Say the word “autumn” and you evoke images of brightly-hued leaves, baskets of apples and harvests of pumpkins.  In New York City, especially for parents of four-year-olds and older students looking to transition next year, you also provoke anxiety about the admissions process:  when can you visit schools, what will they require of you and of your children, how can you tell if a school is the right school for your child and your family?

I know these questions well, having helped families through the admissions process in my former role as Director of Columbia University’s School and Child Care Search Service.  And I’ve been on the other side of the process, too, as an admissions director at Trevor Day School (NYC) and at Carolina Day School (NC), where I thought deeply about which applicants would likely thrive at our school and which parents would likely be strong partners over the years.  

I recognize the stress that the process creates and I empathize.  I wondered, though, if the stress is all about the process or is it something more than that?  The schools that parents are looking at today look very much like the schools they themselves attended.  And, likely, their parents before them.

Before I returned to NYC in August, I took the opportunity to reflect on the educational landscape, the structure of schools, and the ways in which they live their missions.  Having spent time learning about and visiting public schools, independent schools, faith-based schools, single gender schools, special needs schools, and schools that end at 5th or 8th or 12th, I believe that schools are well-intentioned.  Most, however, are built firmly on the foundations of the Industrial Age with occasional renovations started in the Information Age. Moreover, most schools are so bound by tradition and bureaucracy that they struggle to adapt to the Innovation Age, where creativity and curiosity are highly prized.  

What would rethinking education mean for schools?  Recently, the New York Transit Authority engaged in a similar thought experiment for its New York City bus routes.  With bus ridership dwindling as even express buses took hours, the Transit Authority researched its own history, discovering that many of its bus routes had simply been laid over old trolley tracks in the 1900s and were left that way ever since, despite changes in where people lived and travelled.  So, the Transit Authority decided to rethink what transportation should look like.

My research and my educational values led me to Portfolio School, which is redefining what school means.  It is small by design and designed for deep thinking. Students as young as 5 years old experiment, explore, reflect, hypothesize, revise, synthesize, collaborate, and communicate analytically and creatively. They practice skills in the context of projects that straddle the real world and the academic one.  More than just becoming knowledgeable about content, they gain adaptive expertise, a core ability that successful artists, business people, innovators, and scientists possess, allowing them to transfer what they’ve learned in one area to another.

Focusing on that kind ability made me think about Alexander Graham Bell, whose biography I was reading this summer.   Since his childhood, Bell had immersed himself in understanding how the larynx worked, largely because his father was a self-proclaimed professor of elocution and phonetics, but also because he was insatiably curious.  In fact, Alex and his brother had even built a working “speaking machine” using a human skull, tin and wire -- and scaring the whole neighborhood with it. Attuned to fine distinctions of pitch and tone, he also studied how sound itself worked on the human ear, a particular interest of his because his mother had become deaf. His ability to put these two areas together led to his invention of the telephone:

Suddenly the idea struck him that it might be possible to create an undulating electric current that could carry sound along a telegraph wire in the same way that air carried sound waves from the speaker to the hearer.  The telephone receiver, pressed to a human ear, could act like an electrical mouth.
— Reluctant Genius:  Alexander Graham Bell and the Passion for Invention, Charlotte Gray

At Portfolio School, creativity and curiosity vibrate across the classrooms as students take on challenges in their own unique ways.  I see teachers who embrace the idea that students have agency in their own education and in their own space at school. Learning about how the brain functions means 6 and 7 year old students talk about creating pathways for their neurons as they practice math facts.  And teachers see this as an opportunity to ask “What was difficult about that activity? Why do you think it was difficult?”

Failure often precedes new ideas and novel connections, so at Portfolio School I witness a celebration of those failures as precursors to future success.  Each day I observe students experiencing their aha! moments of mastering a skill or concept. And some days, I see students wondering how they can transfer what they’ve learned from one concept to understand another different concept.  And because Portfolio School is cultivating the creativity and curiosity we find in innovative thinkers, I can’t help but think about Alexander Graham Bell. What type of school environment would have both fed his curiosity, allowed him to play with ideas, and supported his ability to make connections and learn through failure?  I believe Portfolio is such a place.