What It Means to Be Free to Learn

Posted by bhulsey - 21 March, 2013

One of the boldest and most aspirational statements in Randolph’s educational philosophy is connected to our commitment to collaboration, and holds that here “students are free to learn and teachers are free to teach.”  Practicing an intentional balance between individual and relational learning is the cornerstone of what it means to be an independent school, free to chart our own course to advance the lives of all in the Randolph community and responsible to prepare our students for their future.

For me, education is the most noble and the most liberating investment that we make in ourselves and each other, and at its heart is the belief that we make our communities better when we commit to learning more about ourselves, each other, and the world beyond us.  I see that every day at Randolph in a teaching and learning climate based on a trust that frees each of us to be our very best.  I see that in the arts and athletics when I watch groups of student-athletes and student-artists commit to ideas and goals beyond themselves.  Columbia University’s Andrew Delbanco calls this magic “lateral learning,” and we are all made better by those who care deeply for us and challenge us to reach beyond where we thought we could go.

Driven by relationships bound by trust that free us to explore the unknown together, collaborative learning captures the essence of what matters most in the Randolph community.  We’ll never surrender the belief that individual learning, buttressed by keen self knowledge, is the foundation of what it means to be educated.  But at the same time, we hold that the learning we share in common compounds and multiplies over time, making Randolph the place it’s been, is now, and will be for years to come.

We’re at our best when teachers and students are engaged together in pursuit of a common goal.  The best ideas that inspire our faculty don’t always come from national gurus; instead, they’re just as likely to flow horizontally between teachers as we take time to talk openly about what we do best and what we would like to do together.  The Middle School Robotics Team enjoyed great success this winter through a shared and unswerving commitment to each other and the goals they pursued together.  Research projects in the Upper School are both individual and collaborative, and we anchor Randolph’s investment in community learning around the broad-minded belief that the application of what we learn in school to the world beyond our walls lines up with the larger purpose of what it means to be educated for life.

I can feel the hum of learning freely when I walk the campus and see the place in action.  One Saturday not long ago I walked from a hotly-contested basketball game in the Shields-Jones Athletic Complex to a Middle School math tournament in the Thurber Arts Center to an outdoor gathering of the Upper School Garden Club as they planted seeds that will grow into the food we eat at school in the months to come.  These snapshots aren’t new—Randolph alumni often regale me with stories of learning relationships with their friends, teachers, and coaches.

What is new for us is our more intentional effort to apply the freedom we enjoy to more dynamic learning about the world our graduates will greet in the years ahead.  We’re in the midst of a tectonic shift in education that is tracking changes we’re seeing in the wider world.  In the nation’s best schools we’re seeing a move away from a previous emphasis on static and sterile consumption and toward the long-term goal that our students will develop the freedom and independence necessary to create meaning in their learning and step up to become the leaders and initiators the future will demand.

For most of the twentieth century excellent schools like Randolph were primarily organized around an industrial model designed to prepare students for the white collar jobs that paced this nation’s economy.  A core assumption was that information was scarce, and teachers dispensed it hierarchically from the lectern while students sat in desks in rows bolted to the ground.  In this model, the boy or girl who consumed and mastered the most in the basic disciplines was best prepared to thrive in a world in which core content mattered most.

Content will always be foundational, but with the advent of the Information Age and global connectivity, cognitive skills like critical thinking and non-cognitive skills like resilience have risen to the fore.  Now information is overly abundant, available to anyone around the world with the push of a button.  Not willing to be constrained by traditional tests that solely measure content mastery, we’re moving toward a model of learning that builds on itself in grades K-12, one that places greatest emphasis on what a student can do with what she knows, one that calls on each of us to be free enough to create something new and through those experiences derive greater meaning from our learning.

There has never been a more exciting time to be a Raider.  The freedom we enjoy here to be a learner is at the heart of the School’s mission, and as we shift to a daily schedule that highlights slower and deeper learning and student and faculty collaboration, we’re poised to thrive like never before.

Topics: challenge, character, collaboration, Freedom, learning, mission, professional growth, Head of School, Faculty, cognitive growth, Community of Learners, initiative

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