What Are Schools Thinking?

The implicit dichotomy between a humanizing education and a lucrative one is false. Employers consistently say they seek graduates who can think independently and analytically. Students learn to do so by means of technical skills, of course — which public universities teach — but also by learning the great and timeless ideas an education at a Public Ivy conveys.

— Charles R. Pruitt, “Politics is Cutting the Heart Out of Public Ivies,” Washington Post, Saturday, August 26, 2016

The above quote is worthy of PreK-12 institutions’ attention. As schools — at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels — face economic realities (tuition increases, stretched financial aid resources, student outcome pressure), we can easily fall prey to reactive thinking and planning — if, that is, we’re not looking ahead a decade or more. If, for instance, the dominant story asks, “Why isn’t my kid at such-and-such a college?” or “Why doesn’t my recent university graduate have a good job?” then schools have better work to 1) declare what they believe our purpose as schools should be, and 2) how they tell that story so that it’s stronger than the often surface discourse that passes for actual thinking. Schools, in other words, have to keep their purpose front-and-center, and that means naming this purpose and telling this story.

Let me unpack this. I accept the premise that a liberal arts education is, first and foremost, the preparation of people for civic service — i.e., the education of a citizenry that can think through complexity in order to protect a democracy that serves the common good. It is my belief that this stance simultaneously prepares people to enter any number of careers. In other words, I hope that graduates of high school and beyond are employable. And so, education shouldn’t be either preparation for employment or for humanization — it should be both. This is hardly an original idea, but it’s an idea that, sadly, doesn’t have the stickiness it should.

Simon Sinek has given a famous talk where he reminds us that any person, business, school — whatever — must think about its “Why?” Here it is:

This is an important idea because, without a strong “Why?” we remain in a reactive stance to planning and operating. Schools should be proactive with its story, with its “Why?”

At the outset, I said that schools need to declare their purpose and tell their story. But what is this story? I believe that we do our students the very best service if we teach them to think deeply and to help them develop dispositions such that they crave complexity, big problems, and creative environments. To have these ambitious dreams for them is, I think, our responsibility. I also believe in delivering dispositional learning through a carefully-curated liberal arts curriculum where engaging, important content serves as the vehicle for their creative and rigorous learning.

In the past year, I have been immersed in the research of thinkers like Ron Ritchhart, David Perkins, Tina Blythe, and the other members of Project Zero at HGSE (hence my reference to dispositions above, which is a cornerstone idea of this research group). The framework and practices that have emerged from the ideas of Teaching for Understanding, Visible Thinking, and Cultures of Thinking partner with a school’s and a teacher’s expertise to sharpen the impact on the user of this education — our students.

I believe that if we want students to emerge from our schools with the habits of mind, the resilience, and the facility to transfer understanding, we need to double down on the value of thinking. This is a story for the ages — and one I’m proud to re-tell.


About kcosta380

Kevin J. Costa is the Director of The Curiosity Shop at McDonogh School (Owings Mills, Maryland), the school's Community for Teaching & Learning. He is the founding director of the school’s Institute for Shakespeare and Renaissance Studies, an interdisciplinary program that explores the plays and history of Early Modern England through a scholar/practitioner approach. Kevin is also education director for the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in Baltimore, MD. He holds a PhD in English with a concentration in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, and drama, and has taught at the secondary and postsecondary levels. Kevin has trained in classical theater at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, and he was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities award to study the teaching of Shakespeare at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, where he now serves as a teaching artist for the Library’s National Teacher Corps. Active on stage and as a director with the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, he is also a proud member of the Shakespeare Theatre Association, an international organization of Shakespeare theater companies.
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