During a career in independent school education, and over my time at Sandy Spring Friends School (SSFS), I have come to recognize elements of our educational approach that make SSFS a distinct educational choice in the Washington, DC area. I’ll focus on each element in a series of seven blog posts, starting with this one. These seven characteristics exemplify the special preparation that students receive, and the loving and empowering community that students, teachers, parents, and alumni share at SSFS.
If one asks SSFS teachers what is special about teaching and learning at their school, they will instinctively talk about how student voices are heard and valued in the classroom. SSFS teachers know their students. This is as true in a kindergarten classroom as it is in a 7th grade English class, or an Advanced Placement Environmental Science class. It’s part of the DNA of SSFS teachers. I know this is true because I see it - I am fortunate in having the opportunity to regularly visit classes across all fifteen grade levels.
The Partnership for 21st Century Learning, a coalition of business, education, and policy leaders, seeks to summarize the skills our young people need from education today using the “Four C’s:” Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity. A popular model, it emphasizes that the “Three R’s,” Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic, while still necessary, are not sufficient preparation for a world that demands flexibility, interpersonal skills, creativity (think “entrepreneurship”), and the ability to work in teams in order to make meaningful contributions in an increasingly diverse and interconnected world.
I once heard a veteran educator speak about how important it is for students to directly experience what we hope they will learn: “You can’t learn how to swim from lessons on a chalkboard,” he declared. “You have to get in the pool and start splashing around. You have to get wet.” Learning the “Four C’s” is much the same. In order to learn communication, students must gain experience listening to the ideas of others and practice expressing their own. Students learn collaboration by working with others toward common goals. Critical thinking comes from students testing their own ideas with others, reflecting on the ideas of others, and experiencing the consequences of decisions. Creativity comes from setting aside “what is,” to envision “what could be.” These are not passive experiences - a teacher has to create a classroom environment that makes space for student voices. Students have to splash around. They have to get wet.
This is the nature of SSFS classrooms, part of a 325+ year tradition of Friends (Quaker) education that seeks to draw out that special something inside each child. The invaluable learning experiences described above happen best in an environment of mutual respect and trust, where students and teachers are equally worthy of human respect, and the simple dignity of all participants is understood as a shared foundation. In this environment, students can challenge others in creative and supportive ways, take a risk, exercise their expressive skills, and try on new ideas - ideas that will shape the future.