The article, Three Principles for Schools of the Future, describes the essential traits for a future-focused school. What makes The Grauer School a "future school," is a set of deep and shared beliefs about the nature of school.
"Try to be a person of value, not of success."
The Grauer School is a school of the future. We're a community of students and teachers. A parent recently asked about "something magic going on here." What is it? Perhaps our ability to refer to our students and teachers as one population - a community of 200 students and teachers - is the first clue to the magic.
Our schedule allows for interdisciplinary, two-hour classes and many daily and weekly trips for hands-on projects and off-campus field work. We don't rely solely upon a conventional grading system, and we've never had a "one size fits all" AP class. But that's all programming, and the magic goes beyond that.
Grauer students exploring sand dunes on their Expedition in Phoenix, Arizona - September 11, 2017
Many educators visit us. A few have said: "We need to do that," and so there are several schools out there modeled on Grauer now. However, other visiting professionals leave saying, "We could never do that." After all, many independent schools do quite well with traditional grades and 55-minute class periods. But features aren't what makes magic either. So what does?
What makes us a "future school," is a set of deep and shared beliefs about the nature of school. You can read them quickly, but it takes most people some years to live them. "Three Principles for Schools of the Future" was written by Greg Bamford, Head of School, Watershed School, and he explains, In a future-focused school you find three essential traits (Bamford's words are shown in all-italics):
1. Relevance Drives Learning
Core courses are connected to real world, challenges, and experts. "Expeditionary learning" means that teachers feel free to teach in and out of the classroom or to jump in a van any time the class ought to see or visit something. Collaboration between teachers is simple, intuitive (which takes a lot of experience), and routine.
For a future-focused school, a relevant curriculum prepares students to deal with complicated issues, understand multiple perspectives, identify the intersections between disciplines, and design original solutions. At Grauer, the final project, rather than being just a test, is a portfolio in every class. When surveyed, our students claim they understand the relevance and apply their learnings to the world outside the school in far greater numbers than all comparison groups, nationwide.
In a future school, what happens outside the classroom is just as important as what happens inside it.
2. Who You Are Is As Important As What You Know
The research is clear: whether you call it "non-cognitive traits," or "character," they are just as important as academic skills in determining life outcomes.
At Grauer, we use consistent, daily language to talk about our core values. The values we live by are even built into our grading system and project evaluations. We design our program to provide consistent opportunities to practice and grow these ways of being in the world. So, our values are more than academic.
There are tradeoffs required of a future school. Our expeditions program, for instance, removes two weeks of academic coursework, and seniors devote another full week to public presentations of their senior portfolios.
Grauer students focusing on nature during their Expedition in Idyllwild, California - September 12, 2017
But this shared challenge of values development and real-world learning sets the stage for conversations about resourcefulness, perseverance, self-advocacy and compassion, that blend into the whole year and into every classroom. Even in a student-teacher conference about calculus, for instance, this same framework is used to deliver feedback and set goals, making it clear that character is something we're always working on getting better at.
Those who have been around Grauer for a while have become used to all this flexibility and collaboration, but for many schools our "normalcy" would be a programming impossibility. Nevertheless, going to school at Grauer is something like working at a dot.com startup.
Grauer students even evaluate themselves and compare the results to the "evals" of their teachers. For a future-focused school, this emphasis on character develops some of the most complex and difficult human abilities. In an age of constant re-learning and re-invention, the ability to understand yourself and to manage how you react to others becomes ever more valuable.
3. We Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable
"Adversity and failure" doesn't make an appealing slogan for a bumper sticker. All families need to value constructive adversity if they choose to send their kids to Grauer.
Challenge should certainly be academic. It is important for students to develop a broad range of refined thinking skills and familiarity with meaningful academic content. That's one form of discomfort, as students are progressively asked to do more and more. Grauer's mastery learning program means that students keep working on things until they are "really" done. If your work is substandard, you face it and you persevere, rather than just dropping it and moving on.
Discomfort can of course be physical. While we are not an outdoors school, our expeditions program builds this skill. When we engage in expeditionary, global, or cross-cultural travel, our accommodations are non-touristic, typically home-stays, tents, or hostels.
But so much of the discomfort we believe in encountering is personal, even emotional. Collaboration can be uncomfortable because it leads to conflict, and requires negotiation skills. And it can be hard to be given feedback on your character traits on top of feedback on your writing skills.
Schools of the future are also careful to make school fun, and to provide time for students to return to their comfort zone. We value play, we have celebrations, and we schedule time to come together as a community: weekly assemblies, cafes, songfests, coming together in natural outdoor surroundings, and gatherings of many kinds. These times are critical to provide everyone a chance to express creativity and individuality, and to reflect on the lessons that come from challenge.
A sunset view at Lake Powell in Arizona during Grauer's Expeditions Week - September 11, 2017
We live in an era of rapid change, what many thinkers describe as VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Navigating the environment requires a comfort with discomfort, a lack of rigidity, a willingness to be stretched. We cap our classes at 14 and our average class size is seven. That means if you are a student at Grauer you get used to being 'in the line of fire." There is no hiding, no artificial rows.
Routine "age-mixing," means there's little artificial separation into cliques—a troubling byproduct of larger schools: everyone is called upon to interact with all ages and "types." These features combine with our Socratic instruction and expeditionary learning programs serve to "spike" our "Student Engagement" scores far beyond norms, year after year in nationwide surveying. The fact that we have been developing these programs with dedication and consistency for almost three decades has served to drive us farther still into the future of education.
We thank Greg Bamford for developing these "Three Principles for Schools of the Future," and it is both exciting and an honor to be a part of such a school.