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Seth Andrew: A Thoughtful Approach to Principle-Based Education

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In the “School Life” section of the Summer 2019 edition of Education Next, Martin West interviews Seth Andrew, the founder of Democracy Prep Public Schools. These schools are explicitly designed to enhance citizenship and civic engagement in students with a view to fuller participation in the democratic process as adults. Education Next cites some preliminary research to suggest that they are achieving some success in this regard. (Q&A Seth Andrew, EducationNext, Summer 2019)

Three things strike me as promising about Mr. Andrew’s approach -- i.e. as gleaned from the edited excerpt of Martin West’s podcast. First, Mr. Andrews is careful to separate out his goal of enhancing citizenship and civic engagement into three elements: knowledge, skills, and dispositions. It is particularly important, in my view, that he acknowledges the cultivation of dispositions as essential to his project.

Second, Mr. Andrews understands the importance of building what he calls “a thoughtful pedagogical arc from the beginning of the student’s education to the end” that properly combines knowledge, skills, and dispositions at the right time. In his words, “Teaching a kindergartner ‘action civics’ is foolhardly, as is only teaching a 12th grader about the U.S. citizenship exam.” Mr. Andrew clearly appreciates the importance of doing the right thing at the right time.

Third, and perhaps most important, Mr. Andrews understands the distinction between freedom from something and the freedom to do something, in his case regarding our responsibilities to one another. This echoes the Cambridge philosopher Charles Bailey’s important admonition that -- in the pursuit of a liberal education -- we must create the kind of learning experiences for our students that will free them from the tyranny of their times, and at the same time free them for the fullest expression of what it is to be a human being. Would that our educational reformers bear this in mind.

My only quibble with his approach is his recommendation (now adopted in eight states) to have the completion of a U.S. citizenship exam as a high-school graduation requirement. To my mind, this is an antiquated solution to a worthwhile educational goal that -- like much of our antiquated student assessment system -- could very easily do more harm than good. But that is another problem to be addressed at another time.

Dr. Ted Spear is the founding Principal of two independent schools in British Columbia, Canada. Using research on contemporary educational innovation, and drawing on 25 years of teaching and administrative experience in public and independent schools, he has recently published a new book on the future of education entitled Education Reimagined: The Schools Our Children Need , which is now available on Amazon .