“If we know what the right thing to do is, why aren’t we doing it?”
Three years ago, the Revolution School design team dug into imagining a new high school for students in Philadelphia. It was a heady moment, and I remember those first conversations as joyful and inspiring. True believers and educational futurists from across the country came out to play, making a central idea into a “North Star”— to prepare learners for the future, we’ll need to focus on what makes us most human.
Revolution School expresses this spirit in its mission: “breaking down the walls between learning and life.” Our school is based on values of empowerment, diversity, integrated learning, and joy. We do interdisciplinary, expeditionary learning, bringing students out of the building at least twice a week to interact with the city and do authentic work with partners who are invested in them. In addition to their core academics, our students assemble personal portfolios which include progress on habits, skills, and dispositions such as entrepreneurial mindset, cultural competency, and systems thinking.
However, one signature innovation is actually not new at all — intentional and sustained focus on advisory and well-being. From the earliest design sessions to this, our opening year, we’ve held fast to the idea that students in a rapidly changing world need to have more ways to express their unique selves and — in doing so — make a difference.
Revolution’s schedule includes three dedicated advisory periods per week and up to three additional hours for health and wellness. A key element of this program is Project Wayfinder, a program out of Berkeley, California, that focuses on building purpose in young people. Their metaphor is that of ancient voyaging in the Pacific (near to my heart as a former educator in Hawaii), which teaches young people to use their native resources such as community, self-knowledge, and empathy to chart their path with purpose.
In addition to my role as a school leader, I am an advisor with the privilege of creating spaces and conversations for growth. Wayfinder’s lessons work seamlessly into our cycle of work, which is designed to tackle both big thematic issues and emergent “just in time” conversations our students need in the moment. Secretly (because to tell them would be “cheesy”), I sometimes imagine my advisees on the shoreline of their journey, creating charts, testing the waters, and packing their canoes with the most important provisions.
One of my favorite exercises so far was sending students to learn more about themselves by following an interview protocol with an older member of the community who knows them well. Students were energized to share and brought back genuine insights. There was belonging (“I didn’t know he thought that about me”), growing confidence (“I didn’t see myself in this way before”), and deep self-awareness (“My nana made me realize I was me a long time before I became who I am now.”).
Other top-of-mind Wayfinder moments include:
- A playful and impulsive young woman using a mapping exercise to recognize a pivotal time she leapt before looking and the consequences in hindsight.
- Students making constellations by drawing stars representing core attributes of themselves — creating names and myths to match. They could literally project themselves onto a blank sky.
- Watching opposites find common ground. Exercises sometimes pair students — such as a strength inventory — building their empathy and support skills through a deeper connection to one another.
An emphasis on advisory reminds our whole school that we are about student purpose, values, and personal “why.” From this launching space, they are more ready to do the difficult work of unpacking the complex systems in the world around them. In more than 25 years of work with educators across six settings, I’ve heard colleagues lament that we seem to have lost some of these fundamentals in our schools. We too often allow the technology or the test or the college ideal to cloud over the sky and obscure the student’s “North Star.”
An Early Wayfinding Conversation
This has all brought me to reflect on my own journey as an educator. I came to my work with young people from what I now understand is a distant horizon. I began my career as a college admissions officer at Penn, a highly-selective, Ivy League university in the same great city where my new school now sits. The view from what many consider the horizon of secondary education prompted a wayfinding conversation that I remember like it was yesterday.
Still early in my career, as a college counselor at a Pre-K through 12th-grade independent school, I’d been asked to help the middle school teachers talk to students about the transition to high school. Thinking this would not be hard, I asked the students what the purpose of high school was. To a person, the ones who mustered the nerve to speak said some version of “to prepare for college, so I can have a good life.”
Doubling down, I pulled out a dry-erase marker and said, “Tell me what college looks like, and tell what you will be doing there?” On that board, we drew what they came up with. We drew grass. We drew buildings. We drew books. I recall there were a few stick figures lying down who looked dead. It was all very unsatisfying… and illuminating. We stepped back and one lone eighth-grade voice yelped, “Woah… why?”
Shore, Water, Stars
The purpose of education is not accessible to most young people. They simply don’t know what the future looks like (and to be fair, neither do the adults). However, it’s our questions — not their answers — that need attention. They don’t know what the horizon looks like, but they know very deeply the shores they are embarking from. I was asking students to know the experience of the horizon when I should have been asking them to tell me all about the shore, and the water, and the stars.
At Revolution, we are dedicated to helping students emerge from the inside out. To the surprise of few educators who may read this, what’s old (and true) is new again. The challenge of the present and future of education is designing schools to make humans more human. Once these young people are able to pilot their own craft, they will faithfully steer into a future of meaning and purpose. We are privileged to witness the launch.