Last June, I ran a series of interviews I had conducted with activists and educators who were on my radar as people trying to do something to change policy and practice in their communities. Today, I’m running an interview I conducted with one of the most interesting school heads I’ve ever encountered, Dominic Randolph, who is in his third year as Head of Riverdale Country School, an independent K-12 school in New York City. Before that, he was the assistant headmaster at a four-year co-educational boarding school. Randolph’s wife is also an educator; their daughter is a junior in college. Randolph’s blog, is always fascinating and full of interesting references and ideas.
Interview with Dominic Randolph
by Sara Bennett
“Schools tend to be high stress but not intellectually challenging. We need to understand this generation of students and allow learning to be meaningful.
–Dominic Randolph, head of Riverdale Country School, New York,
What are you thinking about these days?
I’m interested in how we keep schools focused on developing people who are creative and great critical thinkers. You can’t be a good thinker if you have to constantly shift from one thing to the next. If a school were to be built around effective thinking, that school and its schedule might look very different from the traditional models we have.
I don’t want to damn everything in schools. There are some really good things going on, but external pressures set a lot of policies, whether it’s AP exams or the standards movement that pushes the idea that content knowledge indicates intellectual rigor.
I think content is extraordinarily important but making sense of things is not just a matter of learning a lot of facts. Facts have to be connected into ways of knowing within various disciplines. Ways of knowing are skills that are quite difficult for people to learn and use. It takes time and trial and error and failure. High-stakes testing doesn’t allow for failure.
Right now, most schools are stuck in a high stakes, assessment model. Instead of a crazed prepping for summative assessment, we need to talk more about formative assessment, where a student has an opportunity to learn and the stakes are relatively low.
Do your teachers do formative assessments and how does that work?
There are teachers here who do that. They take notes about the students, their work, the kinds of questions they ask, rather than just assessing them at certain proscribed times of the year and averaging those assessments into a grade. I don’t give the people I work with tests. I work with them in a collaborative way and I give them feedback. I hope not to have an environment where my teachers dread seeing or working with me. And I think that’s a much more reasonable way to work with young people as well.
I have a friend who’s a great English teacher at my former school, who started workshopping writing. It was very challenging, but students loved it. Instead of writing 10 papers in a 10-week trimester, they did two or three. The learning experience was of a much higher quality. What happened was the whole course and the whole development of a student’s writing became more of a dialog between the teacher and student, rather than the more typical, write a paper, get a few comments, and go on to the next.
There are a good number of teachers out there, and certainly most of them at Riverdale, who are process-oriented. But sometimes the system, or the school, doesn’t allow for that. It’s often the school who’s to blame, not the teachers.
And sometimes you have to educate the parents. If someone compares a teacher who has the students complete three really excellent papers to the teacher who has the students complete ten, oftentimes the perception is that the teacher who had the students complete three papers didn’t work as hard and that the students didn’t learn as much. So there’s a perception that needs to be addressed.
Does your school have Advanced Placement classes?
No, we recently dropped the AP designation because we want our students to have more time to think and be reflective. Sometimes you have to cover so much material for the AP test that there’s no time for reflection. I don’t necessarily believe that every AP exam is a bad exam to teach to. But some of them really push content coverage over effective thinking. Were students coming out of those courses understanding major concepts in disciplines?
When I was at my former school, we did an experiment to see whether students were understanding the major concepts. At the beginning of junior year, we gave the students the same chemistry exam that they’d taken in the spring of their sophomore year. A lot of students couldn’t pass the same test in the fall.
That was the only evidence those teachers needed to make them rethink what and how they were teaching. They had to really look at what it was they were teaching, the kinds of principles they wanted the students to learn, and better ways to do that. This is a very easy thing that all schools could do.
Do you think student stress is a problem?
Certainly student stress is a huge problem and I’m still struggling with what drives it. I think if schools used more of an apprenticeship model and students were able to engage in deep ways with local or global communities, then student stress would be diminished. School work needs to be more relevant. A lot of stress comes from the feeling that life is fragmented, that you’re doing something because you have to. But if school is meaningful, if students are passionate about what they’re learning, their stress will be reduced.
Recently, I attended 11th grade and 4th grades for three full days as though I were a student. I found the fractured nature of 11th grade very complicated to navigate. There wasn’t nearly enough time to reflect on what I was learning. Understanding students’ wishes and aspirations and their experiences is key.