Tradition and the Pace of Change in 21st Century Education

Fall 2011

By Chad Barnett

At the Independent School Association of the Central States’ (ISACS) 2009 Annual Conference, NAIS President Pat Bassett presented on what may be the central concern of precollegiate education today: Creating 21st Century Schools. Operating in his role as teacher, Bassett asked, “What are the skills and values that will be expected of our graduates?” A following conversation, drawing perspectives from a group of educational leaders, resulted in a conflated list: character, creativity, real-world problem solving, communication skills, teaming, and leadership. The power of this list lies not in its synthesis of important research, but in its validation of that research by independent school educators whose ears are tuned to their students and the world in which they live. Traditional and progressive educators agreed — this is The List.

In the conversation about what constitutes a high-quality 21st century school, however, the more complex question is about the varied paths schools might take to achieve these outcomes — as well as the pace and degree of change in an individual school, assuming that at least some change is necessary. At the ISACS conference, Bassett expressed an urgency shared by many in the field: “I hope never to read a vision statement that promises to maintain rather than improve, but there’s that danger for some. While many independent schools are already on the train to the future, some are at the station waiting for the train to stop for them, and others are saddling their horses and looking to the past with optimism.” 

Without question, those of us who work in schools do so in a time of significant transformation and cultural change — and the convergence of educational practices around a fairly consistent set of skills is now fueling calls for concomitant change within schools. Not long after that 2009 ISACS conference, the state department of education in West Virginia — where my school, Linsly School, is located — introduced its GLOBAL21 initiative, stating, “Revolutionary changes in technology, the global marketplace, and significant social, political, and environmental issues dramatically affect what students today must know…. [W]e must change how we operate if we expect to change what and how children learn.” The 21st century learning skills driving West Virginia’s GLOBAL21 initiative include: (1) information and communication skills; (2) thinking and problem-solving skills; and (3) personal and workplace productivity skills

Years ago, American avant-garde fiction writer Steve Katz explained the sudden procession of postmodernist poetics in literature not as ideas in the air, but as a circumstance in which, “all of us found ourselves at the same stoplights in different cities at the same time. When the lights changed, we all crossed the streets.” We — in both public and private schools — are in just such a street-crossing moment in education today. In many ways, this current movement is exciting. Who in schools doesn’t sense the heightened importance of our current work? Yet, independent schools swept up in a broad movement of educational reform face unique risks. To deliver a “product” worthy of the tuitions we charge, we must offer something more compelling than a comparable set of skills and values emphasized by our state departments of education.

As the headmaster at an independent school with nearly 200 years of history, what worries me is that, in the scramble to articulate what independent schools can do for children in the fluctuating 21st century climate, we could talk ourselves out of holding on to the good ideas that got us this far. In light of the agreed-upon list of 21st century skills, do we need radical transformation of learning and instruction at our schools, or could this be viewed as an invitation to reflect upon and enhance the enduring educational practices that have shaped the habits of mind leading thousands of our alumni to success over the previous decades?

Global Issues, Local Choices

In his well-known essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot writes, “if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition.”

Applied to the field of education in a time when the drumbeat for reform is loud and persistent, policy makers and practitioners may be inclined to embrace as much novelty and innovation as possible — and reject anything that feels like repetition. But I’d argue that Eliot — and the other American poets and fiction writers hammering out new, distinctly American literary forms in the early 20th century — was well steeped in the literary traditions of the past and knew when to use those traditions to his advantage and when to discard them in order to develop not just literature that was distinctly American but high-quality literature that was distinctly American.

Tradition’s paradox — at least when it comes to schooling — is our simultaneous obligation to maintain its reliable anchoring while rejecting its malevolent oppressions. Rooted in a founder’s vision or a faculty’s set of undying beliefs, independent schools are organized around locally vital missions that, in this moment in history, require to varying degrees recontextualization, revision, or revolution to remain effective. The fundamental question during this period of transformation is whether independent school leaders can oversee improvement processes — including the compelling list of 21st century skills — in a way that suits local needs. 

Schools constantly affirming their practices and policies through self-referential logic — tradition for tradition’s sake — lose the opportunity to contextualize their best practices for contemporary times. On the other hand, schools constantly looking outward to shape their mission risk losing a steady sense of purpose and direction. As we are compelled by economic pressures to innovate in the face of staggering challenges, we will be well served to seek a thoughtful balance of mirrors and windows.

Tradition, of course, is a broad — and often deliberately vague — term. I use it to mean those admirable qualities and nonnegotiable, locally rooted beliefs that combine to form a coherent institutional identity. In this current era of radical economic and cultural transformation, words like tradition are often spoken with a wink and a nod. But without it — especially in this current era of radical economic and cultural transformation — all schools become susceptible to mission drift. 

In other words, institutional continuum matters. To sustain our existing commitment to excellence and evolve in ways that are contextually relevant, we may discover the benefit in building upon the principles and values that contributed to our success in the first place. In this regard, a return to tradition today may actually mark a form of replenishment in education. 

Lost in the discourse of 21st century skills are some of those quintessential independent school qualities: an emphasis on self-awareness, local knowledge, an ethic of caring, and a sense of tradition. As the convergence of educational practice around communication skills, information processing, real-world problem solving, teamwork, leadership, and creativity continues, independent schools can sustain their separation from the pack by emphasizing (or re-emphasizing) the unique traditions through which those skills are reformulated and reassembled for purposes that are locally meaningful.

With the first full decade of the 21st century behind us, in fact, we have an opportunity to look back and measure precisely what mattered to our alumni and parents at the start of the decade and how those values may have shifted during the 10 years leading up to today. This data, not speculation or theory, can help to establish whether the most effective schools in this century are achieved by revolution or evolution. 

What We Value

Many in the independent school world are familiar with Chris Everett, who founded the Kensington Group (TKG) in 1991 to support executive-level management with the use of research-based information. In 1994, Everett, in collaboration with Pat Bassett (then executive director of ISACS), developed an instrument to collect data for use in the ISACS self-study and accreditation process. Today, the ISACS School Community Survey is the largest ongoing independent school survey and database in the country. The program currently involves more than 325 independent schools in 15 central states and beyond. The database contains more than 250,000 surveys that serve as a benchmark for school performance evaluation. Everett and I recently collaborated to identify and analyze which school elements, in the opinions of recent alumni and current parents, connect to the overall quality of education, and which would likely lead them to recommend their school to others. The 20 pages of data are fascinating on a number of levels, but the most critical takeaway from the full analysis illustrates that, from the perspectives of alumni and parents, a caring environment emphasizing not just innovation but also values and character development are consistently significant from the start of the decade to the end. 

Conversely, at the start of the decade, the Kensington Group’s correlation analysis reveals a weak correlation between “overall quality of education” and “computer/technology programs” at both the start and end of the decade. 

Since “innovative education” is highly correlated with those key outcome variables, independent schools are wise to advocate for 21st century skills — The List. Yet, it’s significant that alumni also underscore the value of their complete development in a caring and character-rich environment. And, I would add, it is precisely this caring environment and emphasis on character that are most at risk in the age of global communication where, in the broader culture, our relationships are mediated by technologies that, at times, impede rather than facilitate strong interpersonal bonds. 

While the parent survey data requires more space for explanation, it is worth noting that “innovative education,” from the parent perspective, significantly exceeds other relational variables in its strength of correlation with perceived “overall quality of education.” This isn’t surprising, given that so many parents are conditioned to think of our schools as commodities — education as a product. The overriding logic of this consumer mentality is that the quality of our educational product is excellent most notably when it is innovative and new. 

On the other hand, from the start of the decade to the end, an independent school parent’s “likelihood to recommend” our schools is most strongly correlated with our “caring environment” and commitment to “character and values.” In other words, parents, when considering matters of the heart, will recommend their child’s school to other parents over the alternatives based mostly on what the school stands for and how much it cares about each individual student.

In an interview in the Fall 2010 issue of Independent School, psychologist Ned Hallowell best expresses the concern over education’s tendency to blow in the wind of outside demands: “I think the consumerist ethic has intimidated heads too much. I think independent schools are intimidated by economic realities and by trustees who treat schools as if they were corporations.” Such intimidation can lead schools to put too much weight on peripheral issues: the quality of their sports and arts facilities, for instance, or the amount of time and money invested in cutting-edge instructional technologies. If a school can afford top- notch facilities in all areas or this year’s revolutionary tech tool for all students, it’s certainly fine to do so. But most independent schools have to be careful and, yes, prudent, about what they pursue.

I hope it’s clear that I believe that innovation matters. But I worry about us getting lost in that pursuit. On the other hand, I think we also have an opportunity to educate our families about the value our schools already possess — that we’ve possessed for decades — and that still remain constant in this brave new century.

By continuing to offer distinctive, relationship-based educational programs, we have an opportunity to preserve our schools’ unique ways of knowing and developing students while acknowledging shared human values and skills that may transcend the boundaries of our individual schools. Our task is neither to reject 21st century skills nor turn our backs on tradition. Rather, we may accept innovations into our local traditions and, in so doing, transform them in order to create something that at once preserves and advances the core values that gave rise to our educational effectiveness in the first place. 

I understand that some schools, out of necessity, have had to reinvent themselves during these tough economic times. I understand that, when institutional viability requires re-envisioning a school, the best course of action is to do whatever it takes. In the economic recession of the 1970s, numerous schools had to make such choices. Some did and survived; some didn’t and closed. Even for schools that are economically stable, I also understand the desire to consider all the ways to improve the school’s culture and climate and program — to consider, for instance, the ways recent brain research can inform new approaches to learning, or the ways the school might infuse the curriculum with a global perspective, or the ways in which a school community can be more inclusive. But the point is worth highlighting: an education rich in enduring tradition will empower students to, as Anthony O’Hear, professor of education and philosophy at the University of Buckingham, puts it, “enter into those human achievements that have endured and which have, through cultural forms, provided some distancing of the individual from his own greed and need and from the need and greed of others.” 

The fact is that, throughout this century, we will be faced with a productive paradox: how we can consistently fulfill the traditional side of our mission and adapt to changing conditions. Psychologist Rob Evans, who consults with many schools, understands this tension. In a 2007 issue of Independent Schoolhe explains, “Schooling is a backward-looking enterprise, not an entrepreneurial one. This may sound unflattering; it is not. A school can only prepare children for the future — the unknown — by teaching them what is known. Much of its curriculum is slow-changing and most of the values it promotes are enduring.” The productive possibilities between adherence to tradition and adapting to changing conditions emerge when we grapple over the question of why we do what we do. Piercing clarity on why we continue certain programs or employ specific tactics tied to our most fundamental beliefs allows schools to maintain a commitment to core values and remain compellingly current. 

Balancing Continuity and Change

Schools today face the same fundamental challenge that writer Jim Collins, in his recent book, How the Mighty Fall, ascribes to all great companies. He explains: “Like an artist who pursues both enduring excellence and shocking creativity, great companies foster a productive tension between continuity and change. On the one hand, they adhere to the principles that produced success in the first place, yet on the other hand, they continually evolve, modifying their approach with creative improvements and intelligent adaptation.” In other words, those great companies — and successful independent schools — never lose sight of their core values. They know why the tactics associated with those values and fulfilling that purpose matter and under what conditions they may no longer be viable. 

Mission-driven independent schools have an opportunity to contextualize their tradition-based commitments to capture those inimitable qualities tied to the people, places, and dynamics that make our schools unique. In this re-imagined orientation, traditional has nothing to do with stultifying teacher-imposed lessons delivered to exhausted students required to sit still and be quiet. Rather, teachers and students collaborate to build a shared sense of place and purpose where a unifying set of principles inform present action and future opportunities. 

In short, innovation for the sake of innovation will not contribute to alumni loyalty or effective adaptation to university life. An education based in a well-understood tradition offers the framework for emotional anchors securing individual direction in a world of constant change. Teaching 21st century skills is clearly important, but it may be the anchoring capacity of our traditions that make our schools more compelling than ever before.
Chad Barnett

Chad Barnett is head of The Linsly School (West Virginia).