What Makes a School Excellent

We hear this very often: "Children must be taught how to think and not what to think". Margaret Mead wrote this statement in "Coming of Age in Samoa". What we do not hear often is what follows: "And because old errors die slowly, they must be taught tolerance, just as to-day they are taught intolerance". As a result, we frequently fall into this false dichotomy of content versus skills. Mead was warning us of indoctrination, not knowledge transfer. On the other hand, it is true that basic education nowadays is usually measured using standardized tests. Schools deemed excellent are those whose students score well in these exams. Nehring and coworkers, however, find in a recent study, "What real high performance looks like",  that in these schools "task demand for a student in the interpersonal and intrapersonal domains was either rare or wholly absent". Seeing that this is the case obviously only fuels further the division between teaching skills versus content, but the study finds a few schools that do help students gain deeper learning. What makes these schools truly excellent may be surprising.

First, the study makes it clear that "21st Century skills" is a misnomer. These skills are not really specific for our current times, These are likewise important for all centuries that came before us and for those that are about to come.

Above copied from Nehring et al. 
Second, what emerges as the essence in high performing schools is this:

The Teacher

This is probably not surprising but we can not deny that we look at what subjects are taught or what facilities are present in gauging whether a school is good or not. The "emerging themes" that Nehring and coworkers find in exclennet schools are not possible with one quick glance at a school. If one wants to find where deep leaning occurs one must look deeply. Here they are:
  • It was the teacher, not the subject. 
  • Teachers focused on disciplinary knowledge. 
  • Teachers were attuned to the social-emotional dynamics of their students. 
  • Teachers adapted their teaching to the moment. 
  • Teachers had a wide repertoire of effective moves. 
  • Instruction was tied to complex assessments. 
  • Teachers built strong relationships with students. 

What makes a school excellent? The answers is an excellent teacher. What makes a teacher excellent? The list is shown above.