Thoughts to Open a New School Year

The following remarks were shared with faculty on Aug. 29, 2014:
When I gave my speech at commencement last May, my focus was on the skill sets that our graduates will need to actually fulfill the mission of the school when they enter the world after their formal educations. Recognizing that I have to compete with the likes of Abbey Anderson, Mo Afdahl and Tim Carey at graduation, I know that what I say at the beginning of that event is generally forgettable. It’s okay – I’m used to it. So I want to seize the opportunity now to return to my graduation theme while I have you captive and I am the featured speaker.

Last May I used a widely circulated set of hiring criteria from Google as the basis for my thinking about the relevance of a Nobles diploma. Since then, I have come across very similar points about the necessary future focus of American education in a number of different forums. The themes are quite consistent – the zeitgeist seems clear! The most succinct and notable, in my view, better than the Google document, appeared in a summer publication of SSATB entitled “Think Tank on the Future of Assessment.” Not a riveting headline, I know, so I admit I opened the magazine up with more sense of obligation than genuine interest. SSATB is the largest secondary school admission testing organization in the country and I think I need to know what they are putting out there.

Therein, however, I found an interview with Amy Wilkinson, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. She is the author of The Creator’s Code: The Six Essential Skills of Extraordinary Entrepreneurs. She was asked the following question: “How will the workplace change in the coming decades?”

She responded: “Given the rapid pace of change, if you are a student or professional today, it is hard to anticipate what work will look like in five years, or even in one year. Accordingly, it matters less what you know and much more what you can do with what you know – how you can integrate new learning and apply insight to new situations. The future workplace will reward those who are open to change, are intellectually curious, and are ready to build on each other’s ideas through collaborative give and take.”

She was asked one more question, and gave one more response, that I want to share with you: “What do you think are the most important attributes and aptitudes required for success in tomorrow’s economy?”

Her answer to this really grabbed me: “First is continuous learning – never thinking you are finished… (It) is about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Second is curiosity – always asking questions, figuring out how things fit together, challenging the status quo, and not accepting ‘no’ as an answer. Third is relentless optimism (or grit). Today’s challenges can be hard to define, and they require perseverance. You can’t be dissuaded by obstacles or failures, but (must be) willing to get out there and get dirty doing the difficult things. Fourth is the ability to work with people who have very different backgrounds and perspectives from your own. When you are pioneering new frontiers, do it with a diverse array of allies who work well together.”

So there it is, an oversimplified yet useful and clear summary of the qualities that are likely be in demand in the future our students will enter. Again, they are continuous learning, curiosity, relentless optimism and grit, and the ability to thrive and collaborate amongst diversity of intellect and experience. And I ask myself, as I think all teachers should ask themselves, is my school, and is my classroom, preparing kids to enter this world, fostering these skills, and doing so in a way that emphasizes ethical behavior and responsibility to local and broader communities?

We are all aware of the cultural and societal pressures that mitigate against our success in this endeavor. Specialization and the way in which kids focus all their time and energy on one endeavor, and one group of kids, is arguably the most pernicious of these. The general narcissism and entitlement of contemporary adolescence is another. We worry a lot these days about the tendency of kids to seek the path of least resistance and, protected by parents snowplowing a clear path for them, to lack resilience and perseverance. Perhaps the most powerful opposing factor, however, is the American myth of individual accomplishment. We have in our heads a powerful paradigm of people like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, or more recently in our history Bill Gates and Steven Jobs, individual entrepreneurs who transformed American life with their genius and initiative.

One of the books I read this summer was focused entirely on this theme. Simon Winchester’s latest narrative, The Men Who United the States: America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible discusses a long list of characters, entirely male and white, some well known and others more obscure, whose visions and endeavors created the country. And yet, the subtle subtheme of this book was that they really did not do all this alone. Lewis and Clark, for instance, forged a highly effective team, including people from a wide variety of backgrounds and one notable woman, Sacagawea. The trans-continental railroad emerged from the energies of people like Leland Stanford, and yet the enterprise was highly dependent upon intensely collaborative problem-solving by a wide cast of characters, with an incredible array of skills and experiences, who came from divergent corners of the earth.

I would argue that today, and indeed throughout our history, the people who have made the most profound difference were not solitary geniuses, like Isaac Newton, laboring alone in a laboratory with unwavering focus. Rather, they were those who could build the most creative and effective collaborative enterprises, undertakings where they could both express their vision and hear from others, where everyone’s individual contribution was understood to be intrinsic to the success of the whole. I strongly recommend that you read the brilliant article in the July/August edition of The Atlantic by Joshua Wolf Shenk entitled “The Power of Two.” In it he articulates that while we fetishize solitary achievers, the example of Paul McCartney and John Lennon of the Beatles is highly instructive. Shenk argues that those two men’s talents, while individually prodigious, achieved the level of genius only through the synergy of their amazing collaboration.

While there are indeed forces and trends that pull us apart and away from each other that are arguably more powerful today than in earlier periods, I also think there are unique opportunities that pull us together. For as much as we can sometimes dwell upon the shortcomings of today’s youth, I think that we are also working with a generation of kids motivated by powerful and sincere commitment to service. I tell graduates that I love working with kids today because of their compassion, energy and optimism, which I find in as great supply as at any time in working with teenagers over the last 34 years. I think technology, for all the pressure it sometimes applies to pull us apart and away from each other, also affords humanity unprecedented opportunities to share and connect, and kids intuitively take advantage of that capacity. I believe our EXCEL program and initiative already is engendering, and will continue to foster, critical and essential counterweights to the impacts of specialization, narcissism, alienation, parental insulation and lack of grit.

Most fundamentally, I believe that the mission and program of this school, both in an academic sense and in terms of the ethical development it provides, is uniquely attuned to the moment in history in which we live. I really believe this. This is an enterprise that seeks to do two things that are both powerful streams in the American psyche. On the one hand, we have our school motto, “spes sibi quisque,” which speaks to need for the individual to have fortitude, strength of character, and intrinsic commitment to achievement. And on the other hand we have our school mission, which impels us to “inspire leadership for public good.” This requires us to be sure we are helping our kids to contribute, indeed to lead, in a world that will belong to those who can think clearly and act decisively, but more significantly a world that will place a premium on collaboration, empathy, curiosity, optimism, resilience, relentless commitment to learning, and adaptability to rapid change. And while there is a timeless, unchanging quality to schools, we must, as an institution, continually ask ourselves to do this more adeptly and with greater clarity.

So it is with these thoughts that I am charging out of the gate for a new school year. We ask people to give generously of their time and resources to Nobles because we believe passionately in who we are and what we do, and because of our determination to innovate and do it better. People respond enthusiastically to those requests because they are impressed, share the commitment, and are inspired by our dedication and success. This community, and the people it produces, are essential to a better future for our communities, for our commonwealth, and for our country in myriad ways, as citizens, community servants, leaders, parents, intellects, creators, entrepreneurs and innovators. I know you share in these ideals, and I hope you will carry them into your work here every day.

Best wishes for a great year ahead.

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