Developing Tomorrow’s Solutions
Preparing Students for Their Global World
By Head Of School Tim Richards
“When I walk the corridors and pathways of
this great place, I see so much that is good,
strong, and enduring. And yet change beckons.”
Since 1894, Pomfret School has been preparing young people for the demands of college and for lives of service, productivity, and fulfillment. The School has evolved in significant ways since it first opened its doors to a small handful of students under the leadership of founding Headmaster William Edward Peck 118 years ago. In the fall of 2011, we opened the school year with the largest—and arguably most talented—student body in history; a gifted, dedicated, and engaged faculty, and a pristine campus featuring exceptional facilities that allow our student body to pursue any number of their passions.
In short, Pomfret School today is as strong as it has ever been. We have had a successful year across the board—in academics, the arts, athletics, college counseling, and admissions. When I walk the corridors and pathways of this great place, I see so much that is good, strong, and enduring. And yet change beckons. The time has come for us to take a deep and honest look at everything we do here and to determine what needs to evolve. I am encouraged in this endeavor by poet Clark Crouch, who captured brilliantly the mindset that I believe we must bring to planning for Pomfret’s future when he said “If it ain’t broke, break it, then fix it. Otherwise you may be destined to address tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s solutions.” While there are likely systems and programs at Pomfret that don’t need to be completely “broken” and then “fixed,” we are at a point in the School’s history and at a time in the world’s history when we need to be open to a rigorous examination of everything we do.
|While the successful and sustainable future of our school will unquestionably be based on what we already do so well—strong relationships with students and excellent teaching from a skilled faculty—the systems upon which schools like Pomfret have built their foundations are changing. The more we learn about the brain, the better we know how to construct and use models of teaching that better serve individual student needs. The more closely we listen to what higher education, industry, and technology leaders say about what they are looking for in young people, the more aware we become of the need for our students to be prepared for college and the world beyond in demonstrably different ways from how previous generations were so equipped.|
In recent books and articles that I have read, at lectures and conferences that I have attended, and in many conversations that I have had with dozens of people in education, enlightened thinkers have been making an increasingly compelling case for change. In some cases, the proposals are radical, and I would argue not relevant for Pomfret. But other ideas are indeed germane and invite exploration and discussion. These specialists are calling for more project-based inquiry, greater emphasis on collaborative work, better and more applicable use of technology in the classroom, and more focus on student-centered learning. I am attracted to the new emphasis being put on intentionally fostering the aforementioned 21st century skills, in both our academic and co-curricular programs. Diving down into the weeds of “what” and “how” will require time, effort, and resources, but it is a worthwhile task.
Because we do what we now do so well, there is a temptation to stay the course with our current approaches and methodologies. If we do so, I’m afraid Pomfret risks losing ground, or worse. The financial model we are facing in terms of tuition growth and programmatic expenses is truly sobering. If we continue with our recent trend with respect to tuition growth, in fifteen years the cost of attending Pomfret could exceed $100,000 per year. When combined with a demographic trend that forecasts fewer prospective students, that tuition number becomes even more staggering and daunting. Unless we are willing to commit to being truly distinctive, we risk losing our competitive advantage. Staying the course will not produce that distinction.
So what do we do now? We must carefully examine everything we do to make sure that there is value-added in each and every program we offer. But we must also provide a cutting edge educational program that ensures that our students are prepared for what lies ahead, not just in college, but in what will certainly be an increasingly complex, globally-connected world. Our students must leave Pomfret ready to engage with an incredibly diverse population of people and have the skillsets that will allow them to be agile, innovative, and truly ethical leaders of this complex future.
This fact was clearly underscored for Anne and me during our trip to Asia this past summer. In the course of our three weeks abroad, we spoke with dozens of alumni who are living that 21st century life, and in many cases are learning now what skills they need to succeed. Pomfret can and must more purposefully prepare young people for what lies ahead before they head to college and into this ever-evolving world. That will certainly remain a difficult—some would argue endless—task, as the world will continue to change at a dizzying pace in the decades to come. But we can and must try to endow them with the skills they need to have a distinct competitive advantage. What has worked for so long is good, no question, but there is disruptive change coming to the world of education, and we need to be at the front of that change curve, riding the crest of the wave rather than swimming desperately behind it in an effort to catch up.
Any future rendering of this school will look familiar to everyone who knows it and treasures its place in their lives. So much of what we do now will be relevant in 10 or 50 or 100 years; close connections with students, an empathic faculty dedicated to helping young people navigate the complicated waters of adolescence while preparing them for the future, and a program that allows students to find and nourish their passions. How we do things, however, might not look quite as familiar. New and exciting pedagogical approaches will complement traditional methods. Students will take more ownership of their education and will have to demonstrate not just content-based mastery, but the ability to communicate it in multiple different ways. We will help kids excel, but in increasingly different ways from the traditional ones we are so accustomed to.
The strategic planning process that we have undertaken at Pomfret with the guidance of Stephanie Rogen, of Greenwich Leadership Partners, has begun to give shape to the future visioning of Pomfret School. During what promises to be a thorough, exciting, and at times challenging process, we will need to boldly examine all of our systems and programs, ask ourselves some really tough questions, and question some of our fundamental beliefs about teaching, learning, and the role of an independent boarding school in the emerging century. Why now? As I hope this brief article points out, the rationale “there is no time like the present” is compelling.
I recently came across an illustration by a 14th century artist named Laurentius de Voltolina. The picture is of a lecture being delivered by a professor at a university in Bologna, and depicts images that would look alarmingly familiar in the broader world of education in the 21st century. In the illustration, some students are genuinely engaged in what the professor is saying, while others are sleeping, chatting amongst themselves in the back row, and/or looking generally disinterested. Today’s edition would likely include iPads or computers in the place of the books open on the students’ desks, but otherwise the similarities are striking. The teacher sits at the front of the room, pontificating about an unknown topic, and he has lost his audience. This highly structured, archetypal portrayal of a classroom is one that in many ways, and in many schools, has not evolved significantly in seven hundred years. The good news is that at Pomfret, we are emerging from the traditional model of the teacher as the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side.” Our teachers have begun the fascinating, transformative, yet formidable task of changing the way we do business.
In my opening Chapel talk back in September, I spoke about the value of change, and I concluded with a quote from an anonymous source who said “without change, there would be no butterflies.” Unlike the caterpillar who has no choice but to evolve, we at Pomfret could choose to sit comfortably in our cocoon indefinitely, content in our place, isolated from the world around us, impervious to the demands of a new economy and a new world. That stagnation would ultimately leave us vulnerable to forces that could render us irrelevant. The alternative seems to me a better option. The time has come to emulate the caterpillar; accept the inevitability of and need for change, grow our wings, and take this amazing school to greater heights. Let’s not, as my aforementioned sage Clark Crouch said, “address tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s solutions.” Let’s develop tomorrow’s solutions instead, whatever they may look like, and help our kids fly. What an exciting prospect that is.