Do + Think = Learn. Director Magill's Opening Day Remarks
Posted September 1
Beginning next Tuesday and followed by 170 more school days, the most important work of the Laboratory Schools occurs in your classrooms or through the experiences you create that transcend classroom walls. That is the way it should be. While most of you are where the real action is taking place, there are some of us who are involved in activities designed to support what you do or advance the well being of the Schools. One such activity occurs on twenty mornings of the year and is organized by Elaine Woerner and the Office of Admission and Financial Aid. I’m referring to the orientation and tours that begin in Judd 126 for prospective parents. Following a cup of coffee and a welcome by Carla Young and me, these motivated parents are divided into several small groups and are led through our buildings by a very loyal and enthusiastic group of parent volunteers. I know that they learn much more about this place from the parents and Carla than they do through me, but I think it is important for you to hear what it is that I have to say to them. So imagine that you are a parent of a three or four year old and visiting Lab for the first time.
Good morning and welcome to one of the most extraordinary schools in America. Now I restrict that statement to just America since my experience outside of it is limited. However, I can say that rarely a week goes by when we don’t have a visitation request from schools from all over the world.
This is the place that prompted a change in American education in the late 19th Century. The ideas of John Dewey and his observation of how children learn were put into practice at his experimental school, later given the name of the Laboratory Schools. Simply put, Dewey’s philosophy was this – don’t give children something to learn, give them something to do. And if the doing is of such nature as to demand thinking, learning naturally occurs. Learning by doing is found to some degree in all of our classrooms and, as you will soon learn from our Nursery and Kindergarten principal, much of that doing is in the form of play for our youngest children.
We take great pride in those who work at the Laboratory Schools. Our faculty members are well trained and experienced. They are carefully chosen for their knowledge of content and expertise in delivering instruction. But equally important, they are chosen because of their character and because they believe that education can make a difference in how human beings treat each other. Decency and respect for differences is a priority here, and we expect that it will always be a part of our culture.
Extraordinary was the adjective that I used as I described Lab to you earlier. And indeed it is extraordinary to be part of a true learning community where three year olds are on the same campus as undergraduates, graduate students, and continuing education students, some of whom are in their eighties - here just because learning is a lifetime pursuit. The University of Chicago is much, much more than part of our name. It is our access to museums, libraries, its courses that our high school students may attend, and most importantly, its people. On any given day and very possibly in a kindergarten class, one might observe an evolutionary biologist passing around a fossil of what some say is the missing link between fish and land animals; or a professor from the business school taking questions from high school students about the cost of health care; or a law professor opining on a recent Supreme Court nominee to Middle School students.
By the way, these experts who volunteer their time at Lab are, for the most part, parents – just like you. And parents are a powerful piece of why this school is so successful. Some of the parents are professors who were enticed to accept a position at the University because they knew that their children would be part of an extraordinary educational experience. Those parents who do not have a University affiliation often choose Lab because of our diversity, something of which we are very proud and want to keep. Others choose Lab because we are unashamed to say that we believe that a rigorous program with high expectations produces learning skills that endure.
Speaking of expectations, our Schools have expectations of you. We expect that you will be actively engaged in not only what your child is learning but in what it takes for these schools to maintain their excellence. We expect you to attend parent conferences, communicate with your child’s teachers, read the periodic school communications, volunteer your time, participate in our annual fund raising and, for the next several years, invest in the future of our schools through our Lab+ campaign.
In a few minutes, you will be taking a tour of our facilities. Listen carefully to your tour guides. Ask questions. Observe interactions between and among the children and adults. Imagine your child and yourself as a member of this community. And take note of our spaces for learning. Although the classrooms are warm, comfortable and educationally enticing, the quality of some of our spaces does not correspond with the quality of the program that occupies them. In some cases, age and deferred maintenance is passing us by but we are doing something about that.
Over the next several years, our school facilities will be undergoing a "once in a lifetime" makeover. We call this our Lab+ campaign. We will be adding instructional space to meet the increasing demand for admission and creating new areas to better deliver a rich and well-rounded program. Your children will be able to take full advantage of the wonderful improvements that are planned.
Not too long ago, a prospective parent saw me after the tour and asked me if my own children attended the Laboratory Schools. Flattered that someone thought that I was young enough or rather that my spouse was young enough to have children at Lab, I told her “no” and added “but if my grandchildren lived in Chicago, they would be here in a heartbeat.” That, perhaps is the best ringing endorsement I could ever give. Thank you for coming and enjoy your time with us.
Shortly thereafter, the tour begins. I shared my pitch with you this morning, to practice what I will be saying at these twenty orientations, but more importantly to emphasize or reemphasize several salient thoughts as we begin this school year together.
The first thought concerns this extraordinary place called the Laboratory Schools. While started by one of the great minds of the twentieth century, our legacy has really been created by the daily work of women and men who have occupied our classrooms for over 110 years. It was our predecessors who experimented with educational innovations that changed the face of American education. It was our predecessors who challenged the status quo and who, along with Hyde Park parents, insisted on integrating Lab before civil rights legislation. It was our predecessors who exercised leadership and made sure that teachers and faculties were empowered and, it was those who preceded us who challenged each other to become the best they could be, long before there was something called professional development.
And now we are on duty. It is our turn to inspire those who follow us. We must hold on to the time-tested foundations upon which our schools began but, at the same time, we must not be afraid to be creative and try new approaches. We must take time to learn from each other, to share our successes and what it is that we have discovered through our failures. We must model the same cooperative and collaborative strategies that we expect of our students. And, as we hold high expectations for our students, we must also hold them for ourselves. We must support those who are struggling, but we cannot allow those who struggle to pull down the reputation of others. Great schools have the courage to maintain quality, and quality assurance is the responsibility of everyone.
This summer I read a very interesting article with the title “Higher Education Is Stuck In the Middle Ages–Will Universities Adapt or Die Off in Our Digital World?” Its premise is that universities are losing their monopoly on higher learning to the world-wide-web, as the Internet has suddenly become the global platform for the exchange of knowledge between people. Listen to this quote:
The old style lecture, with the professor standing at the podium in front of a large group of students, is still a fixture of university life on many campuses. It’s a model that is teacher-focused, one-way, one-size-fits-all, and the student is isolated in the learning process. Yet the students, who have grown up in an interactive digital world, learn differently. Schooled on Google and Wikipedia, they want to inquire, not rely on the professor for a detailed roadmap. They want an animated conversation, not a lecture. They want an interactive education, not a broadcast one that might have been perfectly fine for the Industrial Age or even for boomers. These students are making new demands of universities, and if the universities try to ignore them, they will do so at their peril.
Just as some Universities may be at peril, I know that pre-collegiate education is in trouble at many schools, both public and private. With discovery, creativity, and well roundedness being pushed to the background while measuring success through federal and state testing programs remains politically popular, it is not surprising that both home instruction and on-line programs keep growing at exponential rates. I wasn’t aware until the past few weeks that the University of Missouri High School is not a physical structure but a cyber school with nearly 15,000 students enrolled in at least one of their courses and over 700 students pursuing their high school diploma.
By bringing this to your attention, I do not mean to pass judgment on their program or on any other alternative to the traditional school. But I am confident that their program and the depth of learning that occurs cannot compare with schools where thinking is held up to be the main thing. The structure of a Laboratory Schools’ education, from nursery through high school, demands thinking and learning for all, as opposed to it being an option for only the self-motivated. Do + Think = Learn was from the beginning, is today, and must in the future be our main thing.
A second thought concerns the larger community of which we are all a part, and our community includes the University of Chicago and, of course, the families of our students.
We pride ourselves in being called an independent school. We participate in an accreditation process and are members of NAIS, but in reality, we are different from 99 percent of the independent schools in America. And really, I’m not sure from whom we are independent. We are larger, we are more diverse, a typical school board does not govern us, a collective bargaining unit represents our faculty, admission priority is given to children of University faculty, and the University gives our budget final approval.
At the same time and gratefully, we are not beholden to the challenges and the long list of public education mandates. That leaves us to embrace who we really are–a University School.
Make no mistake about it, we are an integral part of the University of Chicago, and it is because of our affiliation with the University that value is added. Our efforts to capitalize on that relationship are increasing and while some new benefits are being realized, there are more avenues to explore. The University’s website states about itself, “We ask tough questions, engage the world around us, and pursue knowledge with rigor because we believe in the transformative power of ideas.” In an age appropriate way, hasn’t Lab done the same thing for over a century? Questioning, engaging, and pursuing are at the core of the University of Chicago experience, and it must not be overlooked that this experience begins, for some, at age three.
You are the last folks who need to be reminded that the families of our students are a large and important component of the Lab community. Unlike the rest of the University, parents are a visible presence in our buildings every day of the school year; and for those of you interested in trivia, we have about 1,200 families represented this year with 467 of them having two or more children at Lab.
This past spring, the parents in Kindergarten, Grade 4, Grade 8, and Grade 12 were asked to complete surveys asking questions specific to our four divisions. These surveys were constructed with the assistance of teachers, administrators, and Independent School Management for the purpose of gathering data to affirm the many good things that are happening as well as to clarify areas that need improvement.
Remarkably, the response rate was over 90 percent. We now have real data rather than just anecdotes and personal experiences to guide us. And while some of the responses were based on perception rather than reality, that perception is the reality for some unless we find ways to clarify and communicate more clearly.
This data is ours and ours alone. As divisions, we will examine it, discuss its relevance to our daily responsibilities, plan strategies to address concerns, and monitor the progress made as strategies are implemented. While this data is just one piece of feedback about the experiences our families have at Lab, it will be respected and used productively.
My third important issue concerns Lab+. The initial phase of this comprehensive project occurred this summer. There is reason to believe that those on the eastern side of the fourth floor of Blaine will be dry this year! We have a very tight schedule ahead of us and are entering the most exciting phase so far of this multi-year project. We are moving beyond concept to design. We should be seeing a first draft of how our campus could be configured in the next several weeks. We should begin to see what we could be gaining and what we may lose. We should begin to see how our architects have blended the gothic with the contemporary. We should have a better idea of how much of our dream we can afford. But most importantly, we will once again be given an opportunity to voice our thoughts and learn what it will take to get from what exists now to that future day of completion and dedication.
This coming Saturday, our youngest daughter is getting married in Denver, Colorado. I think she forgot to ask if this might be a busy time of the year for me!
During the time that I was preparing these remarks, I was also thinking ahead to her wedding and what advice I might give her. After all, I will soon have the experience of escorting three daughters down the aisle and, after enjoying nearly four decades of marriage, I should be able to think of something profound to say.
Ironically, I found some parallels with the institution of marriage and this wonderful profession that we chose and would like to practice what I intend to say to her by sharing a few nuggets of wisdom with you.
1. Marriage is not just between two people. Inheriting your spouse’s family is part of the deal. Likewise, working with someone else’s children is not an isolated act. It is done under scrutiny, loving and otherwise, and as a member of a much larger community.
2. Marriage partners need to know, show, and grow their core values. Likewise, we need to remind ourselves why we chose this profession, be able to express what is at the core of our school’s experience, and reject complacency as we become more experienced. It is those core values, not your new home nor our buildings that, in the end, will matter the most.
3. Marriages that last and stay happy are those in which the partners keep falling in love at least once a year. Likewise, our best work occurs when we keep immersing ourselves and falling in love with what we do. So, on this first day of the 2009-2010 school year, renew your vows, and may you once again fall in love.
Welcome back to one of the most extraordinary schools in America!