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The Student-Centered Education

September 6, 2011

At the end of my visit to the Telluride House at Cornell University this summer, I asked students to reflect on the cultures of their schools—the approaches to learning, to community and to diversity that collectively create cultural norms and expectations.  What I found was consensus on the virtues and values that should characterize school cultures at their best, but agreement that public and private schools fell far short of these expectations.

Quite simply, students expect to study in schools that value, celebrate, pursue and embrace learning—not a form of learning that follows work sheets, multiple choice testing and teacher talk but a form of learning that is authentic, engaging, collaborative and exciting.  Students want classroom cultures that are gracious, respectful and collegial in nature.  They want teachers who are excited about their disciplines, generous with their time and expertise and as committed to their students’ ethical and moral development as their intellectual growth.  Students want to study in classes that are diverse, where students learn to appreciate and respect the opinions and perspectives of those who see the world in profoundly different ways.

The reality is that both public and private school students expressed significant concerns with the academic and social cultures of their schools.  For students from poorly funded public schools, the experience of American education is disillusioning.  Teachers are flat, overwhelmed and passive.  The peer culture is fragmented, disruptive and rude.  The community and national indifference to education imply a contempt and indifference that is not hard to discern.

Elite private school students report cultures of entitlement, parental anxiety and intense competition:  for grades, for class rank, for college admission.  The pursuit of an education involves the building of a strategic resume rather than the development of authentic passions and commitments.  In private school of anxious entitlement, students express the emptiness of their harried lives by abusing drugs, alcohol and each other.  They settle for transitory and superficial relationships and friendships.  They became bitter, disenfranchised and cynical.

We at St. Andrew’s work hard each year to strengthen and sustain a St. Andrew’s culture that strains to embody excellence in both the academic and community realms.  We celebrate a faculty that sees education and each individual class as a profound act of personal, intellectual and social transformation.  We commit to principles of human rights and diversity that honor the voices and perspectives of each individual student within the School.  We direct the life and program of the School outward, towards a real engagement with the questions and concerns of 21st century American and global life.

This culture is the product of years of sustained faculty and student ownership.  It is a culture that is believable, embraced and coveted by our students because it is enacted each year, not in flawless ways but with a spirit of genuine commitment and generosity.

We begin the year by challenging our seniors who express their leadership through acts and expressions not of privilege but of generosity.  We talk about, describe and analyze seniors in the past who have embodied the ethos of the School powerfully, courageously and consistently.  We study and analyze scenarios that help us prepare for thoughtful and intentional responses to community concerns and crises.

What we learn through these discussions is that the life of an American boarding school can be coherent, transformational and powerful—both for students and adults alike.  We learn that the mission is achievable if we stretch, strain and resist the forces in our culture that might make us settle for less.

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