The Lamp

A Holderness School journal committed to critical reflection and fostering conversation around issues connected to independent schools and education in general.

The Future of Education and The Future of Holderness: A Powerful Paradox

Phil Peck, Head of School

In late February, I attended a National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) presentation led by four visionary college presidents: Rebecca Chopp, Denver University; Pamela Gunter-Smith, York College; Nan Keohane, Duke University and Wellesley College; and Paul LeBlanc, Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). They were asked two overarching questions by NAIS President John Chubb:


1.      What does education look like in the 21st century?

2.      What should independent schools be doing to better prepare our students for the changing world?


What emerged from the robust conversation and the thinking of this esteemed panel was a powerful paradox that aligns well with the vision, core values, and goals found in our present strategic plan. 

The paradox is that developing human relationships, the ability to work with different groups and perspectives, and the ability to work collaboratively is more important than ever in this diverse and complicated world. At the same time, there is a whole new way of communicating, delivering information, and working together that schools must address to effectively prepare students for college and life.  Rebecca Chopp put it this way, “The 20th century was in silos. It began in the late 19th century. The 21st century is very different:  collaboration, skills blended into critical thinking, coming together to create knowledge.”


As the panel spoke of the skills they most wanted to see in independent school graduates, they were somewhat divided. On one hand, you had Paul LeBlanc, with SNHU’s 60,000 online students, saying, "The question is not whether online education can be as high a quality as traditional classroom education, quite the contrary, the question is can traditional classroom teaching be as effective as good online learning." On the other hand, Rebecca Chopp and Pamela Gunter-Smith kept saying that students come to their colleges with a dearth of emotional intelligence and aren't able to work collaboratively with diverse groups. 


It seems very clear, then,  that the best secondary school programs are not going to benefit from an either-or proposition since opinions differ on precisely how to make this paradoxical transition.  This underscores that an  important part of the Holderness strategic vision is that we have a both-and mindset. We have to continue to help our students develop character through time-tested mission critical programs like the job program, family-style dinners, residential life, and multisport athletics. At the same time, we need to develop dynamic classroom settings where students and teachers are learning to teach and learn in the digital world. We are presently looking at joining the Global Online Academy and several of our teachers have received or are in the process of receiving their master's degrees through programs that are at least partially online.  The result is that Holderness has the potential to be a learning laboratory, where we help our students develop the necessary emotional intelligence to work collaboratively and help them embrace new teaching delivery systems.


Another 21st century learning theme that is well-aligned with the strategic initiatives we are exploring is our goal to create experiential learning based in real life work opportunities where solutions are rarely linear and grit and focus are needed to be successful.  Students need to learn how to be self-initiators. The work that we are doing to connect our students to the world through the Senior Thesis March Experiences certainly asks our students to have real world experiences. Our early efforts to link our students with the huge network of our extended Holderness family to provide these opportunities is developing rapidly, which will benefit all of our students in ways that could appeal to colleges who think as Rebecca Chop does, as well as those who follow a model more like that of Paul LeBlanc. My take away is that Holderness is going in the right direction and  that we have much work to do to continue to meet this paradoxical challenge!


The inspiring thing about the participants on this NAIS panel, however, was the one thing on which all of these education experts agreed.  They didn't forget that some things are always important in education. They all agreed that students now entering college lack the ability to read and write effectively.  Nan Keohan went back to what Alice Freeman Palmer, the founder of Wellesley College, said about education, "We go to college to know and be assured that knowledge is sweet and powerful and it emancipates the mind and make us better citizens of the world."  In addition, they spoke of the need for superior faculty to be role models for our students – some things never change.

As the panel finished, it was clear to me that it is imperative for schools - whether secondary or higher education - to provide our students with programs that develop emotional intelligence and character; at the same time, we must help them learn how to work effectively in the world and become comfortable with technology.  Holderness School embraces the complexity and it is evident in our vision, mission, and strategic plan.


On one hand, our vision states, "Holderness School will redefine leadership and intellectual development, preparing all for their journeys in a changing world," which pushes us to meet the challenges of the future.  And, on the other hand, our calling is to "work for the betterment of humankind and God's creation," which tells us to never stray from our most fundamental spiritual and moral roots.  What an exciting time to be a teacher and a learner at Holderness.