Head of School Matthew Gould's 2021 Back-to-School Night Remarks

During his 2021 back-to-school remarks, delivered on September 23 (Lower School) and September 30 (Middle School), Head of School Matthew Gould discusses how Norwood's educational philosophy is put into practice during this technological, rapidly changing, complex, conflict-ridden, and interconnected world.
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2021 Back-to-School Remarks
Matthew A. Gould, Ph.D., Head of School

Every educator needs a set of guiding principles and beliefs. First and foremost, I believe learning is a natural and primary occupation for human beings. We are born with an intense desire to understand the world in which we live. Curiosity is an astonishing source of energy for children as they explore, manipulate, and question the world around them. They seek knowledge and seem eager to find understanding. Something inside them compels them to master the complexities and mysteries of their lives. They seem grounded by the purest sense of intrinsic motivation and are able to conduct systematic and, may times, sophisticated research.

How we allow this natural curiosity to grow within the environment called “school” is a question with which I have grappled during my entire professional life. I have found that some students often go off to school and confront environments that do not promote their growth as learners or human beings. Historically, schools in this country have been organized around the best lessons in discipline, punctuality, acceptance of authority, and conformity. Furthermore, too much time is pent on the lowest levels of cognitive work. School then, for many children, is boring. In my opinion, emphasis needs to be placed on higher levels on cognitive work (analysis, evaluation, and creation), on experiential learning, and on genuine problem-solving.

I also believe that schools do not work without a focus on the student as an individual. Children need to feel comfortable “in their own skin” in order for schools to grow and prosper – academically, morally, and spiritually. Tending to the emotional side of learning and recognizing that self-esteem plays a significant role are paramount. It is also vital to recognize that every child learns differently. Creating a school where a child feels safe—physically, emotionally, and culturally—unleashes the inner drive born in every child to learn, and it allows the child to wholeheartedly explore new experiences. Students are then free to develop the traits of straightforwardness, simplicity, spontaneity, good judgment, and intellectual honesty.

We must also consider the educational community as a whole. Strong, caring communities can exist only when each and every member feels empowered. Naturally, this means making each person visible and giving everyone a voice. People are then able to communicate, share, and find the common good. Building a community of excellence and interdependence hinges on the “growing” of all the people in that community. It is my belief that Norwood School excels at putting these principles into practice.

The faculty at Norwood are remarkable, and your classrooms Zooms will allow them to speak for themselves. Teachers here have the wisdom to let children teach us who they are, and thereby unleashing our ability to create dynamic and organic educational programs. The faculty strive for excellence. They are willing to take risks; they prepare themselves. There is great pride to be gained in this process of teaching—for all of us.

School in the time of a pandemic has taught us a lot. It has taught us perseverance and toughness. It has taught us flexibility and nimbleness. It has also taught us that enduring skills—organization, interpersonal skills, grit, effective communication, and problem-solving—matter no matter the health landscape. Our goal this year us to keep our community safe. In addition, we are keeping our eye on what skills and attributes our students will need to be successful in high school, college, and throughout their lives.

One of the things I love about the teachers at Norwood School is that they are always trying to improve—improve their practice to educate children, improve their practice in supporting kids to reach their potential and in helping children be all they can be. It’s tricky because, as we all know, the landscape of education—and society for that matter—is marked by rapid change. What I see as the different challenges we are addressing these days are:
  • the incredible speed of change we are experiencing;
  • the overwhelming amount of information that inundates us daily;
  • the ever-expanding world of social networking;
  • the democratization of resources, and thus, the loss of authority in determining the quality and verity of the sources if information our students encounter;
  • the growing complexity of the problems that face us and the need for working together with discipline and creativity.
Perhaps I am dating myself, but I knew as a graduate student many years ago that when I went to the library stacks to look up a paper in a child development journal that the research had been vetted by a group of editors; the contributors were who they said they were; and the university they were connected to was known by those editors. Today, when I enter a term in Google and the array of thousands of citations flashes on the screen, I have to be my own editor. I have to think about what I read and the evidence presented. I need to think about why a certain entry might be at the top of the list and why others might be lower. 

I also know that once I become deeply connected to the computer on my desk or the device in my hand, there will soon be a smaller, faster instrument with new components that I am going to have to learn to keep up with my work. The speed of change and the increase of information that surrounds us 24/7 presents significant challenges to our students.

The educator Diane Rovitch argues that it is essential that today we must do “far more than teach children ‘how to learn’ and ‘how to look things up;’ we must teach them what knowledge has the most value, how to use that knowledge, how to organize what they know, how to understand the relationship between past and present, how to tell the difference between accurate information and propaganda, and how to turn information in to understanding.” In addition, we need to underscore the importance of creative and ingenious responses to problems and model strategies of adaption to rapid change. And we have to provide opportunities for meaningful teamwork.

Perhaps I am dating myself again, but as I was writing about these issues, I had the vivid memory of that remarkable scene in the movie Apollo 13 where the crew that is in the atmosphere announces, “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” when the delivery of oxygen to the spacecraft is disrupted. Immediately, the NASA leadership at Houston Control puts a team together in their building, gives them the very supplies that are available on the spacecraft, and gives them the task of solving the problem in order to save the lives of the crew—teamwork, problem-solving, and creativity under pressure!

So, we have our work cut out for us. In order for our students to be ethical and responsible leaders in this technological, rapidly changing, complex, conflict-ridden, and interconnected world, school has to be a place of practice for the skills they will need. Students need tasks that are meaningful and engaging and demand analytical reasoning. So, how do we do this here at Norwood School?
  • By creating an environment where everyone is excited about learning and explorations, and demonstrating those passions in the classroom.
  • By creating relationships within which we can face failure and learn from it.
  • By appreciating and respecting the students in our care in their individual uniqueness and honoring their individual voices.
  • By creating assignments that are open-minded and demand research and analysis and clear explanation of results.
We know that within a framework of respectful relationships between adult and child, we all come to know ourselves more deeply and gain confidence and resilience. That is the ethos that provides the foundation that will carry our students proudly forth.

I end my reflection this evening with a story of a chaplain and retired head of school who spoke at a conference I attended pre-pandemic. He described to us in the audience a trip he had taken some years ago to Fiji where he visited a small village on the banks of a swiftly flowing and debris-filled river. While standing on the edge of the river, he saw a child on the other bank walk into the rapidly moving water carrying a heavy tin bucket. Slowly and carefully, the child slipped into the river, holding fast to the bucket and keeping it above the waterline as he swam across. “I kept wondering what was in the bucket,” the chaplain said. “What was so important, so precious that the child was risking his safety in order to transport his treasure?” What he discovered was that the bucket contained schoolbooks that the child transported to and from his home each day on his way to school.

I have thought a lot about this story. I want our school to be a place so central to a child’s life that he or she would venture through challenges to be here every day. I want it to be a place for exploration alongside encouraging adults and stimulating lessons, a place for taking risks and discovering hope and possibility in the midst of complexity and change.

I invite you to join me in crossing that river and discovering more about the incredible learning your children encounter each day with these wonderful teachers.
Located in Bethesda, MD, Norwood School develops students in grades PK-8 into confident lifelong learners who have the academic, character, and leadership skills to succeed in high school and beyond. Recognizing that children are multi-faceted, Norwood provides many opportunities for safe risk-taking, exploration, discovery, and growth in a nurturing, supportive, and inclusive school community.