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What Does Learning Look Like in the Mid-21st Century?

by Greg Bamford, Associate Head of School

At Charles Wright, we’re always working on getting better. At the same time, we’re trying to make sure certain things don’t change.

That’s the paradox of innovation. As the Associate Head of School for Strategy and Innovation, my role is to help the school navigate the creative tension between the school’s strong traditions and becoming a school of the future.

Our Memories of School

I met with a group of Lower School parents over coffee recently, and we started by asking their memories of elementary school.

What’s amazing is how fresh those memories are. School is a special time, and an emotional one – it’s one of the reasons why Charles Wright parents make an investment in the best education available.

Sometimes, those memories lead us to expect a classroom to look a certain way. If we grew up sitting in classrooms where the desks were in rows and the teachers were in the front, it’s only natural that we expect the same for our children.

At the same time, the world is changing. Kids are facing different challenges, and they’ll graduate into a world where college and career is different. Technology is making new forms of instruction possible, and there are new ideas in education we can learn from.

If Charles Wright does its job, it will look different in 15 years – but that only works if the right things stay the same.

What Shouldn’t Change About School

When we shared our memories of elementary school, what stood out were features that we hope will never change at Charles Wright:

  • Relationships. Many parents spoke about a teacher who loved them, challenged them, and saw the unique gifts they brought to class. Sometimes that teacher was also a disciplinarian – someone who cared enough to hold them accountable.
  • Challenge. One parent spoke of practicing math every day. Every day it got harder, but never so hard that they just gave up. By practicing regularly, and building each skill on the last, they developed a love for math that led them to their tech career.
  • Exploration. Many memories were about exploring – an orchard on the school grounds, or a trip to Mount Rainier. Kids learn a tremendous amount from venturing into the unknown, where they can encounter academic concepts, interpersonal skills within a group, and the opportunity to reflect.
  • Character. Many parents spoke of a time that their behavior was corrected, or that exemplary character was modeled by adults. Our school’s values of integrity, respect, compassion, perseverance, and excellence may be even more important in a world of rapid change.

Questions We Need To Consider

So what should we be considering as a school? What lessons can we learn from what works elsewhere?

  • The need to learn, unlearn, and relearn. Much of the information students will need to thrive in their careers doesn’t exist yet. In technical fields, some of what students learn now will be proven incorrect or incomplete. As a result, cycles of training and retraining are becoming shorter. Our students must know how to learn and relearn, whether they’re in a formal school or not.
  • Transdisciplinary problem solving. In an age of artificial intelligence, many purely technical skills are being reduced to an algorithm. The thorniest, and highest value, challenges of this century require more than one discipline to address. Global trade involves economics, political science, cultural competency, environmental science and engineering.
  • Emotional intelligence. The World Economic Forum recently listed the top ten job skills for the year 2020. At the core of each was emotional intelligence, the ability to manage your own emotions, understand the way you affect other people, and work in teams to solve problems and implement change.
  • “High tech and high touch.” The rise of technology, paradoxically, is making intentional time outdoors even more valuable. A growing body of research indicates that time outdoors stimulates the brain’s development, reduces anxiety, and increases curiosity.

The good news is, many of the things Charles Wright has always done contribute to these skills. But still, your child’s classroom may look a little bit different than what you experienced as a student. A modern classroom increasingly sees students doing more work, with the teacher in a “coaching” position rather than talking at the front. The room itself may look messier or sound louder, as more students work on projects. And it may mean more time outside, on the fields, and off campus.

Fortunately, Charles Wright is already thinking of ways to get even better by adopting what we know works for kids. Our Innovation Lab, which will be ready to open next fall, is one space where students will connect technical skills to emotional intelligence. Our new preschool program is rooted in an emphasis on inquiry and exploration, and is encouraging us to think about these concepts more broadly in our lower school. And our new upper school schedule is designed to create more time for collaboration and project-based work.

Learn more about Preschool

Charles Wright Academy remains committed to academic challenge, a well-rounded extracurricular program, and the character development that will always be important. But as the world continues to change around us, I am invigorated by the work we are doing to continue delivering the highest quality education to our students.

Learn More About Charles Wright Academy