Connecting with Pat Bassett

Pat Bassett was President of the National Association of Independent Schools from 2001 to 2013, representing over 1,400 schools. Since 2013, he has been a Principal at Heads Up Educational Consulting.

What do you think is the ideal school that you could conceive of today? Let’s focus on an upper school to make it simple.

Patrick Bassett

Patrick Bassett

Pat: My comments actually apply across all divisions. I’m replying on the basis that I’ve spent 40 years walking into schools. So, I have seen what has been happening in improving practices in teaching and learning. If I walked into the ideal school, here’s what I would see, and I have seen every example I will give you. There’s a six-year-old first grader in tears because the bell rang and he wasn’t “done learning.” He was coming out of a STEM class, a maker lab; it was completely hands-on with first graders, and this boy didn’t want a bell to interrupt his deep engagement. In another school’s first grade class I found the students huddled around a big table working on a recent class project. They couldn’t wait to explain what they were learning to me. These first graders had some ownership of what they would study, and they chose an urban study unit. It started with an expedition into the city. They recorded what they found in the city, investigating which part the municipality itself owned, what functions the citizens required and expected the municipality to operate. This was higher level assessment and observation that got them out from behind their desks. Then they took what they had learned and built their own ideal city out of LEGO blocks. They created every piece of the city, private and public, including the transportation system. They were interested in waste removal, the dump trucks. They were so eager to explain to me that they were programming the dump trucks, and they showed me how the dump trucks would move through the city and where they would stop, the centralized places for trash disposal. These were six-year-old kids, coding, building, and conceptualizing an ideal city. This was way ahead of what everyone else was doing in first grade in most schools I’ve seen.

Here is the second element: There are many NAIS member independent schools that are creating centers of innovative teaching and learning. They want to become the destination point for training current and future teachers, and moving from the old paradigm to a new paradigm. The paradigm shifts in education have been identified by the MacArthur Foundation as “The Big Shifts” in education, pre-school through graduate school (and everywhere in between): i.e., moving from teacher centered to student centered, from knowing to doing, from individual effort to collaborative effort, from schools to networks, from single sourcing to crowdsourcing of information and knowledge.

The combination of these shifts moves the locus of interest and ownership in learning from the teacher to the learner, raising engagement dramatically. Whose enthusiasm is most important? In the 21st century, it’s the students’.

These big shifts as well challenge the current practice of teachers and schools working in isolation. Many if not most teachers are stuck in sandboxes of their own making. Psychologists have long noted that teachers conduct parallel play just like kindergarteners and first graders in the sandbox: i.e., they don’t play together, they don’t network, or connect; they aren’t affiliated with other schools or networks. This should not be true of 21st century schools. Especially schools that want to be destinations in innovation, that should be networking in their locales and around the world.

Another big shift is from knowing to doing. As far as I can tell, for 600 years, the focus has been on knowing, and access to knowledge has been, up until the last 20 years, restricted to the elite. Until about 200 years ago, most people didn’t have access to free, public education, so only the rich had access to expensive private education. Until the internet, there really was no democracy of access to information and knowledge. Now there is; anyone has access, a highly transformative change in the status quo. Schools are leveraging that opportunity and not just in STEM classes where the students are “makers” but also outside of class, where our students are creating their own learning experiences by interviewing, for example, Americans in different walks of life, interviewing holocaust survivors in their locale, and the like. The Smithsonian now accepts any oral history that an American creates. So instead of memorizing for a test and forgetting it in 10 days, students are now makers of information, curators of knowledge. That kid’s video of his boomer grandparents’ recollections from the early civil rights marches or anti-war marches in the 1960s, some professor will surface 100 years from now and teach from it.

That shift from learning to doing echoes some of Marc Prensky’s thinking. Can you speak to that?

Pat: There are a couple different angles. There is a population that is underserved by education across the board. That is boys, in terms of college preparation and learning in general. There are developmental issues at play not fully addressed at the lower level. We continue to think boys will thrive sitting at their desks 6 hours a day. Only a tiny percentage does. Boys more than ever need an environment where they are engaged. They need to take pro-social and intellectual risks. We now see that 60% of matriculation in college is female. This is true of professional and graduate school, as well. And a large reason for the disengagement of boys is that they need to engage their minds by engaging their hands, by making and fixing things. The boys in boys’ school do that, and they thrive.

Technology is going to help us differentiate in assessment and in delivery of skills training. There are varying and wide degrees of disparity in learning styles, and yet there still is, especially in secondary school and college, one primary style of delivery, lecture-focused teaching. This doesn’t work for a growing portion of the population. We have technology that can help us differentiate. Teaching of skills will increasingly become customized and promotion through a curriculum that is competency based instead of seat-time based. We will eventually all use computer-adaptive formative assessments that provide immediate and sophisticated feedback that is useful to the teacher and the learner, as opposed to standardized, summative tests (end of year) that are too late to leave time for corrective learning. Just as students are motivated in the gaming environment to improve their skills and earn higher status badges, they’ll be so in academic gaming sets as well. Once we capitalize on technology to customize assessment and differentiate instruction, our schools can be doing what independent schools have always promised but too seldom delivered, teaching to the needs of the specific child.

I was at a colloquium dinner and discussion at Boston University recently, and one of the things that came up among this group of educators was that we have some compelling (albeit not perfect) models for what the schools you’re describing should look like, such as High Tech High, and there is a growing consensus that these are the skill sets that are needed today. So, why are we not seeing a critical mass of scaling up these paradigms to large scale educational delivery?

Pat: There are so many reasons. First of all, there are, in fact, scores of public, charter, and independent schools becoming more project based, so this progressive movement is finally gaining traction. That being said, there is resistance. Lisa Laskow Lahey and Robert Kegan of Harvard wrote a book called Immunity to Change. Their general theme is that we know what we should do—for example, quitting smoking. We know we will have a higher risk of dying from lung cancer, and yet people keep smoking. There must be unconscious factors that override that most elemental instinct to survive. Smokers are all pariahs in the public’s eye (“second-hand smoke”), but the network of pariahs is very strong.

So, too, in education: We know there is a prevailing wind to make changes but there are also powerful counter-winds preventing it. The current model has worked for 600 years. It is hard to throw out something that has worked pretty well for a lot of people for 600 years. But it has worked best for teachers. Teachers prosper in the way we have delivered teaching. We teach the way we have been taught. Until we have a generation of teachers that have been taught differently, there is built-in conscious and unconscious resistance. Teachers have a high fear of failure. Why would I experiment with a model when it seems to work pretty well? They ask: “Do you expect me to change the tires while the vehicle is moving?” Yes, you must change the tires while the kids are in the class, even though it produces disequilibrium. That’s too much to ask for some people. Finally, who is resistant most to project based learning? It’s the best students, with the highest grades and on the honor roll; they often hate it, because now they have to collaborate with their classmates. They know how to memorize better than anyone else. And their parents are often hugely resistant to new methodologies that challenge their children’s equilibrium and success. It is human nature to prefer predictability over change. People don’t want disruptive change from leadership. This is why people don’t want to sit with Teachers of the Year. People don’t want to be Teachers of the Year because their peers will repudiate them. They are challenging what works well for teachers. It’s no surprise that the traction is hard to get.

No doubt in my mind that we will, over time, convert to much more the delivery system we are talking about because it works better for kids. It’s not just High Tech High. The Illinois Math and Science Academy has been doing it for 30 years. They have some of the best test scores in the country for math and science. Theirs is entirely project based. This is not a radically new idea; it’s the conversion that’s slow. What’s the pathway forward? How about a toe in the water such as signature events that are project based? Each grade has one event for three days. It’s not a project where you are in a cubby by yourself. This is meaningful—hands on, go someplace, interview people—and it works. Kids look forward to such variety and find it exhilarating You can start small. In Jim Collins’ Great by Choice, his research validates the wisdom of initiating small experiments until they gain traction and become systemic changes.

One thing that strikes me, not just looking back 30 years to models, but there are many commonalities in what we are promulgating with John Dewey and the Kindergarten Movement in the late 1800s, Maria Montessori, John-Jacques Rousseau. It just never became the common modality.

Pat: Yes, and yet it did appear and take hold in other venues. Look at the Boy Scouts. That experience is all hands-on project-based, team-focused expeditionary learning. There are a hundred years of experience with progressive movements in education. You’re right, this isn’t newfangled, it’s been in place for 100 years or more in various manifestations. John Dewey’s Lab School. Waldorf Schools. Reggio Emilia and Montessori schools. These models can reassure minds of the current practitioners who resist change, because they have been working well for literally scores of years.

What would you add to educators, parents, or interested general public readers of this blog?

Pat: Be pushy. An NAIS study concluded that 20% of the parent population is what it called “pushy parents.” They challenge the school. They ask, “Why are we doing it this way?” They want the school to try something else. The best way forward is not coercive, where everyone needs to follow the same pathway. Even the smallest school can have two sections of algebra one; if you have two sections, you can give kids, teachers, parents a choice. It’s not just at the Illinois Math and Science Academy. Why don’t you take the teacher who is creative and innovative and knows kids and is raising interest in learning geometry a different way, take that teacher and give him or her the option of doing what the teacher wants. This could be competency-based, project-based Algebra I. I saw a class where the students were throwing a ball at a basketball hoop and using stop motion cameras to figure out if it would go in the hoop. This might be a small class. Everyone else who wants traditional Algebra I, that’s your second option. From my 46 years in the business, seeing schools doing what I’m talking about, I would tell kids take the experimental class. Even if it’s one out of six classes that you take, take it.

We all have experienced a loss since we haven’t gotten to read any of your writing recently. Do you have any current writing projects?

Pat: Yes, we just sent one from my firm, Heads Up Ed Educational Consulting. We have created a registry for people who aspire to leadership roles in education; Heads of School, second level leadership, and anyone who signs up gets a monthly blog article. The first one was sent out today. It is about an interesting topic, the intersection of leadership style with school culture. If your readers are interested, they can read the article here.

Jim Tracy is Head of School at Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, RI.