Interview with Head of School Dominic A.A. Randolph
Wesley Penn: Uh, hello, this is an interview between me, Wesley Penn, and Mr Randolph. It is currently Friday, February 16th, we are doing-- the Riverdale Review is doing a feature on education reform, and I'm here with Mr Randolph to talk about his thoughts on this, so let’s get into it. How would you describe your philosophy when it comes to education, with regards to student work, new teaching styles, sleep patterns, introduction of technology into the classroom, etc?
Dominic Andrew Affleck Randolph: I mean I think there’s a lot, there’s a whole set of different strands in that that might be interesting to think about. Something that I'm interested in, is, what are some of the capacities that aren’t correlated with IQ? And how do those capacities get more intentionally developed in schools? So that’s one thing. I'm interested also in how do students play more of a role and have more of a voice in their own education. I think that sort of idea of agency, independence-- how do you develop that more effectively in young people? Sometimes I think school settings can be relatively disempowering [sic] so how do you actually make them about student empowerment? I think that technology is definitely playing some sort of disruptive role. I think it’s interesting to see how can technology be used very effectively and what are some things that are, let’s say, more purely human that one has to guard carefully. I think online learning experiences are great, I think I'm not sure I’d like that only to be the world of education. So how do you do that where you use online resources and learning experiences and then blend that with an in person environment? And what’s the right balance of that. I mean I could hypothetically see high schools that had fifty percent of the time that people spent in a school like here face-to-face and then some portion of that remaining time might be outside, might be doing stuff in the world, some portion may be online. It’s an interesting question to think about. What’s the future of the last two years of high school? That’s what I think will change most significantly. I'm also interested in how do you make school something other than school. I sometimes feel that lifetime learning is a trite phrase. But at the same time I do believe that people need to keep learning most of their lives. So how do institutions change a bit to provide support for that sort of longer-term learning. Rather than saying it’s all done Pre-K through 12 or Pre-K through sixteen, and then if you take college and then graduate school. Stanford had this project where it basically saw people looping back into the university throughout their lives rather than just being focused on this four years that they spent there. I think that’s sort of intriguing.
WP: I know you also have done some research in this field. Can you touch on that? Tell us what you’ve done, what’s come out of it, how it’s affected how you address educational reform at Riverdale?
DAAR: Sure. So, I think most of the things that we’ve done research on is this idea of the development of character strengths such as optimism, grit, self-control. Some of that research has been.. You know, we’ve done research projects that haven’t shown any real effect. And it’s interesting to see that researchers, what I’ve learned is that researchers are not very good at working in schools. And working with students. We’ve tried to try and create more connections between teachers, students, and researchers, as far as designing better types of experiments to actually, or interventions to run in schools. That’s been a really intriguing, interesting thing to see, some of these researchers in the social sciences, either are not inclined to work in schools, because it’s messy and it’s a pain in the neck, or they’re just really bad at it. So we’ve tried to actually improve the quality of researchers being able to work with schools well. One thing that we’ve found out-- here there was a research study six or seven years ago that we did where there was a finding about GPA and the lack of correlation with a sense of curiosity. I thought that was sort of shocking. When I first heard that, basically, that GPA and curiosity weren’t correlated--
WP: How does one measure curiosity?
DAAR: To be honest I can’t remember-- I think it was done through some sort of questionnaire through what I understand. I can’t remember. I couldn’t tell you the exact nature of the experiment, I just remember the findings. It was both at Kipp and at Riverdale, and then I started thinking, well I do think we have in our schools very much an emphasis on product, and producing things, that probably does de-emphasize the idea of being curious on things. I mean, curiosity is probably not very efficient. So how do you balance that sense of a development of curiosity along with people being able to produce papers and stuff like that. But I thought it was a concerning finding to me.
WP: Do you find that innovation in this field is unique? Do you find it particularly difficult or easy?
DAAR: [Chuckles] I think that schools and educational institutions, universities, are by nature and by their systems conservative. I mean I'm not talking about the politics I'm just talking about the way they run. Because they don’t wanna say, okay, every day we’re just going to change whatever we’re doing. There’s a certain stability desired in educational institutions, so I think sometimes to actually shift educational institutions is difficult, given the conservative nature. At the same time, I do think there’s some interesting innovation, broadening the set of capacities that we try and develop in kids in schools, is actually really interesting and important. I think that everyone can give examples. Certainly it’s important that someone has, improves their mathematical ability through their schooling, but at the same time, I don’t think anyone would make the statement that just having mathematical ability is going to make you able to thrive in your future life. It would be a portion on that, but I think we put too much of an emphasis on things that are just purely with IQ in schools. So I’ve been interested in how do you broaden that set of capacities? And there is a lot of work that’s interesting in that. We’ve been relatively slow, it’s like the healthcare industry, someone said to me there’s something like sixteen years where you have between someone finding something, the new invention, in healthcare, and then translation into practice in the healthcare industry. It takes a long time to get through various regulations and all the testing that needs to be done. To actually be practicing. I would argue that it’s probably even longer in education. There’s things about the science of how people learn that’s really, really well proven and it’s been around for twenty, thirty years and that hasn’t actually shifted the way schools work. And that seems, as an example, it’s very, very clear that if you’re going to learn something, understanding very clearly people’s prior knowledge, or misconceptions about that subject matter, is hyper-important. I don’t think we put enough emphasis, when I start a class, on saying okay, I really want to understand, what is the prior knowledge that exists in this classroom space? What are some of the misconceptions that people might have? And being much more intentional about building off that prior knowledge, and also addressing those misconceptions. That’s really, really, clear, very very well proven by the science and yet we don’t necessarily shift pedagogy that much to do that. How you actually figure out a way to translate good science and good research into practice, and speed up that delay, I think is a really important thing. I'm working with people trying to do that. But it’s not easy.
WP: Looking at Riverdale, how do you think that Riverdale’s student experience has changed during your time here? And what is your role in Riverdale’s education reform and what does that process look like?
DAAR: So, one significant thing was within my first year here, and it wasn’t purely my idea but I tried to help it happen, was shifting away from APs. The shift in itself, I mean, I don’t dislike all APs, but I think that a lot of the AP exams then, they’ve been trying to change them, concentrated very much on content coverage. So if you were taking a biology AP, the amount of content that you had to study in the year, and I think scientists would say, was unreasonable, and not necessarily effective. So if you then, and I would say the same was true for US history as well, which was, I don’t think our history department really liked those tests. So moving away from those tests opened up the curriculum in interesting was that you see much more variation, and interesting possibilities, in the upper end of the courses. Which I think offers more choice and potential engagement for students in their work. So I think that AP decision was something that was interesting. I think the character strengths that I’ve done has had more of an effect on the middle school and the lower school. I think it actually failed in the initial phases in the high school, because I think we talked too much around character strengths. I talked too much about it. On the other hand I think that systems within the school such as the dean system, and the way that we try to, I think people do think there are very good relationships between faculty and students here. There’s a sort of caring about those other capacities and who, the personal qualities of students here, that sometimes you don’t get in certain schools. I'm not saying that, I think that we probably increased that to some degree, and that makes people feel like there’s a place they want to come to, and learn. There was a concentration on AP scores, and the academic results, in the past years of this school, that I think we’ve moved away from, thankfully. I'm not saying that it doesn’t matter that you get good grades so you can’t completely affect that but I do think people, there tends to be more engagement here. I think things like the mini-courses, the metaphor of whether it happens or not, but I love the idea that there are students teaching mini-courses here, there has been that over time. I think that’s a very interesting move. I would love to see more of that, I’d love to see more student teaching of courses, I think that’s a brilliant thing, and when people have done that, they’ve felt the experience has really changed the way they thought about school and their own learning. So those are probably a few things. I think we’ve tried to make the school have a bit more of an experiential bent, as far as the academic program here. Trying to connect global travel opportunities, to classroom experiences, trying to have the trip to Washington, D.C. for the Constructing America thing, saying you need to go out into the world a bit. The night court trip that ILS does. Going to see night court in NYC. There’s project Knowmad, in the summers, this idea of saying you can do more experiential work. Marshall Nicoloff, some of the outdoor education work, Beth Pillsbury, some of the things she does with taking kids to Detroit. Emily Schorr-Lesnick, trying to do service learning, and connecting that a bit to the curriculum. I think that aspect of learning-- you haven’t really learned something until you’ve applied it to the world. I could push on that even more significantly. So those are a few things.
WP: If you could snap your fingers and change this school, what would that look like? At Riverdale? At American high schools in general?
DAAR: I think that there’s a thing out there right now called the mastery transcript consortium that’s thinking about, how do you show mastery in certain subject areas or skills, like collaboration. If someone’s a really good collaborator, what does that look like, and how could we credential someone, as a really excellent collaborator. That sense of mastery, also within the disciplines, so it could be, with mathematicians, what does it look like when someone’s a really good mathematician. What kind of behaviors and dispositions would they have to show to do that. That movement of thinking about mastery, it’s happening in the public school realm right now as well, and performance-based assessment. Put someone in a real task , in the real world, whether in academia, or in the business world. And see how you perform in this task based environment. I think that’s the movement that I would like to see us push on more significantly.
If I could snap my fingers, wouldn’t it be really interesting if you could disrupt the last two years of a high school education. People would be doing things within the school but they would also be doing some really compelling things outside the school. And we’d be credentialing those things outside the school, as part of their education. That’s something I’d really like to see us push on in the next five years, and seeing models of that happening. Because right now what happens is someone does an internship, it doesn’t actually, you’re not actually credentialed in anything that comes out of that internship, and we have no real way of seeing if that was a really good experience, was it a great learning experience, was it an impoverished learning experience. And that becomes part of a broader record of development for students. And we’re a bit more clear about what is the growth overtime of a student at a school. Right now schools in general they prize consistency. I'm not sure consistency is such a brilliant thing to be prizing. Growth is a better thing to be prizing. But I'm not sure ourselves can actually understand growth, students can understand their own growth, and be able to talk in sophisticated ways about how they’ve grown over time. A lot of our measurements don’t actually show that growth over time.
WP: Do you think that educators and educational professionals have a responsibility to the non academic life of students?
DAAR: Absolutely. I believe that people should, schools end up being this place where all we’re interested in is the academic side of a student. I think we should be more invested in the overall personal growth of individuals. We’re more like a community that has some similar norms and beliefs around things, and the culture of this community should be more about the development of the whole person, rather than just saying okay we’re going to make someone purely a better mathematician. There’s a lot of different things and lessons that people learn in various activities that if someone’s an athlete here, there’s benefits beyond just fitness, what does it mean to be a good team member. What does it mean to work with people in a common endeavour. How do we give feedback on that more explicitly? How do we make it our mission to be thinking about those things a bit more intentionally than we do right now.
WP: My peer Katie Orenstein, she has a few questions. , can you tell us about the XQ institute and do you think their work is helpful to what you in independent schools are trying to accomplish?
DAAR: The XQ project. That thing. Yeah. So the thing is we put in a proposal for that. Ithink what they’re trying to do is reinvent the American high school. I'm less interested in building new schools than how do you change the programming for existing schools. We’ve been building this thing called NXU which has got one Riverdale participant, but it’s basically a cohort of very diverse students from a variety of different school settings, public, private, charter, and we’re trying to say could we provide a booster shot to the high school you’re in right now? Getting you to think about your sense of purpose and meaning as you move through high school. So maybe thinking in broader terms about human development and who people are. We’ve been trying this program out this year. It met this summer for two weeks, and then they’ve been meeting six times through the year on weekends. The group has felt that it’s been an interesting experience thus far. We’re looking at the model and seeing how we could do this more comprehensively, more broadly, than just a small cohort of kids. We’re not criticizing anything that’s happening in high schools. We’re just saying maybe there’s some other stuff that actually could be helpful to your high school career.
WP: What exactly are these groups doing?
DAAR: One of the things that they’re trying to come up with is some sort of plan. If you think about the academic side of things in schools. We do a pretty good job, there are structures in place to say what it’ll look like in four years. It may change a bit, but generally the high school plan for four years. There’s a certain similarity between what lots of people do at different high schools. There’s not the same intentionality [sic] in what people do either in their own life, not social stuff, but if you’ve got a hobby, or something you’re really interested in. or in the co-curricular side, like activities, afternoon stuff, athletics. There’s not as much intentionality [sic] around that. I'm not arguing that everyone should plan out everything. I just think you should be thinking, what does a four year sequence of experiences look like? What would I like to do and how would I like to do it? We’re trying to get kids to think coming into and throughout ninth grade, what kinds of things would you like to do. What types of things would you like to experiment with? How would that play out over time? How can we help you, and connect you to people who can help you? Mentors, that type of thing. In areas that they’d like to explore and think about. In some ways you’re being a bit less haphazard, thinking intentionally. And then how can a group of people or organization connect you to that. Sometimes that happens in schools,but it can be relatively ad hoc, and relatively serendipitous. Someone comes to me and says I'm really interested in learning about real estate, and I say Oh I know this person who could maybe hire you for an internship. It can be pretty connected to families, and networks, or whatever. What happens if you help someone make that network without a pre-made connection?
WP: Can you tell us about plussed?
DAAR: So plussed is just beginning. It’s in its initial phases. The idea is that Riverdale as an institution-- independent schools in the states have a lot of freedom, much more freedom than they have elsewhere in the world. We can do, basically, what we believe is right. At the same time, that agility to develop programs quickly, to do interesting things, means that we also have a responsibility to demonstrate leadership in education writ large. Plussed has asked the question, what things do we do here that could be useful to other schools, and could we actually take those tools and services and provide them to other schools? I'm interested also, as a learning experience for faculty and for students, what does it mean to take something from Riverdale and translate that to another school? I think that could be a really amazing learning experience for both students and faculty. Sort of like having your own little startup within the school, to be able to practice some things on. I don’t think we’re up to the point yet, we’re going to get to the point of announcing a fellowship for students to work with Plussed. We’ve had some faculty work with plussed, they’ve found it to be interesting. It’s outward looking. What part of the Riverdale experience could be useful to other schools?
WP: Last year it was announced that we would have March exams. Should students expect any more large changes coming soon? What are you working on right now?
DAAR: I think that change, the exam change, was purely around, if you’re going to give feedback, when people take exams and then disappear, you don’t actually understand that feedback. We were trying to understand, twice a year is maybe too much to do midterm exams. It’s better to have them when you can actually get the feedback, it’s better to have them less frequently. Do we need to have that much assessment? We’ll see how that goes. We’ll stick to it for at least two years. If the feedback is not good, we may change it even. I don’t think there’s anything big-scale out there. I am interested to, just as we’ve expanded senior projects, in the beginning they were only a week long but now we’ve expanded them. Some of them are as long as two months! Thinking about those last two years, and what are the types of experiences that young people want, listening to them a bit about that. Obviously there’s going to be some sort of academic side to this, but how do we actually credential some of the outside experiences that people are having, that’s something I'm really interested in. and you know, that might affect the last two years, and how the last two years get planned out for people. This is not something that’s going to happen very quickly. It’s going to take a good number of years before any significant changes would happen on that. I’d love to see some experiments of people playing around with what that would look like. In the short term.