The most distinguishing trait of the world’s best teachers


This week, the video of the father’s talk with the son about Paris terror went viral. The boy’s innocent evaluation of the events and then his absolute trust in his father’s reassurance were moving. The son’s final “Oui” was powerfully beautiful – I can picture their eyes locked and want to hold on to that image of trust and love. But it was the father’s amazingly quick ability to refocus his worries on to the flowers that most moved me. How did he even think of that? Wasn’t it amazing to see the boy ponder this idea and then smile? In that moment, the world witnessed what the best teachers aspire to do on a regular basis – they touch the soul.

I am fortunate to have witnessed two other such moments this week at Shawnigan Lake School’s accreditation review.

On Monday night, our team split up and visited the nine boarding houses. I observed a regular Strathcona House meeting that included usual items like curfew, thank yous, congratulations and reminders. Then the house parent announced something that would normally make my eyes roll, especially since it is only November – Christmas door decorations. But there was no room for my cynical scrooge feelings, because the room of girls immediately erupted with excitement. It was infectious. When I met with the house parent afterwards, she admitted that she shared my lack of enthusiasm for decking the halls in November, but she reminded me that this time of year can be stressful for students. She intentionally created this opportunity for joy, and I can only imagine how it will continue when the wrapping paper, tape and ribbons land in the hands of 50 teenage girls.

The second moment this week was in chapel. Shawnigan has a tradition of non-denominational chapel service that can include a sermon and/or prayers, and singing. (I am pretty sure I have explained before that I am a sucker for students singing? Well I could probably go so far as to argue that the second most distinguishing trait of the world’s best teachers is that they sing with their students!)

For a moment think of the typical image of today’s teenagers – disengaged, anxious, obsessed with their phones… Singing is not part of that stereotype. So you may have to work hard to imagine a group of enthusiastic singers. But please do. The boys behind me belted out Amazing Grace in my ear, and their singing was no louder than the rest.   And now picture this – David Robertson, the Headmaster of 23 years, approached the podium and did what great teachers do. He said he knew they could do better and could they please sing the last verse again, but with more enthusiasm. I couldn’t believe it! The organist started up again and the impossible happened – the 450 high school students sang with more zeal, and I nearly cried. If anyone ever questions their faith in today’s youth, they need to attend chapel at Shawnigan. In fact, visit any number of our CAIS schools if you want to witness amazing teens. I couldn’t sense it, but David Robertson knew that a second round would solidify that feeling of profound joy in the students.

Hanna Rosin explores youth anxiety in this month’s article in The Atlantic on The Silicon Valley Suicides and there are a number of important strategies. Even adults struggle to make sense of the complexities. All the more reason for great teachers – including great fathers, house parents and Heads – to help today’s youth navigate an increasingly complex and stressful world. This week reminded me of the powerful gift teachers give when they know and understand the needs of children and then respond to that need. That kind of love and joy is what our world needs most.

p.s. Here is the view of Shawnigan Lake School while walking to Strathcona House on Monday evening. The campus updates are spectacular!


Four Secrets Parents Should Know About Private Schools

It happened twice this week. At the bank, I was asked about CAIS and the manager expressed shock about one of the differences between CAIS schools and other private schools. And then in an article in the Toronto Star, I read about the call for private schools to be more regulated. Again, I was reminded that the general public does not realize that there are some real myths about private schools that need to be clarified. So it got me thinking – what are the biggest secrets about private schools? At the moment, I can think of four.

Secret #1 – CAIS schools are not for profit

I think people make an assumption about this one. Maybe it is because the school facilities are incredibly beautiful or maybe it is because some of the alumni become famous or maybe it is because the students are perceived to be from wealthy families. But the fact is, our schools are run as Not for Profits and therefore have governing boards who work incredibly hard to ensure that all of the tuition money goes back to benefit the schools. As an accrediting organization, CAIS is willing to accredit a share capital school, but currently there are no for profit schools in Canada that are CAIS accredited. Parents should know the difference.

Secret #2 – All private schools are not equal

This one drives me nuts. Parents must do their homework on schools to fully understand that private schools should be defined by more than their academic and co-curricular programs. For starters, families should spend time at the school to determine the culture and get to know the students and staff. I believe that culture is everything (and you can register for a Faculty Culture module at our CAIS Summer Leadership Institute here.) But here’s the thing – parents must realize that it is the leadership and finances that define the long-term strength of a school. So how do you find this out? I am biased, but there is only one way for parents to determine the best schools in Canada – verify if the school is CAIS accredited by researching the list of accredited schools in Canada here.

Secret #3 – CAIS students outperform others at university

I hope this is the assumption of most, but no one other than CAIS has the actual data that tracks university success. CAIS did an eight year study that tracked CAIS students in university and the results from over 60,000 marks should be known by everyone searching for a school. From our research, we learned the following: CAIS students consistently receive A and B grades in almost three quarters of the courses they take (73%), and CAIS students outperform the class averages in their university courses (where this data is available) in every subject area. What I like best about CAIS schools is this – they complete this research so that they can improve their programs, not so that they can market the findings. The humility of CAIS schools is remarkable.

Secret #4 – CAIS schools are more affordable than you think

This is one of the boarding school myths that we “busted,” but this secret applies to all CAIS schools because CAIS schools offer generous amounts of financial assistance to families across Canada every year. Parents should research the bursaries and scholarships available in CAIS schools here, and they should not be shy about asking about the process. For example, in 2013-2014, 6411 students attending 84 of our CAIS schools received financial aid totaling $59.3 million. That’s quite the secret.

I know that the CAIS community knows this stuff. I just wish everyone else did too.

Not all online learning is the same

I believe that good online learning should be part of every student’s school experience. I do! It should not replace the classroom experience – ever! – but it should be one of the opportunities offered.

So I was concerned this week, when colleagues shared two very critical articles on online learning:

Online Charter Schools have “overwhelming negative impact,” study finds.

Online schools ‘worse than traditional teachers.’

The media coverage is based on this October 27th Press Release: The National Study of Online Charter Schools offers a rigorous analysis of the operations of online charter schools, their policy environments, and their impacts on student achievement. Conducted by three independent research institutions, the study is the most comprehensive examination of online charter schools to date, and is organized into separate, topical report volumes.

The findings may be significant. But here’s my first thought – this research is based on online charter schools, so if we shift away from ‘online’ and focus more on the other two words: ‘charter’ and ‘schools,’ then maybe there’s no reason to worry. But this is not my area of expertise, so I turned to some colleagues in the independent school community for help, and I am pleased to share the emails, with their permission:

Michael Nachbar, ED of the Global Online Academy noted:  That study points to exactly why it’s critical for independent schools to define this space for themselves. The study isn’t saying online doesn’t work, it’s saying certain models may be less effective. You know Baskin Robbins? They used to have 31 flavors of ice cream. Now they have hundreds. Online education is the same way – there is no single flavor that defines what it is, just like you can’t say that ice cream should taste like vanilla. These ’studies’ are focusing on a single flavor and saying that all ice cream is bad. That’s silly.

Take, for example, this quote from that article: The online schools relied much more on students driving their own learning and often determining the pace at which they advanced. The way programs do this varies dramatically. We try to get our teachers to think differently about how they “deliver” content, putting much more ownership in the hands of the students. Many online programs just have kids working with software – very different approaches that use similar language.

If you look at the study, you would also see findings such as Online charter schools place significant expectations on parents as one of the factors leading to student challenges. So, are we going to also look equally at the role of parents in students’ education or just say online is bad?

These articles are small, narrow focuses on slivers of data that represent a fraction of what’s happening in online learning today. Online charter schools are almost all powered by the same giant content providers, such as K12, which is digitized content and exactly why independent schools need to define the space themselves.

Donna Orem, CEO of NAIS, noted: My concern is that schools will read this study and shy away from experimenting with online and hybrid models. We are still very early in the process of learning from new models and there are bound to be successes and failures. Independent schools need to be experimenting with new models, and many are, with great success. If we don’t keep innovating, some of the new types of schools, like the Alt School in San Francisco, that are investing large sums to understand how technology can advance personalized learning, may eclipse us.

Brad Rathgeber, ED of Online School for Girls added this:  Honestly, I really can’t stand most current research about “online schools/online learning.” It would be akin to doing research about the effectiveness of “face-to-face” schools — there are so many “flavors” of online education out there that there needs to be greater nuance to the research.  At the same time, the “flavors” are still being defined, as the field is so new.

A couple of years ago, Michael Nachbar and I co-wrote a whitepaper on “online independent schools” hoping to define the space more clearly.  The definition that we created is extraordinarily different than what many would assume (or imagine to be) online learning, and extraordinarily different than the types of online education discussed in these studies.

At its best, online education furthers a core promise of independent schools: to personalize learning down to the needs of each individual.  Our schools have promised this for generations by forming tight-knit and caring communities, and offering small class sizes to better differentiate learning.  Online education adds to that promise by expanding opportunities to meet the passions of each student (and the resources available to each school), and to augment (not replace) what can be done face-to-face.  Our schools are wonderful!  It makes no sense to limit them, though, by just the bounds of the physical campus, especially in this day and age and especially when online learning can help deliver on our core mission and promise.

Claire P. Goldsmith, Director of Admissions and External Relations of Stanford Online High School and Stanford Liaison to the Malone Schools Online Network, added this: Looking at the study and working from our experience (with Stanford OHS and Malone Schools Online Network, MSON), we would suggest the following points:

The online charter schools described in these articles have about as much in common with Stanford OHS and MSON as the average charter school has with the average independent school. The fact that both are online is like saying that both types of schools use classrooms or desks. Still, this begs the question—how, and why, are the two models so different, such that student outcomes would be different as well?

1) All of the online charter schools in this article are asynchronous, meaning students work on a self-paced schedule, posting in message boards, taking online quizzes, etc. This works well for students attempting to go at their own paces, whether for acceleration or remediation. In this model, and, it seems, especially in the schools studied here, students typically have little interaction with teachers. Indeed, the Mathematica report cited in this article observes that students in the online charter schools had less teacher contact than their counterparts in brick and mortar schools.

At Stanford OHS (and in MSON), students meet in live, real-time, interactive seminars. The average class size is 15, and students and the teacher are seen and heard throughout class. Because this is a “flipped” classroom model, the entire class—which meets twice a week for 75 minutes on a set schedule—is interactive. Attendance is mandatory, and participation often makes up an important part of the student’s grade. Outside of class, students engage with their teachers in office hours and with their peers in study groups and through community and extracurricular activities. Our instructors, who are full-time teachers at Stanford OHS, get to know the students and families well and are part of an engaged professional development community, fostered by frequent in-person meetings at Stanford.

The synchronous focus of Stanford OHS and MSON distinguishes them from most other online learning programs—we are neither MOOC’s nor self-paced online courses. We build these courses on the premise that learning happens through interaction—between teachers and students and students and their peers. Fundamentally, technology facilitates the age-old relationships that make excellent schools. This is quite different from the philosophies of the online charter schools mentioned in the article; they describe themselves as “individualized education” and “personalized learning” (vs. interaction, cohort, or community-focused).

Indeed, the latest analyses of MOOC’s show that interaction is important. This Carnegie Mellon study, as reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, is a great source on the topic: The study basically found the importance of interaction in online learning for student outcomes.

Of course, our model still has less contact time than most brick and mortar classrooms, but it’s designed to be meaningful contact time—and fully interactive.

2) The Mathematica report also notes that students in the online charter schools “lacked support staff like guidance counselors and tutors.” We have a complete set of student services (academic advising, socio-emotional counseling, college counseling, a writing and resource center, student tutors, etc.). Our students receive considerable support.

3) Finally, it bears noting that of course there are other elements that make it problematic to compare online charter schools with everything in the independent school, online world (OHS, MSON, OSG, GOA, Bay Area BlendED, Hybrid Learning Consortium, Laurel Springs, etc.) We are selective independent school programs that do not serve all students. In the case of Stanford OHS, we are selecting for highly academically motivated students. In the case of MSON, we are serving only students already enrolled at top independent schools seeking advanced coursework. The second article you sent notes that the online charter schools “relied much more on students driving their own learning and often determining the pace at which they advanced.” Our students certainly drive their own learning—with engaged teacher guides.

Bottom line, I would suggest that it’s impossible to extrapolate from these articles any broad claim about “online learning,” as the kind of online learning, the outside services like support, student life, etc., and the kinds of students served vary considerably.

I hope this helps!

p.s. Thanks to Bill Jones for initiating a great conversation.

The Power of Accreditation

There’s often debate in the world of accreditation about which is more valuable – the preparation of the Internal Evaluation Report or the review by the Visiting Committee. I like to think this way – both are important, much the same way that you clean your house, but you clean it better when company is coming. (And when they come for the weekend? You clean your closets too!)

But both are only important if there are two key ingredients – good people engaged in good conversations.

Now we like to say that CAIS is in the business of asking good questions – be it for research, PD or accreditation. So our mission of whole school improvement is best achieved when we ask good questions both at the internal and on-site stages of the process. We have launched our new Accreditation Guidelines, and although there are fewer questions, we believe they are the better ones for schools with a true passion for learning in all areas of program and operations. Our schools are so busy, that this process forces everyone to stop and think about what is done well and what can be improved.

Last week at West Point Grey Academy, Sarah Fast lead the Internal Evaluation review that included a thoroughly reflective process that left no stone unturned. Before the team even arrived, she reported that the process was highly valuable. (I have two words for that – Of course!)

The second value occurs during the visit. Val Pighin, our Accreditation Coordinator, works incredibly hard to find the best Visiting Committee members, and by best we mean people from similar schools who have the expertise and experience to really challenge the school by asking great questions. In the case of the visit to WPGA, the group was stellar. The Head of school, Tam Matthews, wrote this: “School, Board and especially the teachers were/are very positive on CAIS Accred.” That unsolicited feedback is proof positive about the benefits of a team from across Canada spending four days at the school engaged in great conversations.

But then this week, I was moved again by the email from the Chair of the Visiting Committee that sparked a series of additional reflections. Rodger Wright wrote:

“It was an honour and a delight to be in your orbit over the last few days and I can’t thank you enough for parking your own lives, taking this job so seriously, and doing it so conscientiously.  I hope we added a little value to an awesome school and came away with the odd gem to apply to our awesome schools. I learned a lot from you guys and I’m so happy our paths crossed at WPGA.”

So I smile thinking about this image of goodness spreading across Canada. Crazy but true! For not only does West Point Grey Academy benefit, but when the Visiting Committee members return to their schools, tired but full of energy and ideas, they can apply their learning to their schools.

That kind of national impact on schools is what I call powerful.