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Educational institutions for a more humanistic world

By Stefanos Gialamas*

Societal change, due to the complexity of its functioning and globalization in many diverse and multiple dimensions, demands a different type of citizen. People need to live, work, develop and seek happiness locally under a global influence. Many previously well-established principles and values need to be questioned, re-examined and possibly challenged.

The development and nurturing of the new local or global individual requires the acquisition of different competencies, the mastering of new skills, and the ability to operate under a more complex set of rules, in order to feel conscientious about protecting the environment and be compassionate about a fellow citizen who might reside on a different continent. How do we prepare young people for such a demanding life? What kind of an educational experience should they receive, and what are the appropriate universal principles and values that must guide their actions personally and professionally?

From an educational leadership perspective, the questions that accumulate experientially include: What curriculum and learning objectives do we need? Does it require a new way of assessing learning? What personal qualities and characteristics do faculty members need? Who is it that should define these principles and values? What are the desirable qualities of educated people if they are to serve humanity?

The author defined educational experience as “the complete learning experience obtained from students’ academic, physical, spiritual and civic responsibilities” (S. Gialamas and P. Pelonis, 2009). Definitely, to answer all or some or many of these questions, we need to engage the minds of students, staff, faculty, administration, parents and friends of an academic institution with the underlying commitment to serve the family, the community, the nation and the world.
Innovation and authentic leadership approaches are the enabling objectives to provide students with a unique, meaningful, high-quality, holistic educational experience. Students will then use their academic knowledge to exercise wisdom in their decision making as they become the keepers of the future of the planet.

The educational institutions of the future require the following pillars:

– Innovative leadership
– Meaningful curriculum and delivery modalities
– Faculty as leaders
– Ethos

Innovative leadership

Innovative leadership is the continuous act of effectively engaging all members of the institution, as well as utilizing their differences, their authentic energies, creative ideas and diverse qualities primarily for the benefit of the students and also for every other constituency of the institution.

This type of leadership has three dimensions:

1. Interpersonal: Inspiring all members of the institution (constituencies) to strive for excellence to reach their maximum potential, guiding and motivating them toward exceptional performance, while being the example of inspiration and instilling confidence in advance for success.

2. Setting standards: Establishing the standards for good conduct, serving as a model for meeting these standards, being laureates for truth and beauty and modeling integrity and ethos (as defined by the ancient Greeks). Ethos in Greek means “character” – the guiding beliefs or ideals that characterize a community. Ethos is also a disposition that reflects the fundamental values peculiar to a specific person, cultural group, community or movement. According to Aristotle, the chief components of a compelling ethos are good will, practical wisdom and virtue. Virtue is moral excellence, righteousness and goodness.

3. Serving humanity: Education requires an emphasis on the entire civic spectrum, stemming from social awareness and interest to social engagement and commitment.

The author defines social commitment to a cause as a pledge to benefit the human condition. Striving for the betterment of a situation or enhancing quality of life then becomes a way of life for students, as they also develop a positive mind-set toward improving any necessary aspect of society.

Innovative leadership implies a willingness to accept and live with a certain amount of risk because it involves taking risks with new ideas that have not been tried and could fail.

Similarly, it means a willingness to work with half-developed ideas with the flexibility and resilience to constantly adjust the rules and parameters as these ideas develop.

The curriculum must be directly related to what makes it relevant, exciting, current and congruent with the needs of the local and global community. Such a curriculum comprises four inseparable and integrated components (S. Gialamas, A. Cherif, S. Keller, A. Hansen, 2000):

Skills: Acquiring new skills and mastering existing skills

Critical thinking: Developing decision-making competencies for problem solving

Relevance: Relating competencies to the learner’s environment

Inspiration: Expressing the understanding of complex concepts in a unique and refreshing way

In addition, the curriculum must not reflect any local cultural bias and must be reviewed often.

Today, with all the available teaching and learning tools, delivery options are endless. It is a technological paradise for any faculty member who is really committed to providing the best educational experience to students. “Face-to-face” teaching and learning now can be enhanced with so many online opportunities (simulations, virtual environments, videos etc).

Moreover, one can teach complex topics without needing a costly environment. For example, one can teach DNA replications, analysis and the effects of inserting certain enzymes without being in an expensive laboratory but having access to virtual labs and simulation tools.

Student assessment must be congruent with the curriculum and the learning objectives.

Faculty as leaders

Faculty that promote and foster innovation are those that have a high degree of social interest, are open to new ideas and have the courage to try different teaching methods.

They are:

– Inspired to develop new ideas in teaching and learning
– Committed to explore why and how these ideas will benefit student learning
– Focused to identify needed resources for implementing these ideas
– Determined to establish authentic and diverse tools assessing student learning

It is the distinct responsibility of all academic institutions to immerse their students, faculty, staff and administration into a community of learners that exemplify appropriate behavior within and outside of the institution’s facilities. In other words, institutions can aspire to establish, embrace and foster a holistic approach to ethics with clearly defined standards and a mechanism for implementing these standards. In this way, a balance can be established between the right of an individual community member and the right of the community as a whole. As a result, students, in particular, will develop their character and personality in an environment conducive to academic success, personal growth and civic responsibility and accountability.

Therefore, establishing a student “Honor Code” becomes a natural progression, especially when it is created for students, by students with the expectation that all school members will respect and abide by it, making it a way of life for all.

The Honor Code is based on the simple idea that, when given the chance, people will do the right thing. Traditionally, the Honor Code has been implemented in many universities across the US and the author strongly believes that it is time to implement it in every JK-12 environment. At the American Community Schools of Athens (ACS Athens) a student-driven initiative has begun to establish and implement a student Honor Code system of integrity.

One might ask why students should spearhead such an initiative. Students must be able to internalize that the educational institution is a microcosmic model of ethical behavior. By understanding that influencing others to do the right thing is beneficial to everyone, they can ultimately influence others in the local community to act in the same direction. This implies that each person takes responsibility for their behavior and acts according to an internal value system rather than an external reward/punishment system.

In simple terms, the Honor Code is a code of conduct fostering ethics, integrity and maturity in the classroom and on campus. These high standards for classroom and campus conduct can promote and encourage trust, maturity and ethical decision-making outside and inside the classroom.

In the classroom, it establishes and maintains clear academic standards for student conduct and etiquette; it models high standards in teaching, learning and interaction between teachers and students.

Outside the classroom, it establishes and maintains clear standards for student conduct on campus or school sponsored events outside campus; it also encourages appreciation and respect for fellow students, faculty, staff, school property and the school environment.

The student body that implements and guards the Honor Code is the Judicial Review Board, which comprises students and faculty advisers.

Developing a more humanistic world requires that the great educational institutions of the future will not be more of the same as defined today. They will be the ones preparing young people to serve humanity. Effective schools will be those that are proactive instead of reactive to the drastic changes in society. If they can teach and inspire students to develop the wisdom to transform static academic knowledge into social, ethical, economic, environmental intelligence, then the sustainability of quality of life can be greatly improved for people around the globe.

An educational institution exists for only one purpose: to provide its students with the best educational experience possible. To do that, students must recognize and maintain a healthy boundary and balance between the right of an individual community member and the right of the community as a whole.

* Stefanos Gialamas, PhD, is president of the American Community Schools of Athens.

S. Gialamas (2012) Educational Philosophy and the String Theory, International School Magazine, Autumn and Spring, Volume 14. Issue 2, 2012
S. Gialamas and P. Pelonis (2009) Preparing Students for the College Experience, Academic Leadership the online Journal, April 2009
S. Gialamas, A. Cherif, S. Keller, A. Hansen (2000): Using Guided Inquiry to Teach Mathematical Concepts, the Illinois Teacher Journal, Vol. 51, No.1, Fall 2000 , Thursday May 8, 2014 (19:58)  
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