My philosophy of education is lived, daily. I believe in education that is active, student-centered, and responsive to the world in which students live. Everybody constructs knowledge and understanding from the rich context of their lives, and children construct knowledge and understanding the same way, guided by knowledgeable others who care enough to help them do that which they could not do alone. Sometimes the world provides ample feedback – when I scrape myself off of the snow and go in search of my goggles and gloves, I did not land that jump on my snowboard successfully. More often, we learn through guidance and feedback from others who we trust. Learning to learn, knowing what to do when we don’t know what to do, takes many iterations of trying, examining the result, assimilating feedback, and reflecting on what’s next. Education as a process should provide these experiences in a developmentally appropriate manner every day.
Of course, adults limit the experiences youth may access in schools, as they should, by developmental appropriateness, by socio-cultural norms, and by tradition. After more than a decade of teaching and leading in schools from a village in Bazaar-Korgon, Kyrgyzstan, to a financial hub like Zurich, Switzerland, I can safely say that I believe in an education that allows for calculated risk-taking, not the least of which includes adults letting go of results and trusting that learning is a natural process. Engaging pedagogies like project-based learning and other forms of guided inquiry honor what youth do best – learn – through authentic experiences, content, and assessments. Deep understanding must be discovered, but this is scary for educators who imagine learning to be linear. It isn’t. “Fear, not ignorance, is the great enemy of education” wrote Parker Palmer in his essential The Courage to Teach. Fear may limit what a community allows its children to experience, even in a shallow sense, through banning books or providing propaganda as content. Fear may also limit openness within or between schools, locking teachers into dry curriculum or the single cell of a classroom. Fear may cause a teacher to hold her bag of tricks near, afraid of sharing lest she draw criticism or empower someone to compete for a job or resources. From my values springs a desire for education that can liberate all within the system from the debilitating effects of such fear. Courage and compassion should be guiding principles because education must allow opportunities for failure in thoughtful risk-taking for adults and children alike, secure in the ability of all to grow past and through a perceived failure today. As John Dewey wrote in Democracy and Education, learning has no fixed outcome, “since in reality there is nothing to which growth is relative save more growth.”
As such, I believe education must empower youth and teachers to be literate, critical consumers of information, to be questioners and examiners, to withhold certainty, even when it is upsetting or uncomfortable. Central to what schools should do is teaching discernment of information quality – a taste for excellent, useful information, potentially liberating children from conventional dogmas. With a world of information at their fingertips, students messing around with authentic problems in schools will contact good information and bad information, sometimes judging good information bad based on their own biases, and vice versa. Technology provides access not just to information as secondary sources, but to individuals and networks of people engaged in solving real problems. Technology shouldn’t be something we do in schools, but should allow us to do that which we couldn’t before. By accessing and engaging with the world through a thoughtful 1 to 1 program, students experience authentic learning opportunities that have the potential for real-world impact. Well-designed curriculum should be, as David Perkins claims in Future Wise: Educating our Children for a Changing World, “big in insight,” “action,” “ethics,” and “opportunity,” allowing students to use information and create something real as a result (2014). In short, students in guided, structured communication with the world of ideas will become more critical consumers and producers of information empowered to act meaningfully in the world at large.
Engagement with ideas toward a goal of service or action for others puts ethics into practice. We learn of others and ourselves in attempting to reach their minds, whether working as a team on a project or individually on an art piece to communicate a subtle perception of one’s life experience. For rich understanding of the human experience, school communities must reflect the larger world and its precious diversity. His Holiness The Dalai Lama often points out that compassion is, in fact, justifiable as a selfish act because we get so much back in return for its practice. Building diverse independent schools is not altruism but good practice because every mind in the building benefits from interaction with a variety of viewpoints, experiences, assumptions, and perceptions. Without diversity, we cannot understand ourselves as others remain a mystery. Effective communication without or within is impossible. Good writing or art transcends its own medium – language or oil paints – to transmit something true from experience. Likewise, our own experience transcends itself where it connects to the broader human experience.
Schools are human institutions, and schools serve a social function. At its core, education is a human enterprise bringing many generations together with a unifying purpose. If a shared purpose for education is exploration and discovery of the entire world, the world we share and inhabit together, a truly humanistic education can result.