Stephen Smith: From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary.
Finley: I think a lot of schools are very focused on producing a number.
Smith: Some say there’s too much test prep in schools, and not enough focus on things like…
Kendrick: Courage, self-discipline, respect, perseverance…
Long: Character is something that stays with you throughout life.
But how can schools teach character? And Should they?
Berger: We believe schools have no choice. The very experience of schooling either makes them more respectful or less respectful. More compassionate or less compassionate.
Coming up, “Beyond the Blackboard: Building Character in Public Schools.” First this news.
(sound up under)
Stephen Smith: From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, “Beyond the Blackboard: Building Character in Public Schools.” I’m Stephen Smith.
Emily Hanford: And I’m Emily Hanford.
Girl: You want a granola bar?
Girl: who wants cereal?
Hanford: We’re at an outdoor camp about an hour and a half north of New York City with a bunch of sixth graders from a public middle school in Queens. They spent last night sleeping in the woods. Now they’re eating breakfast.
Kids: My back hurts.
Teacher: Let’s drink some water.
Smith: The kids are spending four days out here. They’ve been hiking and camping and learning how to cook for themselves. Next they’re heading for the high ropes course.
Hanford: Who’s really afraid of the high ropes course?
Justus: Not me.
[Sound of walking to ropes course]
Hanford: That’s Justus. He’s 12. He volunteers to go first. An instructor helps Justus get into a harness that will prevent him from getting hurt.
Instructor: ladder team, we need two people for that…
Smith: Two classmates steady a ladder that is leaning against a tree. And Justus begins to climb.
Kids: You got it! You can do it! Yeah you got it, you can do it! Go Justus.
Instructor: Well done.
Smith: Justus has to climb about 30 feet to a big log suspended between two trees. Then he’ll walk across the log.
Hanford: That’s the idea anyway. But as soon Justus stands up on that log and looks down, he panics.
Justus: Oh my god.
Uchechi: Didn’t you say you wanted to do it?
Justus: I’m going down.
Uchechi: no, you can do this, you got this. If you fall, they got you just go back up there!
Smith: The kids and instructors try their best to get Justus to walk across that log…
Kids: no, no, no, nothing. Go back up there. You got this.
Smith: … but Justus can’t be convinced. Slowly, he comes back down.
Justus [shudders]: Oh my God.
Hanford: A student named Uchechi is up next.
Uchechi: ah, ok [sigh]. I got this.
Instructor: you nervous?
Uchechi: little bit, little bit…
Hanford: Uchechi did not want to come on this trip. She says she would have preferred to stay home in the city where she’s comfortable.
Smith: But the trip is required for all 6th graders at her school. The idea is to help kids learn the value of trying new things and taking on challenges. Here’s Maya Choy-Sutton, who helps organize the outings.
Choy-Sutton: When we think of what we really want school to be it’s not a place where you fill out a worksheet and it’s easy and you turn it in. It’s a place where you’re really challenged and you have to dig in yourself, challenge yourself intellectually, connecting ideas and concepts. Experiences like this are about showing that the satisfaction of doing a hard thing well is sort of unbeatable in terms of your own view of yourself and your future view of what you’re capable of moving forward, you know the opportunities you see for yourself.
Students and Instructor: Go Uchechi! Yeah Uchechi. Nicely done. Yeah. Yeah.
Hanford: Uchechi has climbed up to the log and is walking across, looking confident.
Instructor: How’s the view?
Uchechi: Amazing actually.
Kid: whoo! [Sound of rubbing hands together]
Kid: Yeah girl.
Hanford: When kids make it, they’re thrilled.
Smith: Justus – the kid who went first but gave up – he’s watching all this… and he tells the instructor he wants to give it another shot.
Kid: got this Justus, yeah Justus.
Instructor: is it all right if we cheer for ya?
Justus: [Sigh] Yeah, go ahead.
Kids: Go Justus!
Instructor: You can do it….
Hanford: Justus climbs up to the log. He stands up, looks down…. and decides he’s going to scooch across on his butt. Eventually, he makes it across to the other tree.
Justus: Oh my God
Instructor: Nicely done!
Smith: So how did that feel?
Justus: Um, good.
Smith: Yeah, you happy that you went all the way across?
Justus: Now I can say I did it. [Music in….]
Smith: Now, what made you want to go up and do it again?
Justus: Um, I just figured like, why would I go on without making it all the way across.
Hanford: The hope is that — out here in the woods — kids will learn some things about themselves that they might not learn in a traditional classroom. Maybe like Uchechi they’ll learn that the view is amazing up there in the trees, that there’s something to be said for getting out of your comfort zone. Maybe like Justus they’ll realize that they can accomplish things that at first seemed scary and impossible.
Smith: The people who run Justus and Uchechi’s school believe that American public schools aren’t focusing enough on helping kids learn these kinds of lessons. Co-principal Pat Finley says schools have become much too focused on teaching a narrow set of academic skills, the kinds of skills that can help kids do better on standardized tests.
Finley: I think a lot of schools are very focused on producing a number. And I think for years, the people who’ve been driving the agenda have been pushing that good schools get good results and those results are tests.
Smith: Finley believes in the value of tests. The problem, he says, is that the intense emphasis on standardized testing in recent years has pushed a lot of American schools to focus almost exclusively on academic skills, cognitive skills.
Hanford: But there’s a wide body of recent research that shows there are a whole bunch of noncognitive skills that are really important too. Things like persistence and courage and getting along with other people.
Smith: Those kinds of skills help kids do better on tests. They help them get into college and complete degrees. They help them get good jobs and stay employed. They help them do better in life. Cognitive skills are just a part of what people need to be successful.
Hanford: The term “noncognitive skills” refers to a wide range of abilities, personality traits and attitudes. Some people call these social and emotional skills. Others call them character.
Smith: Now, character can be kind of a loaded term. It implies values, morals, things that some people believe public schools shouldn’t be in the business of teaching. That’s one reason many public schools have shied away from teaching character.
Hanford: But the recent research on the importance of these skills is prompting a lot of educators to ask – how can we deliberately teach character in school? How can we swing the pendulum a bit — away from a narrow focus on academic learning and toward a broader set of skills that kids need to learn to be successful? These questions have particular resonance in the United States right now because of a growing concern that there’s too much testing in public schools. But these are not new questions. Educators have grappled with how to teach character for a long time.
Smith: Over the coming hour, we’re going to explore one approach. It takes us back more than a hundred years to a European educator named Kurt Hahn. You may not know Hahn’s name, but you’ve likely heard of the outdoor adventure program he created, Outward Bound. Before he started Outward Bound, Hahn was the founder and headmaster of two private boarding schools in Europe. His ideas about education have had a big impact on a number of private schools around the world. More recently, some American educators decided to try to bring Hahn’s ideas for teaching character into public schools, too. The school in Queens we heard about a few minutes ago – that’s one of those schools. Later in the program, we’ll visit another one. But first, we’re going to learn more about what Hahn did to try to teach his students things like persistence and courage and compassion, and why he thought it was so important. Here’s Emily with the story.
Back in the 1960s Greg Farrell was an assistant dean of admissions at Princeton. He was responsible for reading applications from foreign students. And he was consistently struck by applications from students at Gordonstoun, a prestigious British boarding school started by Kurt Hahn.
Farrell: The Gordonstoun school leaving form had a couple of pages of recommendations by the headmaster.
American prep schools had a similar form.
Farrell: But I’d never seen anything like these forms from Gordonstoun. Because instead of confining themselves to the academic merits or the athletic prowess of the students, there was a series of questions that the headmaster would answer about character. How does young Perkins do on expedition? Does he clean up after himself and clean up after others? Does he do the right thing in the face of boredom? The ridicule of his peers?
Farrell says only about a tenth of the leaving form talked about academics.
Farrell: Clearly for Hahn, character was more important than academics. It was kind of the base on which any kind of academic or other performance was based.
Hahn was a German Jew, born into a wealthy family in Berlin in 1886. His ideas about education were heavily influenced by two things: His own experience of school, and World War I, which broke out when Hahn was in his late 20s.
James: The war was this tremendous breach of civilization.
This is Tom James, an education historian who has written about Hahn.
James: So much was unleashed, the violence and hatred among peoples, that I think he felt the project of education should be to develop young people who were ready to be citizens in a new kind of world.
As far as Hahn’s own schooling was concerned, he hated it. He loved to read and write, but he thought of his high school as a “torment box.” It was a rigidly academic place where students were marched through preparation for a big test. Hahn longed for something different, as revealed in a novel he wrote when he was in his twenties.
James: There’s an incident in the middle of the novel where a young kid has this idea for writing an essay that’s something that he really loves, that really expresses a deep passion inside him.
The kid works really hard on the essay and brings it to his teacher. The teacher looks at it and laughs at him – in front of the whole class. Then the kid leaves school….
James: And he’s taken by his mother to a place in the country, in many ways like the country house of the Hahn family. And they are there and they go boating and in the water and hiking and things like that. So there’s this contrast of this wonderful world of lived experience, you know versus the treatment by this very formal school. And that in many ways is the spring or the fountainhead for the philosophy of Kurt Hahn.
Hahn started his first school in Germany in 1920 with the help of a German prince. Hahn developed a set of principles to guide education at the school. He called them the Seven Laws of Salem – Salem was the name of the school. Here they are, read by an actor.
Actor: One: Give children the opportunity for self-discovery.
Hahn believed that inside everyone there is a “grand passion” — some talent or interest that schools should help kids discover.
Actor: Two: Make children meet with triumph and defeat.
Hahn believed students should experience failure as well as success — so they would learn how to overcome adversity.
Actor: Three: Give children the opportunity of self-effacement in the common cause.
Hahn believed young people needed the experience of serving others, to do things for the good of the group, not just themselves.
Actor: Four: Provide periods of silence.
Students took daily walks, alone, in the woods. Hahn believed meaningful learning required quiet reflection as well as directed activity.
Actor: Five: Train the imagination.
Hahn believed schools had to be deliberate about doing this. Unless you call the imagination into action, he said, it becomes atrophied like an unused muscle.
Actor: Six: Make games important but not predominant.
Hahn believed deeply in the ancient Greek ideal that education should be aimed at producing a complete person, one who had developed intellectually, morally, aesthetically and physically. But Hahn was not a big fan of competitive sports. He didn’t like the way school athletes tended to be worshipped like heroes.
Actor: Seven: Free the sons of the wealthy and powerful from the enervating sense of privilege.
Hahn elaborated by writing this: “… rich girls and boys wholly thrown into each other’s company are not given a chance of growing into men and women who can overcome. Let them share the experience of an enthralling school life with sons and daughters of those who have to struggle for their existence.”
It’s not clear how many students from poor families actually attended Salem. Hahn’s goal was to have at least 30% come from homes where, quote, “life is not only simple but even hard.”
Archive: Hitler in 1933, German
Hahn’s time at the Salem School in Germany was cut short when Adolph Hitler came to power. Hahn sent a telegram to all of the Salem School alumni demanding anyone affiliated with the Nazi party break with Hitler or break with Salem. For that, the Nazis threw Hahn in jail. But he had powerful friends in Britain who got him out. And in 1933 Hahn fled to Scotland, where he founded Gordonstoun on a 17th century estate near the rocky coast of the North Sea.
Film recording: [Sounds of seagulls and waves]
This sound is from a promotional film made in 1959. You see stately stone buildings, lush lawns, and boys in kilts playing bagpipes.
Film narrator: The school has grown in 25 years to 400 boys. They are accepted regardless of race or social position, provided they show promise either academically or in character.
At Gordonstoun, Hahn was able to further develop what quickly became a distinctive and highly coveted approach to education. Prince Philip and Prince Charles went to Gordonstoun. This was the kind of education rich people were willing to pay for. There were several key elements to education at Gordonstoun. One was physical fitness.
Film: a morning run, short and easy, begins every weekday…
This is the Gordonstoun film again. The narrator, who’s a graduate, takes viewers on a tour of the school, pointing out the key elements. Here the film shows boys on a sunny day taking their morning run.
Film: This looks very pleasant. But it was quite an experience, I can tell you, doing this before breakfast on a bitterly cold winter’s morning, with a blizzard beating down.
To keep track of their physical fitness – and also their academic progress – each boy had what was called a “training plan.”
Film: This involves him in keeping his own private record, on a chart, of some simple self-disciplines. He undertakes also to record when he’s late for class, and to keep the official record of his own marks for work. Thus, even a junior boy is trained to be trust-worthy and accurate.
When it came to academics, boys at Gordonstoun took traditional courses that would prepare them for university entrance exams. But they also did big projects.
Film: A project may be almost anything that calls for application, care and persistence, provided that it can be completed and judged at the annual public exhibition.
Projects included things like researching the history of a piece of art, doing carpentry, or composing music. Hahn believed projects could help students discover their interests and passions. Projects, he said, “tap the hidden reserves of the mind in a way that an examination can rarely do. Another key element of education at Gordonstoun was the expedition.
Video: Expeditions to the hills, planned with a purpose, have always been an outstanding feature of life at Gordonstoun.
Hahn would send his students on these expeditions to help them develop persistence and the ability to work together. He thought the experience of being in nature was one of the best teachers, says historian Tom James.
James: One thing about adventure in the outdoors is that you’re working in an environment that you cannot predict. It’s going to produce landscapes and challenges and darkness before you’re ready for darkness. And he believed that realm of experience in nature is so important in teaching people to be more resourceful, and more grounded in themselves to really make decisions.
And the most important element of education at Gordonstoun, according to Hahn, was the “rescue service.”
Video: [siren] at the sound of the siren, boys in the fire service must race to man the engines.
The film shows students scrambling out of class, racing across the school grounds, and jumping into a red fire truck. They fought real fires in the town.
Think about this for a moment – these are high school kids, being woken up in the middle of the night or pulled out of class – to go fight a fire. Why did Hahn want his students to do this? In a speech – there’s no recording unfortunately – Hahn said this: “The experience of helping a fellow man in danger, or even of training in a realistic manner to be ready to give this help, tends to change the balance of power in a youth’s inner life, with the result that compassion can become the master motive.”
That’s what Hahn was ultimately trying to do in his schools – create compassionate people. Hahn thought the world needed them. This was the 1930s. Another world war was clearly coming…
British broadcaster: These are today’s main events. Germany has invaded Poland and has bombed many towns. General mobilization…
Hahn was devastated by the outbreak of World War II. But it led to the creation of the organization he is perhaps best known for: Outward Bound. Outward Bound is an outdoor education program that takes people on wilderness expeditions. Here’s how it started. The father of one Hahn’s students at Gordonstoun was the head of a big British shipping company. His cargo ships were under attack by German submarines.
British broadcast: mountainous seas are running as a convoy battles its way across the North Atlantic. U-boat versus cargo ships and escort, somewhere in 31 and a half million miles of Atlantic Ocean…
The U-boats sank thousands of merchant ships.
James: And when the ships were out in the water and people were in lifeboats, he noticed a pattern that many of the younger sailors were dying, you know, before they could be rescued.
This is historian Tom James again.
James: And the older sailors, the more experienced ones, were hardier. You know, they had a kind of stamina and an ability to survive that the young did not have.
The head of the shipping company thought his men needed something to teach them the skills and the will to survive out there in the ocean, something akin to what the boys at Gordonstoun were getting with the rescue service and the expeditions. He asked for Hahn’s help, and together they came up with Outward Bound. It was a month-long course that included an expedition across three mountain ranges, rescue training, and volunteer work in the local community. The Outward Bound training was not just for merchant seamen. Police and fire cadets as well as young men about to go into the military were among the students. Outward Bound continued after the war, offering wilderness expeditions to foster fitness and tenacity among British young people. In the early 1960s, Outward Bound came to America. And Greg Farrell — who’d just left his job at Princeton — he was one of the first people to go on an Outward Bound trip in the United States.
Farrell: I was in pretty good shape. I went to the gym, played a lot of basketball. But I thought I was going to die.
It was a month-long trip, early summer, in the Colorado Rockies. They would hike all day and get up the next morning before dawn…
Farrell: and then go for a run and dip.
Oh my god, so you’re hiking all day and still wake up and take a run?
But even more than the physical challenge, what struck Farrell was the way he was learning.
Farrell: Our instructor was a kind of taciturn fellow. He didn’t talk much. But he was eloquent. You know, he was eloquent in the way he moved. He was clearly a master. And he would kind of come around and he would nod at you if you were doing things right and he would kind of shake his head a little bit if you (weren’t). And then he might point something out.
It was all learning by doing, learning by experience. And he remembers at one point on the trip…
Farrell: … the thought coming to me, ‘school would be better if it were more like this.’ No lectures. Plunge into doing things that you don’t think you can do. Figure them out as you go.
This is what had been missing in his own experience as a student – learning through doing as opposed to sitting in class, listening to teachers talk. He thought school would be better for lots of kids if the way they learned was more like the way he had learned on that Outward Bound trip.
Other educators were thinking the same thing. By the 1960s, there was growing interest in many of the ideas Hahn advocated – things like experiential education and project-based learning and social and emotional development. Hahn was being lauded by many people as an educational pioneer, an inventor, an originator. But Hahn himself took issue with those labels.
Hahn: Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentleman. I am very grateful that I am able to talk in this house.
This is from a speech Hahn gave in New York in 1968. It’s not clear exactly where he was speaking or who the audience was. But he tells them – he is not an innovator:
Hahn: I have never originated anything. I’ve put things together, and I can best of all explain to you what I mean by this if I relate an incident which occurred five years after Salem was founded.
Salem was his first school, the one he started in 1920 with the help of a German prince. Here’s what happened. The prince was giving a tour of the school to an American educator. And the American asked him: what are you proudest of in your school? And the prince replied: I am proudest of the fact that you will find nothing original here. We have stolen ideas from everywhere. We have stolen from Plato, from Goethe, from the Boy Scouts. And the American said – shouldn’t you aim at being original?
Hahn: And Prince Max answered with firmness. It’s in education like in medicine. You must harvest the wisdom of a thousand years.
In education like in medicine, you must harvest the wisdom of a thousand years.
Hahn relied on philosophers and poets for his ideas. He didn’t have any proof or empirical evidence that his approach to education worked. No standardized test scores, nothing that measured whether his students were graduating with more grit or compassion or self-discipline.
But by the time of his death in 1974, his methods had taken hold in a number of elite private schools around the world. And in some public schools, things like project-based learning were being used in gifted and talented programs. But that kind of learning was …
Hartl: … absent from the experience of kids in countless zip codes across this country.
This is Scott Hartl. Back in the 1990s, he founded a public school in Boston dedicated to Kurt Hahn’s ideas. It was part of a new network of schools committed to bringing Hahn’s philosophy to American public schools, especially in low-income areas. The schools are called “Expeditionary Learning” schools.
Hartl: Expeditionary Learning’s primary agenda is to show that the kind of teaching and learning that works for gifted and talented programs and independent schools and builds the kind of critical thinkers and creative problem solvers that the economy and this nation needs, should be accessible to every student.
And the goal of these Expeditionary Learning schools is not just to help kids become critical thinkers and creative problem solvers. The goal is to build character, says Ron Berger, one of the leaders of the network that advises Expeditionary Learning schools.
Berger: We believe that schools have no choice but to teach character. The very experience of schooling instills character in students. It either makes them more respectful, or less respectful. More compassionate or less compassionate. And so if schools don’t explicitly take on the teaching of virtuous character, it’s a big mistake. And I also believe that despite the cultural diversity of America and the religious diversity of America, 98 percent of what we look at as virtuous character, we all agree on. Everyone agrees that respect and responsibility and courage and kindness are values that we want in our students. Why are we not putting those at the center of the way we teach kids?
Smith: You’re listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, “Beyond the Blackboard: Building Character in Public Schools.” I’m Stephen Smith. We’ll take a short break, and then we’ll visit one of these Expeditionary Learning schools to see what this kind of learning looks like.
We have more about this story on our web site – American RadioWorks dot org. You can see photos of Kurt Hahn and read more about his educational philosophy. You can also find the American RadioWorks archive where we have dozens of documentaries and podcasts about education.
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Support for “Beyond the Blackboard” comes from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, Lumina Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Our program continues in just a moment from APM, American Public Media.
Mahoney: [Greeting students] Morning brother. Hi Nate, how ya doin?
Stephen Smith: From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, “Beyond the Blackboard: Building Character in Public Schools.” I’m Stephen Smith.
Emily Hanford: And I’m Emily Hanford.
Mahoney: How ya doing kid? You got your warm boots on, huh? Anthony, nice job the other day…
Smith: It is a bitter cold morning in February, and the principal of a public school in Springfield, Massachusetts is outside greeting students.
Mahoney: My name is Stephen Robert Murphy Patrick Mahoney.
Hanford: Mahoney’s the kind of principal who knows everyone’s name. He’s got a big laugh, gives out lots of high fives and loves the word awesome.
Mahoney: What’s going on man? How was your second student led? Was it awesome?
Smith: The city of Springfield has changed a lot in recent decades. Once, it was a white working class town, but now it’s one of the poorest cities in Massachusetts. Most of the kids in the public schools here are black or Hispanic. It’s a very different population from where Mahoney started his career.
Hanford: Mahoney taught at elite private schools in New England and California. There were a couple of things he really liked about how those schools approach education. One, there’s an explicit focus on character. The goal is to create responsible, engaged citizens and that goal is kind of baked into daily life in the way teachers talk to kids and teach their classes. Two, there’s a big emphasis on getting kids interested in and excited about learning.
After about six years in private schools, Mahoney started working in public schools.
Smith: And he noticed a remarkable contrast. Public schools felt …
Mahoney: Big, impersonal, test-driven, autocratic…
Hanford: There were exceptions of course, but the system just didn’t seem set up to get kids excited about learning or to focus on developing their character. Especially at low-income schools, where the approach tended to be…
Mahoney: Sit down and shut up and listen.
Smith: Mahoney wanted to work in a school that was different.
Hanford: He saw his chance in 2005. The Springfield Public Schools had gotten a grant to start something called an “Expeditionary Learning” school. Mahoney was hired as the founding principal.
Smith: Expeditionary Learning is an organization trying to put Kurt Hahn’s ideas about education into practice.
Hanford: Hahn is the European educator we learned about in the first part of the program. He founded Outward Bound, as well as private boarding schools in Germany and Scotland.
Smith: Back in the early 1990s, a group of American educators who were interested in Hahn’s ideas started a national network of schools dedicated to his approach. Their idea was to focus specifically on public schools in low-income communities. They wanted to prove that a kind of education many wealthy kids get in private schools could work with poor kids too.
Hanford: One of the people who helped start these schools was Greg Farrell. He’s the guy who went on that Outward Bound trip and thought – school would be better if it were more like this.
Smith: There are now more than 160 of these Expeditionary Learning schools in the United States
Hanford: The idea is to turn learning into more of an adventure, to have kids do lots of projects, and to teach them some of the same values and character traits that are the goal of an Outward Bound trip – things like perseverance and self-discipline and collaboration.
Smith: So, how do they do it? And what could other American schools learn from their approach? Emily has been spending some time at Stephen Mahoney’s Expeditionary Learning School in Springfield to try to find out.
Hanford: It’s called the Springfield Renaissance School. Mahoney’s first task when he was hired in 2005 was to convince parents to send their kids there. Renaissance is a magnet school; kids get admitted by lottery. But Mahoney says some parents were skeptical of the Expeditionary Learning idea at first. And they were skeptical of him too.
Mahoney: Look at me: I’m a freckle-faced, bowtie wearing, white kid from Boston. They didn’t know me. I had nothing. Talking about learning expeditions and social-emotional, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…
Mahoney was imagining his new school would be something like the private schools where he used to teach, a place where learning would be loud and messy at times, lots of talking, a kind of informal attitude. But parents wanted order and discipline.
Mahoney: Our first community meeting that we had – we’re in the auditorium, we’ve got two hundred families and us and we’re talking about all this cool stuff that we’re doing, and one of our parents – 6’4,” dreads down here, and he says, “Dr. Mahoney, this all looks wonderful. But here’s what I want” — I sound like an Irishman when I try and do him — “here’s what I want to know, when will we have a school uniform?” The place went berserk. All the parents were like, “Yes!” And the faculty and I were like, “That’s so like not what we’re for.”
But one of the first things they did was mandate a school uniform — more a dress code really — black or khaki pants or skirt and a collared shirt. If you want to wear a sweatshirt, it has to have the name of college on it. Mahoney says in his nearly ten years at Renaissance he’s learned that doing Expeditionary Learning in a city public school requires striking a balance between rules and regulations and a more progressive approach.
Mahoney: We couldn’t pull off learning expeditions if kids didn’t know that if they got up in the middle of class and they said, f*** you. I’m not doing anything mother f*****, and then nothing was going to happen to them, we couldn’t do that.
A learning expedition is a big, interdisciplinary project meant to get kids excited about learning. I visited Renaissance on what’s known as the “kick-off” day for one of these learning expeditions. Kids spend the entire school day being introduced to the project they will be working on for the next several months. All of their teachers are involved. So is Dr. Mahoney.
Mahoney: Ah, Ms. Dill, Mr. Ryan. Can I speak to you for a moment please?
Mahoney is wearing a surgeon’s mask, rubber gloves and a white biohazard suit. This is a 10th grade learning expedition about antibiotic resistant bacteria. Mahoney and the school nurse are pretending there’s been an outbreak of an antibiotic resistant infection at the school. They’re quarantining students who show signs of being “sick.”
Mahoney: He’s a little hot. OK, all right, let’s go. Thank you.
Mahoney pulls several kids out of class and marches them down the hall to the main office.
Nurse: You thought you were in trouble?
Mahoney: Well, Wesonga thought he was in trouble… [Laughs]
No one’s in trouble. It’s a role-playing exercise designed to get students thinking about the dangers of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Over the next few months they’ll be collecting and analyzing bacteria samples from around the school, learning about the history of antibiotics, and writing and presenting a scientific article.
Eric Levine: And in that process we’ll meet microbiologists, we’ll meet doctors who study this, we’ll meet an epidemiologist.
This is biology teacher Eric Levine.
Levine: So part of the agenda is meeting professionals in the field to model for our students what you can do with this that’s real. So many of us went through school saying, “When will I ever need this?” That’s what we’re trying to push up against.
Student: I think it was the 7 year old – was it Mr. Credence?
It’s afternoon on the kick-off day. Students spent the morning rotating through different classrooms where their teachers acted out key events in the history of antibiotics. Now they’re in small groups talking about what they learned.
Student: so I think that one’s, um, 1942.
The discussion is lively and loud – the opposite of the sit down and shut up approach. A student named Chaineryz tells me she used to go to a school like that.
Chaineryz: I can’t learn with like, looking at a teacher in the front at the board and she just lectures at me all day. And it’s boring, staring at a teacher, she lectures at you. And honestly, I don’t know, if I was in another school, I don’t think I would still be in school.
In case you didn’t catch that – Chaineryz said if she didn’t go to this school, she doesn’t think she’d still be in school.
Student: yeah, so that one has to be higher than when they made penicillin…
It’s clear when you look around the room that some kids are really into this learning expedition, but some are just going through the motions. Mahoney says that’s to be expected.
Mahoney: There are some kids that are like pigs in sh**! And then you’re going to see that there are some kids that are like – ach. You know, we’re not going to get 100% of the people all the time. We’re just not. If we get 70 to 80 percent of the kids who are super engaged and the other 20 percent of the kids are like, “OK, I’m not super engaged. But I’m not going to get in anyone’s way. I’m happy with that.
Mahoney uses the phrase “deeper learning” to describe what he’s trying to do at Renaissance. He says he encounters a lot of skepticism among educators that this approach can work at a low-income school like this one. They say the focus should be on getting kids caught up on basic skills first. But Mahoney thinks that approach leaves kids behind — kids who may not have perfect grammar or high test scores, but who can get excited about learning when they’re given something interesting to learn. The graduation rate at the Springfield Renaissance School is the highest in the city. It also has some of the best test scores. That doesn’t mean test scores are great — they’re below average when they’re compared to the state as a whole. Mahoney says scores might be higher if he had students spend more time on test prep. But he says he’s not willing to do that.
Mahoney: We’re not going to be testing and re-testing and testing and re-testing. We’re just not going to do that. Cause that’s bad for kids, it’s bad for schools. They’re not going to get respect and courage and perseverance and cultural sensitivity. And they’re not going to learn how to be human beings, if all they’re learning how to do is take a God damn** test.
Teacher: So I’m looking for students showing they’re going to get a 4 for Habit of Work #1. Who’s it going to be?
This is one of the middle school classrooms. Renaissance is a grade six through 12 school. One of the days I visit I go through a day with a sixth grader as my guide. His name is Kendrick.
Kendrick: I was born in Springfield. I’m 12 years old. And I go to Renaissance middle and high school.
We’re in Kendrick’s social studies class. The students will be taking a test today, but before they begin they do a short writing assignment where they think about how they’re going to revise their work as they take the test. Then they share what they wrote.
Teacher: Kendrick, what are you going to do?
Kendrick: One way I’ll revise my work is work on the big problems first like making sure all the words are on the right country. Then I’ll start focusing on the little things, like spelling, but make sure I do get to that.
Teacher: Anyone else?
Teachers at Renaissance are constantly asking students to reflect on how they do their work. They’re trying to teach them that the process of learning is as important as quantifiable result like a grade or a test scores. There’s also a deliberate attempt to focus on some aspect of character in every lesson. Renaissance has chosen seven character traits to focus on. Kendrick has them memorized.
Kendrick: Courage, self-discipline, responsibility, respect, perseverance, cultural sensitivity and friendship.
In math class, a goal for the day might be to practice perseverance by trying a challenging word problem. In science, a goal might be to show friendship and respect by telling a peer “good job.” Every Expeditionary Learning school comes up with its own list of character traits to focus on. But the list must include aspects of two different types of character. They call one performance character and the other relational character. There’s a difference, says Ron Berger with the national organization that advises Expeditionary Learning schools. Here’s how he defines performance character.
Berger: Working hard, being organized. The character that’s grit. You know, sort of applying yourself, being reliable and responsible. It is that character that most schools are focusing on right now when they say they focus on character.
But he believes relational character is just as important. Relational character means treating other people well.
Berger: It’s about being a good person in the world. Being respectful and kind to others. Having the integrity of how you communicate and relate to others and work with others.
When people in education talk about character these days, I don’t hear them talking as much about these aspects of character. As Berger said, it’s more about grit, and persistence and self-discipline. Perhaps because these are the skills that may be most directly related to things like raising test scores and getting students to finish college. To me, the current interest in character sometimes feels a bit like a strategy to achieve those goals. There’s nothing wrong with that, but what I found so interesting about the Renaissance School is the way it’s trying to do both: focus on perseverance and respect, self-discipline and friendship.
Teacher: Ah, let’s make a big circle now….
One of the central structures at all Expeditionary Learning schools is something called “crew.” A crew is a small group of kids – typically 10 to 15 – who are assigned to one teacher. They meet every day, and they stick together as a group with the same teacher for several years. This is Kendrick’s crew, and his crew teacher explaining today’s activity.
Crew Teacher: We’ll choose somebody to go first, but if they fall, you have to lift them back up and they try it again…
Each of the kids has written a goal on a piece of paper. Kendrick wants to do his homework more thoroughly. A girl named Taylor wants to buy Valentine’s Day presents for her parents to give to each other, since they don’t typically do that and she thinks it will make them happy.
Student: I’ll pick her up!
The students crumple up the pieces of paper with their goals on them and throw them in the middle of the circle. Now, they have to figure out how to get their goals, without touching the floor. They need their crewmates to help them.
Kids: so we got you buddy!
Kendrick: Oh my God! OK, OK….
The primary purpose of crew is to build relationships and make sure all students have at least one group of peers, and one teacher, who know them really well.
Fabian: To me, crew is like a small family.
This is Fabian. He’s a tenth grader at Renaissance.
Fabian: It’s kind of like my place where I’m able to escape reality and just like be in like a comfort zone where people accept me for who I am. And most people in my crew, I’ve been in the same crew with them since 6th grade.
Crew is meant to help students learn how to rely on each other. But Renaissance also wants them to learn how to rely on themselves. One way Expeditionary Learning schools do this is through something called the student-led family conference. It’s kind of like a parent-teacher conference, but the student is in charge.
[Sound of keys]
Maria Ekmalian: OK Estefania, you can get started. I’ll just get my stuff over to you…
It’s after school on a Wednesday. Teacher Maria Ekmalian is opening her classroom for an 8th grader named Estefania and her mom, Moraima Figueroa.
Typically there are two of these conferences each year, but Estefania is having an extra one because she’s been struggling a bit lately. She has to explain to her mom what’s been happening and why.
Estefania: Um, one of my challenging habits of work was this year, that my homework ethic has gotten much worse. I don’t like to do homework.
Estefania has written down some goals to try to get herself back on track. Her first goal is to stop rushing through her homework.
Estefania: And my second goal is to tell my mother the truth because I told her that I was done with my homework sometimes when I wasn’t. And I will actually do the homework so that when I say it’s not a lot…
Estefania is crying. Her mom is crying too. Ms. Ekmalian gets some tissues. Kids in public schools get assessed a lot these days, but they’re not often asked to do this kind of self-assessment. Kurt Hahn believed honest self-assessment was a critical skill. Remember those training plans at Gordonstoun, where boys kept track of their own grades? That’s the idea here, to teach kids to take responsibility for their own learning. Estefania pledges to stop lying to her mom and to get her homework done. Her mom nods and smiles.
Figueroa: Yes, and push yourself to the limit. Because, you got it in you. I know you can do it. Because I believe in you.
Estefania and the other 8th graders at Renaissance have been spending all year on what’s called a “passage project.” They’re putting together portfolios of their work. In a few months, they’ll give a talk and present their portfolios in front of their family, teachers and peers. They do another one of these passage projects in 10th grade. That one includes a public service component. Students do things like volunteer at local hospitals or tutor kids in afterschool programs. The 10th grade passage also includes a physical challenge. Kids decide for themselves what their physical challenge will be. I caught up with a group of 10th graders who decided to try yoga.
[Yoga Video Sound]
We’re in a classroom after school. A yoga video is playing and four girls and a boy are on their mats. Each student has a specific goal he is trying to achieve.
Hanford: So what’s your goal?
This is Jesse.
Jesse: I want to touch my toes.
Hanford: let’s see, let’s see…
Jesse bends over – and almost gets there.
Jesse: I’m close. I’m very close!
Girl: Put your feet together, feet together [giggles]
Jesse: you know what, we’ll get there! [giggles]
Physical challenges like this were at the center of Kurt Hahn’s philosophy of education. His students took daily runs before breakfast. They went on real wilderness expeditions in the hills. I came away from my time at the Renaissance school thinking the physical and wilderness aspects of Kurt Hahn’s philosophy were kind of missing. Yes, all kids do this physical challenge in 10th grade. They have gym class. The middle schoolers take something called “Adventure Education” that gets them outside some. But it’s hard to get students out to the wilderness on a regular basis, especially when you’re in a city school. The 9th graders at Renaissance used to go on an Outward Bound trip…
Mahoney: But the cost was just, you know, it was $80,000 a year. And you know, we just couldn’t keep up with the fundraising.
Mahoney says he’s had to make compromises. It’s not just money, but time too. This is a public school. Mahoney’s got to make sure students stay on track when it comes to standardized testing. For several years there weren’t any learning expeditions at Renaissance in 10th grade. That’s because kids in Massachusetts take a bunch of state tests at the end of their sophomore year and Mahoney thought students needed to stick to a more traditional curriculum to make sure they learned all the material. It was a bit of a risk to do an expedition this year. It’s not clear yet whether it paid off. The school is still waiting for the test scores to be released.
You find this kind of push and pull at every Expeditionary Learning School says Greg Farrell. A push and pull between the original vision for these schools and the reality of what public schools must do to be considered successful.
Farrell: In kind of meeting all the demands of American education including the test score one, we had to turn our attention to some things that took away time from having everybody go out for a two mile run every day or long periods of solitude and reflection. That quiet walk that Kurt Hahn used to do every day for kind of a break. Very important I think. If you were to ask me what I think Expeditionary Learning needs to do now in the next five years? To reclaim the physical. Make it more central.
Other people I talked to for this documentary said they thought all schools would do well to bring more physical activity and outdoor time into the typical American school day. As far as the academic and character skills that Expeditionary Learning schools like Renaissance are trying to teach — are they succeeding? Is the model working? Honestly, it’s really hard to know. When you look at conventional measures of school success, such as test scores and graduation rates, Expeditionary Learning schools look good. On average, students at these schools do better on math and reading tests than similar students in other public schools. They’re also more likely to graduate from high school.
But are they more excited about learning? There is actually a recent study that looked at Expeditionary Learning schools and a number of other school models that focus on so-called “deeper learning.” That report showed students at these deeper learning schools were more academically engaged and motivated to learn. But it’s a pretty thin evidence base so far. The most compelling evidence that Expeditionary Learning schools are working comes from talking to the kids and the teachers. Here’s what one teacher at Renaissance, Keith Wright, told me about why he likes working at an Expeditionary Learning school.
Wright: Just this idea that like learning is cool. That learning can be fun and it can be engaging and it can be meaningful. It seems like that’s kind of a radical idea in education.
And what about the character stuff? Are Expeditionary Learning schools succeeding at teaching that? There are educators and researchers trying to come up with ways to measure character skills, but so far those methods are imperfect at best. So I asked the students whether THEY think Renaissance changed them. Here’s Juwan, a senior at Renaissance, who’s been at the school since sixth grade.
Juwan: I can actually say that at first, when I first got here, I was like, they keep talking about these character traits and everything. I am who I am. But, I feel as though these character traits – I’ve become them. And I don’t think that would’ve happened unless I would’ve came to Renaissance.
He says he used to be kind of a wild kid but he thinks Renaissance helped him learn self-discipline. He also used to hate talking in class because of a stutter but says the focus on courage helped him get over it. Might he have learned these things at another school? Or just as part of growing up? Yes. There may never be definitive data to say whether this approach to character education works. But a lot of people seem to believe it’s worth a try. Parents who can afford it are willing to pay for private schools that focus on character development. And many parents in Springfield choose this kind of school when given a choice.
Long: Character is something that stays with you throughout life.
This is Kendrick’s mom, Karen Long.
Long: The fact that they focus on your character, how you carry yourselves, is a lot, because that’s the way it works in the world.
The focus on character isn’t the only reason Long wants her son at this school. She wants him here because she believes it will put him on a path to college. The most recent available data show more than 90 percent of Renaissance graduates went on to college, compared to just two thirds citywide. Stephen Mahoney doesn’t expect all his students to choose college. There are other good options, he says, like the military and skilled trades. But he’d like to see most kids go to college. And not just because a degree increases their chances of making a good living.
Mahoney: It’s also about, if you’re in a college or university, you’re going to see more people who are different from you and that’s going to make you a more full kind of human being.
In the policy conversation about education right now, you don’t often hear people talking about college this way. The focus tends to be on the economic and utilitarian value of the degree. The pursuit of good test scores feels the same way – like the value of education is all about what kind of job people can get, not what kind of person they become. But Mahoney says education is about so much more than degrees and test scores.
One of the first things I noticed when I visited the Springfield Renaissance School is something that’s written in big blue letters on the wall. It’s a line from the proposal that the founders of Expeditionary Learning wrote when they first drew up their plan for a new network of public schools. It says: “To start a school is to proclaim what it means to be human.” I asked Stephen Mahoney why he put that line on the wall.
Mahoney: I think it really captures the sense of this school’s commitment to how to be a good friend, to how to be a productive colleague, to how to be a good human being. That that’s as important a lesson, and as important a focus for a school as the Pythagorean theorem, as supply and demand curve, as stoichiometry. That knowing academic things is really important, but academic knowledge is a ticket into the world. If you are not equipped to be a good, productive person in the world, then all that academic stuff is… academic.
Back in the early part of 20th century, when Kurt Hahn was first thinking about the kinds of schools he wanted to create, he was responding to what the schools of his day were like. They were autocratic and test driven. He longed for something different. He not only longed for it, he thought the world needed different kinds of schools, schools that focused on developing good people — the kinds of people who would stand up to dictators, who would work to prevent things like the two devastating world wars he lived through. Hahn had a deep belief in the power of school. He didn’t have any empirical evidence that what he did at his schools actually worked, but he understood that schools reflect the values of their society. What you want in your society you should see in your schools. My sense is that in the United States today there’s a hunger among teachers and parents, and kids too – for a more balanced approach in schools. One that prioritizes both academic skills and character development. One that makes sure kids do well on tests but also helps them figure out what they’re interested in. Kids spend a lot of their time at school. If we want them to be engaged and persistent people who are respectful and compassionate, maybe we should be more deliberate about teaching those things in school.
Smith: You’ve been listening to an American RadioWorks documentary “Beyond the Blackboard: Building Character in Public Schools.” It was produced by Emily Hanford, with help from Samara Freemark, Ryan Katz and me, Stephen Smith. The editor is Catherine Winter. The web producer is Andy Kruse. Mixing by Craig Thorson. The American RadioWorks team includes Suzanne Pekow, Sasha Aslanian, Peter Clowney and Ellen Guettler and Emily Haavik . Special thanks to Eric Ringham.
We have more about this story on our website – American RadioWorks dot org. You can learn about the network of Expeditionary Learning schools across the country and see photos from the Renaissance School in Springfield, Massachusetts. One update: Stephen Mahoney, the founding principal of Renaissance, recently stepped down to join the faculty of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
We’re interested in knowing what this documentary made you think about. What kinds of questions did it raise, what kinds of thoughts did it inspire? Please let us know at American RadioWorks dot org.
While you’re there, you can check out our archive of documentaries about education, and sign up for our weekly education podcast.
Support for this program comes from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, Lumina Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. A note of disclosure: The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has supported the National Expeditionary Learning Organization, but the foundation had no influence on our coverage.
This is APM, American Public Media.