by Travis Cooper
It’s amazing how many schools of thought have similar insights. Whether we look to institutions of faith, the academies, or even folklore, some themes are universal and deeply human. There is one universal insight that tops my list of favorites: “What you believe influences what you accomplish.” Beliefs rooted in good information, experience, and a sense of purpose can set people and institutions on the right track by coloring how they see the world and, ultimately, impacting the kinds of outcomes they produce.
One of the strongest examples of this truth comes from outstanding research on self-efficacy and learning. This research suggests that students who have a strong sense of self-efficacy—the belief in their own ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a goal—try harder, recover from failure more quickly, and are far more likely to succeed in college, a career, and their personal lives. It’s astonishing how adopting just one new belief can have such an impact.
Institutional beliefs are also important, and we at The New School have distilled ours down to five statements. These beliefs are grounded in educational research, more than 25 years of experience, and a sense of purpose that we capture in our mission statement: Our mission is to help students learn to use their minds well and take charge of their academic lives.
1. We believe students are intrinsically motivated to learn, achieve, and create.
Often when students are new to our community they’re also new to the idea of educational ownership. So much of modern education, for reasons having little to do with the quality of teachers and students, has become needlessly formulaic. Standardized testing, standardized curricula, and a focus on memorizing a standardized set of facts suggest that educated people are all the same. But the real mark of an educated person is his/her ability to explore, discern, learn, and create. The goal of any educational institution should be to create the environment and relationships that encourage students to explore their own interests, and help students make meaningful connections between those interests, academic material, and the wider world. At The New School, we avoid standardized tests as a measurement of our students’ abilities; rather, we encourage student to demonstrate their learning through interactive exhibitions, class discussions, and individualized projects that allow them to pursue their personal interests.
2. We believe a special dimension of equality exists in the teacher-student relationship. We celebrate this dimension because it allows students to see themselves as successful and creative learners and individuals.
The student-teacher relationship is sacred. Lev S. Vygotsky, the great developmental psychologist and educational thinker, wrote, “Human learning presupposes a specific social nature and a process by which children grow into the intellectual life of those around them.” Our teachers create an intellectual culture by modeling quality thinking and demonstrating how to cultivate a vibrant, collegial community. Students and teachers read together, play together, travel together, and learn from each other. These relationships are the foundation of The New School because our teachers constantly reinforce the perspective that students are capable learners who have something unique to contribute to our school and the world.
3. We believe teachers must help students develop the essential skills and habits of mind they need to use their minds well. We use tools of authentic assessment (portfolios, exhibitions, performances, projects, presentations, essays, and more) to evaluate students’ academic growth.
Authentic assessment is a term used often to describe activities that require students to demonstrate sophistication. At The New School, with our focus on educational ownership, students personalize their learning and have a say in how they will demonstrate their growth. These assessments represent the thoughtful applications of knowledge and skills that are most valued throughout college, a career, or a student’s personal life. Our experience has proven that the more students are allowed to personalize academic content and are challenged to demonstrate sophistication, the better prepared they are for life after high school.
4. We believe students, teachers, and parents must relate to one another with mutual respect and trust; we all must act in ways that benefit the community.
Parents and teachers represent two of the three most important relationships a student will have (friends are very important, as well). With this in mind, students, teachers, and parents work closely together to make sure each student, and the community as a whole, is thriving. Frequent, ongoing, and honest dialogue must exist to ensure that students celebrate their successes, plan to succeed in areas where they struggle, and continue to take more and more ownership of their academic lives.
5. We believe In our skilled faculty: collegial friends of the highest order and talented student mentors.
We are so lucky to have assembled such a talented, passionate team of teachers—most of whom have been with us for more than 10 years. They are the true heroes of The New School. They love working with students and have an uncanny ability to see what a student can become through hard work and support. In addition to teaching amazing, one-of-a-kind classes, it is common to see teachers working on projects with students, traveling the world with them and sharing their successes and challenges. Our teachers cultivate a sense that there is always more to learn and always something to be excited about. We believe deeply in our teachers, who invest their time and talents in the growth and development of young people.
The New School is a special place. Our students enjoy their days, develop their minds, prepare for the future, and nurture a sense that they are capable people who have something valuable to contribute. These outcomes are the direct result of what we believe as a school—beliefs that permeate every interaction among the students, parents, and teachers who call The New School community home.
Social Science Teacher