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Educational Philosophy 101: What are we? What is this?

A lot has happened in our field, the field of education, in the past few generations (and centuries). There are a lot of theories! Often these theories come in and out of favor, or are recycled under new monikers. This gives the educational "consumer" a lot of choices ... and a lot of complexity in an already overly-complex world.

How is a family going to pick a school amidst the swirl of choices and verbiage: Is Montessori the way to go? Socratic method? Expeditionary/Discovery-based learning? What about Harkness Method? And who was Rudolph Steiner, really, and what is Waldorf education? What is progressive education? Democratic education? Should we go for a school that offers mastery learning? And do I go to a school or an academy? (Short answer: any historical differences have become completely nonexistent.)

There is a lot to digest, and as soon as you think you know the "state of the art," the landscape changes or a new student comes in who opens up your mind all over again.

For some respite, think of your school in the way you might think of your physician or lawyer: they are familiar with the historical greats in their field, and you want to make sure they are grounded in the work of those greats. But you also know you can't really keep up with those fields—that's what experts do. You primarily want to make sure the educator you put your trust in has a clear, informed philosophy, both practical and elegant.

Expert educators are always evaluating breaking work and trends, and then integrating that work into their basic program and philosophy; great educators are lifetime researchers. Magically, they must be able to take all their years of research and thought development and express it to you, the parent—the consumer—in concise, clear, sensible terms.

My advice: Beware of people with theories! As soon as an educator becomes too enraptured with any one idea, whether it is Montessori, Socrates, Steiner, Dewey, or any of the greats, that educator has parted ways with that great educator's philosophy. Sound ironic? It is, because all these greats held first and foremost a philosophy of openness. None of the enduring greats would ever stop listening to a student, or assume one path fits all students. Enlightenment, clear thought, strong values, and broad academic skill sets are the educational mountaintop. To get to the top, every single student must find their own way.

Openness is the ultimate philosophy, but it takes an expert to practice this and no human, however expert, practices this perfectly.

Openness. At Grauer, we believe discovery-based learning encapsulates a good many of history's deepest and most powerful insights into teaching and learning. This is why, many years ago, we trademarked the phrase, "Learn by Discovery," which treats the world as an open classroom. This phrase is extremely valuable intellectual property of our School.

At Grauer, students spend their days in a Socratic environment on our natural, green, campus. Hence, we integrate the best of Waldorf education, which is why you will find "arts across the curriculum" and so much nature and experiential learning working their way into our days. We treasure what Maria Montessori had to teach us about holistic, child-centered education: about giving students "choices" and clear "voices". The Harkness method ensures that most classes take place around a table where everyone is eye to eye in an open-minded atmosphere where the teacher is the facilitator, not the focus. And in those classes our teachers attempt to use Socratic Method: they believe that their role as "teacher" is to engage students in cooperative conversations that encourage questioning and critical thinking as they develop their own clear voices (rather than primarily "filling up" those students with the teacher's supposed expertise)—much of the wisdom of the Socratic teacher lies in listening and probing students into their own wisdom.

John Dewey's emphasis on hands-on education has led to far more programs at Grauer than most people realize: our "Learn by Discovery" approach owes a debt to Dewey's notion that students need to "learn by doing". And things like our proposal process have turned our school more into the progressive environment Dewey envisioned. Paolo Friere's work remains our conscience as we keep our school boundaries permeable and engage with our community as a compassionate and humanitarian partner. As our students come of age they understand how they can make a difference in the wider world. Albert Einstein was an undisputed genius who reminded us: "Imagination is the highest form of intelligence." Hence we avoid overly prescriptive and test-centric curriculum. Our students are entrepreneurial.

Mastery Learning, first described by the great Benjamin Bloom, is one of the most difficult yet powerful philosophies to implement—few schools can pull off mastery learning because it takes extensive monitoring and individualization, but those schools that stick with it and refuse to create big or impersonal classrooms will find almost infinite rewards as students learn to take full responsibility for their own development.

Grauer integrates best practices from various other sources of wisdom as well: service learning, self-directed education, technological and hybrid education, free schooling, and our acclaimed expeditionary philosophy. With all these theories to spin into action, no wonder educators world over visit and study our refined methods.

No one expression, slogan, mission statement, or aphorism will guide us all the time. May openness always transcend ideology. None of the above-cited visionary geniuses would ever have reduced their belief system or educational philosophy down to a tweet.

We want our students and teachers to try classes for fun, run wild ideas up the flagpole, make mistakes, follow a passion—then reject the passion in favor of another. We want everyone at our school to do enough things that they are drawn to do rather than essentially plotting out a preordained path. We believe they will achieve more enduring outcomes this way. And, ultimately, they will arrive at their own philosophies this way.

Grauer is not a beginner school—the special blend of all these powerful educational philosophies and schools of thought is our art. Without hard work, perseverance, originality and creativity they mean nothing. Each of these trends or movements is another color for our palette, which becomes our own, unique artwork. This artwork, The Grauer School, has been evolving and refining for nearly three decades in order to stay exciting, courageous, relevant, and dynamic, but it is deeply rooted on a solid ground of educational heritage. We honor the pantheon of great educational philosophers who have opened up so many vistas for us.


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