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Critical Thinking, Grit Cornerstones of Westminster School's Philosophy

On Tuesday, March 3, 2015, the weather experts unanimously assured Oklahoma City that ice would begin by 8:00 Wednesday morning followed by sleet and capped off with twelve hours of intermittent snow.  Though no precipitation had fallen by 6:00 a.m., the weather experts remained adamant so I called in that Westminster, like every other school in central Oklahoma, would be closed. There was no precipitation at all until about 4:00 that afternoon when it finally began to snow. By 8:00 that night, we’d had a lot of wind and a couple of inches of snow and most of the other schools in OKC had closed for Thursday. Should Westminster follow suit and close again?

I recall this dilemma because it’s illustrative of our School’s values and how they affect what we do and why we do it. The first value is simply this: School Matters. Education is important. Kids go to school to learn. Lots of things have to happen for learning to occur at school, but what we know for sure is that it can’t happen if they aren’t here. 

The second value for both students and teachers is to work hard, collaborate with others, and think for yourself. I refer to these as the fundamentals for success and they anchor the process of education at Westminster. Not surprisingly, I turned to these values last March to solve my dilemma. When bad weather is predicted, I always monitor it and try to talk to the heads of Casady, Heritage Hall, and McGuinness to see what they expect to do. And so on Wednesday, March 4, my fellow school heads and I had all decided to heed the experts and cancel classes. It was the right decision even though the experts were wrong. When the snow finally did arrive late Wednesday afternoon and schools once again began closing for Thursday, I followed the progression of the snow on radar and listened to the meteorologists. They agreed the snow would accumulate to two inches and end within the hour and the next day would be sunny with above freezing temperatures. I consulted with Westminster’s operations officer, and he said he could get the parking lots and sidewalks ready for school, especially if we did a late start. I talked with the division directors; they supported having class and were willing to start at 9:30 a.m. Finally, I spoke with the other school heads and told them what I was thinking, but with student drivers, bigger campuses, and more parking lots and sidewalks, they did not feel they could be ready. I was left with the decision. So I drove the three miles from my home to the School. Roads were snow covered but not icy. When I came home, I checked the weather radar one last time, and then I notified everyone that we would open at 9:30 Thursday morning. I had followed our values…I had worked hard, I had collaborated with others, I had thought for myself, and I had done what I thought was the right thing to do because, quite simply, if we want schools to be effective, school has to matter. 

A third Westminster value is to develop a growth mindset in our students. Part of a growth mindset is a willingness to try to do important things, even if they are hard; it’s the understanding that mistakes are our friends and often our best teachers, and we need to accept and learn from them. Not everyone agreed with my decision to open late, and the weather forecasters could have been wrong again; it could have been terrible Thursday morning. But our parents are our partners, and I trust them to think for themselves as well. After all, Westminster doesn’t have things like excused or unexcused absences, and if parents feel it is not safe for their family to venture out, that is certainly their call to make. Nobody is going to fault them. As it so happens, however, families brought their children to school, teachers did meaningful things with their students, learning continued, and families returned home under sunny skies on dry streets. 

There is a fourth fundamental value at Westminster, and it is inclusion. I’ve written about it many times before, but it is good to remember that Westminster opened its doors as a non-segregrated school in a segregated city the same week Dr. King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. That was three weeks before the KKK blew up a Birmingham church during Sunday morning services killing four children and almost a year before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 broadly outlawed discrimination. Our school, however, has not just been inclusive about race. It has also been inclusive about its student body. When our only other head of school, Charlotte Gibbens, and the Westminster Board composed its first admission practices in 1967, they made it clear that admission would be on a “first come, first served” basis and that financial aid would be available to all children who needed it. “First come first served” meant we were not going to test three year olds for admission to preschool, and in fact wanted all types of learners from all types of families to join us at Westminster. When praised for our open approach to admission, I remember one early board chair explaining with annoyance that we didn’t do it out of kindness or sympathy for those children who had learning differences. We did it to benefit those children who didn’t. We still don’t track students academically or athletically nor do we individualize curriculum because we believe the richest education results when kids work and learn from all types of children.      

Our belief in inclusion also manifests itself in our focus on the group. We avoid student awards and don’t measure gpa’s, ppg’s, or mvp’s. We don’t use gift categories, and while we certainly appreciate the generosity of many of our families, we do not name buildings after especially generous donors. We don’t elect student officers, dedicate the yearbook to anyone, or celebrate the accomplishments of individuals 

Inclusion means everyone is welcome, everyone belongs, and everyone should be treated similarly and respectfully.

I’ve talked a lot about values thus far because clear values are an important part of improving education. In my February newsletter article, I offered a vision of education reform that, even though it has produced one of the world’s best public education systems in Finland, most people dismiss as too idealistic and totally unrealistic for the United States. But believing that Americans are tired of failing schools and worried about our country’s future, I want to return to the 3P’s of education reform and how we practice them at Westminster.

The 3P’s are purpose, pedagogy, and people. As I’ve read about defining educational purpose over the years, I’ve been drawn to business writers like Jim Collins. Collins’ goal is to help organizations go from good to great. One of his most important concepts is the “hedgehog principle” which focuses on the intersection of what an organization has the passion to do, the resources to do, and the ability to do better than anyone else. It helps schools define their mission and educational purpose and is based on the fable of the multi-talented fox and the simple hedgehog. The fox is quick, sly, and knows how to do many things well while the hedgehog is simple and slow and excellent at doing just one thing well—rolling up into a protective ball. The slow hedgehog, however, using that one thing it knows how to do so well, is always able to thwart the wily fox’s efforts to harm it.   

A school’s hedgehog principle is its purpose, and in my experience, most schools are pretty clear about what they stand for. Where schools run into trouble is when they lack the discipline to stay within their hedgehog. That’s easy to do because schools are optimistic organizations and they always want to offer more to their kids. Another club, another team, another class, another trip, all worthwhile, all very 21st century, but the effect of each of them is to expand the school’s purpose….and the effect of all of them together is to obscure it.  So when I talk about school discipline, I don’t mean classroom control. Discipline means understanding one’s hedgehog and not getting diverted to do things, e.g., lacrosse, Chinese, community outreach, that are not contained within it….no matter how important and enticing they are to some of us. Discipline also means understanding that success doesn’t come from winning the lottery. Success, in other words, doesn’t happen by chance; it’s brought about through clear purpose, thoughtful pedagogy, and passionate people. Likewise, more money in and of itself is not going to provide the solution to our education crisis. Money is not irrelevant, but the solution to our education problems lies with each school developing its 3P’s. 

Pedagogy is simply the method and practice of teaching and flows naturally out of purpose. There are four main areas of pedagogical focus. All are worthwhile, but no school can develop all four areas completely and simultaneously. Schools have to make choices about their hedgehog, they have to be clear about their purpose, and that’s where their values come in. So what are these four areas of pedagogical focus? Try to imagine a plus sign (+) with four quadrants.  The vertical line of the plus sign represents cognitive skills and the horizontal line represents emotional skills and attitudes. The bottom half of the vertical line of cognitive skills emphasizes knowledge acquisition. This includes reading, writing, spelling, math facts, history dates, map locations, scientific formulas, and much more. Most schools emphasize this bottom part of the line very heavily because it’s generally what gets measured on all sorts of standardized tests. The higher end of the cognitive line represents critical thinking.  Schools that emphasize this area are focused on getting kids to apply information and use it to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate all sorts of questions and problems. In these schools, kids are still accumulating knowledge but not as much as they do at schools more heavily focused on knowledge acquisition. On the other hand, kids at schools emphasizing critical thinking will develop deeper and longer term understanding of questions and problems.

The horizontal line is less intellectual and more emotional. Here too schools tend to emphasize one of two areas. Some schools focus very heavily on character education which is found on the left side of the emotion line. Their goal is to graduate children of exemplary morals—honest, respectful, helpful, sincere. While the left side of this line is about virtue, the right side is about effort. I write about this often and generally refer to what’s on this part of the line as non-cognitive skills. These include skills such as grit, perseverance, conscientiousness and resilience. 

Most schools emphasize virtue over grit and knowledge acquisition over critical thinking and therefore are in the lower left quadrant. But where is Westminster? Are we in the knowledge and virtue quadrant, knowledge and grit, critical thinking and virtue, or critical thinking and grit? We are in the upper right. 

Our purpose is to develop critical thinking and grit. 

It’s not that knowledge acquisition and virtue are unimportant, but focusing on critical thinking and grit drives our hedgehog and supports our values of working hard, thinking well, and working well with others. 

No matter which quadrant schools focus on, good pedagogy requires teachers to ask and answer four questions. The first is “What do we teach?” If my job is to teach American history to eighth graders, I have lots of resources and good textbooks that can lay out the information for them. If my job, however, is not just to teach American history but to get them to understand it, that requires me to consider a very different question—“Why do I teach what I teach?” A textbook can’t answer that question for me. I have to understand American history myself, through my own study and education, and if I can’t really answer why I teach what I teach, then I really can’t get my kids to think critically about ideas and events and carry out Westminster’s educational purpose.

Once I understand what I’m going to teach and why, I begin to plan my curriculum. At Westminster we use a backward planning model of curriculum design. First, teachers decide the overarching understandings children need to learn and the essential questions they need to think about to understand their subject. Second, we design assessments to evaluate what each child knows and thinks. Finally, we decide the activities our students will need to experience to complete  the assessment successfully.

Here are two examples of how this pedagogical model of essential questions, assessments, and activities plays out in practice. One of the essential questions in my eighth grade history class is, “Is America’s record on civil rights worthy of praise?” The main thing I use to assess their understanding of this essential question is the completion of their civil rights newspaper. But before they complete the newspaper, they read their textbook and primary source documents, they create and interpret cartoons, and they take unit tests; they do interviews with seniors about their memories of discrimination and send letters to the newspaper about sports mascots; they write poetry about issues of civil rights and science articles about genetic engineering; they design and conduct opinion polls and graph the results; and finally they write an editorial expressing what they think about our civil rights record and why they think as they do. 

We do the same kind of higher level thinking with our younger children. I remember when my granddaughter was a second grader. She explained to me what a fairy tale was and how to identify whether a story was a fairy tale or not. She told me, for example, that fairy tales took place a long time ago and usually began with "Once upon a time." Fairy tales had a beginning with a setting, a middle where the problem is revealed, and an end where the solution happens. Fairy tales had heroes and villains, used magic (like talking animals), and often used the numbers three and seven. ​ Finally, she told me that in fairy tales, good always prevailed in the end. My granddaughter had learned the facts about fairy tales, but her teacher went further to develop her critical thinking. Her class read fairy tales and then talked about not just the story but about higher level questions as well. “Is this story a fairy tale? Do you think children should still read fairy tales?  Why or why not?” Finally, it was time for her to do the assessment: “Using the ideas you’ve understood about fairy tales, write and illustrate your own fairy tale.” What a great unit and how well it illustrates good pedagogy, for her teacher not only knew “What do I teach?” and “Why do I teach it?” but also “What do they learn?” and “How do I know they learn it?”

In addition to clear purpose and thoughtful pedagogy, education reform also requires passionate people. These passionate people include teachers and parents and ultimately students as well. Jim Collins insists that organizations have to get the right people with the right skills in the right places on the bus, and the same is true for schools. So who are the right people? Collins describes them as people who are personally unassuming but professionally tenacious, which in schools means people who will do whatever it takes to help their children succeed. That means teachers have to be well educated professionals who can plan a backwards curriculum and explain why they teach what they teach, what their students learn from it, and how they assess that learning. But the right people also means parents who provide from birth the frequent verbal and physical interaction which their children need to succeed in school.  Study after study has shown that kids who are exposed from birth to more reading and language at home have much greater success at school. Fortunately, these are the kinds of families who send their children to our school. So Westminster parents are not only their children’s first teachers, but our valuable partners as we work together for their children’s educational success.

Ultimately, students have to buy into school as well. I’ve taught children from fifth through twelfth grade over the last 45 years, and people ask me all the time the differences I’ve seen. Quite honestly, I haven’t seen any differences in the kids I’ve taught at Westminster since 1977. Statistics, however, indicate that I’m in a Westminster bubble and that kids have changed. They are busier but study less. SAT scores have steadily declined and they do worse on international tests. Recent research suggests that the average student at a four-year college now studies about an hour a day. That is roughly half the time students studied a generation ago.  I know that fifty years (or two generations) ago as an undergraduate at Yale, the assumption was that we should be working at least forty hours a week on school. In other words, if you were in class fifteen hours a week, you needed to additionally study about four hours a day….every day of the week. 

For education reform to take hold in America, kids will have to work harder. To get them to do that, however, we first have to create a virtuous cycle promulgated on the idea that SCHOOL MATTERS. It starts with a clear vision about the purpose of education.  Then it requires hiring and training passionate teachers with a desire to work together and support each other. Clear purpose and passionate teachers will lead to higher achieving students, less remedial teaching, and less teacher turnover. More talented and experienced teachers will require less supervision and generate more trust so less time will be wasted on standardized testing. Moreover, this new culture of collaboration and continuous improvement will improve their teaching even more. More successful teaching by more capable teachers will increase student respect for teachers and lead to enhanced student effort during and outside of class as they, their parents, and their teachers all buy into the importance of education. 

This is the virtuous cycle of education that exists at Westminster School. We know our values and understand our purpose—to develop the critical thinking and non-cognitive skills in our students. We know how to backwards plan curriculum and the questions we have to ask to get kids to think—“What do I teach and why do I teach it? What did they learn and how do I know it?” We know the importance of parents as partners and support them as they support us.  Finally, we have terrific kids who work hard, think for themselves, and willingly collaborate. That was especially clear last March when we were the only school in OKC that opened that snowy Thursday. How did our kids respond?  Exactly as you’d think they’d respond. After all, kids are just like the rest of us.  They’d prefer to sleep in and not to go to work, and our twitter feed was flooded with student outrage. I enjoyed all of their tweets, but my favorite by far was “#freewms.” Of course they complained that morning…but they also showed up, worked hard, and went home happy. They understood that school matters.