Redefining “Prep” School

InTheLabA year ago, OESIS Symposium panelist and Amherst social science professor Austin Sarat fielded an interesting question: “What can secondary schools do to better prepare students for their experience at college?” He offered three suggestions:

  • teach students to write;
  • make sure they develop coping skills; and
  • instill in them a more meaningful and enduring sense of purpose than getting into college.

He went on to report that very few can write college-level analytical papers, many are melting down, and most seem to drift aimlessly and without motivation, having apparently already attained their life’s dream. Members of Deerfield’s Class of 2015, drawn to the recent Choate Weekend, uniformly confirmed that college is a lot harder than they had expected. Where they had believed getting in would be the big hurdle, they are now surprisingly challenged by the heavy reading and writing workload, lower grades, and the lack of elective courses, free time, and contact with adults. The question remains: What can Deerfield do to better prepare our students for the college experiences that await them?

For the last few years, we have been designing and piloting a capstone program where most seniors would undertake independent research projects on topics of their own choosing. The capstone projects would require substantial research, writing, presentation, and in some cases application of their work to the real world. We think the capstone experience will develop the six qualities of an ideal graduate* and foster intrinsic motivation before students head into a world with vastly less extrinsic motivation. We’re offering three capstone courses–Telling True Stories; Memory and Myth; and Design for Living–and while we wait to evaluate them, we already feel confident that:

  • Students in these courses are grappling with research and writing at the college level; and
  • Capstone projects could catalyze intensifying the teaching of writing throughout our curriculum.

So we may be on our way toward giving Professor Sarat the writers he craves, but what about developing coping skills?

It has been wisely asserted that 75% of the education in a boarding school takes place outside the classroom. Students learn to organize and manage their lives and emotions, make daily choices, and learn from mistakes. However, ever more diligent students, watchful adults–teachers and parents–and perceived higher college stakes all work against making mistakes and other traditional growth opportunities inherent in boarding school life. If students miss growth opportunities at this level when they have caring adults to support them, they may be forced to learn and develop these skills in college where supportive adults may be hard to find. Further, students whom we overly protect now may not develop efficacy and confidence; rarely having experienced failure or adversity, they may not know what to do when they encounter them in college. According to Professor Sarat, such students struggle. It behooves us to step back–though not completely away–and find a new balance between challenge and support that promotes growth.

For teachers, this new balance might involve offering extra help only after small hurdles had been cleared: students might first engage an assignment, identify one or two specific problems they’ve encountered, study a relevant lesson from Khan Academy, and/or formulate two or three specific questions that show evidence of having delved into the problem. Such grappling and researching are particularly valuable, as they demonstrate, require, and develop grit, independence, and curiosity.

Perhaps a new balance would leave early drafts of writing ungraded so that students could focus on the process of writing, take creative risks, and experience safe failure. Such an approach would develop a growth mindset with which to weather and better learn from adversity. Finally, it might embrace inquiry-based, problem-based, and/or competency-based courses in which teachers catalyze student observation, questioning, and discovery rather than dispense basic knowledge and ready-made formulas. With such an approach, students would learn to think.

For parents, new balance might involve asking questions rather than acting on our children’s behalf. When she’s facing an academic challenge, or earning a modest grade, we might ask “Have you spoken with your teacher (or advisor)? What did he say?” We might be reluctant to hire tutors, and reticent about encouraging students to drop down levels or change teachers. We should want our children to face challenges, not to avoid or expect someone else to fix them. For a difficult roommate relationship, we might ask our child to work it out with the other person, perhaps with a faculty mediator, rather than request a switch of roommates. We adults know that personal conflict is inevitable, and that ultimately students need to learn how to work through it. The world will not be perfect for our children, and they especially need to learn to deal with imperfect relationships.

Finally, how can we instill in students a more meaningful sense of purpose? Frederick Buechner asserted that a calling is “the place where (one’s) deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Meaning and purpose can be found in discovering one’s deep gladness, as many students do in pursuing growth and excellence in a passion or talent. In rare cases, secondary school students develop a vision or mission of what they want to do with their lives and how they can add value to the world. Perhaps the best source of deep gladness is spirituality, which can be fueled by practices such as prayer, meditation, mindfulness, self-reflection, appreciation, and gratitude.

Identifying part of the world’s deep hunger might also ignite purpose and meaning. We frequently remind students of the importance of service, and that “A school’s worth is measured by the record of service of her alumni.” The Center for Service and Global Citizenship organizes myriad service opportunities, both term-time and during vacations, and many students find purpose in those. All students derive meaning and purpose from community and connection with others, which Deerfield fosters more intentionally than most schools. There is nothing like people working together for a cause greater than themselves, and that is as true at college as at Deerfield. Perhaps graduates could derive purpose from building community in college, where without structures for coming together, such as sit-down meals and school meetings, community-building is more difficult.

Finally, perhaps the best way for us to help instill meaning and purpose is to expose students—and provide relatively equal access–to a wide range of growth opportunities some of which will illuminate their callings.

*The six qualities of an ideal Deerfield graduate are: Disciplined work habits, productive collaboration, grit/resilience, independence/initiative, creativity, and curiosity.

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One response to “Redefining “Prep” School”

  1. Avatar Karen Ying says:

    I totally agree with what Mr. Warsaw said in this article. I think it is very important for students to build a meaningful and enduring sense of purpose than getting into college. Otherwise, students can easily lose motivation once they into a college, especially a good college. I think my son is learning about this in DA. I can see how he becomes more matured and think beyond just academic work. He and some of his friends are considering to found a non-profit organisation to do global services.

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