Friday, October 19, 2012

Creating the guardians of tomorrow's world

Much has been written about middle school education. Often, this is a time in a student’s life that is filled with change and anxiety, and school administrators have begun to scrutinize these sometimes tumultuous years by thinking about creating learning opportunities outside the traditional classroom. At Summit, there is a commitment to this thinking and middle school students are reaping the rewards of a curriculum that allows students to step out into the real world and learn in a dynamic  environment not bound by walls.

Believe it or not, the idea of formal learning out of the classroom started in open air sanatoriums that sprung up in Europe in the latter part of the 19th century. During that time, fresh air and sunshine as much as medicine were used to treat tuberculosis. The idea extended to Britain during the first half of the 20th century, with the focus on improving the health of children who were seen as sickly and susceptible to TB. The schools had no walls and purposefully harsh but healthy environmental conditions. By the 1940s, there were 155 open-air schools in Britain and their goal was to improve both health and academics.

These open-air schools shared much with the philosophy of a set of schools now thriving in the U.S. known as Outward Bound Schools. Outward Bound programs are based on a development-by-challenge philosophy, put in place by the school's founder Kurt Hahn, an eccentric and innovative turn of the century educator, who believed in the need for real, hands-on, practical challenges for the development of character in adolescent boys. Hahn emphasized that Outward Bound was about training the mind through the body, and he attempted to provide youth with challenging experiences in an educational environment designed to help kids develop inner strength, character and resolve. Oxford educated, Hahn developed an educational practice focusing on active service which was later adopted by the International Baccalaureate, and it is here where his lasting contribution to primary and secondary education lies. Educational practices like this led directly to one of our mission statements: To serve as an excellent preparation for students intending to study in rigorous college-preparatory high school programs, including IB and AP.

There have been other visionaries too. Vermont native and educational pioneer John Dewey believed that learning was active and schooling unnecessarily long and restrictive. His idea was that children came to school to do things and live in a community which gave them real, guided experiences to foster their capacity to contribute to society. Dewey felt it was vitally important that education should not be the teaching of mere fact, but that the skills and knowledge which students learn be integrated fully into their lives as citizens and human beings.

I studied these two men intensely while in grad school and found a lot of merit in their ideas. I know we at Summit do too. Academics are at the core of our mission, but our mission also states we are here to “to inspire in students a lifelong love of learning, a desire for self-development, and good citizenship.” The question of inspiration is one we should really think about. What inspires our children? What inspires our teaching? By being reflective I feel, as Hahn does, that we help young people become empowered to develop their innate abilities "to be the leaders and guardians of tomorrow's world."

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