Dr. Gereboff's Head Notes
What’s Your Measure of Success?
How many of you think of yourselves as “successful”? More importantly, I’m curious what you think contributed to that success. In what ways are your perceptions of your successes and failures fueling your standard of success for your children?
My questions stem from a recent lunch I enjoyed with Denise Pope, senior lecturer in education at Stanford and one of the founders of Challenge Success for educators and parents. Pope and her colleagues created CS after conducting research that suggested current mainstream definitions of success are creating undue stress among students - particularly among middle class and upper middle class families. The Challenge Success message is about redefining success. This message is resonating across the country in University departments of education, educators, and parents. Their agenda is pushing top universities to transform their entrance requirements, and prestigious independent schools to drop grading systems and to rethink assessments.
For many middle class families, the goal of attending “the right school” for college (or high school) can be applied to a very narrow band of schools. A majority of very capable students will not get into those schools because the applicant pool is so great, and the number admitted is so small in comparison. It’s not because they are lacking in talent, but because there are just too many other students similar to them applying for too few places.
There is no question that “right schools” are structured to maximize the chances for their students to be challenged and engaged. In addition, their students get to study with academically similar peers, and the alumni networks created among their fellow graduates often provide an advantage in locating work following college. Yet, even these privileged few often lack the very qualities that are proven indicators of long-term success: purpose, sense of self, resilience and interpersonal skills.
There are other serious problems associated with this goal – problems that are far too critical to ignore. Pope and her colleague, psychologist Madeline Levine, documented the large spike in stress related issues (including depression, anxiety, suicides, and addictions) among middle class adolescents. Students spend inordinate amounts of time doing homework, and/or participating in grueling hours of athletic training solely to achieve the illusive admittance to “the right” school or to earn “the” athletic scholarship. If they fail to gain admittance to their choice or don’t get that scholarship, they, and their parents, are crushed. Even if they achieve that goal, what’s next? Furthermore, students who either cannot, or do not, want to participate in this pressure-cooker environment see their interests and talents ignored and trivialized. (Madeline Levine, Teach Your Children Well, pg xiv)
When we look at the compelling data that Pope and Levine have gathered, it is clear that school needs to be more of a journey that opens up possibilities rather than a race to a finish line defined by a very narrow goal. While experiencing these possibilities, children need, now more than ever, the resilience that comes from experiencing failure and learning how to bounce back.
School also needs to be structured to engage meaning-of-life questions so children can develop their purpose. Children need time to ask “why” questions - (Why is there order in the universe? Why are there wars? Why are some people heroic? Why did my pet die?), and they need to explore possible answers. Varied responses to these questions present different perspectives on the purpose in life. This range of possibilities helps children in thinking about the future that they might create.
The measure of success for schools and families who understand this idea of school as a journey, would be the graduate who finds interesting work and balances the “joy of living” with the “obligation to improve the world.” Wornick JDS is a school that sets the condition for this sort of success. Our program is structured so that students have the content knowledge they need to find their vocation, the language to express wonder and gratitude, a year punctuated by celebrations, and ample time to explore the “whys”, while trying on different possibilities to create a better world. I look forward in June to sharing our graduates’ stories that reflect both their journeys, and the exciting possibilities that lie ahead.
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