From the Middle School Director’s Desk: On Education Research and Friends Schools

October 29, 2019

This summer I had the privilege of attending two professional development programs with other senior administrators from Moorestown Friends. In mid-June, I attended “Leading in the Manner of Friends” along with Head of School Julia de la Torre, Assistant Head of School Chris Kimberly, Upper School Director Meredith Godley, and Lower School Director Jenel Giles. This workshop, offered by Friends Council on Education at Pendle Hill (a Quaker retreat center just outside of Philadelphia), provided space for Friends schools administrators to reflect on what it means to lead in a Friends school and how we are uniquely positioned to provide robust educational opportunities through the 21st century. In July, I attended “Learning Environments for Tomorrow” along with Julia, Chris, and Meredith. This conference, offered at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, focused on how to ensure our offerings and environments are best meeting students’ needs while staying true to the underlying fundamentals of strong educational programs.

I departed Pendle Hill reflecting on the Quaker concept of continuing revelation and how it relates to our ever-evolving understanding of so many facets of our community and educational program. As a non-Quaker, I understand the concept of continuing or continuous revelation to mean that the truth never ceases to be accessible, that no one individual holds the key to all truths, and that truth is ever-evolving. Continuing revelation helps us to know that our work is never done when it comes to understanding and supporting the myriad identities represented in our community. Continuing revelation also guides us to understand why our academic program cannot remain stagnant and why we must consistently evolve, grow, and change to best meet the needs of our students (whose worlds are rapidly changing). Continuing revelation leads us to make space for new knowledge and to keep our minds and spirits open and questioning what we have learned in the past. Continuing revelation is a beautiful metaphor for the middle school years, when individuals are evolving and changing on what seems like a daily basis (if not more swiftly).

Our time in Cambridge was launched by Daniel Wilson, the director of the School of Education’s Project Zero program. In his opening remarks, Wilson reminded us about what we know to be the core principles of strong educational programming.  Wilson cited renowned theorists Jean Piaget, Margaret Washburn, Lev Vygotsky, and John Dewey to reinforce the critical need for designing learning as complex, visible, social, and informal.  Piaget’s theory of constructivism guides our understanding that learning is complex, unpredictable, and cannot and should not be overly standardized. Washburn’s theories highlight that most learning, as it is being formed, is externalized and visible. Vygotsky’s theories of social constructivism guide us to understand that knowledge is built and mediated through a social lens. And finally, Dewey’s critical theories expand upon the value of informal educational structures, and identify that learning is most impactful when the learner is directly involved in setting their own goals, charting their own progress, and evaluating their own achievements. Wilson’s talk was a wonderful reminder of what educators learn in graduate programs across the country (likely around the world): that the industrial model of education, designed to produce productive assembly line or factory workers, is no longer applicable today.

Both of these professional experiences further reinforced to me the critical value of programs such as our 5th grade Genius Hour and 7th grade Quest. Our students participate in these dynamic programs under the guidance of our experienced faculty, and with a roadmap inspired by and true to the academically rigorous experience for which Moorestown Friends School is known. Both of these unique, faculty-designed curricula prioritize choice, flexibility, and students charting their own vibrant educational courses while constructing knowledge along the way. These are not the only examples of project-based learning taking place in the middle school; we are continuing to evolve in ways that allow our academic program to push students to engage and excel intellectually in authentic contexts. Our students need to be able to take the learning that occurs in the classroom and apply it to new and unfamiliar contexts, and programs such as these provide them with the foundational skills to do just that.