The Increasing Relevance of Great Schools in a Technology-Driven World

St. George’s Independent School Head Chaplain, Jessica Abell, recently asked two questions during a homily at the Germantown campus: “How many of you have Alexa at home? And, what do you ask her? The first question elicited a multitude of raised hands, and the second question included answers such as: “I ask her the answer to math problems.” “I ask her how to spell things.” “I ask her to tell me funny jokes/to read me stories/to teach me dinosaur facts.” How interesting. One student said Alexa can also order things…Yikes!

In my experience as a student, I didn’t have Alexa to provide such information. I remember arguing with a classmate early in middle school about who had more major championships to his name, Rod Laver or Ken Rosewall. We could not resolve such a dispute quickly.  We needed a library or an authority on the topic, perhaps our tennis coach. As a result, we just argued in such situations, at times seemingly endlessly. It was not unheard of for similar disagreements to end at last with grass stains and bruises. Today’s students get to move quickly past finding out the right answer to questions far harder than the Laver or Rosewall question and toward more important challenges. How is what I know important? What else do we need to know? Where is the most reliable source of information that might help us? What do we now do as a result of what we now know? How do we communicate what we have learned?The brand of middle school disagreements I participated in are virtually extinct today.  Of course, the quick accessibility of facts is not a news bulletin in 2018, but understanding its impact, its challenges and opportunities, occupies those of us working with students. As educators, we might feel tempted to feel a bit obsolete in a world where asking a question often takes longer than it takes to provide the answer. However, the teachers at St. George’s, teachers willing to take advantage of what we know about how kids learn best, have never been more necessary for young people, for we are moving into a time when the primacy of content delivery is waning, and the role of teaching skills, such as collaboration and synthesizing disparate pieces of data are ascending. It is not good enough to know something (though students must also know things); they must know what to do with what they know, how to make meaning from it, and how to work with others to create shared understanding and purpose. They also have to learn how to disagree, how to compromise, and how to stand their ground. And increasingly, we must help student become accomplished at discriminating what is true in a bottomless sea of falsehoods. Against a backdrop of national debates that are too often devoid of quality thinking or requisite facts, the work of our school is taking on a greater importance. I am reminded daily at St. George’s that the best learning experiences happen when our students are connected to each other through the work of a great teacher. In such an atmosphere, students have the appropriate space to work together, to disagree and to agree, and to find common ground.

Indeed, becoming educated is not a solitary act, and it does not have just one beneficiary. The education our students work toward at our school is a gift to them individually, yes, but it is also a gift to the families they will be a part of, the professions they will occupy, and the communities within which they will live and serve. Choosing St. George’s and partnering positively with the school to educate these remarkable kids has a ripple effect that will undoubtedly last a life-time. In short, as parents our choice of and partnership with the school is among the greatest individual gifts we can give our children, and it is far, far more as well—such an education has the power not only to transform the trajectory of the lives of our individual children, but also the power to transform the neighborhoods, cities, and nation they will inhabit.At St. George’s we are busy providing experiences that go far beyond simply content. Whether our kids are making soap and lip balm through the second-grade bee project or they are testing water in our Collierville wetlands with University of Memphis researchers, our students are allowed to go deeper into learning than memorizing facts and content. As advanced as the technology Alexa and Siri represents is, it is equally as limited. Students need a great school like ours to make learning experiences more engaging and more collaborative, thus allowing us to prepare them to thrive in the lives they will lead.

Soft Skills: The Wrong Name for Things So Vital

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The Soft Skills are, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Calling them “soft” makes them sound so wimpy though, doesn’t it? And yet without them our ability to interview successfully for a job, greet a stranger to ask for directions, make someone just arriving feel comfortable, work well with others, choose the hard right over the easy wrong, and contribute to a group that is greater than the sum of its parts disappears. Think of the potential squandered in our nation and in the world because we fail to pass along these essential skills to young people. The risks of our neglect in this area has a price for which the addition of one more battery of standardized tests or one more piece of educational legislation can never make up. To be clear, without a determined, humane, and systemic approach to teaching these “soft skills,” not only do the children who come through our schools suffer but our economy and our overall cultural cohesiveness suffer as well. It is not OK.

Recently, a principal of a nearby high school of several thousand students announced, after regaling the audience with the school’s programs, that the greatest deficit of the students in the school related to the significant lack of “soft skills.” He suggested that they might add a course for seniors to mitigate the gap in this area. In my mind this is far too late.

Last Thursday we had a guest on campus representing a prominent foundation to which St. George’s has applied for a grant. As part of his schedule he met with a number of students. Here is the point: not for one moment was I worried that these kids would do anything but impress him with their engagement, passion, kindness, honesty, courtesy, civility, and clarity of thought. I couldn’t wait for him to meet them. There were no other adults in the room when he met with them–they only could have gotten in the way. I had no doubt that his time with them would likely be the highlight of his visit. They did not learn these skills in a course–in addition to what they learned at home, they learned them by going to school for years within a community, the SGIS community, that prioritizes “soft skills”, names them, celebrates them. They are a vital part of each student’s learning, and our sacred hope is that its value lasts for their lifetime and even beyond it in the lives they will touch.

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Recently, Lori Williamson, our Director of Academic Achievement and Assessment, wrote a letter to our community addressing “soft skills.” I have included it below.

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February 16, 2017

Dear St. George’s Families:

One of the things I love about St. George’s is our dedication to the whole child. In my role as Director of Academic Achievement and Assessment, I am privileged to see firsthand the active learning that happens across all grade levels and campuses. I see St. George’s students sharing their insightful thinking whether they’re reading Hamlet or preparing for their rain forest presentation. I see them assuming the responsibilities of citizenship as they plan service projects. I see them advancing as problem-solving scholars as they collaborate with peers on multi-disciplinary projects. I see the expertise of our teachers as they create academic experiences which teach skills and promote awareness, collaboration, and relationships.

Of course, student performance data is an important measurement tool and is a critical aspect of my role at St. George’s. This is one reason I recently attended the Educational Records Bureau (ERB) conference in Chicago, Illinois. However, while there were plenty of expected sessions on data analysis, what stood out to me at this conference, was the counter-balance of sessions dedicated to the importance of social and emotional learning (SEL). Interestingly, researchers at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) have identified five core SEL skills that enhance one’s ability to tackle daily tasks and challenges: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

What you should know as a St. George’s parent is that these types of so-called “soft skills” are directly linked to academic achievement. In fact, an article in the Journal of Child Development noted a meta-analysis of 213 studies involving over 270,000 kindergarten through twelfth grade students that found students who participated in explicit SEL programs increased their academic achievement by 11 percentile-points.

Not surprisingly, some employers have identified workforce gaps related to these same skills. For example, some of the competencies often ranked as “very important” by employers include: the ability to analyze and problem solve with people from different backgrounds; the ability to locate, organize, and evaluate information from multiple sources; oral and written communication skills; and ethical judgement and decision-making.

I was pleased to reflect upon the caliber of our practice at St. George’s while at the ERB conference. My conference experience underscored the benefit we see in pairing high academic achievement with the all-important “soft skills” required by future employers. I am thankful to see positive relationship, empathy, and ethics working together in our school and serving as a basis for social/emotional learning alongside academic growth. I am thankful to be part of a community that supports the whole child in gaining skills that directly link not only to current achievement but also future success.

Your division director and I welcome your thoughts and comments about the social/emotional learning and academic achievement and assessment of your child. I am always available to join in conversation, along with your division director, regarding your child’s growth.

Sincerely,

Lori Williamson
Director of Academic Achievement and Assessment

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