We have all probably experienced such a moment: someone we know – who may be gifted, special, or loved but who is actually, nevertheless, a regular human being – says or does something and time seems to stop. The air gets still, everyone’s gaze flits around for a second to see who else felt it, and our eyes widen tinily as if this sudden light is not contracting our pupils but enlarging them so we can absorb as much as we can of it. The ancient Greeks would have said that at this moment one of the gods had suddenly materialized – Athena or some lesser goddess (but Athena, in this particular case, because we are talking about her domain, a flash of particular wisdom) had assumed our ordinary friend’s shape or had sneaked inside his body to add some poetry to the prose of human events. Even today we call such a moment an epiphany – an illumination beyond the human.
Shortly, I will talk about this moment.
But first: last week our marketing and communications manager, Laura Authier, sent out the call for us to review our marketing priorities for next year. Brainstorming at the outset, Kathleen Cook, who looks after admissions in the Junior School, observed how families who are considering the future of their three-year-olds are most interested in university entrance, the Advanced Placement programme, and whether we teach two kinds of calculus in Grade 12. Every time we have such a meeting, someone makes a similar observation and it reminds us: even – or especially – families who start with us in kindergarten are the deepest believers in the School’s mission. They are committed to the final destination right when their kids are taking their educational baby steps.
It also reminds us that the core reason we exist is the academic and intellectual growth of their kids. Definitely, the village in which we raise these intellects also develops character, teaches goodness as well as truth, strengthens them with a challenging sports and fitness program, and teases out all their undiscovered talents with a cup of overflowing opportunities. But mom and dad, looking at a family’s resources and at what these resources will allow, may well say that we love our son or daughter well enough to take them to gymnastics, soccer, figure skating, church, Kenya, or early morning swimming on our own. And then, they are also going to realize that the one thing they can’t give their child is an outstanding learning environment: teachers, and a group of parent and student peers who are part of – and, yes, who help to create – the conditions for their kids’ brains to unfold so that every gray crease is exposed.
Couldn’t you just get the course outlines and the books and do it yourself, though? Some do. But the answer is no.
The quality of the education doesn’t come from a course outline. Whether or not you have the Advanced Placement programme or the International Baccalaureat, or the British Columbia system, or even the subjects outlined by Plato in The Republic, none of these creations guarantee success. It doesn’t matter whether Plato or the best educational bureaucrats devised them. I remind people repeatedly that each of these brilliant educational baubles is simply a bright and shiny curriculum. No matter how beautifully it fits together, or what its lofty goals are, it is simply a curriculum, nothing more. In fact, the best curriculum a school can create is one that is dovetailed to its mission, its students, its culture, and all the other realities of its context; otherwise you are trying to fit someone else’s square peg into your round hole. What distinguishes a school is not its curriculum, but the quality of its teachers. Excellent teachers, who care about their students and their subjects, don’t just make a difference; they make all the difference.
Believing this, that’s where we put our energy: teaching. And when you focus on teaching, you focus even more fundamentally on learning, which locates the student at the centre of the whole exercise.
But! But, says the parent of the three year old: what are your results? Very true: results are not to be ignored. In fact they cannot be ignored. Our kids get excellent results, but results are not our focus. Learning is our focus.
When you focus on learning, you get better results; when you focus on results, you don’t get better learning.
This was that moment of epiphany I was referring to when I began this ramble. It belongs to John Liggett, our Director of Academics, and these words of his stilled the air in our Management Team meeting a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about the school’s decision and then the process of hiring the new Director of Learning, Heather Clayton, who will be coming from Peterborough, Ontario (see more information about her here), and who will actually be visiting the School next week for a few days. We were talking about the path we have taken to this point, with our strong emphasis on teaching, our goal of providing the best conditions for learning we can for our students, and the critical turning point in this path that this appointment represents. So much more is known now than even twenty years ago about how kids learn. And since there is no one more important than our kids, nothing is more important to give them than the opportunity to learn.