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On Snow Days, Metacognition, and Burgundy's Future

Saturday, February 23, 2019

One important tenet of progressive education spoken of less frequently is metacognition. Metacognition can be thought of, very simply, as thinking about thinking. Or thinking about how we’re learning. That can take many forms, from thinking about our learning skills, routines and habits, to evaluating our strengths with various learning modalities, to assessing how we fared in a particular learning activity and why. The common ingredient required, however, is time set aside for such reflective thinking. Reflective thinking far too often is not valued or given space, including in our own busy adult lives.

Therefore, this past Wednesday was a small blessing for some of us. We all enjoyed a change of pace day at our house. Tee had some work with her, and I had a lot of work phone calls, but the day still was festive and, more, it offered some thinking time. As our erstwhile pupil hosted a basement Lego and dance party before managing to sled into a stream before coming in for a late afternoon hot bath, there was time for thinking about bigger ideas and long-term projects. How am I supporting our new administrators? How am I showing teachers that I value them? How will get our Cove Campus Master Plan written?

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend the VAIS board of directors meeting and annual heads conference in Charlottesville. Departing early Sunday morning, following a busy work week through Saturday’s Burgundy board meeting, I was not feeling grateful. But within forty-five minutes the pastoral views were soothing me, the gift of time was evident, and I was thinking deeply on topics I’d had little time for recently. The VAIS board meeting included initial and stimulating data on “the state of independent school headship,” and the well planned conference began that afternoon with about 70 peer heads of independent schools from across Virginia and honed in on a theme of Leading with Optimism in an increasingly competitive independent school market.

I’ve found it often takes separating from our regular digs and routines to make mental space for the bigger picture thinking that fuels deeper reflection and creative, generative thinking our personal and professional lives. Just keeping pace with the fray of all the daily/weekly requirements, including the scourge of ever-growing email, steals time that could be useful for reflection and regeneration. Thus, I’ve always found long, peaceful drives to be helpful. Long walks and bike rides are great, too, and even long showers, good sleep, Sirius comedy radio, or the occasional one-hour solo beer tasting jaunt also can be helpful. And any time spent with fellow heads of school is by definition reflective and helpful.

But there’s nothing like a little time away, solo, to get things ordered again, to regain focus and energy.

The last day of the January VAIS heads conference, as I drove back toward Alexandria on country roads I tried recording myself singing “Take Me Home, Gravel Road” as a catchy new take-off on the John Denver hit. Fortunately for all of us I’ve kept it to myself. But amidst the unexpected burst of songwriting, the ideas of the conference were churning in my subconscious. I was arriving at an important epiphany: More than anything, what will help Burgundy thrive is being authentically Burgundy. Burgundy needs to keep true to our historical identity and be, to the greatest degree possible, who we always have been and what we say we are: a progressive, developmentally attuned, relationship- and community focused elementary-middle school that honors children, understands the research on how children learn and grow, and therefore sustains their innate desire and capacity to learn; a school community that respects and draws on the power of human diversity; and a learning community that believes in learning by doing, by immersing, by exploring, and by problem-solving -- and by learning in Nature. As our marketing firm, The Design Channel, has reflected back to us, our alumni and alumni parents proclaim that we do in fact prepare children to be extremely successful after Burgundy, and not only as students but as active participants and advocates in their own educations and lives -- and advocates for the greater good and social justice. The data tells us that our insistence that the journey, the process, more than the drive for mastery of content and a specific target, matters most is correct.

Thus, the major takeaways of my time away are three: 1. Current research supports what we believe, whether the importance of a developmental mindset or of time outdoors, for example. 2. We all need time to step back and consider what we’re doing and why, in effect, to look at how we are learning and growing; 3. For Burgundy to thrive we must continue to be true to the essence of who we are and our core beliefs about how children learn best.

If we thread our core beliefs and educational values through all that we do to the greatest extent possible, while continuing to evolve to meet the needs of today’s learners, then we will be doing our very best work. This will be rewarding work that will challenge us to be the innovator and the research-based hub of best educational practice that we have been in our nearly 75-year history.