What is good education for the 21st century?

Saturday, 15. September 2018

Since its opening on the Hasliberg in 1946, the Ecole d’Humanité has been pursuing a holistic education that trains young people for life. It promotes skills and abilities, which have now been included in the Lehrplan 21 (new recommendations for Swiss school curriculum). But what is the secret of good education?
By June Vinhateiro, Director of Admissions for the US Program

Emerging more than a century ago from the overarching ideals of social responsibility and democracy – radical ideals indeed in education at the turn of the 20th century – the principles of progressive education are today as relevant as ever. Progressive ideals and practices now serve as a template for developing «21st Century Skills» – those attributes and competencies considered essential for students preparing for jobs and life in the Information Age.

Shaped by the theories of educational philosophers such as John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner, and Paul Geheeb (who, with his wife Edith Geheeb Cassirer, founded the Ecole) progressive education features such concepts as supporting students’ active participation in the educational process; cultivating a deep relationship with nature; developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills; encouraging collaboration among peers; integrating arts into the curriculum; fostering intrinsic motivation (curiosity and the drive to learn) over extrinsic motivation (getting an «A»); nurturing community mindedness; and assessing student work via narrative evaluation rather than with grades.

Since the turn of this century, educators, social scientists, and business leaders have recognized that knowledge absent of skill is no longer an adequate measure in preparing students for success in university and in the workplace. Students today must be able to not only master content, but also to create it. The requisite «21st Century Skills», distilled by the National Educational Association to the Four Cs – critical thinking and problem-solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation – also encompass perseverance and self-direction, research skills, social justice awareness, and environmental literacy.

These vital proficiencies, relatively recently acknowledged in mainstream educational theory, align precisely with the century- old tenets of progressive education on which the Ecole was founded, and with the lived experience of our students. Merging the historic principles of the Geheebs’ progressive practices with 21st century thought and tools, the Ecole is ideally suited to provide a firmly-rooted learning environment in which to prepare students for the rapidly changing landscape of career opportunities and personal fulfillment in the 21st century. The resultant essential skills unfold not only in our small, discussion-based academic classes, but remarkably so in our afternoon courses, which – unique to the Ecole – comprise a well-warranted half of our school day.

Experience in the outdoors is fundamental to environmental literacy and to personal well-being. At the Ecole, we are surrounded by spectacular mountain vistas and the sounds of alpine streams and valley winds; they are as much a part of our school experience as homework, library books, and the Gong. Collaboration, problem-solving, and perseverance are central elements of the innovative work environments of the 21st century; these same skills are cultivated in our multi-day hikes into the Swiss and Italian Alps, which require making on-the-spot adjustments for unexpected conditions, collaborating on meal preparation in the wild, ensuring that individuals support the group and the group supports individuals, and persisting in moving forward when muscles and inner fatigue begin to suggest otherwise.

Daring to commit to a creative or intellectual process – art, theater, music, an idea – fortifies confidence, and being supported in that process as it unfolds and aligns with or contradicts an initial vision allows Ecole students to take creative risks. The Ecole’s Intensive Week further supports this exploration process by giving our students the gift of time – an entire week in which to pursue a single idea, question, or project.

At the Ecole, we embrace the notion that self-directedness may take the occasional brief foray into boredom – itself a catalyst for innovation. We encourage challenging questions and celebrate mistakes, knowing that they enhance the development of critical thinking and problem-solving. Student centered education may be a bit untidy at times, but the outcome is worth the effort!

Nurturing 21st century skills does not require full immersion into the clutter of 21st century trappings. Rather, the solidness of being rooted in physical work, artistic expression, authentic relationships, and the creativity demanded by self-reliance – rather than persistent reliance on passive consumption – enhances the readiness to acquire new skills. At the Ecole, our days and weeks are punctuated by activities and responsibilities that keep us grounded in the here and now – tending the goats, taking care of our space with Putzpause, mastering the neurological adeptness required for the complexities of a traditional folkdance, or taking a few moments of reflection at Andacht.

The tenets around which the Geheebs built the Ecole – self-reliance, community-mindedness, a profound relationship with nature, the intimacy of the Ecole Family structure, a deep commitment to creative expression and intellectual rigor – are emblematic of progressive education’s historical import as well as its unqualified relevance in the 21st century. As the Ecole prepares young people for a future that we and they can’t possibly know, we appreciate that Paul and Edith were clearly on to something – timeless ideals.