Thursday, August 23, 2012

An Innovative Boarding School Model

Another essay in my ground-breaking series on innovation in education.
N.B.: If you are a teacher who has come here thinking you are about to enhance your knowledge of the very latest praxis, please first read NOTE TO TEACHERS in the July 12, 2013 post..  :-) 
In the very competitive world of college-preparatory boarding schools it is essential that a school have a character, a distinctive personality, traits that distinguish it from similar institutions. At least two decades ago a highly-respected consultant told us that a “plain-vanilla” school—one that offered merely a traditional program of strong academics—would have a hard time selling itself to prospective customers. (Footnote 1)

It is also clear that, given the tremendous amount of thought and work that many fine schools have put into designing distinctive programs, it is becoming harder and harder to “think outside the box” because the box has become so large. Cutting-edge computer programs are common; unusual language programs—Chinese, Tagalog, Finnish, whatever—are jejune. (Even some public schools teach Mandarin, so plebeian has it become!) Transforming a school into a sports academy is hardly noteworthy (though still very tragic).

No, what is needed is something really progressive, truly innovative, authentically revolutionary.

And here it is: the non-residential boarding school (NORBS).

The advantages of such a school to the board of trustees or proprietor are obvious. There is no need for dormitories, athletic facilities, laboratories, a chapel, a large cafeteria, or more than a few classrooms. Outlay is limited to the upkeep of a couple of buildings and some teachers (the latter being, of course, an almost trivial expense). All the rest of the money can go to paying vast sums to administrators, as it should.

But how would such a school exist? Surely this is some silly fantasy? No, no, not at all. Now that the computer and its associated applications exist, now that we have the means of instant communication, the non-residential boarding school is quite possible. Let us describe its main features:


We do not propose the usual form of “distance learning” in which students listen to lectures or watch demonstrations randomly and at their own convenience. No. Each student will have a class schedule. At, let’s say, 9 AM, everyone in a given section of English III [or Language Arts III, for those schools that have gone over to the Dark Side] will stand before their computers with webcams trained on themselves. The teacher—or perhaps a dean—will inspect the class to insure that each student is in dress code, instructing those who are wrongly attired to go change and awarding demerits to repeat offenders.

The teacher will then teach the class. Students with questions will push a button to notify the teacher, who can respond as convenient.

The teacher will be in a normal classroom facing some sort of camera.(2)  It should be possible for the students to be displayed on a wall-sized array of screens. If this is not possible, a “virtual class” can be projected on the wall so the teacher has the illusion of speaking to real people. (Holographic projection of 3-D students at desks will be used when technology permits.)

If the class involves discussion, students can ‘text’ messages that will be displayed to everyone. If technology permits the use of microphones, so much the better. Skype should be useful.

At the end of class a virtual bell will ring out. Students then have five minutes to log in to their next class. Students with study halls will sit in front of their webcams with Kindles, iPads, Blackberries, Mulberries, or even with books, monitored by the study hall teacher.


Possibly some readers are wondering how tests will be given in a NORBS. Let me happily inform the ignorant layman that the world of education is rapidly moving away from the “test.” The notion that evaluation basically means that a student studies something, learns it as best he can, and then demonstrates that knowledge on a timed written or oral exercise that is graded as to its quality, is becoming obsolete. Such “high-stakes tests”—and apparently all tests are such; I have yet to hear the term “low-stakes test”—are potentially damaging to self-esteem, unfair (being biased in favor of smart, industrious people), and generally icky. Indeed the whole notion that students should ‘know’ anything is almost passé among the pedagogical pioneers who are improving education every week. After all, one can surely look up any mere facts on Wikipedia.

Consequently we assume that—until the happy day when newborns receive bachelor’s degrees along with their birth certificates in a perfectly egalitarian society—the necessary ‘grading’ will be done on the basis of class participation, group participation, mastery of learning skills, class effort, sense-making, portfolios, concept checks, and self-evaluations using detailed rubrics for each category. (3) These can be submitted by e-mail.

However, if the instructor is such a dinosaur as to wish to administer graded tests, the mechanics to construct online tests already exist on programs such as Moodle. (No one has yet discovered how to prevent cheating on such tests. The solution—using a method pioneered by Humpty-Dumpty in Through the Looking-Glass—is to redefine the word. “Cheating” can become “collaborative learning,” “research-based testing,” or some other comforting euphemism.)


Obviously it will not be possible for a NORBS to field sports teams in any traditional sense. This means that such schools will never enroll talented athletes. However, as it is absolutely unthinkable for any American high school not to have a competitive athletics component —indeed, such a lack could result in loss of accreditation if not charges of treason to the founding ideals of the Republic—we will enable our students to compete with other schools via video games. It will surely be possible to organize teams to play various sports using currently-available online games, and we can perhaps expand into nontraditional sports including MMORPGs and other over-the-airwaves competitions. Properly managed, they should offer as many chances for self-aggrandizement, bragging, misplacing priorities, and enabling parents to live vicariously through their children, as do traditional sports.

Basic physical fitness—which certainly is important—will be maintained by students running in place and doing pushups and jumping jacks in front of their webcams, supervised by “coaches” wearing T-shirts, with whistles around their necks.


Students will have ninety minutes of Evening Study Hall, Sunday through Thursday, monitored over a webcam by that day’s duty master.

At lights-out the school will ring a virtual bell on all cell phones to tell students to go to bed. Parents will have to be responsible for seeing that their children stay in bed and rise on time.

Parents will also have to feed their kids; but the school will send out menu suggestions weekly so that, in theory anyway, the student body can be offered identical food.

At Graduation, the seniors will sit in cap and gown before their computers so they can, like their contemporaries, listen to music by Edward Elgar, receive edifying advice from a commencement speaker, benefit from the Headmaster’s closing remarks, and hear their names called. Seniors will be e-mailed diplomas, which they can print out.


This pioneering essay has, of course, many lacunae, but readers cannot expect every loose end to be tied up in a few pages. Using this as a basis, others will fill in the blanks and proceed with the bold experiment. Surely the chance to offer to the public all the benefits of a college preparatory boarding school experience at a fraction of the cost of traditional on-campus education (4) and minimal infrastructure means this seminal essay will not lack enthusiasts!
1  A fictional account of this consultant’s message—but unfortunately not nearly as fictional as I wish it were—may be found in Chapters 5, 25, and 36 of my novel And Gladly Teach.

2  Throughout this monograph I am using generic terms when referring to technological devices. Since it is hardly worth a grown man’s time to try keeping up with the proliferation of neoteric words for computers, cell phones, hand-held devices, etc.—for all I know, the cell phone is by now called a celone and the hand-held computer a haheco—the more knowledgeable reader should simply substitute for my generic term the correct name of whatever meretricious gewgaw occupies this week’s headlines. Please do not shoot the pedagogue; he is doing his best.

3  I hope nobody expects me to define this verbiage. I do not know what most of these terms mean. I merely copied them from a memo sent out by a particularly progressive teacher earlier this year, confident that they embody cutting-edge pedagogy and the wave of the future.

4  A fraction of cost to the school is meant. Tuition will be kept in the $40,000 range.

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