How Diversity Works

In the September 16 issue of Scientific American (, Katherine Phillips discusses how diversity makes us smarter, or more specifically, “more creative, diligent, and harder working.”  While acknowledging that creating diverse work environments and promoting inclusive dialogue among individuals is difficult, research by organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, and economists suggest that these efforts not only support altruistic social aims, but actually make institutions more effective, innovative, and more productive.

Phillips’ article discusses two areas, in particular, in which diversity supports institutional learning and growth—informational diversity and anticipatory planning. When we surround ourselves with people from similar backgrounds, we tend to believe that we share the same perspectives. Research confirms what many of us have experienced throughout our educational and professional careers, namely that “people who are different from one another in race, gender and other dimensions bring unique information and experiences to bear on the task at hand.” The studies cited in the article demonstrate that diversity leads to improved organizational performance.

It is not just different perspectives, experiences, and information that matter in helping groups to function more productively. Group diversity also affects individual members’ planning. When placed in a context where group members realize that there will be others from different social, racial, gender (or even political) backgrounds, they anticipate the different perspectives and realize they will need to work harder to reach consensus. As Phillips notes, “this logic helps to explain both the upside and the downside of social diversity: people work harder in diverse environments both cognitively and socially. They might not like it, but the hard work can lead to better outcomes.”

Last month I attended a symposium in Washington D.C. entitled “The Future of Diversity” with board member Tracy Stanton and Director of Intercultural Affairs Jabali Stewart. The hosts invited independent school heads, board members, and diversity practitioners from around the country to discuss how to create more inclusive communities for students, parents, faculty, and staff from different backgrounds.  When I began working in independent schools over 20 years ago, schools often explained their outreach efforts to communities of color (there was much less emphasis on outreach to and support of LGBTQ communities) in terms of its social and moral value. They tended to emphasize the opportunities “we” (the schools) were providing for “them” (families of color).

It was nice to participate in a conference in which independent school educators were focusing on how inclusive communities not only supported our school missions, but how this work made for more robust and innovative learning environments. In fact, if our schools want to improve, then diversity and inclusivity will be a necessary part of our future.  I believe that The Bush School has been working on this for quite some time, and I appreciate that science supports our efforts.

Brain Science and the Art of Teaching

brainresearch_imageThis summer, the Bush faculty in all three divisions read Mariale Hardiman’s The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model for 21st-Century Schools[1] as part of their professional development for this year. Dr. Hardiman’s book offers strategies for translating research on plasticity and neurogenesis into effective practices for educators. Our faculty spent part of this fall, before classes began, examining the neural systems that underlie emotions, and considering how teachers can connect with children to improve the emotional climate in the classroom and student learning. We will continue to use Hardiman’s brain-targeted strategies going forward to explore ways to inspire creativity and innovation, develop meaningful assessments, teach content mastery, and create dynamic physical learning environments.

Much like Hardiman, James E. Zull, a professor of biochemistry and biology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, uses research in neuroscience to inform pedagogy. In Zull’s book The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning[2] he offers thoughtful ideas that merge teachers’ intuitive practices with neuroscience to improve teaching and learning. Dr. Zull is also the Director of the University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education. While Zull admits that his lack of background in education and pedagogy made him an unlikely candidate for the directorship—in truth, no one else wanted the position—he found that his background in science, and biology in particular, gave him an opportunity to approach the task in a very different way.

Instead of focusing on student motivation, families’ demographic backgrounds, and merit pay for teachers as ways to improve student learning, Dr. Zull focuses on the system that he knows best and the one that is most responsible for learning: the brain. He developed an approach based on three functions of the cerebral cortex: to sense an environment, to integrate what is sensed, and to generate the appropriate action.

Simply put, by creating teaching practices and learning environments where sensing, integrating, and acting are at the center, schools can take advantage of the brain’s basic functions to improve learning.  The book reminds me of Bush’s goal to leverage our students’ natural curiosity in order to stimulate their interest in learning.

Zull describes specific functions of the brain and how they affect learning in a way that makes complex ideas applicable and practical. While schools of education and teacher education programs are beginning to adopt these scientific principles to train the next generation of great teachers, many of these ideas are inherently part of the teaching philosophy mapped out by Helen Talyor Bush 90 years ago. Bush faculty are accustomed to creating learning environments in which sensing, integrating, and acting are at the center of their work. Such efforts have helped dispel the notion that good teaching is simply an “art” or an innate talent, when, in fact, we now know much of it is scientific, and good teaching practices are confirmed with robust research. Today, brain research confirms what Helen Taylor Bush knew 90 years ago.



Reasons You Love The Bush School

SAP_6180_webI had a lovely meeting on Tuesday morning with a senior who stopped by my office to talk about this year’s fall festival. Anna, a Bush lifer, spoke with enthusiasm about reviving the all-school tradition she remembers fondly from her years as a Lower School student. She asked, with some trepidation, my thoughts on continuing the tradition. I told her that I had heard about fall festival and was looking forward to being part of this Kindergarten through Twelfth Grade celebration.

As the only Kindergarten through Twelfth Grade independent school in Seattle, we have the unique opportunity to create memorable, shared experiences across three divisions and 13 grades. Anna shared her recollection as a Third Grade student looking up to high school students during fall festival and feeling excited to take on a leadership position someday. That day is now.

Anna is not alone in wanting to build a stronger Kindergarten through Twelfth Grade identity at Bush. In my conversations with parents, alumnae/i, teachers, and alumnae/i parents over the past months, many have expressed a desire to find ways to connect students with their peers across divisions. Whether it is a Fourth Grade student considering which E-lective offerings she will take, or a Seventh Grade student attending an Upper School play and dreaming about performing in front of his peers in a few years, or a graduating Senior reading to Kindergarten students and starting the cycle of aspirational hopes all over again, these occasions should be cherished and celebrated. It is one of the reasons I love working in a Kindergarten through Twelfth Grade school.

At our opening meeting on Monday, I asked our faculty and staff to reflect on what they loved most about working at The Bush School. Their responses were thoughtful and varied, and demonstrated a deep understanding and appreciation for our school’s culture and values. Some consistent themes emerged from the groups’ presentations. All of the groups shared how much they love working with your children. They also value learning from colleagues across divisions, the sense of community, the expectation for continued growth and ongoing learning, the dynamic and collaborative nature of our school community, and the comfort that comes from working at a school where they are trusted. This last quality is a meaningful symbolic thread to Helen Taylor Bush, who founded the school with the belief that trust is essential to developing students’ self-confidence and for sparking a passion for learning and accomplishment.

Over the course of the year, I am going to spend time exploring more deeply the themes that came out of our opening meetings, and I invite you to share with me the reasons you love The Bush School and what type of community you and your children aspire to help build. I am grateful to Anna for stopping by to chat with me this week. She was able to articulate what makes Bush special—student leadership and voice, trusting children, our “K-12” identity, collaboration, and community. That, and the certainty that no matter how old you are, cotton candy will always make you smile.

I hope to see you all at Convocation on September 3 at 8:30 a.m. in the Inner Courtyard.

90 Years of Progressive Education

BETA.Bush School_90thAnnLogo_4.0Each day that I spend around The Bush School, I gain a better sense of our school’s distinctive culture and character.  Through conversations with colleagues, parents, alumni, and board members a common theme continues to emerge.  The Bush School is a place of inquiry, imagination, innovation, and infinite possibilities.  In addition to my meetings, I have spent time reading about and studying the school’s rich history and traditions.   I am struck by how groundbreaking Helen Bush’s educational philosophy was in 1924. Mrs. Bush’s belief in the John Dewey principle of ‘learning by doing’ was indeed progressive at a time when pedagogy favored rote learning and a standardize approach to teaching.

In 2014, this precept is ubiquitous in educational settings as many schools espouse experiential education as a core tenet of their mission. We know that students learn and develop best in authentic learning environments, whether through outdoor pursuits, civic participation, artistic creation and expression, athletic challenge, or inquiry-based activities. These practices have been fostered and promoted at The Bush School for nine decades. As a result, our students have come to develop a love for learning that is meaningful and enduring.

In The Bush School: The First 75 Years, a historical account of the school’s founding and a tribute to the individuals who helped to build our school and ensure its success, Sis Pease ’41 captures the essence of my conversations and observations over the past few weeks. She writes, “a prevailing spirit of optimism, hope, and bold plans for tomorrow guides the expectation that The Bush School will be very much part of a new progressive period.”

I share Sis’ enthusiasm about our future, and I am eager to be a part of re-envisioning our progressive learning community.