For openers, here are my thoughts about the hallmarks of an effective school:
An effective school ignites a passion for learning in its students and gives them the tools for the job. This includes giving them a solid grounding in the liberal arts, and equipping them with the skills they will need to build on that base at university and beyond. Of equal importance is the process of exposing students to situations where their talents and abilities can be discovered and developed in a relatively safe environment.
Of all the qualities that we attempt to develop in our students, perhaps the most important is "self-trust.” For years, I have treasured a profound piece of prose from the poet, e.e.cummings, that reads: “We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that deep inside us something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit.”
One of our most important responsibilities is to help our children believe in themselves. To believe in oneself a child must acquire both self-confidence and the level of self-knowledge that makes self-deception difficult. This is different than “self-esteem” a phrase that in popular usage seems to have become synonymous with “feeling good”. Frankly, I hope there are times when our children do not feel good about themselves – times when they know that they have not lived up to their potential or acted at their best. (True self-esteem comes from fighting your own battles and winning them.)
Teachers (and parents) provide the mirror through which our children can see the value that lies within each of them. As the mirror, we are required to do more than give a “well done” or a pat on the head. We must actively seize the “teaching moments” to help our children gain insight and grow in their self-awareness. Like everything else in our curriculum this needs to be age appropriate: there is a scope and sequence to the process, just as there is the progression from mastering motor skills to creating a work of art or kicking a goal.
Growth and learning require risk taking. Effective schools challenge their students to take risks, to experience consequences and to learn accountability to themselves and others. Students need opportunities to experience the rewards of individual and collaborative achievement. These opportunities should be woven into all aspects of the school’s program.
An effective school fosters interdisciplinary thinking that is both theoretical and relevant, and that has depth and breadth. Life does not present itself in discrete boxes labeled science, art, politics, or economics. Life is interdisciplinary, and students need to learn how to connect the dots.
An effective school encourages curiosity. This is a trait that most children bring with them to school. While children need to learn to discriminate -to extract useful ideas from the sea of information to which they are exposed and to learn that not all ideas heave equal value - they must not lose the spark of their natural curiosity. At an effective school, students acquire a sense of self-discipline and structure without losing that spark.
An effective school teaches its students to communicate effectively and clearly - orally and in writing. Without this, the rest of one's education is of limited value. Too often, as a society, we seem to place a higher value on access to communication than to the quality of communication.
Above all else, an effective school stands for something. It possesses a set of values and models them in all that it does. Probably the most important example it sets for its students is how closely these values match what they see in their everyday life at school. In these schools, the adults “walk the talk.”