Re:  What I Want For Your (Our) Kids

As you know, the Board of Island Pacific School announced in November that I would be returning to serve as Head of School next year. Before I get back into the driver’s seat, I wanted to give you a sense of why I have made the decision to return, and what I want Island Pacific School to be, and to accomplish, for our children. This letter will also serve as my introduction to those families whom I have not yet had the pleasure to meet.

I am grateful and honored that the Board has offered me this appointment, for indeed it had other options.   While I enjoyed creating the school, the truth of the matter is that schools need to evolve and improve if they are going to be of genuine service to the students who attend them. I am very mindful of this and therefore want to make clear that while I do believe there are a number of foundation elements that I want to see continue at the school, we also need, as a community, to find ways to make Island Pacific School better.

On that note I also want to make clear my unreserved respect and admiration for the job that Michael Simmonds has done over the past four years. He has taken to heart the core elements of Island Pacific School and continuously looked for ways to honor, express and amplify those.  Whether it was the way he encouraged the senior students to run the assemblies or the way he addressed difficult issues, it is clear that Michael understood the core values of the school and sought to employ them in everything he did. Beyond this, it is also abundantly clear that he found ways to make IPS even better. Some of his accomplishments include creating subject-centered classrooms, arranging for additional course credits (for Duke of Edinburgh, Masterworks, and English 10), introducing the SALTS initiative, working collaboratively with parents to create successful promotional and fund raising events, and enhancing the national profile of the school.  I believe that the number one reason that IPS is alive and well today is that Michael Simmonds poured his heart and soul into this project.  It is for this reason that I regard him as a co-founder of Island Pacific School.  I therefore now see my job not only as honoring and expressing the core values of the school, but also as accepting the invitation to improvement that Michael has offered and building on the foundation that he has established.

Before diving into the heart of the matter, I will give you a brief tour of my last four years.  This may be useful for both new and veteran parents as a way to explain and understand some of what will follow, both in this letter and throughout the academic years to follow. For the first two years away I served as Middle School principal at Mulgrave School in West Vancouver.  Mulgrave has about 700 students in K-12, with about 200 of those in the middle school. Over the two years I was there our main task was to implement the IB Middle Years Programme (MYP) in the classrooms and secure authorization  (which we did).  I was responsible for about 20 staff.

In August 2009 I then took on the role as founding Principal at Dwight International School on Vancouver Island.  I worked under the leadership of Jerry Salvador, the Head of School.  Dwight International has about 95 students in grades 7-12, so it is small like IPS. The key job there was to manage a school start-up, i.e. bring staff together for a common purpose, build cultural “traditions”, and work through the mountain of logistics involved in getting a school off the ground. Dwight is now up and running with, I am happy to say, a few IPS traditions tucked into its culture.

My four year “sabbatical” working at these schools taught me—or reconfirmed for me—a number of things, some of which include:

  • The importance of inviting teachers to become educators
  • The importance of having parents understand—and co-commit to—what a school is trying to accomplish (hence this letter)
  • The importance of giving students the exact combination of freedom and direction to yield genuine growth
  • The potential that digital teaching & learning, if done correctly, has for leveraging and enhancing quality education
  • The advantages and special opportunities of small schools
  • The pivotal role of the middle years in a student’s overall education

Probably the most important thing I had reconfirmed for me, however, is the absolutely central role that the development of character needs to take in any complete and genuine sense of education.

When I first started Island Pacific School I regarded the “development of character” as something of an add-on to the central academic purpose of the school.  I was disappointed and frustrated by what I saw as the substandard academic fare schools were offering students and I agreed with the educational commentator Frank Smith when he wrote that much of what goes on in schools is an “insult to intelligence”. In looking at the intellectual content and expectations within most contemporary schools, I also remember relating to the cantankerous old lady in the Wendy’s hamburger commercials who caustically asked “where’s the beef?” My first priority back then, therefore, was to give students an academic education that would be worthy of the name.  The emphasis on inquiry-based learning, and the introduction of practical reasoning and the Masterworks program were designed to not insult students’ intelligence, but instead to invite and encourage them to stretch themselves.

What I also came to realize, however, is that in addition to needing to be intellectually challenged, adolescents also desperately need a compelling and defensible picture of how they ought “to be” both as young people and as emerging adults. I used to tell the students that, when they graduated from grade nine, I wanted people to look at them and think to themselves, “There goes a kid with a head on his\her shoulders”. I explained to the students what I meant by that: an IPS graduate would be both knowledgeable and curious about the world; he or she would have a (warranted) sense of confidence (i.e. as a result of having met significant challenges—outdoor trips, solo, Masterworks, etc.); and an IPS graduate would be a decent human being. These three items were meant, of course, to be an abbreviation of the school’s more fundamental aims: to set students up to cultivate genuine virtues like wisdom, courage, and integrity. I have now realized that this particular piece of the educational puzzle is all-important; it must remain central to the purpose and ethos of the school.

The Heart of the Matter – Cultivating Humanity

The most direct way to describe the core purpose of schools is to say that our job, as teachers, is to equip and inspire students to cultivate their humanity. This is not an empty slogan for me; it is an architectural drawing with which to build a living school and a way to express what education can be.

The heart of the matter is this idea that the job of education is to cultivate our humanity. On the face of it, this is a rather grandiose assumption, particularly if we believe that schools are essentially about preparing students for the world of work. But this phrase is intentional, for it is meant to occupy a distinctive position in the debate about why we have schools and what we are trying to accomplish when we commit our children to these institutions.

There are at least three versions of what schools are for and therefore what they are meant to accomplish.  In the first version, schools are a giant sorting and selection mechanism that are designed to determine who goes to university and who flips hamburgers at McDonald’s.  As they are supposed to do this on the basis of merit, much attention is paid to ensuring consistent and transparent mechanisms of assessment.  The success of this system is reflected in how well it places the right student in the right position, particularly in reference to the smooth running of our consumption-driven economy.

A second version of schooling is one that seeks to identify and develop “individual potential” in students, wherever this may lie. This is a distinctly modern approach that puts a great emphasis on individual choice that is to be serviced by a broad menu of electives.  Success within this system is measured by the extent that individual needs are recognized and met.

To say that the core purpose of education is to “cultivate humanity” is to point to a third version of what schools are for, and of what education could be. This version is classical in nature, for it presupposes that human beings have certain powers (e.g. to think, to create, to be moral agents, etc.) and that part of what it means to express one’s humanity is to develop and enhance these powers. The job of schools, in this version, is indeed to “equip and inspire” students to meet this challenge.

I endorse and would promote this third version of the purpose of schooling. While I am not adverse to “developing individual potential” or attempting to meet individual needs, I see education as something broader and more fundamental than just this.  I see education as an opportunity to show students how they can express the very best of what it is to be a human being.

Before trying to illustrate how this might be attempted within the context of Island Pacific School, I would like to linger for a moment on the audacity and beauty of this goal. Imagine what it would look like if schools took seriously that their job was to equip and inspire students to cultivate their humanity. Imagine how teachers, students, and parents might come to reconfigure how they understood, for example, the learning of mathematics, given such ultimate aim.  A great educator once said that the purpose of schools is to initiate students into the great conversations of human inquiry. Imagine what it would look like if we taught mathematics as a “great conversation”, as a delightful puzzle pursued through the ages that represents a magnificent human achievement.  Imagine if we taught all our subjects that way.

Imagine further if we embedded within our teaching of history, art, literature and science an ongoing, and critical, examination of how we ought to live? Imagine if we gave students the tools and ability to think about such things in a coherent way? The Roman poet Pindar once admonished young people to “Become what you are”. Far from being an invitation to “follow one’s bliss”, this was instead a challenge and clarion call to embody human excellence through the expression unassailable virtues.

In the contemporary world—particularly for adolescents—there are many invitations to stupidity and precious few clarion calls to “become what you are” in Pindar’s sense. It seems to me, therefore, that the larger purpose of schools—if they mean to educate in any genuine sense—is to stand as a countervailing force against the ignorance, banality and superficiality that is so prevalent within our times. In the broadest possible sense, this is the contribution that Island Pacific School should make, both to its students and, through them, to society as a whole.

“Equipping & Inspiring” at Island Pacific School

It is a tall order to claim that one is equipping and inspiring students to cultivate their humanity. What would that look like? And what, in particular, would it look like in the context of working with fifty or so adolescents at a small middle school on Bowen Island?

The first thing to understand is that we can only offer—at a middle school level—what might be thought of as a primer coat to a complete education … or, perhaps better, a base coat that goes on after the “primer coat” of a well-founded elementary education. In the world of industrial painting a primer coat is the layer that one puts on first to ensure that subsequent layers properly adhere.  The base coat goes on second, while the finishing coat comes last.

If we think of elementary education as the primer coat, middle school education as the base coat, and senior secondary schooling as the finishing coat, then we will have a picture of how the various layers might be understood to contribute to a whole.  The “primer coat” layer of education is essentially about giving students a rock-solid learning foundation. The “base coat” layer, on the other hand, needs to shift the emphasis to (guided) exploration, while the “finishing coat” layer must focus on consolidation.

Assuming that the primer coat of a well-founded elementary education is already in place, what exactly might this guided exploration in the middle years encompass?

First, it needs to be the kind of education that will sustain and enhance intellectual curiosity within young people.  It is precisely in the middle years that adolescent students can lose their spirit of inquiry, replacing it instead with a kind of feigned indifference to anything of substance.  If this occurs, then the fault is partially ours, for the feigned indifference of adolescents might simply be their inarticulate expression of the fact that we have not really challenged them intellectually.  What adolescents desperately need at this point in their lives is to learn is a higher order of inquiry beyond the natural curiosity that may have propelled them through their elementary years. They need, in short, to learn how to ask intelligent questions.

This turns out to be more difficult than it might first appear, for it requires both the acquisition of particular skills and the cultivation of a certain sensibility. It is the easiest thing in the world to encourage students to “ask questions”; it is much more difficult to show them how to ask intelligent questions. University educator Martha Nussbaum has appropriately warned us that in the pursuit of so-called “critical thinking”, we need to be sure that we do not create a generation of students who are “insolent without being wise.” It is for this reason that the Practical Reasoning and Senior Seminar courses at Island Pacific School are meant not only to teach basic skills in argument analysis, but more importantly to cultivate a capacity and sensibility in students to ask the kinds of questions that will yield a deeper understanding of the problem.  This emphasis on critical inquiry is also meant to form one element of the instructional approach across all subject matter, and it culminates in the grade nine Masterworks requirement.

The second key aim within the guided exploration of the middle years is to arrange the school experience so students become introduced (or re-introduced) to the idea of personal and moral responsibility.  A number of elements are built into the school that are meant to bring this into focus: the clean-up crews, the outdoor pursuits trips, the community service opportunities, the (new) grade nine assemblies, and even the way that “discipline” is handled at the school.  All of these are both object lessons and explicit invitations to express “the very best of what it is to be a human being”. The adults within schools need to be intentional about creating these object lessons and making these invitations. To fail to do so is to abdicate one’s responsibility to educate in any meaningful sense.

In the most general terms, then, what we need to do through the guided exploration of the middle years is teach our children how to ask intelligent questions and cultivate within them a strong sense of personal and moral responsibility.

I believe that the stakes are high when it comes to middle school education. If we do it right, we can set kids up for the rest of their lives; if we do it wrong, we can, at the very least, waste their time and, at the most, do real damage. You may be interested to know that I started Island Pacific School partially out of frustration at my own schooling. It wasn’t until graduate school that I got my first glimpse of the power and magnitude of human inquiry and, having caught that glimpse, that I realized how thoroughly robbed I had been when it came to my own grade-school education.  I know from experience that middle school students have both the capacity and inclination to deepen and enrich their understanding of the world and themselves, if given the right context. The whole point of Island Pacific School, of course, is to provide that context.

I am pleased to be able to report that the school has indeed been successful in achieving this goal. To take just a few examples: IPS graduate Steven Klein did a grade nine Masterworks presentation on the theory of anarchy and is now completing a Ph.D. in political science (with a full scholarship) at the University of Chicago; Emily Jubenvil thrived on the outdoor pursuits trips and is now devoting herself to environmental service projects; Cristina Dos Santos was tenacious with her arguments in the Practical Reasoning courses and went on to read Law at Oxford;  Liz Williams flew a Cessna in grade eight at IPS and is currently earning her wings in the Canadian Air Force; Aidan Benson was an intellectually precocious fireball who came of age at IPS and is now completing his Doctor of Medicine at Imperial College in London. Robyn Hooper was accepted into a United World College in New Mexico and then earned a full scholarship through UBC. All of these graduates, and more, have pointed to Island Pacific School as being a significant pivot point in their lives—a time that challenged them and, in doing so, awakened them to the possibilities of who they might become.  In different ways, they all cite the hard work, commitment and dedication of their IPS teachers as the catalyst that made the difference.

It is with all of this in mind, therefore, that I look forward to my return to Island Pacific School in September 2011.  In addition to ensuring that the core foundation pieces remain intact, I am excited about exploring further possibilities around digital teaching and learning. I think if we can do this well, we can leverage up the quality of the educational experience for our students. I look forward to discussing this more with parents in the 2011-12 academic year.

In the meantime, I think the school is extremely well-served under the leadership of Tania Krumpak. I have had the good fortune to meet with Tania several times over the holiday break, and I am confident that she will do an excellent job as Interim Head for the remainder of this academic year. It is clear that she shares the same philosophical orientation as Michael and I, and that she has the best interests of the students in mind. As I am still on contract with the school on Vancouver Island, I would request that parents deal directly with Tania over the next six months on all school matters.

My thanks again to the Board for giving me the opportunity to return to the school in September. I wish all of you the very best over the coming year.

Sincerely,

Ted Spear