• Our Educational Philosophy: The Best of Both Worlds

    By Peggy Procter


    Independent schools often define themselves with the labels “traditional’ (i.e., a more conventional program-based curriculum) or “progressive” (i.e., a more unstructured curriculum with less assessment). Education must therefore fit into one of those boxes. Yet at Echo Horizon, we reject the idea of labels because we don’t believe that children should have to fit into “either/or” categories as they grow, learn, and develop into unique human beings. 


    We embrace a “best of both worlds” philosophy that is based on our extensive experience as educational scholars and leaders. Recent developments in research and brain science help us understand the education and development of children, and we remain flexible to adapt as new research and pedagogies emerge. The traditional model of desks in rows, with a teacher in front delivering knowledge while students take notes is a model from the past; the world it served no longer exists. Yet a fully progressive model belittles the importance of foundational knowledge and practice, and may keep children from reaching their fullest potential. At Echo Horizon, our best of both worlds curriculum combines the strongest structures of traditional education with the best researched and evidence-tested innovation. We carefully assess each developmental stage and the needs of each individual student as we build the optimal learning environment for our scholars. We remain open minded and flexible with our approaches while also understanding that some skills must be mastered as building blocks for deeper learning. 


    Our educational philosophy is informed by several brilliant educational theorists and thinkers. Dr. Maria Montessori inspires us with her belief in creating a “classroom environment that fosters the children’s natural desire to learn.” A Montessori classroom is student-led and self-paced but guided, assessed, and enriched by knowledgeable and caring teachers. Classrooms and lessons are designed to create natural opportunities for independence, citizenship, and accountability. Students are expected to follow their own curiosity at their own pace, taking the time they need to fully understand each concept and meet individualized learning goals. Many of Dr. Montessori’s beliefs about how students learn and the best ways to foster their curiosity and growth are beliefs that we embrace at Echo Horizon.


    John Dewey also inspires us. He argued that rather than the child being a passive recipient of knowledge— as has been presumed by many educators of the past and even the present day!—children were better served by taking an active part in the process of their own learning. He also placed greater emphasis on the social context of learning. Dewey argued that in an optimal educational environment, children have learning opportunities that enable them to link present content to previous knowledge and experience. His emphasis on relevant, connected learning in which students are active in their own learning process is embraced at Echo Horizon. Dewey believed in a more balanced approach to education where teacher, students, and content were given equal importance in the learning equation. Ultimately, his belief is that teachers should not be in the classroom simply as instructors, but should also be facilitators and guides, giving students opportunities to discover for themselves and develop as active and independent learners. Allowing students the time and space for discovery and ownership of their learning is wholeheartedly embraced at Echo. 


    There are so many examples of student independence, citizenship, curiosity, and connected learning at Echo Horizon, and they take place from the very beginning. Our Pre-K students spend months looking at the theme of community and what it means to be a productive and caring member of one. They begin by looking at the community of the classroom, then the school, and then Culver City. They learn to be kind and respectful to one another and their classroom materials; they take care of the school and our environment by collecting the school’s recycling each week; and they go on field trips to understand the important roles that farmers and firefighters play in our community. 


    Our Kindergarteners engage in a unit that explores identity, empathy, and appreciating difference, based on the book This Is How We Do It by Matt Lamothe. They look at the daily lives of children in other countries, and identify both similarities and differences. Our Kindergarten scholars share personal stories of their own families and traditions to better understand all the diversity that exists in their classroom. Last but not least, our third graders impress us each year with their Living Museum project, where through biography, they explore the past and its influence on the present. Students begin by studying Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and Rosa Parks. Then, they select a person who has inspired them, and spend time reading, researching, and understanding the perspective of that person. Recently, students studied Marie Antoinette, Malala Yousafzai, Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, and Pele to name a few. The culminating presentation that students make in the character (and costume!) of the person they studied moves and inspires the audience. 


    Educational research and brain science have evolved greatly, so we also look to today’s experts. These theorists and educators challenge educational institutions and teachers to meet new understandings. For example, Dr. Denise Pope, PhD, Senior Lecturer in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University, has spearheaded efforts to redefine success and rigor in today’s schools. She co-founded Challenge Success, a program that implements research-based strategies that promote student well-being and engagement with learning. In the words of Dr. Pope, “our current fast-paced, high-pressure culture works against everything we know about healthy child development. While there is content that must be mastered, our singular focus on results has led to a lack of attention to other components of a successful life — the ability to be independent, adaptable, ethical, and motivated critical thinkers.” 


    Our schools, teachers, parents and guardians need to step back from the treadmill definition of success and focus on a healthy schedule, personalized and engaging curriculum, and a caring climate for our children so that every student feels a sense of belonging, purpose, and motivation to learn. Dr. Pope writes that when we fail to create this optimal learning environment, our “overloaded and high achieving students lack creativity and are unable to solve complex problems or engage in critical thinking and collaboration.” The jobs of today and tomorrow require problem solving, critical thinking, and collaboration, and we fail our children if we fail to educate them in a way that teaches them these vital skills for our diverse global economy. Echo Horizon’s balanced educational approach, our caring teachers, our culturally responsive teaching, and our purposeful curriculum ensure that our students find a sense of belonging and purpose during their formative years here. 


    Dr. Tony Wagner, senior research fellow at the Learning Policy Institute, former expert in residence at the Harvard Innovation Lab, and founder and co-director of the Change Leadership Group at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, has dedicated his research to socially responsible teaching. He authored two renowned books: Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for The Innovation Era and Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. Dr. Wagner posits that to create the next generation of innovators and changemakers, we must not “double-down on outmoded, formulaic solutions—but embrace the principles of play, passion, and purpose.” Children need time and space to wonder and discover, make mistakes and try again and again, and be accountable for their own learning (and not just do as they are told). It’s our duty as schools to provide children with the conditions under which they can be challenged, find joy, and explore the world around them. Why do so many children dread school and count the minutes until it is over? Because we fail to create dynamic spaces where learning comes to life. 


    Dr. Yong Zhao is a distinguished professor in the School of Education at the University of Kansas, former presidential chair and director of the Institute for Global and Online Education at the University of Oregon, and author of the book World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students. In this book, he argues that in order for young people to succeed in today’s global economy, our schools must cultivate independent and entrepreneurial thinkers who are “flexible, resourceful, and creative.” He believes that when students become responsible for their own learning and feel truly interested in it, they become engaged in their own education. Our classrooms, science labs, maker spaces, and advisories support the global mindset that Dr. Zhao encourages. 


    Dr Howard Gardner is the John H and Elisabeth A. Hobbs research professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and senior director of Harvard Project Zero. He authored the groundbreaking theory of multiple intelligences, which proposes that all humans possess a unique blend of experiences and the main challenge facing educators is “how to best take advantage of the uniqueness conferred on us as a species exhibiting several intelligences.” Gardner’s theory validates the experiences of educators worldwide. If you spend any time in a classroom, you know that students think and learn and organize their thinking in wildly different ways. Gardner implores us to reflect on our pedagogical practices and curricular decisions to ensure that we develop new and diverse approaches that might better meet the needs of the wide range of learners that exist in any classroom. He believes in deep understanding, exploration, and creativity and argues that these are “not easily accommodated within an orientation to the delivery of a detailed curriculum planned outside of the immediate educational context.” Educators must know and deeply understand the personalities, needs, learning styles, and cultural contexts of their students in order to educate them well. 


    Dr. Angela Ducksworth is another inspirational educational researcher. Dr. Duckworth is a MacArthur Fellow, professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and the founder and scientific director of The Character Lab, a nonprofit with a mission to advance the science and practice of character development. She wrote Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. In this book, Dr. Ducksworth challenges conventional wisdom about how we succeed and argues that “true success comes when we devote ourselves to endeavors that give us joy and purpose.” Character is vital for children to grow, flourish, and develop three important character dimensions: the “strengths of will, heart, and mind.” If our educational institutions focus on only one of these dimensions, our children will not thrive as fulfilled individuals able to reach their fullest potential. At Echo Horizon, we believe that character can be taught, practiced, and cultivated; we believe this is as important as academic learning. 


    As I reflect on the work of these educational researchers, it’s clear that our teachers and students have embraced their theories and are balancing character education with academic rigor. Our second graders embark on a unit that explores “growth mindset,” a theory brought to us by Dr. Carol Dweck at Stanford University. Growth mindset is the belief that a person’s basic qualities are things that one can cultivate, grow, and develop through hard work, effort and practice, as opposed to a fixed, deep-seated trait that one must live with forever. Learning how to make an effort and persevere is as important as learning content, and our second graders continually remind us when we find ourselves frustrated to “stick to it,” as we just haven’t learned it yet. 


    Our upper grades students engage in book clubs through Level Up Village with students in Nicaragua, Kenya, and Jordan and discuss the books Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan, I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai, and The Giver by Lois Lowry. Listening to the perspectives of students from different backgrounds while discussing important issues like education, immigration, and democracy, has been eye-opening. Our sixth graders who partnered with Kenyan students were empowered to support a drive to obtain feminine hygiene products to ensure that teenage Kenyan girls do not miss school during their menstrual cycle. Two teachers, Ms. Baltazar and Ms. Willens, delivered the materials to schools in Kenya during their professional development program with Big Picture Learning. In MakerSpace, our students, under that astute guidance of Dr. Sam Patterson, engage in the design thinking process in order to build and create things that meet a need and solve a problem. They don’t make things to take home and put in their bedrooms—they design and create projects that help others.  


    Today’s children are growing up in a society and world quite different from the prior generation and it is our duty as parents and educators to prepare them in a way that allows them to live a life of joy, purpose, and intellectual and personal fulfillment. Our children deserve it and our parents must demand it. It is the obligation of our schools to deliver it and at Echo Horizon, we do.