The world is no longer about paper achievement. Here’s to having the patience to focus on what’s important.
Elizabeth and I got a taxi at the airport and quickly realized that Singapore is nothing like India. The streets are quiet and orderly. Modern looking buildings are nestled amongst a surprising number of trees and gardens. The architecture feels like a statement to remind people just how old the skyscrapers in places like New York really are, and the optics of the city quickly made an impression on us. We had spent months in places defined by their connection to this past but Singapore clearly wanted to define itself differently. Elizabeth turned from the window, “I think this might be the future.”
A few days later, we visited the campus of Yale-NUS, a new university built in partnership between Yale University and the National University of Singapore. Yale-NUS is so young that they haven’t even had a graduating class yet, but the place is filled with a sense of creation and possibility. The project was undertaken with the idea of taking the best from each partner institution, but it’s also been seen as an opportunity to do away with dated norms that might hinder how a university should operate in the 21st century.
For example, the department system for faculty that defines American institutions, like Yale, was restructured to promote more cross disciplinary work. Instead of departments being in charge of their own hiring, professors from a range of disciplines are pulled into the interview process. There are courses that are co-taught by a science professor and a humanities professor. The organizational system that has become set in something stronger than stone in the US, has been ignored here in favor of a system better designed to prepare students for an interconnected world.
Curriculum has been re-shaped as well. Yale-NUS occupies a unique place in the intersections between East and West, and the courses reflect that in a more organic way than most universities. In a philosophy class, for instance, Aristotle and Confucius are read and compared in consecutive weeks. Eastern and Western schools of thought are not divided and pushed into different courses or departments the way they often are in the US. Instead they are discussed in ways that illustrate how their relevance has fused together in the modern world.
This organizational decision by the University is complimented by the natural diversity of the students. Half the students are from Singapore, which can mean family histories connected to China, India, Malaysia or just about anywhere else in Asia. And then there are students who come directly from those countries, as well as places as diverse as France, Idaho, and Jamaica. As we sat and talked with an administrator in the Agora (a student named café area), he pointed out that the four students working together across from us each came from a different continent. “These types of communities” he explained, “allow students to realize that some of the most basic assumptions they have about society may be thought of differently by someone else.”
Starting from scratch, Yale-NUS has also chosen to elevate student voice and leadership to a degree that might be untenable in more established institutions. The University knows that there will be opportunities for improvement as they grow, and they’ve made student feedback a central part of that process. When we pressed students to talk about what they didn’t like about Yale-NUS, they discussed how they had given feedback about certain things and also how the University had already moved to address that feedback. They then went on to talk about how exciting it was to be somewhere where it was up to them to create all of the clubs and student organizations. Almost everyone they knew was involved in starting some sort of club or project. They bragged about how the national news had picked up stories from their fledgling student newspaper and generally relished the sense of power they felt in being part of something new.
Students have also chosen to create a culture with much less of the partying that defines many US campuses. This might be why Yale-NUS students who study for a semester at an Ivy League school in the States often report that the work was much easier than at Yale-NUS. As a French student we spoke with explained, half-jokingly, “We are a tea drinking campus.”
At Yale-NUS there is a sense of fresh optimism. The idea that tomorrow is in our hands and we’re going to make it alright. It reminded me of how America likes to think of itself, but it also grounded me in how far we’ve drifted from that ideal.
Like much of Singapore, Yale-NUS has set out to learn from the best that the West had to offer, and then to see what more can be done. We saw this theme crop up again as we visited one of their top-performing high schools and their National Institute of Education.
Obviously it’s not fair to compare a country that borders two oceans to an island city-state like Singapore. We are not Singapore and shouldn’t be. But if we look at what they’ve accomplished here and say, “We can’t do that here. We have too many challenges.” Then we’ll only drift farther from the ideals we say define us.
At this point, we’ve spent close to a year traveling the world, visiting schools, and talking with students. One of our most interesting observations from this project is how consistent students are when we ask them a very basic question: ‘What makes a good teacher?’ High-end private school or low-income government school, small children or high school students, South America, Africa, Europe, America, or Asia; students everywhere answer in the same way with nearly the exact same words.
There is sometimes a jokester who chuckles and says something like, “Doesn’t give homework.” And older students at exceptional schools will often talk about strong personal relationships with teachers who seem to be more like mentors. But the first three comments have literally come up every time we’ve asked this question of students, and almost always in that order.
What else is interesting is that students tend to react in essentially the same way when they hear the question. They smile and start answering almost immediately. This is a question they’re comfortable with. They know they have some expertise in this topic, and they’re fairly matter-of-fact about letting us in on what’s so obvious to them.
These comments may not be especially surprising, but I think their clarity and consistency warrant attention. One thing that stands out to me is how personal the comments are. Teachers often think about their relationship with a class, but students hardly ever think of themselves as just one member of a group. They see their relationship as a personal one with the teacher. Students talk about how a good teacher responds when they personally don’t understand far more often than they mention how well that teacher explains something to the whole class.
Teaching is tough, and teachers can get bogged down in disparate responsibilities and constantly changing criteria that they’re supposed to live up to. They get so caught up trying to be what their district and administrators want them to be that they can sometimes forget what their students are looking for. Since good teaching can’t happen without the students’ consent, I’m going to say that this student perspective matters a great deal.
So, teachers, if you’re looking for a few ideas to help anchor your approach to teaching, I might recommend these questions:
I’d like to say that these questions are simple, but anyone who has run a classroom knows that they can be incredibly complicated to address. And that complexity is even more of a reason to keep these reflections in the front of our minds. There are lots of ways to try to improve as teachers, but if we’re not ‘good teachers’ in the eyes of our students, chances are we aren’t going to get very far.
After hours of driving on sporadically paved roads, we parked in a small and remote village. The stars were brilliant above and the air was quiet enough to hear the chewing of a water buffalo in a nearby pen. We turned a corner and there was this circle of light lined by the silhouettes of children. They each had a small notebook and a pencil and looked curiously at us as we approached. The children here spend their days taking livestock to graze, but for the past six months they’ve been assembling on this patch of cement at night to learn.
There are dozens of these night schools in the surrounding countryside, most of them much more established, and all organized by the TED Talk famous Barefoot College. Barefoot is most famous for its adult learning programs, specifically its program to train semi-literate grandmothers to become solar engineers. The women come from all over the world, and when they complete their 6 month training they return home to solar electrify their villages. The women I spoke with (one from Namibia and two from Colombia) were five months into their program. They all said that, at first, it was very difficult. Most of the women don’t share a common language, and the food took some getting used to. A Colombian grandmother gave me a look of surprised concern when she said, “The food. They don’t eat meat. And there’s no fish.” I asked one of the trainers what it was like on the first day. “On the first day, there is a lot of crying. They are thinking too much about their husbands or their children, and they are missing home. We do a lot of hugging and watching to make see who is not eating. But after two weeks most of them are OK.”
But the women talk about these early challenges as distant memories. When I asked how they felt about what they had learned, their faces lit up in flashes of joy. One Colombian grandmother looked up from her screwdriver and circuit board to explain, “For me, to learn something like this at this stage in my life. It’s something to make me very proud.”
This kind of pride is found all around Barefoot. There is a disabled man who trained to become a blood pathologist and now runs tests for thousands of people in nearby villages. There is a Barefoot dentist who was trained informally by an Italian dentist during her six month visit. She now does regular exams, fills cavities, and educates children at the night schools about dental hygiene. The entire complex was designed by a Barefoot architect. He was awarded a national award but refused to accept saying that he was just one of many people who came together to make the new campus a reality. None of these people have any formal credentials. In fact, there is a general disregard for ‘paper’ qualifications and the stuffiness that comes from people who hold them.
A morning meeting of the staff at Barefoot College
Barefoot is a living testament to the wisdom and capacity of poor people. It’s a statement against those who think solutions need to be imported to places like these. I asked the Barefoot architect how he learned to design buildings if he never studied. “From each other,” he said.
Of course, efforts here are not always easy. A long-term volunteer told me that, after being here a while, people started to open up to her about how for every success Barefoot has had there have been 5 or 10 failed attempts. But what allows people here to keep going is that these are their ‘failures.’ Missteps can be treated as learning experiences. There is a palpable sense that Barefoot is an institution of, by, and for the people who live here and in the surrounding villages. This feeling of self-determination is powerful and ripples out to the culture of the night schools as well.
When we left the night school, we couldn’t help contrasting it with what we had seen in rural schools in Malawi. In Malawi, the attempts at education took the form of imitation. Once they had the appearance of learning (a physical school, teachers, desks, uniforms) there was pride that education was happening. But the reality was far different. Students weren’t learning much of anything in the classes we saw. Here they had none of these things. Children were circled up on the ground outside in the same clothes they wore all day. But they were engaged. They knew that this space existed to serve them and curriculums were adjusted to be more relevant to their daily lives. Children led each other through phonics drills and corrected the teacher when he made ‘mistakes’ in his multiplication tables. Hours away from any city and kilometers from formal electricity, in a circle lit by solar powered lamps that were engineered by semi-literate grandmothers, children were sitting and eager to learn. I asked them what they enjoyed the most about night school. “Everything,” they said. It was beautiful.
The first thing we noticed about The Riverside School was the space itself. There’s a large open area with offices on one side and long flat steps leading to a multi-purpose space on the other. There are open staircases and curved walls. This is a school that is so fiercely dedicated to the ideas of student voice and collaboration that even the school’s architecture has been designed around them. There is a circular well with seats descending into the ground. A ‘giant seven’ bench works as a surprisingly perfect collaboration space. A stand-alone circular brick room with large windows is used for class meetings and discussions. Students and adults traverse the space with comfort and purpose. Everyone here seems to feel like they are home.
Along the edges of the open area, there are boards that celebrate the school’s history and accomplishments. Riverside is consistently ranked in the top 5 schools in India, and its various national and international recognitions are too numerous to mention. Pictures show that Barack Obama and Bill Clinton are just two of the many prominent people who have recognized its successes. The founder Kiran launched the school to even greater international fame with a TED talk she delivered in 2009. The day we visited, we met a group of educators from Hong Kong who had spent the past week at Riverside generally having their minds blown by what they were seeing at the school.
The founder, Kiran, leading a class discussion
After we were settled and offered coffee, a pair of 5th graders, named Adi and Sraj, took us on a tour of the campus. We peppered them with questions, and they answered them with confidence and poise. They explained that they liked Riverside because they got to experience what they were learning, “At other schools,” said Adi, “they are only like ‘read this or read that,’ but here they make us feel what happens. Like if they are learning about pollution, they just read books about how much garbage there is. But us, they will make us go to the places where pollution is happening and see.” Sraj chimed in, “Here we have experiences. We go everywhere.”
I asked them what they thought the most important thing they learned from Riverside was. Adi didn’t hesitate, “To be together.” “I think I’ve learned how to work as a team. How to collaborate,” said Sraj.
Elizabeth with Adi and Sraj in the ‘Giant 7’
This sense of community also made an impression on the team from Hong Kong. They explained that back home, there is a very competitive academic culture where everyone is focused on their individual scores. By contrast, Riverside doesn’t even give quantitative marks until 8th grade. There is feedback, but it’s personalized and not comparative. As one teacher explained, “We are not competing with each other. We are completing each other.”
This idea of growing as individuals through being part of a strong community is reinforced through reflection from the earliest years. Even in Kindergarten, students will sit with their classmates and reflect, one at a time, on what values they best exemplify and why. Each student has a strength selected for them from the class values: polite, caring, helpful, or responsible. Personal and group refection is woven into everything that students do at Riverside. A high school student who approached me said that he liked the school because there was more of an emphasis on being a ‘citizen leader’ than an ‘academic leader.’
At Riverside, students can be seen collaborating everywhere.
There is also a strong emphasis on empathy. Students have gone a day without food, had limbs tied down, rolled incense sticks, and gone through a variety of other experiences to better empathize* with the plight of other people in India. Perhaps most dramatic is a tradition upperclassmen go through just before exams. While the rest of the students in the country are focused on cramming for the most important tests of their lives, Riverside students are told to take a few days to look inward and get perspective on the world. They spend a day with ‘bag pickers’ salvaging recyclables from trash heaps, and time meditating, and they generally try to put their lives and exams in a greater context.
Riverside’s approach does a lot to build intrinsic motivation and investment but it is not a complete antidote to teenage pastimes like procrastination. I was grounded by a scene I saw in a physics classroom**. A girl student was on the defensive. She was explaining, with a bit of frustration, that she wasn’t ready with her project because she hadn’t been able to contact her partner. She detailed the ways she had reached out. The teacher then looked to the boy the girl had mentioned. “Is that true?” asked the teacher. The boy admitted it was and explained that he wasn’t by his phone. “Do you really think that excuse is going to work, when you had over a week?” The scene went on like this for a couple of minutes, the rest of the class in awkward silence. The teacher laid out the ways he could have been more proactive. She was upset, but it wasn’t just because he was unprepared, it was because he had failed to live up to the freedom and responsibility he had been given.
So, there’s a no nonsense undertone that anchors the empathy, collaboration and reflection work that Riverside does. The no nonsense attitude is necessary, but it exists in a context of responsibility rather than compliance. It’s certainly not the main reason Riverside consistently outperforms the best schools in the country on the national exams. Riverside’s main insight is proving that when you focus on character and community, academics tend to follow.
*The empathy in these experiences is not an end in itself but rather the first step in the Design Thinking model that informs much of what Riverside does. Students end up actually doing something about these issues. We’ll write more about that later, but you can get a glimpse of it in Kiran’s TED Talk.
** I was walking around unchaperoned. The Riverside administration literally told us to walk into whatever classrooms we wanted. It was the first time that’s happened to us on a school visit.
Quotes from the boards around campus:
When we walked into the Teach For India office, Elizabeth and I almost felt like we were home. We were introduced as Teach For America alums and former staff members, and the TFI staff greeted us like old friends who were eager to catch up. We didn’t know these people, but we felt connected by a common passion and set of values.
Over the next several days, we couldn’t avoid comparing what we were seeing with the organization where we’ve spent much of the past 10 years. We knew that TFI had borrowed a lot from TFA, but we were eager to explore the ways TFI had charted its own course. We wanted to know what TFA might be able to learn from its sister organization on the other side of the globe.
Several things stood out to us, but the one that made the biggest impression was TFI’s institutional commitment to student voice. We first noticed it when Sanaya was explaining how the Maya program (which we wrote about here) came about. TFI staff kept pushing their teachers to go beyond basic academics with their students. They urged them to focus on values as well and to help students develop leadership skills. The teachers agreed that these things were important, but they didn’t know how to translate this advice into action. Teach For India realized that they didn’t have a clear idea of what their advice meant either. So they decided to have a staff member create a program for students to figure out what this could look like. It worked. Maya has been successful and every TFI teacher I asked about it has spoken about how inspiring it is. Now TFI is trying to add a staff position dedicated to student voice in each of their regions. That’s a TFI staff member whose only role is to work with students to provide a model for teachers on what values based leadership programs can look like.
The next time we noticed how serious TFI is about student voice was when they invited us to participate at their Education Innovation Weekend. The three day conference led teams of staff members and teachers through a Design Thinking sequence to develop ideas to improve education in Pune, India. Each team also included one secondary school student, and their perspective was taken very seriously. Often the student voice ended up being the most influential at the table.
The adults in my group were having a heated debate about why most children didn’t enroll in secondary school. Eventually we calmed down and asked the student with us why many of her friends didn’t go to school. She told us matter-of-factly that it was because their parents would rather they find a job and earn some money. Later on, a girl from another group added a layer of nuance by explaining that parents didn’t respect the quality of the education offered at the government schools. The confidence in their assessments grounded us. These two comments became the foundation for the proposal we eventually submitted.
Individuals at Teach For America are passionate about student voice as well. This is something people can get quite emotional about. But at TFA, there is hardly ever the institutional commitment to student voice that we saw at TFI. There are no staff positions dedicated to student voice. Staff members rarely, if ever, work directly with students.
Students are common at Teach For America events. If the event is at their school, they might help with setup or with registering people as they arrive. If it’s a larger conference, there will certainly be some kind of performance by students. This type of involvement can be a valuable experience for students, but it is also scripted. I have never seen students given the opportunity to be active, unscripted participants at a TFA event. I can only imagine that, if they were, their voices would prove just as valuable to the dialogue as they did here in India.
TFA knows student voice is important and they try to prioritize it by providing professional development to teachers about why it’s important. TFI realized that this alone isn’t enough. Perhaps it’s time TFA does too.
For the record, I in no way mean this as a ‘criticism’ of TFA. I’m offering these observations with an understanding that TFA is an organization that’s deeply committed to continuous improvement and always eager to hear new ideas.
A young girl speaks up first: “Before Maya I wasn’t confident in how I talk with people and I wasn’t sure what my life would be like in the future. But Maya has given me the chance to say ‘Yes, there are lots of things to do in life.’” The kids around her nod and smile. All of the children in the circle are between 11 and 15 years old, and they all come from very low-income communities in Pune, India. In 2014 they were part of an original musical called ‘Maya’ that they performed for over 10,000 people across India.
Another student speaks up, “What Maya was for me, it was a platform for us kids to figure out, ‘what is our light,’ and what is our potential, and how can we use it in different ways, to help other kids or spread the knowledge that we have… I have grown in Maya. My confidence has increased. Now I can talk to people with more confidence…” Most educators would be glowing with pride if their students spoke like this, but Sanaya, the facilitator, has heard this all before and she doesn’t seem impressed. She cuts into the dialogue, “OK, I’m going to push you a little more. All of your confidence has increased. None of you spoke earlier, all of you speak now. What else?” A murmur of giggles rises in the circle and Sanaya looks up to Elizabeth and I, “At the beginning, they didn’t speak more than a few words of English. They were quite shy. They didn’t have opinions and if they did, they were afraid to voice them.” She looks back to the students, “OK, beyond that?”
The students don’t miss a beat. A young boy speaks up, “If we don’t know something, we used to leave it. We used to not ask about it. But after Maya, we learned to ask ‘Why?’ If we’ve been taught something we ask, ‘Why does this happen?’ or ‘What is the reason behind this?’ The reasoning skills that we have, have increased.”
Another girl chimes in, “I’m more aware of the things that I want to do in my life and the things that I did wrong. Maybe I’m a little confused about things, and about what’s happening in my life, or around me. But I’ve started thinking more about what’s going on around me. I’ve started to become more wise. Now I ask, ‘What is the right thing to do?’”
Maya is a program of Teach For India, an organization similar to, but distinctly different from, Teach For America. Maya came about because TFI kept telling their adult fellows that they should focus on values and expose students to experiences in addition to academics. The trouble was that they didn’t have any real examples of what this meant. TFI decided to start a program dedicated to values development and student voice. At about this time, there was a fortuitous introduction to someone connected to Tony Award winning talent from Broadway. The arts seemed like a good place to start and the idea for Maya began to form.
The results are unquestionable. Not only did the students eventually perform an original and elaborate musical (about Maya, a princess who fights to bring light back to her kingdom and, in the process, finds the light inside herself) but their academic test scores ended up over 50% higher than other TFI students across the country. Maya did have a minor academic component where they would break down vocabulary and discuss the musical’s script as a text. But there wasn’t nearly enough time dedicated to this type of discussion to account for a 50% difference in test scores.
The students in Maya talk about the group as a family. They highlight the importance of trust and the fact that their individual voices are valued. It turns out that when young people feel part of a positive peer community like this, it has an immeasurably powerful effect that ripples through every other part of their lives.
Too often we treat children like they are rational systems. We have a goal for them, like academic success, and we push them toward it in a narrow and prescriptive fashion. We want them to be motivated because it makes sense for them to be motivated. But children are not rational beings. They are emotional beings. To find the fire of self-motivation they need emotional experiences. Some students can find this emotion inwardly and nurse their motivation in isolation. But the vast majority of young people need programs like Maya to set the spark that will help them find their ‘light.’
“You should ask them about their apprenticeships” suggested Melissa, the dynamic English teacher who had let us take over her classroom for the period. We had been asking the Swiss students our usual questions. With some shyness, they had just shared that, if they could change anything about their school they would have less homework.
“What type of apprenticeships will you have next year?” we asked. One student, sitting up straighter than before, said he wanted to be a businessman and would be apprenticing at a bank three days a week. The other two days, he would take classes in English, German, and economics. “And how much will you earn?” asked Melissa. We had no idea the apprenticeships were paid. “800 euros per month for the first year,” the student replied with a smile, “but I don’t know how much for the second and third years.”
Other students in the class proceeded to tell us about their apprenticeships. One student will apprentice with city government, another in computer science, many in business. All spoke with confidence and excitement about this next stage of their lives.
There is a marked difference between the type of responsibility expected of students in Switzerland and the United States. In the US, we often mistake compliance for responsibility. Students act “responsibly” when they decide to follow directions – getting to class on time, cleaning up after themselves, doing their homework, etc. While complying with rules does build good habits (rules are there for a reason), it does not actually transition our young people into adult decision making.
Swiss schools, in contrast, give students responsibilities in preparation for adulthood. They are required to make judgments that will affect not only their present classwork, but their future jobs and economic stability. This seems intimidating, but it’s not if responsibility is released gradually. At The Ruggenacher School, teachers and administrators ready students for the transition to apprenticeship by requiring them to manage 7-8 hours of independent work time each week and plan their own large-scale social events. When students falter, grown-ups provide support. Students are trusted – not only with their behavior, but with preparing for their life paths. This builds confidence, empowerment, and investment in school. It communicates to students that they are about to become contributing members of society and they are trusted to learn, and be strong, and do the right thing.
We also visited Gymnasium Unterstrasse. At this school, most students are preparing for university rather than apprenticeship. Even so, teachers and administrators trust them to make real life judgments. Students plan and attend a week-long ski retreat every year without any adult supervision. “Aren’t you afraid something will happen?” we asked the headmaster.
He said there is always the risk of an accident, but students have been trained to know what to do. Every four years the adults at the school turn the building over to the students and allow them to run the entire school for three days – including all teaching, administrative tasks, and building management. It has always gone well.
At both schools, teachers and administrators prepare students for their responsibilities. Ruggenacher provides students with apprenticeship application support. They have a special program to prepare students who are not yet fluent in German or are weak in math. At Unterstrasse students receive specific training in the jobs they perform when adults are not present. This gives students confidence that they can handle the responsibilities they are given.
It’s a common teenage-ism in the US to be waiting for real life to begin, to be itching for the real world. Schools have the opportunity to induct students into the “real world” and adulthood earlier, and more gradually, building investment in the lessons they learn today because those lessons will come into swift practice tomorrow. While many of our thirteen year olds are still required to walk in line to lunch, Swiss students of the same age are planning their careers. It is hard to let go of control, especially in today’s climate of high stakes testing. But gradually trust students with more, and we may be surprised at the investment, empowerment, and adult-teenager relationships that develop.
Olaf and I were wrapping up our time together when I asked him a final question, “What makes an excellent teacher?”
“There is not ‘the excellent teacher,’” he said. “There is the teacher who can make a connection with the students. The student has the feeling that, ‘he likes me.’ He can be hard, he can be loud, but the student always has to have the feeling that, ‘he likes me.’ This is the relationship piece.” He went on to add that the teacher should know their subject and how to make it exciting. They should know ‘how we talk’ at the school, and they should add insight to school discussions. But it was clear that the relationship between students and teachers was the keystone for everything else.
As soon as Elizabeth and I decided to focus this trip on education, we knew that we had to go to Switzerland. According to the last PISA test (talked about here), Swiss teenagers are both the happiest and highest performing students in Europe. We would have been happy to visit any school, but we were lucky enough to be invited to Ruggenacher, which had recently been nominated as one of the best schools in Switzerland.
Olaf, the school principal, picked us up from the train in his Nissan Leaf. During the short drive to the school, we made small talk about our trip and the unusually warm weather. Once in his office, he gave us some materials and started to explain the approach of the school, “We think the most important thing is to have a good relation from teacher to student. If there’s a good relation, and if teachers are in their topics very well, then we have a good school. That’s the bottom of our thinking.”
Switzerland is known for its affluence and this is one of its best schools so, we were somewhat surprised to learn about Ruggenacher’s demographics. The majority of the students are working class and over half are from immigrant families. Olaf spoke as much about the supports offered to students who act out or fall behind, as he did about anything else. On the way back to the train station, he told a story about a representative from PISA who came to visit. He asked the man about how he can tell if a school is good or not. “It’s all in how a school treats the bottom 10%. That is everything,” he said.
Now, I’ve heard lots of schools talk about the importance of relationships, but how this priority actually looks in a school can be a tricky question. I asked Olaf what they do to make sure relationships are a lived priority in the school, not just words in a vision. He was quick with examples.
It’s true, we could feel it. The students at Ruggenacher are no different than students at any other school we’ve visited, but unlike students at schools with similar demographics they feel that school is for them. They feel that school is on their side, and they feel this way because of how they are treated when they’re there. Relationships are a priority and the systems of the school actually reflect that priority. Of course, there are other factors in Ruggenacher’s success and we’ll talk about them in future posts, but positive relationships, Olaf insists, are the foundation of everything.