Geoff Jones is devoted to transforming independent education. Throughout his distinguished career, he has developed innovative curriculum designed to enhance leadership skills and prepare young people for significant roles in their communities and careers. Geoff brings his passion and vision to Chicago as Head of School at GEMS World Academy-Chicago, a new K – 12 independent school in Lakeshore East, opening in September 2014. TMG talked with Geoff about the significant shifts that are having a profound influence on how we educate our children.
Describe the transitions that have occurred in the delivery of independent education over the last three to five years. To what do you attribute these changes?
There have been multiple developments within four primary areas: the independent education business model, adoption of technology, academic metrics, and what we call Spheres of Excellence.
The Independent School Business Model
The business aspect of independent education has become a primary focus area. Schools are seeking strategies to remain competitive amidst the challenges of rising operating costs, the recession, and the slow pace of economic recovery. Despite the misconception that an independent education is reserved for the wealthiest families, the middle class represents the primary market. This sector is experiencing many changes, both economic and social. In response, the business model for independent education must shift. Obviously, raising tuition to the point where an institution has priced itself beyond any market is not an option. Alternative revenue sources must be identified along with ways to increase efficiencies, effectiveness, and expand markets. In some cases, schools have altered business models and pooled resources through mergers. Others are investigating new opportunities such as boarding, building overseas connections that will bring students in from abroad, and delivery of extended learning through technology and partnerships to offload some of the costs of specialized courses.
Adoption of Technology
Advances in technology have had a tremendous impact on independent education. Schools must be proactive and assume the role of early adopters. This position is very expensive in terms of training staff and teachers, and acquisition of hardware and software. In addition, new and innovative programming and curriculum must be developed.
While attention to the child’s social and emotional development is still very important, independent schools have had to respond to the increased emphasis placed on metrics and testing. Questions about standard-based learning represent a shift. Ten years ago, independent schools would have said they had a more complex and holistic view of education. Today, more testing and analysis has crept into the academic programs of independent schools in order to satisfy this need for statistical proof of learning.
Spheres of Excellence
College acceptance is no longer assured to the well-prepared graduate of a good independent school. University admissions counselors want both the applicant and the school to bring exceptionalities to the table to better differentiate one student from another. Unless the candidate is a legacy, something more must be demonstrated. In response, schools are developing Spheres of Excellence (specialty niches) and Recognized Scholars programs that position students to win selective awards and national championships. The idea that a school must produce a recognized level of excellence within an academic program and among the student body is representative of a significant shift. Traditionally, differentiation was defined through program delivery. Today school spheres demarcate via academic platforms such as STEM (science, technology, education, math), the arts, or athletics.
Programming for Spheres of Excellence exposes students to the requisite level of commitment and iterative processes involved in achieving this degree of accomplishment. Students experience deep engagement as they analyze investigative pathways, resources, and opportunities. They practice asking questions more carefully and taking intellectual risks. Setbacks and failures may be encountered along the way. Learning perseverance, resilience, and reward of the journey through one’s own experience and the observed experiences of others provides great value in a young person’s education.
At GEMS World Academy-Chicago, we are developing Spheres of Excellence in arts and culture, science, and global economics. We are building comprehensive and integrative curriculums from an international perspective and identifying the tools of analysis that will take inquiry to a global level. For example, in our foreign language program, students will examine language to learn how it is inextricably linked to culture. This approach goes well beyond teaching verb conjugation and sending a child overseas for two weeks. It involves thinking about the concept of culture differently. We want students to understand that a country has to create mechanisms for its people to thrive. What infrastructures, economic systems, and educational platforms encourage prosperity? What impedes growth and development? We intend to begin training for this level of study in our lower school. To be successful, we have to start early.
How has research in cognition and the ways in which the brain functions impacted the focus of curriculum development?
In the last decade, we’ve gone well beyond simply creating active learning environments to incorporating what we now understand about what is going on cognitively in the brain that influences comprehension. For example, let’s return to the study of foreign language. While it is widely accepted that a child should begin this very early, research shows that the study of another language creates a kind of patterning that actually increases the brain’s capacity to better learn one’s native language. This patterning also improves function and learning vis-à-vis complex math principles. Time of day may also have an impact. Teenagers may not fully kick in until mid-morning. Perhaps it doesn’t make sense to have that calculus class at 8:00 am!
As we continue to learn about how the brain is wired and how that impacts styles of learning, the ability to retain information, and to synthesize ideas, the approach to curriculum development is changing at micro and macro levels. We are moving toward a systems model that is much more integrative of multiple disciplines and perspectives. Curriculums used to be very linear. We’re coming to understand that the traditional teaching of subjects such as social studies, geography, and history delivered limited perspectives and sets of facts and chronologies for rote memorization. The idea that one might consider an area of study anthropologically or ethnographically was largely left to graduate schools. Today we see that for a student to understand a city, for example, there must be knowledge of its geography, history, and language. Unless these aspects are viewed from an inter-related perspective, the student will never be able to understand a culture. We want to take children to a place where they investigate clusters of ideas rather than only independent tracks. With an understanding that thinking patterns can be ingrained and cognitive, independent school curriculums are able to develop habits of thinking in both the open and the trained mind. As children develop strengths and experiences in both, they learn to appreciate the distinct advantages each offers in a given situation.
Given the dramatic pace of change that adults are navigating in their lives and careers, it’s difficult to imagine the world in which today’s children will be working and raising families. Describe the most important skills that school age children must acquire to help them on their journey toward creating fulfilling lives.
Developing awareness and skill in four primary areas, communication, collaboration, systems thinking, and enterprise toward accomplishment, will help students on their journeys through school and life. Think of these concepts in a Venn diagram. They are not discreet silos, but interdependent systems that should always be considered through a filter of ethics and values. Whatever the engagement, be it communicating, collaborating, or actually building and designing something, the ethical value piece has to be present. Each effort must be grounded and centered in the good. It’s a question that must always be asked.
Powerful communicators are able to identify the best resources, clearly frame questions, listen critically, and apply sharp analytical thinking. They are able to deliver ideas through multiple channels including the written word, video, digital text, art, and photographs. However, successful communication goes beyond connections and into building collaboration.
Collaboration is a more complex idea. Accomplishing anything involves working with others and sharing information. Developing social and emotional skills that support collaboration and team building is very important. Without the ability to create genuine, authentic, and empathetic connections, collaboration will be elusive.
Approaching communication from different points of view and mindsets requires development of systems thinking skills. Students need to be able to ask themselves if they have identified the right questions, analyzed the information well, or if there is another tool that might be used.
Enterprise toward accomplishment involves taking initiative beyond engagement towards constructive, instructive, creative, and challenging learning. At this level of commitment, the student sees that something worth doing takes time and analysis.
Independent schools are developing curriculum around team projects that emphasize integrated systems learning and decision-making. Often teachers try to limit options instead of trying to open up the field into larger and more fulfilling patterns of addressing a question.
Which learning models have you found to be most successful for developing independence, confidence, and moral compass?
I’m very deeply involved with progressive education. This is not a political platform, but a creative and challenging program that introduces the child to a broad range of people, ideas, and experiences. It fosters a desire to continue to grow and learn from a values centered and moral place. This model engages students in the kinds of active learning that I’ve just described. It requires that they take responsibility for their education and encourages mentoring relationships. Students develop the ability to seek out and connect with people who will help them grow and who they in turn, can help grow. Success is measured in developing fulfilling lives as opposed to creating dollars.
Discuss the ways in which a strong and diverse educational environment will build community.
The community piece is inherent in the type of education I’m talking about. Genuine collaboration and conversation naturally brings people together where they can take on much larger and complex issues. 75 to 80 percent of the world’s population lives in cities that share many of the same complexities. We can we learn from one another about how to manage urban problems like transportation, accessibility, safety, security, and sustainability. Our communities could be so much stronger if we came together to understand the diverse experiences that people have with safety, for example, and how we can care and become engaged.
In Chicago, the conversation going on right now about food deserts could be happening in many cities across the globe. The exit of Dominick’s offers exciting learning opportunities. In collaborative teams, students might research social models employed in other countries facing uneven availability of nutritious food options. Team members might investigate the role accessible public transportation plays in the delivery of healthy solutions and sustainable change. Where do the difficult choices lie? How might this level of engagement enrich our lives and the lives of others?
Simulation has proven to be an effective tool for developing skill in systems thinking. We’ve built exponentially upon the concept introduced in video games such as SimCity, where players optimize resources to create a city that offers its citizens a high quality of life. To succeed, they review complex systems such as power, housing, tax structures, and industry. Oregon Trail is another game of complex systems that asks players to look beyond the facts of history to face the kinds of decisions pioneers grappled with before starting their trek. Wrong decisions were costly in terms of life and resources. Quickly, it becomes clear that taking the linear approach and simply determining the best route could have disastrous consequences.
How do we as independent educators teach the give and take of building community? We might ask children how they would begin to understand what happens in a neighborhood that has lost a Dominick’s and its local school. How is Mayor Emanuel trying to shift the ways we think about community, and sustainable, affordable delivery of healthy food and education? Is it more valuable to have a good bus system that allows you to get to really good food and education or is it better to have these in your neighborhood? By using the city as a learning campus that supports curriculum, we can engage young people in very complex and difficult questions that have no simple right or wrong answers. We want children to learn to think this way naturally.
Describe the top issues that educators and administrators are grappling with on an international scale.
Communicating ideas and concepts across cultures is very complex. Is it more valuable to learn multiple languages or learn to communicate effectively when language is a challenge? One has to have the skills I’ve discussed to work with people speaking multiple languages and bring together a diverse community. We want our young people to be really good communicators and that means a lot more than merely speaking another language. They need the ability to look empathically and with an open mind. Our goal is to work together and go beyond the resolution toward building a sustainable connection and commitment to one another. All the language skills in the world won’t get us there until we learn to break ideas down in our own language.
What role does STEM play in a global education platform?
STEM can never be underestimated for its impact on world development. It has been a game changer in the global education platform. STEM has given us a range of tools we never had before. Unprecedented access to information and the ability to communicate in real time has allowed educators to be less dependent upon a lot of different variables that may or may not have worked in the past. Children are asking the most amazing questions as a result of the availability of an incredible range of data. Technology has become so much a part of our lives that we don’t yet fully understand it.
Where does the balance lie between rigorous academic expectations and allowing a child time to explore, play and ponder?
There has to be a balance. It’s not an either/or on a linear continuum. Again, it’s about thinking systemically. Brain research tells us that children need time to explore and ponder ideas. The converse is true as well: When ideas are challenging it becomes the time to explore and play and ponder. Our challenge is to foster a shift in perception, so that instead of thinking of math as just rigorous, it becomes something that encourages exploration and play.
We want children to see that math is all around us. If I hit a tennis ball in this way, what happens? Sadly, schools have spent time undoing this natural balance rather than encouraging it. Rigorous academic expectations are not set for most children. They are not encouraged to explore and play with an idea. Most learning takes place in prescriptive 45-minute classes based on the belief that students can’t stay with an idea any longer. Actually, if you give young people something that they’re really excited about, you can’t pull them away.
What will GEMS World Academy-Chicago bring to the city’s offering of independent schools that is currently not available?
Our school will offer an amalgam of what I’ve been discussing. Learning will be constructive, creative and purposeful in terms of engagement. Curriculum will focus on building skill sets in systems thinking, communication, values, and enterprise. GEMS World Academy-Chicago will expand the idea of community to include both the city and world. We believe it is essential to foster development of the skill sets that children are going to need to define fulfilling lives whether they never leave Chicago or have opportunities to work globally. Their lives will be richer for their ability to better understand the world around them and their place in it.
If you were to develop a must-read list for educators and parents around the world, what titles would you include?
I have 6,000 titles in my collection! It’s hard for me to finish a book because an idea in one will take me to so many others. You should see my books; they have my notes all over. I think this speaks to thinking systemically!
At times I do feel that Voltaire and I are collaborating. If I read closely and think about the context of my life, I see that he is sharing useful information. I go back to him because I’ve found ideas there that have been successful for me. In many ways, those of us who have lost our parents still live our lives with some of that connection still in place and active. The relationship goes on. The same is true of books I’ve read and of people I’ve met.
I’m in a continuous pattern of exploration, learning, and searching for new perspectives. There is no end to the books one might read.