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By Douglas J. Lyons, Ed.D., Executive Director, Connecticut Association of Independent Schools

Flashback to 1980: A mother takes her 10-year-old daughter Melissa to a pediatric group practice for a check-up. She is disap­pointed to learn that the exam will be conducted by the 35-year-old junior partner. She was hoping that Melissa would be seen by the 65-year-old senior physician, whom she believes has more medical knowledge and vast experience.

Flash forward to 2012: 42-year-old Melissa takes her young son Jack to a pediatric group. She is disappointed to learn that the 62-year-old senior physician will be examining Jack. She was hoping that he would be seen by the 33-year-old partner, whom she believes has skill and medical knowledge that is more current and innovative.

In 1968, the scholar Marshall McLuhan made a prediction that has proved to be clairvoyant: “The future will not be about earn­ing a living, it will be about learning a living.” McLuhan issued the prophesy at a time when most students graduating from law, medical, dental, engineering and other professional schools had reasonable expectations that they were prepared for a long career in their respective professions. That assurance is not even an il­lusion today. Technology and the proliferation of knowledge guar­antee that all workers will be retraining throughout their careers.

A generation ago, a student who graduated from high school with a neutral or negative disposition toward learning new things, collaborating with others and seeking intellectual challenges would be at a competitive disadvantage. In the 21st-century work­place, that same disposition will no longer be a mere disadvan­tage. It will be an career disability.

Dispositions, unlike temperaments (which are genetic), are learned behaviors. All children are born curious; they become more or less curious depending on the home and school envi­ronments in which they develop. Curiosity, resourcefulness, in­dependence and charitability are all dispositions. They define a person’s characteristic way of responding to the world, especially to challenges.

Since much of adult behavior is the result of early experience, our dispositions exert a powerful unconscious influence on how we think, feel and work.

Twenty years ago, I relinquished a tenured (lifetime) position as Superintendent of Schools in one of America’s most affluent and high-performing public school systems to accept the Head of School position in an independent school. This was not an easy decision; public education had been my life’s ministry. I left be­cause I became convinced that the definition of success in public education was increasingly at odds with my hopes and dreams for both my own children and for the children in my professional care. The pivotal moment in my decision-making occurred when a kindergarten teacher confided to me: “In my class, we don’t sing, we don’t dance, we don’t play . . . we prepare.”

The teacher was referring to the practice of designing school tasks and student experiences with a singular focus on elevating scores on standardized (machine-scored) tests.

Twenty years later, public education continues to ask talented and dedicated teachers to dismiss much of what they believe to be true about the optimal environment for student engagement and motivation. Since test scores now repre­sent the primary measure of public school quality, the stakes are high.

To date, the research on standardized tests suggests that, while they accurately predict future success in similar school-based tasks, they are of questionable value in predicting achievement outside of a scholastic environment. These assess­ments do not measure 21st-century skills (analytical thinking, creativity, communi­cation and collaboration).

Most troubling is the high incidence of “the hollow victory:” the achievement of high test scores at the cost of diminishing students’ dispositions toward viewing read­ing and learning as pleasurable activities.

Schooling is not simply preparation for life; it is life, to be lived each day joyfully, creatively and in an environment that dis­plays a knowledge of and an appreciation for the uniqueness of every child. A child not well known is a child not well taught. When I became head of an independent school, I experienced the power and the purpose of learning communities that are mission-driven, locally designed and that answer to market-based accountability.

Unencumbered by the curricular de­mands of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, independent-school facul­ties have the freedom to create programs that teach foundation skills and complex ideas simultaneously. Connecticut’s inde­pendent-school leaders believe (and are supported by research) that higher-level activities, projects and learning tasks that many public schools reserve for students in “gifted” classes are appropriate for all students and can be adapted for students with differing abilities.

Independent schools in Connecticut have become models of 21st-century skills development. The results are impressive.

Studies of independent-school gradu­ates in college reveal the broader effects of growing up in an independent-school com­munity. These alumni lead the nation in college graduation rates, graduate-school matriculation, career satisfaction, personal health and fitness, civic involvement and community service.

I have spent the last 22 years of my career serving in the independent school community. My grandchildren are now en­tering independent schools. I am writing tuition checks—again. Happily.

There are few things in life that we can give our children that will last forever. An education that creates a lifelong learner is most certainly one of them. 

(reprinted with permission by Connecticut Magazine, 2012)

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