The departing headmaster of Presbyterian Day School says American education needs more of a revolution than evolution.
Lee Burns is leaving the East Memphis private school to become head of school at the McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tenn., after 14 years in Memphis. He was the keynote speaker Wednesday, June 11, for the second day of the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence’s two-day summer conference on the PDS campus.
“I think that our schools do need a significant disruption,” Burns said after his remarks. “We have lots of really great teachers and people who care about young children. But I think the system and model – I’m not sure how well-aligned it is with what our community and people need in today’s world. We can do differently and better. We do need, I think, significant disruption. But that doesn’t discount the great work that teachers are doing. It’s more the system and the approaches that need, I think, a lot of rethinking and restructuring.”
During his tenure at PDS, Burns has experimented with the concepts behind what he calls “messy questions,” in which students do more defining of what is relevant and wrestle with questions broader than data.
He recalled a couple of PDS sixth-graders who took high school advanced placement biology exams armed with laptops and got nearly all of the questions correct.
“In many cases today, schools and the systems in which they operate are still designed to encourage basic reading and recall and memorizing facts and basic information,” Burns said. “Most of it is prepackaged and standardized and, in general, uninspiring and irrelevant to the students. And the learning is generally pretty limited and temporary.”
Burns advocated an emphasis instead on teaching students how to learn and how to ask deeper questions – and, in the process, come to a deeper and more-lasting understanding.
“It seems to me in many cases, we race through content so quickly that we shortchange the deeper understanding that is developed when we slow down,” he told conference attendees, adding PDS made a decision recently to narrow its content and slow down the coverage of that content to get at a deeper understanding.
The school has also developed what Burns termed a “reinvention of a traditional art class.”
It’s called EDGE – which stands for explore more, develop, grow ideas, and evaluate – and it takes place in an open, flexible learning space in which students work in groups.
“Schools are the only places in the world in which sharing resources and ideas and so forth is considered cheating,” Burns said. “Collaboration is a vital skill.”
In the last four years, educators in Shelby County’s public and private schools, as well as in charter schools and state-run Achievement Schools, have been in the center of a sea change that Burns agrees has blurred the lines between public and private education.
It is that ongoing tempest that prompted him to talk about the choice between evolution or revolution in education.
Burns said the changes have put what happens here at the center of attention across the country.
“It’s in our DNA to care deeply about the community we have. It begins with that, and there is a great need in Memphis,” Burns said after his speech. “Then you’ve got some leaders who have said there’s got to be a better way. … I think some of the confluence of those factors have led to some of the interesting things that are going on around town. We really have attracted the attention of people well beyond Memphis.”
Burns ended with a long list of questions that are challenges to education traditions, including whether report cards are “relics,” whether “grade levels serve us well,” and whether curriculum should be customized down to the individual student.
He also pondered whether schools are geared for students or adults, early starts of the school day especially for teenagers, and why there are summer vacations “when we don’t live in an agrarian society.”
The two-day conference drew 755 teachers and school administrators from public and private schools in 17 states and 160 school organizations.
Other speakers included Ron Berger, the chief academic officer for Expeditionary Learning, a professional development program, and Donald Hense, founder of Friendship Public Charter Schools of Washington.
Rafe Esquith, a fifth-grade teacher at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles, spoke before Burns Wednesday. Esquith has written several books on teaching and is perhaps best known for the annual productions his students put on as their own theatrical company, the Hobart Shakespeareans.