MPE and Authentic Learning

A Message from the Head of School


The frenzy around the primary election season reminds us of the hoopla we experienced a few months ago as the entire Middle and Upper School enthusiastically engaged in the Mock Primary Election (MPE) — a multi-week, quadrennial event at MFS that dates all the way back to 1960. As you may have heard, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump emerged victorious. Saturday Night Live would have a much more difficult time depicting our student candidates as they eloquently and fervently debated each other on important campaign issues, minus the personal attacks that have become so commonplace today in debates.

Organizing and leading the 1968 Mock Republican Convention (as it was then configured) was my Senior Project at MFS.  It was probably my most memorable student memory – anywhere.  Consistent with future MFS Mock Convention/Primary outcomes, the student body in 1968 got it “wrong,” nominating Nelson Rockefeller rather than Richard Nixon, who eventually emerged as the “real” nominee.  (In the spirit of full disclosure, Nixon and Herbert Hoover were the nation’s two Quaker presidents.)

MPE, masterfully led by History Teacher Judy van Tijn, with a big assist from History Department Chair Clark Thomson and a cast of dozens, is a perfect example of project-based learning. Students engage in the process as candidates, campaign managers, and other political functionaries.  Rather than just focusing on sound bites and campaign craziness, the candidates and their staff become experts in the positions of the “real” candidates.  As educators have known for millennia, the best way to understand something is to teach it to others.  In order to convey those positions convincingly to their fellow students, the candidates need to understand complex policy issues. Student-politicians also learn something about marketing — how to package complex ideas in crisp statements easily understood by the target audience.  They also learn about advertising — how to translate those ideas into catchy visuals and slogans.

Project-based learning, a key component in a larger educational concept called authentic learning, is at the center of current thinking on pedagogy.  Researchers have found that, typically, students quickly forget at least 90% of what they have read in textbooks and at least 75% of what they hear in lectures.  But these same researchers have found that students retain most of what they learn when they have an opportunity not only to see and hear, but do.  Authentic learning is about doing.  Our Lower School students are currently engaged in computer language coding, an offering so unusual for young students that a story about our program was picked up by the Associated Press and ran in Washington, DC and in Miami — and even as far west as Kentucky.  For Middle and Upper School students, Intensive Learning has for three decades provided opportunities for authentic learning.

Clearly, MFS has been ahead of the curve on project-based learning for 50 years.

Weaving project-based learning into a college preparatory program remains a challenge.  Colleges still expect a specific number of courses in various subjects, sometimes referred to as Carnegie Units, a useful but archaic system that dates back 100 years.  We will continue to provide the content that colleges demand in their applicants, and gladly so.  Our talented faculty provides that content effectively.  But the real magic in the MFS program is in coupling a strong factual foundation with authentic opportunities for deeper learning.


Larry Van Meter

Larry Van Meter ’68
Head of School

Next: MFS Mock Primary Election Through the Years