Why King’s Exists: Outlining a Vision for the Future

King’s first decade has been one of remarkable accomplishments. Few schools have come as far or as fast in their first 10 years as King’s has, and like any great endeavor, it has been the work of many. Yet as we celebrate our first 10 years, it is important to look to the next decade — and beyond. The founding of a school is never fully complete, and to remain vital and relevant a school must always look to the future.

That is not an easy thing to do. Change is constant, particularly in this part of the world, and history has a way of surprising us. In the 10 years since King’s welcomed its first students, we have witnessed the global financial crisis of 2008, the Arab Spring, revolution and unrest across the region, civil war in Syria, a refugee crisis unprecedented in the history of Jordan, and the steady growth of extremist, separatist and rabidly nationalistic ideologies. The pace of technological change has quickened, and the emergence of artificial intelligence and automation will further disrupt the economy and the future opportunities and career prospects of our children. It is likely, the best science tells us, that the world’s climate has been irreparably damaged and that an environmental crisis of unprecedented size and scope awaits. We are living through a period of revolutionary change.

Are we ready for what the future holds and are we certain that the education we offer our students today will prepare them for the challenges they will face tomorrow? For schools, for parents and for teachers — for anyone who cares about the future of civilization —there is no more important question.

It is impossible to plan for the unknown, but two orientations are essential for schools of the future. First, schools must be agile, flexible, open to change, fully awake to new and innovative approaches to learning, willing to experiment and courageous enough to discard tired and dated practices. At the same time, they need to move into the future dedicated to their mission and values and confident in who they are. Here is a four-pointed educational compass that I believe can guide us as we move into the future.

Powerful learning is relational
Learning happens between a student and a teacher in a relationship that is dynamic, creative and supportive. This has been true since the time of Socrates (Plato’s teacher), it remains true today, and it is an idea that will endure, especially in a residential school like King’s that values above all else human connection and community. It stands at the very center of all that we do at King’s.

This simple truth has profound implications for how we structure the experience of school and how we think about teaching and learning. It means schools must identify and hire teachers of deep humanity, patience and humility — men and women who are not simply expert in their fields (and preferably more than one field) but gifted at communicating the joy and pleasure of disciplined, rigorous inquiry. These are men and women who delight in the energy, potential and playfulness of young people between the ages of 12-18 (and know how to direct those energies) and who see these formative years as an opportunity for inspiration and transformation. American author William Deresiewicz calls these teachers “spirit guides.”

Yet this relational model of teaching and learning is under siege. Recent abuse scandals in institutions and schools across the world have undermined trust and confidence in those who work with young people, creating an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion. A numbing emphasis on formulaic curricula, test-taking and crude systems of teacher accountability threaten to undermine the joy and excitement that is teaching at its most rewarding. New forms of technology divide young people and adults from one another, isolating children in cocoons of digital entertainment and social media.

Residential schools like King’s have a unique opportunity to counter these forces. We believe that teaching is not simply a profession, but a vocation that develops over a lifetime of practice and reflection. We seek to develop the capacity of our teachers and strive to deepen their sense of craft. And we have developed an approach to faculty appraisal that is inspired by our mission: empowering, strength-based and oriented towards growth.

Even as King’s has grown in size and diversity, expanding downward into grades 7 and 8, we have sought to preserve the essential intimacy of the school and to provide increased opportunities for students and faculty to interact, collaborate and learn: a renewed advisor system; additional, structured contact time between students and advisors; small classes where learning proceeds through discussion, collaboration and inquiry; an increased emphasis on individualized support; a commitment to sit-down, family-style lunch; increased faculty housing on campus and in the dorms — all of these offer opportunities and structures for adults and children to build powerful relationships of trust and support.

Powerful learning recognizes and cultivates student individuality
We believe that every child is unique and has something important to give to the world. For that reason schools must remain fully alive to the unique talents and strengths of young people (rather than their deficits — an unfortunate and damaging emphasis in many schools). This, of course, is the only way to build a young person’s confidence and belief in themselves. And those are qualities of character that allow young people to take their place in the world and make a difference in their communities. His Majesty King Abdullah II captured this in his most recent discussion paper on education when he wrote: “Educational institutions must believe in the immense energies, promising capabilities, and diverse talents of our youth. They should seek to cultivate these qualities, driving young men and women to unleash their potential.”

We live in an age of reductive standardization, and many schools — even some schools with a reputation for academic excellence — take a one-size fits all approach to teaching and learning. Rigid graduation requirements (in many cases dating from the 19th century) and outdated curricular frameworks offer students little room for choice, exploration and self-definition. As the bestselling author Daniel Pink notes, “The whole world is awash in customization — until we get to the school-house door.”

This needs to change. Once the basic literacies of critical and appreciative reading, effective writing and speaking, and numeracy (including a familiarity with statistics) have been acquired — by around grade 10 — and students have been exposed to a broad range of disciplines, they should be encouraged to exercise thoughtful freedom over what they study, supported by teachers acting as mentors and coaches. When students graduate from King’s they must feel a powerful sense of autonomy and sense of future possibility.

We have sought to provide our students with greater choice and opportunities for self-expression. That is one reason why we joined the Global Online Academy (GOA) five years ago; it dramatically expands our course offerings and allows students to pursue their passions and explore new fields of learning. That is also why we have sought to expand — and plan to further expand — the elective courses we offer at the school.

There is further work to de done here, and we must remain alert to emerging fields (coding, artificial intelligence, robotics, neuroscience), new hybrid disciplines, and opportunities to connect classroom work to forms of service and civic engagement. To do this we need to rethink how we organize the final two years of high school and what is required of students during them, striking an appropriate balance between breadth of study across the curriculum — the core of the liberal arts — and depth of study. During these final two years, our students need to be treated more like college students, especially in terms of the intellectual challenges we set for them and the responsibility we invest in them.

To fully personalize learning, we also need to develop systems of feedback that encourage reflection, require self-assessment and elevate engagement. As the educator Arthur Chiaravelli notes in an article entitled “Toward a Future of Growth, Not Grades,” the teacher’s historic “monopoly on assessment and grading has trained students to adopt an attitude of total passivity in the learning process.” Our Middle School has made pioneering strides in how it reports learning to parents and students with its use of standards-based, student-centered assessment — an approach we should explore with older students as well. King’s recently joined other leading schools in founding the Mastery Transcript Consortium, the purpose of which is to transform how schools report learning to colleges and universities. Each of these initiatives has the potential

to transform the experience of school and the attitudes — the fundamental mindsets — that students bring to their learning.

Authentic learning is experiential, active and directed towards depth of inquiry
Too many students experience high school as a kind of indentured servitude — a forced march through a bramble of tests and requirements from which they emerge bloody and bruised. This needs to change. Learning should be directed towards exciting and sustaining a child’s curiosity and shaping, directing and disciplining that curiosity. Students should be encouraged to see their education as a great adventure, a quest into the unknown, a journey to the Galapagos, an archeological dig.

To accomplish this, schools of the future must become places of deep learning — where learning and inquiry are valued for themselves and where students are routinely asked to transfer skills and knowledge to new and unfamiliar problems. Another way of saying this is that we need to make learning more life-like, connecting it to the world and to real problems, academic questions, and issues. Perhaps our classrooms need to look more like design studios, research labs, legislative bodies, think-tanks and start-ups — spaces of real intellectual energy, purpose and urgency.

Much of the academic work we ask of students has little resemblance to what historians, scholars, entrepreneurs and professionals actually do. (Only the arts really get this right, asking for student work that is genuine. As I have written in a former issue of this magazine, the standard for excellence in the arts is a professional one: the exhibition or performance before a live audience.) Schools abstract disciplines from the questions and human needs that are their origin. Schools focus on answers rather than questions. Every student is required to study set subjects— few can explain why (other than that they are obligatory and required). The greatest discovery of the enlightenment — science — is, in some schools, reduced to cookbook experiments and multiple choice exams; students rarely venture into the outdoors or engage in authentic scientific inquiry, observation and research. Schools teach history as an inert body of fact, rather than an active inquiry into and reconstruction of the past.

We can do better — and a school oriented to the future must do better. There is a place for tests in schools, but we should never confuse test-taking prowess with educational excellence. And we can prepare young people for tests without enslaving ourselves and our students to them — in the same way that the best medical and law schools prepare students for careers in the law and medicine without teaching directly to the bar exam or medical boards.

What is needed are fewer high-stakes tests and exams and more opportunities for immersive learning experiences that approximate the kind of work professionals, artists, entrepreneurs, civic leaders and scholars actually do: simulations and immersive role plays (including game-based, digital simulations), problem-based learning, case studies that hone decision-making skills, exhibitions and performances, science Olympiads and challenges in which teams of students compete to solve pressing technological and scientific challenges. One reason we have piloted the College Board’s new AP Capstone course sequence and encouraged as many students as possible to take it is that it embraces active, interdisciplinary learning, encourages students to attack urgent issues of public importance, and results in authentic demonstrations of knowledge.

In my view, every King’s student should graduate having completed a Capstone project. Such a project would entail original, independent and/or team-based research. It would explore actively contested questions. It would envision learning as a process that unfolds over time and that involves trial, error and thoughtful experimentation. It would require students to propose solutions to urgent real world problems and draw on multiple disciplines. It would result in a high-quality, professional product. And it would culminate with a public presentation, performance, portfolio or exhibition that is shared with parents, teachers and professionals in the field.

Learning should be directed to the formation of character
With all of our concern for academic outcomes, university acceptances and career preparation, we risk losing sight of the ethical and civic purposes of education. Of course we must graduate what American professor and author Ken Bain calls “adaptive experts,” young people of searching, critical intelligence ready to tackle new and unfamiliar questions. That is one reason a concluding Capstone experience is so important. But ultimately our goal is to graduate good people, young men and women of character who will use their educations in the service of others. We must never forget this.

Young people have an acute sense of justice and fairness. They are sensitive to oppression and unkindness in a way that adults often are not. They value freedom, and their sometimes refreshingly rebellious spirit is often an expression of just that. Schools of the future need to harness, direct and shape these energies, not suppress them. Too many schools have become places of control, whose purpose seems to teach unthinking obedience, rather than the responsible exercise of freedom. The sad truth is that many schools are simply afraid of young people.

We are not. We believe in them, and we express that belief by entrusting them with real responsibility across all dimensions of school life — in the dorms, in their leadership of important school committees, in our new Student Leadership Council, and in the many conferences, clubs and summer programs they lead.

Character cannot be taught in the classroom, though there are ample opportunities there to explore complex issues of social justice, ethical decision-making and our obligations to others. Character is forged through experience — by living in a community where we have obligations and responsibilities to others. This is why the residential character of King’s and its pioneering commitment to enrolling students from all backgrounds, walks of life, religious faiths and nationalities is so important. Sadly, their time at King’s may be the last time they live in a community of such diversity and richness, but the experience of doing so will fundamentally change them, because it will require sacrifice, selflessness, compromise, trust, teamwork, collaboration and sometimes even courage.

I am confident that if we surround our students with inspiring and caring adults, honor and respect their individuality and task them with meaningful intellectual and community challenges, we will graduate leaders, scholars, entrepreneurs and professionals ready to meet whatever the future may hold. That is why King’s exists. That is why we are here. That is what we must do.

Last updated
May 28, 2017