David Hickson

Recent Posts

An Open Letter to My Daughter As You Begin Your Teaching Career:

Posted by David Hickson on Sep 25, 2017 7:33:11 AM


As you finish your formal education and begin your first teaching position, I reflect on my own career in education and am compelled to offer some unsolicited advice. You come from a family that has been blessed with educational opportunities. You know that I attended public schools, though I have pursued my teaching career in independent (private) schools.  Your mother attended a private school and has devoted a significant portion of her professional life to public schools. Education, as both students and teachers, pervades our family weltanschauung. You and your sister grew up steeped in endless dinner conversations about education, teaching, local and national policy, celebrating academic achievement, wrestling with inclusiveness and the challenges of underachievement in and by schools. You matured in a family environment that has, in addition to your formal education, prepared you for the challenges of teaching.  Here, however, are some distilled thoughts from Dad about good teaching.  

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Despair, Hope, and Education in the Anthropocene

Posted by David Hickson on Jan 6, 2017 4:34:44 PM
Since its founding, Americans have understood education to be essential to democracy. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan, an icon of political conservatism, said "If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, as Jefferson cautioned, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed." “Informed” implies more than knowing, it implies action and involvement. Democracy is about nothing if it is not about involvement. Good education (via good schools) not merely informs young citizens, it provides them with the critical tools to stay informed and act. This is the kind of education students acquire at Sandy Spring Friends School.

Global climate change is one critical and stark example of this need, taken right from the front pages reporting on our most recent national election. Amid the noise, it is not too dramatic to assert that our quality of life as humans, if not our survival as we know it, depend on us being able to sort out fact from spin, to evaluate sources of information, and to act now to address seemingly remote consequences. Consider these seven facts:

Fact 1: The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) last month released a global environmental report revealing that monitored populations of vertebrate wildlife have decreased by 58% since 1970. In other words, in under 50 years, less than my lifetime, we have lost over half of our planet’s wildlife population among species that we are monitoring, and who knows what the impact has been in those species beyond the circle of our understanding. The major drivers? Habitat loss, overharvesting/exploitation, climate change, and pollution - all human-driven factors. The WWF report is one of a multitude of informed scientific voices around the world reporting the same patterns.

Fact 2: According to NASA, atmospheric CO2 levels have never exceeded 300 parts per million in the past 400,000 years. That is, until the last several decades when the graph for CO2 levels has shot straight up, exceeding 300 ppm by 1950 and now shooting past 400 ppm. More importantly, there is no historical precedent for the rate of change we are now observing. We will see the consequences of these trends, not only in our childrens’ lifetimes, but likely in what is left of my generation’s lifetime.

We are living in the Anthropocene, a term that defines our current era where human activity is the dominant factor driving our planet’s evolution. It will likely be a time of planetary degradation and decay, a rapid dismantling of natural systems that, over eons, created a relatively stable environment. For anyone with a basic (high school level) understanding of biodiversity and earth science, there are many, consistent and deeply disturbing indications that something is out of whack with our planet. The natural world has not developed the ability to adapt to such rapid changes, and every science-based indication says that we are sawing off the biological limb on which we are perched.

Fact 3: Humans co-evolved along with Earth’s ecosystem and we are inseparable from it. Example: With every breath we breathe, we absorb deep into our bodies the Earth’s atmosphere, both what has evolved naturally and everything we have put into that atmosphere, including additional CO2, radioactive atoms from ‘50’s nuclear tests on Bikini Atoll, your neighbor’s car exhaust, and the spray oven cleaner used by a guy in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The oxygen levels that are sustained by the world’s forests drive the activity of every cell in our bodies. The food we eat is grown in the finite soils of our Earth, relying on the sunlight from our only sun, nourished by the finite water of our planet, including all that we have dumped into the planet’s water systems. Try doing without breathing, eating, or drinking for a few days to experience how dependent we are on this one planet.

Fact 4: We aren’t going anywhere - Earth is our only foreseeable option. I love to read science fiction, and the genre is full of stories about travel to other planets, other worlds, etc. Star Trek is a wonderful, familiar example of this rosy vision. Someday this might actually happen. However, if one looks at how slowly we are developing the technology for interstellar travel, versus how quickly we are poisoning Earth, the slopes of these curves are not in our favor. Interstellar travel will be technologically complex and will demand extraordinary levels of expertise and resources, along with stable societal structures. Our damage to the planet is undermining the societal stability needed for such technologically advanced endeavors.

Moreover, there is growing evidence that we may be biologically inseparable from our own planet’s ecosystem - we might not be able to successfully transplant ourselves as a species. The science fiction book Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson presents a more realistic vision of interstellar travel. Remaking an ecosystem elsewhere that will provide a livable place for future generations is unrealistic and impractical in any useful timeframe. It is also hard to imagine relocating of billions of people in this way. The energy alone needed to do this is well beyond any current or anticipated technology. So travel to distant planets is likely to be for a select few pioneers, leaving virtually all of our future generations to inherit our own soiled nest. Our descendents’ futures depend on the only planet we have to pass on to them.

Fact 5: There are no borders, fences, or walls that will protect America from the long-term effects of environmental degradation. Much of the campaign rhetoric flowing out of our recent national election conveyed a fortress mentality, that we will somehow be able to isolate ourselves from bad things happening elsewhere. This is simply unrealistic. A basic (again, high school level) understanding of civics and world history makes it clear that conflict, struggle and degradation in one part of the world creates ripple effects, often around the globe. As the planet’s ecosystem deteriorates, food will become more expensive and harder to produce, water supplies will decline, and conflict over resources will escalate. Even if American instincts are to retreat behind our own borders, leaving much of the world to fend for itself while we thrive among ourselves, this would be at best a temporary condition. We are all in this together.

Fact 6: As one seeks to discern the priorities of a new administration, a discouraging collage is emerging. Is this a fact? If one accepts all (or even some) of facts 1-5 as truthful, Fact 6 logically follows. Climate skeptics and isolationist “America First” ideologues in key positions, walls on the border, an instinct to blame others, promises to withdraw from global climate agreements, calls to dismantle the EPA and the Department of Education, glorification of coal, and cultural tone-deafness all seem to point away from informed, educated leadership ready to address our global, existential climate issues.

So where to go, what to do? There is good news, or at least a hopeful pathway, for avoiding the depressing future implied above. As Jefferson and Reagan asserted, the key is education. Humans have shown an amazing ability to cooperate, collaborate, and change course when the stakes are high and people are informed. The stakes are high. So how do we nurture an informed world citizenry? Students need an education that does not shelter them from the scientific and political realities described above and provides them skills needed to bring about change. Some key elements of such an education are:
  • Ability to listen deeply and assess the veracity of information and sources
  • Ability to communicate and convey information to others
  • Ability to work collectively and cooperatively
  • Ability to collaborate across differences in culture, language, and belief
  • A sound foundation in scientific, historical, and societal knowledge
  • Experiences that teach how to put ideas into action
  • An understanding of what is at stake
  • An understanding that some problems took generations to emerge, and they will take generations to solve.

This is the kind of education that teachers at Sandy Spring Friends School seek to provide, summarized by us as “Question, Reflection, Action.” I take heart that we are not unique in our optimistic, hopeful outlook. Hope lies at the heart of virtually every educator I know. We need it now more than ever.
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Topics: Academics

“Let Your Life Speak” in the Classroom

Posted by David Hickson on Nov 14, 2016 3:10:25 PM

Each day students in the Upper School pass below a sign on the front of Moore Hall that says “Let Your Life Speak.”  Attributed to George Fox, the 17th century founder of Quakerism, this statement is found all over our campus and is part of our school logo. It reflects a sense that one’s words are important, but one’s deeds are even more important. It is both descriptive, what we do reflects what be believe, and aspirational: let your life mean something, be a testimony of faith and action, an affirmation, and an example to others. What, however, does this mean in the context of a Sandy Spring Friends classroom? I asked three teachers this question. Not coincidentally, all three spoke from a place of personal conviction, rather than from a clinical context of pedagogy or from an attempt to define their students’ experiences for them. Here’s what they shared:

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Topics: Inquiry Based Learning, Academics

Summer Reading: Investigating Stereotype Threat

Posted by David Hickson on Sep 9, 2016 11:52:08 AM

What makes for a great summer read?  A suspenseful page-turner? An enchanting love story?  A memoir about personal struggle and triumph?  Perhaps, but my most memorable read this summer was the nonfiction Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do by Stanford academic and researcher Claude M. Steele. It is a highly readable discourse about sociological and educational research. Doesn’t sound like a great beach read? Let me convince you otherwise...

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High School Memories Are Life Lessons

Posted by David Hickson on Jun 30, 2016 10:29:54 AM

What do you most remember from your high school education?  What skills do you use every day that you learned in high school?  For most of us, we do not recall much of the academic content. How many specific math classes can you recall from high school, out of the hundreds you likely  attended?  Solving geometric proofs, the causes of the Panic of 1837, and the purpose of the Krebs cycle tend to fade over time. Instead, we remember an especially helpful teacher, a great social experience, or a formative event that shaped who we are. At Sandy Spring Friends School (SSFS), Intersession provides that kind of memory for many of our graduates.

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Topics: Academics

Peeling Onions: Creating Space in Schools for Talk About Diversity and Racism

Posted by David Hickson on May 5, 2016 10:48:38 AM

I cannot imagine a school in the country that is not experiencing some tension, and hopefully some discussion, about diversity and difference in America.  Whether this is triggered by yet another incident of an unarmed young black man being gunned down, or the ugly vitriol of current presidential campaigns, the otherization of yet another immigrant group (take your pick: Muslims of middle-eastern descent, or undocumented immigrants from lands to the south), or masking intolerance as “religious freedom,” we continue to struggle as a nation with most every dimension of our diversity. We need to better understand, for example, the national soundbites “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter.”  This is where we find ourselves, as a country, at this moment in time.  

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Question, Reflection, Action: A Global Learning Process

Posted by David Hickson on Mar 21, 2016 1:00:00 PM

“Global education” is an educational phrase that has been used so often, in so many different ways, that it risks losing its impact. This would be a loss, because nothing is more needed in American education, as a reflection of American society, than a global perspective. We are a large country, mostly buffered geographically by big oceans.  However, these historical insulators have less significance, on the human level, today.  In the Information Age, the internet and cell phones allow us to stand side by side, or face to face, virtually, with people around the globe whose life experiences may be radically different from our own.  This has affected the way we do business, our educational systems, and the nature of our conflicts.


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Student Empowerment, Advocacy, and Agency

Posted by David Hickson on Jan 25, 2016 9:02:11 AM

Perhaps each generation struggles with how to empower the generations that come after them.  It bothers me that my generation, the “baby boomers,” trips over this.  I was born in 1960, towards the end of the baby boomer generation; I was old enough to witness (if still too young to fully respond to) the calls for local and global social justice, a reawakening of the environmental movement, the expansion of creative expression, and the rebalancing of political power structures that took place during the 60’s and early 70’s.

 Many in my generation have seen ourselves as change agents, advocates, and crusaders.  So why have we, who were so vocal about engaging and changing the world, who sought to wrest the tiller from the hands of our elders, not found better ways to empower the next generations of change agents and leaders?

 Today’s young people have been described as the most anxious and most compliant generation in American history, shouldered with debt, ill-served by their schools, hunkered down in an age of mega-institutions, terrorism, and looming climate change, strung out on social media.  

And yet there is good news - lots of it.  Young people are not waiting around for us to empower them.  They are empowering themselves.  They’re not strung out on social media, they are using new media tools to build community and address the problems they see.   

Here are three counterexamples that make false pervasive pessimism and low expectations:

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Topics: Academics

Rigor, or Just Rigor Mortis?

Posted by David Hickson on Dec 17, 2015 12:21:46 PM

“How much homework do your students have at night?”  We hear this question frequently at SSFS admissions open houses, and it’s a reasonable question.  It is also a very difficult question to answer given that the amount of time needed to complete readings and assignments varies widely from student to student.  Some parents are trying to gauge what their child’s life will be like attending our school.  Other parents are seeking to gauge how rigorous our academic program is.  It turns out that the amount of homework is not only difficult to generalize, it is also a poor measure of academic rigor.  In fact, the quantity of work a student does in general assumes an overly narrow, and not very helpful, definition of academic rigor, if one is talking about the kind of rigor that has lasting value for students.

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Student-Teacher Relationships: Practicing the Four C’s

Posted by David Hickson on Nov 6, 2015 11:38:53 AM

During a career in independent school education, and over my time at Sandy Spring Friends School (SSFS), I have come to recognize elements of our educational approach that make SSFS a distinct educational choice in the Washington, DC area. I’ll focus on each element in a series of seven blog posts, starting with this one.  These seven characteristics exemplify the special preparation that students receive, and the loving and empowering community that students, teachers, parents, and alumni share at SSFS.

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Topics: Academics

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The Sandy Spring Friends School (SSFS) blog shares information weekly that inspires personal and academic growth in every aspect of life for parents and students.