One of the most troubling developments in our country’s political sphere is the growing tendency to frame issues in strictly binary terms. On issue after issue, we see people taking strongly held positions on either side of the issue that leave no room for finding common ground. It is no exaggeration to say that in our political life we are becoming a nation whose citizenry is increasingly divided into warring camps, with each side showing little to no inclination or willingness to listen to arguments on the other side.
Sadly, this binary way of thinking has also pervaded our K-12 education system. Indeed, our public education system is rife with examples in which policymakers and practitioners take a “my way or the highway” stance on issues of educational import. Implacably arrayed against one another are the charter versus district school proponents, the testing and anti-testing forces, the phonics versus whole language champions, and the list goes on.
That is why, as we begin a new school year, it is so heartening to take note of and celebrate what appears to be an emerging consensus on the kind of education we should be providing to every child in our city and country. It’s a conception of excellence in education that bridges many of the old divisions and rejects a number of the false dichotomies that, until now, have characterized our educational debate. In this definition of educational excellence, students’ academic and social-emotional needs are both taken into account and seen as inextricably intertwined.
This whole child approach to education is perhaps best expressed in a report issued earlier this year by the Aspen Institute from the National Commission on Social, Emotional & Academic Learning. The report, which was authored by a number of our country’s leading educators and is entitled “A Nation at Hope,” reflects the most recent research on how students learn and what it takes for children of all backgrounds to thrive. It firmly rejects the notion that education is a zero sum game with academic and social-emotional learning competing against one another in schools for time and resources.
Instead, it sees them as synergistic and mutually reinforcing, citing a substantial body of evidence which shows how a focus on social-emotional learning not only supports the development of critical life skills such as responsibility, perseverance and resilience, but also helps students to do better academically.
“A Nation at Hope” offers a recipe for educational excellence that can and should be embraced by educators of all stripes. This recipe starts with the creation of learning environments in which students feel safe and secure — where they are ensconced in a web of adult/child and peer-to-peer relationships through which they are well-known and well supported, part of a “crew” that looks after and takes care of one another. It includes opportunities for students to step out of their comfort zones so that they are able to stretch themselves, gain new confidence and open themselves up to new learning. It presents students with real world learning tasks that engage their interests and passions and also call upon them to work collaboratively, drawing upon each other’s strengths to solve problems and complete work.
And it puts a strong emphasis on the cultivation of qualities such as compassion, integrity, and empathy, along with academic skills like critical thinking.
In short, the report can serve as a catalyst and blueprint for a new educational paradigm for our city and country: one that offers the promise of delivering a truly excellent education to all of our children, regardless of their backgrounds or circumstances — an education that prepares them both for the jobs of an economy that is becoming more globalized and information-driven every day and for the increasingly complex demands of 21st century citizenship.
The start of this new school year affords us a golden opportunity to bring this new paradigm to life in our schools. Let’s seize that opportunity, and in so doing, demonstrate that we can get beyond our divisions and come together to do what is in the best interests of our children.
Stopol is president and CEO of Outward Bound Schools.