New Year’s iResolutions 2015 by Head of Upper School Michael Denning
To my great relief, my cellphone contract expired during winter break. Frankly, this date could not have come soon enough. As the semester was coming to a close, my iPhone 5 was tired (perhaps like the rest of us): the casing looked haggard; the battery lasted only a couple of hours at a time; and the phone’s key functions—voicemail, email, texting and search engines—moved at a snail’s pace, hindering my efficiency.
My brand new iPhone 6 is fantastic. Although my 13-year-old son, Patrick, is far more adept at using it than I am, the iPhone 6 in my pocket makes me feel not only more efficient, but also, at times, like a 21st-century MacGyver; I am better prepared than ever to solve all kinds of problems. Moreover, the struggles I have had in recent years to do all the reading I have wanted and needed to do, to monitor my fitness and diet, and to keep abreast of what is happening in the world have seemingly been ameliorated. Now, I can listen to podcasts and books with my Audible app while I complete the 10,000 steps required to fulfill my obligation to my Fitbit app. And when I stop for a snack, the iPhone 6’s ability to chronicle my caloric intake enables me (and also my loved ones and doctor) to monitor my eating habits regardless of where I go. Indeed, the iPhone 6 has solved many problems, and, at the very least, I can declare victory in some battles against inefficiency.
But as I emerge from a privileged winter break, one replete with time to reflect on my first semester serving as head of upper school—what went well, what did not, and what areas of my performance will require greater improvement and learning—I have found myself wondering about the limits of efficiency, especially as they pertain to education and the learning process. Could I have endeavored to consider some of the lessons of the past semester if I had not had and made the time for reflection? Moreover, do our attempts to encourage our students to achieve maximum efficiency prevent them from learning and growing—dare I say it—efficiently?
At Nobles, we work hard to stretch our valuable resources and to make a Nobles education as affordable and accessible as possible. However, if our methods were to be held up against some traditional models of corporate efficiency, management consultants—from Frederick Taylor to current efficiency analysts at top management consulting firms—might ask us some pretty tough questions. To begin with, there is our 5:1 student-faculty ratio; does it need to be so low? Then there is the fact that each student has the support of a class dean, an advisor, a college counselor (beginning in the junior year) and a student-life team. Indeed, teachers’ office doors are almost always open, and students are offered feedback after classes, in the hallways, and during extra-help sessions. And struggling students who require more support than can be offered by their teachers are encouraged to meet with one of our learning specialists or counselors.
Why do we offer all of this support to our students? I suppose the most elegant answer might be found in our mission statement: “Through mentoring relationships, we motivate students to achieve their highest potential and to lead lives characterized by service to others.” However, at the foundation of this statement are our 150-year beliefs that: the most important life lessons, ideas and concepts are not learned in one sitting; that real learning and growth requires reflection and repetition; and that students learn best when they are not only given grades, but also asked to consider and wrestle with the successes, efforts, shortcomings, challenges, and perhaps, failures, that underpin the grades they earn. Each of these depends on students and teachers working closely together repeatedly, developing along the way positive, salutary relationships.
Without commentary, a B on a test, essay or report card does not convey enough information. Indeed, inasmuch as some students may understand what I mean when I write “vague” in the margin of an essay or place a grade on its back page, nearly all students comprehend what I am trying to communicate when I sit down with them and go over the essay and ask them to try writing it again and, sometimes, yet again. The point is this: although grades and comments are important, a comprehensive learning process depends on a student taking time to reflect, to consider and to come to terms with the feedback being offered by their grades and comments. For some, this may seem inefficient; for many, though, this is the best way to learn.
Our children are always watching and considering—what we value; how we process and express our feelings and ideas about successes, failures, disappointments, sadness, anger and frustration; how we prioritize our time; how we treat others when things are not going well; how we learn. As we embark on a new semester and a new calendar year, I suggest we challenge ourselves to be more cognizant of the expectations and values we convey:
Take some time to carefully review with your son or daughter not only his or her grades, but also the end-of-semester comments offered by his or her teachers. While it is all too easy (and seemingly efficient) to focus in on grades—the bottom line, if you will—the comments can offer great insights into the challenges facing your child, who he or she is today, and how he or she might improve in the next semester(s).
Embrace (or at the very least accept) that whether we like it or not, learning will not always happen in a timely or convenient way. Learning requires hearing and responding to setbacks and challenging and, at times, upsetting feedback. Indeed, we all learn from our successes and failures. Each counts; each is important.
As inefficient as it may seem, build some time into your life for reflection, for planning, for healing, and for considering and reconsidering lessons to be learned; doing so will help your child to do the same, but encourage them to do so, too.
I love my iPhone 6. Along with helping me to learn and to be more efficient, it is, frankly, a very fun device with which to tinker. But from time to time, I need to be reminded to put it down so that I can think, reflect, evaluate and, maybe, reconsider. Our kids sometimes need this reminder. Maybe you do, too. My best wishes for a great 2015!