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Insights from America: tolerance, independence and innovation

| September 4, 2013 | 0 Comments

By Jane Hofmeyr

Late February is not an ideal time to visit the United States, but the annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) is a powerful drawcard to which both Frank Rumboll, head of Cedar House School, and I respond.

This year the conference was held in Philadelphia, founded in 1682 by William Penn as the capital of Pennsylvania Colony.

Philadelphia, ‘The City of Brotherly Love’, was a meeting place for the Founding Fathers, who signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in 1787, and it was one of the nation’s capitals during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Given that history, it is not surprising that the conference theme was “Revolutionary Traditions”.

Penn was a staunch Quaker and an advocate for religious tolerance and a free society. He opposed violence in any form. He made Pennsylvania a haven for persecuted Quakers who had fled England, and ran it on Quaker principles: a written constitution limited the power of government and guaranteed fundamental liber ties with equal rights for women and men and people of different races and religions.

In Philadelphia and its surrounds there are many notable Quaker or Friends schools, which Rumboll and I have had the pleasure of visiting. Because they made such an impression on us, we decided to pool the insights we gained from our school visits and the conference and develop this article together.

Quaker schools A Quaker-based education is about being open and honest with the world, acknowledging multiple perspectives, and being contemporary while rooted in some ver y simple and timeless values. A term that is used in their schools is “being in right relationship with the world ”. Children are deemed people first and children second. Each child is respected and each voice honoured. Their argument is that, with this educational background, children move into their future adult worlds with ease, self-reliance and confidence. Quakers are pacifists and their SPICES values are simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality and stewardship.

The Friends Select School is in the heart of Philadelphia, with the advantages and challenges that it brings. It integrates the rich culture and history that the city offers into the students’ learning experiences. The school embraces all the Quaker values and is intentionally committed to diversity – “we don’t only want one sort of child here” – and perceives itself as opening up doors to children who don’t fit in to more traditional educational settings. The curriculum “champions free discourse and enquiry”.

For a week a year, the whole grades 9-12 programme stops and there is a multi-age, workshop-based programme, led by teachers and students, under the umbrella of learning about the ‘ big’ questions that we should be asking about the world.

Rumboll visited Princeton Friends School in New Jersey for 125 grades 0-8 children. Its mission is to “model possibilities for the society our young people will one day create”, and there is an emphasis on being “responsible in the world”. The assembly he witnessed was non-hierarchical, safe and studentled and the range of voices present was amazing. Mathematics problems and creative writing were on all the walls: a real school beacon to becoming, being and thinking.

There is no doubt that the Quaker schools we experienced provide pupils with intellectually rich, creative opportunities. They develop ethical literacy and social responsibility, and value an authentic and far-reaching connection between teachers, students and the world.

NAIS Conference 2013

The focus of the conference was about how the freedom of independence gives our schools the potential space to lead the way, to ‘THINK BIG, THINK GREAT’. Its premise was that outstanding schools thrive because they evolve to challenge, inspire and prepare students for an open-ended future. They are not scared about ‘re-becoming’ and evolving.

Redefinitions needed

A number of speakers stressed that schools need to spend time redefining what they value, how they assess and what they define as learning. The digital revolution has brought about revolutionary changes in how knowledge is created, accessed, shared and applied, as have the advances in brain research about how children learn and the plasticity of ‘intelligence’, in its many forms.2

There is a mismatch between how we teach and the ways in which our students learn and experience the world, and they know this. Classrooms do not resemble thinking or connecting in the real world. Students today require skills in how to pay attention to the world in an interactive, connected, exploratory, multi-tasking way.3 Schools should not only look for teachers who know their subjects: content can be found on the web, so rather employ people who are committed to strengthening skills. Increasingly, schools should be looking at developing broad-based skills and developing habits of mind in pupils.

Draw new maps

Innovative schools reward courage, support and hire those who are willing to take risks. We need teachers with ‘growth mindsets’.4 Our message should be: “Please stop waiting for the map; we reward those who draw maps, not those who follow them.”5 Grant Lichtman6 argued that “we’ve constructed anchors: subjects, time and space. Great schools are starting to cut away these anchors. At many excellent schools, 30% of students’ time is spent outside of the classroom, under the umbrella of big, strong themes.” He warned that success creates inertia. “Desire upgrading and updating or you will be designated to the status of babysitting the previous generation’s models.”

Jim Collins7 spoke about how our schools can grow, attain superior performance and achieve greatness. He stressed that greatness is a matter of conscious choice and discipline; it is not circumstance. Great schools are brave, while mediocre schools perpetuate past practice in an uncritical way and they are stuck in the 20th and 19th century versions of educating young people. He believes that “failure is not the most dangerous thing; to be successful and not to understand why, is.” Collins pointed out that, paradoxically, progress and change are essential in schools to preserve their core purpose and values. The trick is to determine what the right 20 % is to change, what to stop doing, and what to hold on to: “What core values will we not change for 100 years?” His comments on leadership provide rich food for thought: “Great organisations and great leaders are consistent.

“The signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency.” He argues that the ‘x’ factor of great leadership is not charisma; it is humility PLUS a ferocious will to design and to ask people what they think. The insights we gained from our school visits and the conference resonate in our context. Sadly, there are no Friends schools in South Africa. We could do with them here.

Active citizenry needed

Our schools need to promote civic involvement and being responsible in the world. As we are reminded by Lead South Africa8 and Dr Ramphele,9 active citizenry is vital. William Penn stated, “Governments, like clocks, go from the motion men give them.”10 Strongly underpinning speakers’ views was the necessity for change, experimentation and innovation enabled by the freedom our schools enjoy. How important it is then to safeguard our independent space guaranteed in the South African Constitution.

However, we cannot afford to be complacent: revolutionary thinking about schools and learning is a requirement if we are to empower students to thrive in a changing world. The last words belong to Pat Bassett, who has just retired as president of NAIS and is a keynote speaker at our forthcoming ISASA conference: “Dream like a revolutionary, think big.” The Great Gatsby has been on our movie screens and Bassett made the point that Gatsby’s “capacity for wonder” is about “the capacity to imagine something new. Independent schools are the ‘green light’ at the end of Daisy’s dock. Never give up being the champion of quality education.”


1. Collins, J. and Hansen, M. (2011) Great by Choice, Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All. New York: HarperCollins. See Jim Collins speak at the 2013 NAIS conference at: session-jim-collins/

2. Dweck, C. (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.

3. Vicki Weeks was a speaker at the 2013 NAIS conference. Weeks is an independent consultant in global experiential education. She is an executive committee member at Global Circles (see, the owner of Global Weeks (see and global education consultant at Berkshire School.

4. Dweck, C. (2006) op. cit.

5. Weeks, V. (2013) op. cit.

6. Lichtman, G. (2013) ‘What 60 Schools Can Tell Us About Teaching 21st Century Skills’. Available at

7. Collins, J. and Hansen, M. (2011) op. cit.

8. See, for example,

9. See, for example, to-get-real. 10. Dobrée, B. (1932) William Penn: Quaker and Pioneer. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Category: Spring 2013

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