Once and Future School: Exhibit A

I have written in a previous issue about the Once and Future School.  Now I want to show you what I have in mind.

Spencer Dicks is a Middle School history teacher who, along with Upper School chemistry teacher Becky Sundseth, was accepted in 2011 into the first class of the Virtual Independent School Network’s (VISnet) Master Teacher Academy.  And this year, Mr. Dicks has added to his teaching responsibilities the role of part-time Instructional Technology Coordinator for the Middle School.  Mr. Dicks is what we call an “early adopter.”  We can’t all be early adopters, but I am thankful that some of us are.  They lead the way for the rest of us and help us find our way through these enormous challenges.

The Once

This is a liberal arts educational experience, well-designed for Middle School students.

You will see here that Mr. Dicks has designed a lesson that helps students enter into fundamental political and constitutional questions.  In the spirit of our classical education, students are expected to read, understand, analyze, debate, and write about Alexander Hamilton’s argument for the electoral college in “Federalist Number 86”  The lesson is designed to demand of students a mastery of the grammar of history (starting with definitions and key disputed elections).  Once the students have understood the basics, they move on to read carefully and analytically both primary sources like the Federalist Papers and also incisive opinions by important contemporary thinkers.  The analysis and subsequent debate requires students to think critically and to employ the tools of logic or dialectic at their disposal.  Finally, they close out this lesson by writing a letter in which they state their position, with reference to the sources they have read.  Mr. Dicks is introducing these students to a conversation that is part of the Great Tradition we want our students to enter into.

The Future

We need to be careful about the claims we make about the new technologies and new ways of learning that are available to us these days.  They will not, as some claim, completely revolutionize learning.  Learning will still need to be rooted in the fascinating but elusive human quest for knowledge and understanding.  Learning will always be challenging—there is no royal road to learning, not even a royal digital road.  But the tools that you see in this video do afford Mr. Dicks and his fellow teachers some new pedagogical moves.  Think of teaching as a workshop.  These new tools do not supplant the essential role of the teacher-craftsman.  But some of them are very powerful, and we are excited to explore them.  Here is what we are learning, what you can see in Mr. Dicks’s class:
·      A learning experience that maximizes student engagement.  Note that the students are doing the work, not Mr. Dicks.  (His work is in the lesson design, in the coaching and guiding of the students, and in the assessment.)  You can see from the video how involved and invested students are. 
·      A corollary of this engagement is that students are intrinsically motivated to do well in this lesson.  Students know that they will be expected to debate in the fishbowl format, and they know they will be writing a letter.  Mr. Dicks does not have to badger or coerce them to learn.  He has crafted a lesson that is fundamentally interesting and engaging. 
·      The learning in this class is highly individualized and adaptable to different kinds of learners.  Some students move very quickly through texts and understand the material straight away: they can move right to the analysis and argument.  Others need time to ruminate on the texts, and they have time to do that at their own pace.  Some are auditory learners and can listen to the historical introductions as many times as they need to. 
·      The teacher’s role is as the designer of learning experiences for the students.  Sometimes this involves delivering content, but with global connections and digital networks the teacher more and more becomes the curator of the content, setting students up to learn from great books and rich digital content.

The Once AND Future

What I most love about this kind of lesson is that it is not radically new.  That may sound odd to some, who want a revolution in learning that overturns all we have done before.  But Trinity School was founded on the notion that there is much wisdom in the past and that we ignore it at our peril.  The best twenty-first century learning is learning that transposes the pedagogical wisdom of our forefathers and foremothers into a key that this next generation of learners can understand and grasp. 

Nearly three quarters of a century ago, Dorothy Sayers wrote her seminal essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” in which she argued for a focus on the liberal arts (the Trivium) instead of a sterile and futile focus on subjects.  She concluded her essay with these remarks:

What use is it to pile task on task and prolong the days of labor, if at the close the chief object is left unattained? It is not the fault of the teachers--they work only too hard already. The combined folly of a civilization that has forgotten its own roots is forcing them to shore up the tottering weight of an education—a structure that is built upon sand. They are doing for their pupils the work which the pupils themselves ought to do. For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain (italics added).
What you see in Mr. Dicks’ lesson is a class that is doing the work of learning themselves.  You see students learning how to learn.  This is a class that has the “chief object” of learning in its sights, and we find it inspiring and motivating.  It is the kind of education that good teachers have been offering since Socrates plied his questions in the Agora of Athens.  It is the sort of education that will keep Trinity relevant as we move into the future.



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