New View EDU Episode 14: Mapping the Future Purpose of Education

Available April 5

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John Gulla and Donna OremIndependent schools are inherently mission-driven. What would happen if we focused on becoming purpose-driven instead? How would we define our purpose, and how could we allow our schools and our communities to be changed through purpose-driven leadership? What challenges could we meet, and how would our schools be positioned to positively impact the future of society?

John Gulla is the executive director of the Edward E. Ford Foundation and comes from a long career in independent schools. Donna Orem is the president of NAIS. Together, they join host Tim Fish for an in-depth discussion on how independent schools are situated during this pivotal moment in society—and how our school cultures can contribute to everything from improving educational practices to reviving civil discourse and civic engagement.

Circling back to the central question “What is school for?,” John and Donna take on topics such as community-building, identity, well-being, civic engagement, and college and career readiness. From the premise that schools remain one of the places where we can reliably be exposed to people and ideas different from ourselves, to the question of how a zero-sum approach to education has limited schools and students, this far-ranging discussion is a rich exploration of our opportunity—and obligation—to reimagine how we view the purpose of school communities now and into the future.

Key Questions

Some of the key questions Tim explores with John and Donna in this interview include:

  • After the major cultural shifts of the past few years, where do independent schools need to focus their energy to move forward?
  • How does trust impact the work that we do in our schools?
  • In an increasingly polarized world, how can schools lean into civil discourse and the importance of teaching good-faith debate?
  • What would it look like for schools to design future strategy based around ideas of purpose rather than mission?

Episode Highlights

  • “Once we do start to talk, we realize there is a lot that we don't know about each other. I also think compounding this, and there's been a lot of research on this, is that probably for the last 40 to 50 years, trust in core institutions has been declining. And that's not just education, but it's all the core institutions that make up the fabric of our society.” (10:44)
  • “Schools—meaning really elementary, secondary, college, universities—are often the places where we come into the most intimate connection with those who are unlike us. And it's a result of that otherness, that lack of familiarity that causes the disagreements that, I regret, in today's world seem to require, on the behalf of all sides, success defined only as winning the argument and not in coming to a deeper understanding of how others might think.” (14:03)
  • “Of the literally thousands and thousands of teachers I've had conversations with on behalf of the foundation, I don't know anyone who went into the profession so that they could make a more effective widget for the global capitalist system. That's just not what I think motivates people at their core.” (19:49)
  • “I think that we've had for too long this industrial model of education with children progressing through schools in age cohorts, in quanta of, of classes, taught the same material from often the same text by a single teacher, without the differentiation that can come as schools reconceive the way in which they will go about this work. And part of what's necessary, if my dream for education were to come to fruition, would be, you know, 10,000 different flowers blooming of different types of schools, that will ultimately make it a lot more difficult for parents to define in their terms, the right school for their child, because it will require them to really know who their children are to decide what is the right school for their child.” (26:18)
  • “I think as we also know through brain research, the connections between mental health and physical health and academic outcomes, you know, that we create schools where mental and physical health are really at the center of what we do, that we understand where children and adults are situated, and we understand very specifically what each one of them needs to be whole mentally, to be whole physically. Because I think once we are able to do that, you know, we are taking those rocks out of the way for students and adults to achieve anything. But we have the means now to do that, I think we have more of the understanding to do that.” (35:53)

Resource List

Full Transcript

About Our Guests

John Gulla became the executive director of the Edward E. Ford Foundation on July 1, 2013. E.E. Ford, in its more than 60 years of making grants, has distributed over $130 million to over 900 different independent schools. In his capacity at the foundation, John has visited more than 400 schools across the country.

For the preceding 14 years, he was head of school at The Blake School, a 120-year-old school enrolling 1,400 students on three campuses in and around Minneapolis. He has also held administrative and teaching positions at Riverdale Country School, Isidore Newman, and St. Ann’s in Brooklyn. A graduate of Teachers College, Columbia University, and Amherst College, he grew up the son of two public school teachers just outside Boston. He helped found Fund for Teachers and has served on its board since its inception, having chaired it for many years. He also has served on a number of other boards, including High Mountain Institute, where he is currently chair of the finance committee, as well as ISACS, MAIS, Milkweed Editions, the Minnesota chapter of the ACLU, among others. He and his wife, Andrea, have two grown sons and live in Brooklyn.

Donna Orem is the president of the National Association of Independent Schools. Prior to joining NAIS, she was the vice president for products and services development at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). She speaks frequently about leadership, governance, innovation, trends in independent education, workforce development, and student health and well-being. She is co-author of the NAIS Trustee Handbook and contributes regularly to Independent School magazine, the Independent Ideas blog, the NAIS Trendbook, and Looking Ahead