This year at Alumni receptions I have introduced a new element in the message from the School: in addition to news about favourite teachers who might be retiring, exciting academic results, sports successes and facilities developments, I have talked to the gathering about important themes that are changing education and changing SMUS. We made this change in message on the hunch that our former students in fact hoped the School is remaining current, remaining a leader among schools, and is trying to build the strongest possible version of itself for the future.
We were correct. I’ve never had so many conversations and questions after my talks. One of these themes of the future is personalization.
As it happens, personalization strikes a chord among grads of the School. In a personalized school, the teacher pays attention to the passions and strengths of the individual students, seems to divine what the student needs before the student does, and supports the necessary steps to achieve potential. Almost every grad can remember teachers who behaved this way, even going way back: Reg Wenman is one such example. Almost every grad can also remember teachers who recognized that sometimes it was a sport, or a role in the play, or an outdoor experience that unlocked his or her passions and strengths. Our Mission says that “Our School seeks the excellence in all of us.” What better way is there of saying that we seek out and support the potential of each individual student?
It is true that SMUS is well-suited to the possibilities of personalization. What we will encounter in future are more flexible schedules and yearly calendars where students might focus – to a depth and extent unheard of before – on their particular passion. A student might take a term in Spain to learn Spanish, or might adjust his or her program because of a love for figure skating. And so on.
This will be powerful learning, and we now know that time and energy spent pursuing strengths and passions is vastly more effective than time and energy spent slaving away at an academic subject where the student seems to be beating his or her head against the proverbial wall. Certainly where the walls erect themselves, we will still expect and achieve a level of competence; we recognize, though, that not every student has the potential or inclination to try to become the next Shakespeare.
In our senior grades – 11 and 12 – students’ programs now are already largely defined by their interests and passions, but for many students, if they had started on this deeper path earlier, they would be better off, with a higher degree of success, if they had engaged in some of that personalization earlier.
One side of the motivation for personalization is pedagogical: it will produce more effective learning. The other side of the motivation comes from the fact that the conditions of our world now feed it.
Technology in particular, which provides access to passions and interests outside the school – both subjects and teachers, and other pursuits, like figure skating – will make it very apparent to any young person that he or she can quite successfully pursue a passion, and no over-structured environment is going to prevent him or her. Schools will have to meet reality half way.