In the 21st-century classroom, schools are redefining what it means to be “smart” through unconventional means: the arts. Research shows that studying the arts may not only help students get good grades, but is linked to social and emotional development, problem solving, cognitive ability, critical thinking, creativity, empathy, innovation, collaboration, leadership and a wide range of higher-order thinking skills. Reinforcing the benefits of creativity in his groundbreaking book A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink argues that creative individuals are actually the ones poised to become successful and rule the world.
Exposure to the arts, namely music, has been found to help children in academic areas including math and languages, while also boosting their intelligence, attention and memory. “All of these skills are linked to the brain’s executive function, which includes cognitive processes such as planning, problem solving, memory and attention,” explains Dr. Sylvain Moreno, lead scientist at Baycrest’s Centre for Brain Fitness in Toronto.
The easiest way to train the brain’s executive function? The arts.
Many private schools are embracing innovative arts programs that open up such opportunities as producing and performing in Broadway-style musicals, dancing under the instruction of seasoned professionals, and studying renowned visual artists through subjects like history, social sciences, literature and science. With state-of-the-art music, drama, dance, fine arts and digital arts programs, private schools recognize the value of arts education in shaping well-rounded students equipped with the skills and abilities needed to be successful academically and in the workplace. They give students, both artistically and non-artistically inclined, the chance to discover hidden talents and passions through specialized arts schools that provide leading-edge year-round programs and generalized schools that include the arts as a key part of the curriculum. What’s more, while some youth may struggle with learning or language acquisition, the arts can help break down these barriers and allow students to shine in ways beyond traditional academics.
Regardless of their musical abilities, every student has an opportunity to be part of Brockton Preparatory School’s World Music Program, and the North Vancouver school even sent a group of students on a trip to Beijing to represent Canada at the International Society for Music Education conference in 2010. Students not only learn to compose and perform music, but also develop compassion, global consciousness, responsibility, discipline, commitment, as well as goal-setting, decision-making and analytical-thinking skills.
“Arts education gives kids the courage to take risks, and the confidence to know they can succeed,” says Alison Wall, the head of school.
As technology evolves at a head- spinning pace, many private schools forge ahead as digital innovators.
With the financial resources in place, private schools are equipped to move ahead with the adoption and implementation of new technologies to prepare students for university and beyond, says Lesley Monette, director of the Conference of Independent Schools eLearning Consortium. The consortium is a partnership between Canadian independent schools delivering a series of online courses, such as business leadership, financial securities, earth and space sciences, and AP Mandarin.
“Technology promotes creative ways of teaching and caters to all types of learners all types co-operation and collaboration.” of learners,” Monette says. “The skills acquired through e-learning are invaluable and include time management, self-directed learning, co-operation and collaboration.”
Taking technology to the next level, private schools have been opening students up to some of the best learning opportunities, including robotics co-curricular programs, interactive software in the physics lab and innovative online classes.
For instance, students as young as Grade 5 at Trafalgar Castle School participate in robotics programs where they work as a team to problem-solve, and to design and build robots. While younger students use Lego blocks to build small robots, high school youth have the chance to participate in an annual robotics competition through which they are required to obtain sponsorship dollars, develop a team name and brand, and build a functioning robot.
“It’s a way for the students to apply the theory they’re learning in the classroom in a more meaningful and challenging way,” says the school’s head, Adam de Pencier. “That’s what makes technology so powerful.”
For today’s digitally savvy youth, nature is often far from their minds. Spending more time with video games, smartphones, computers and TV has contributed to the widespread onset of nature-deficit disorder, a term coined by author and environmental activist Richard Louv, which links behavioural problems in young people to lack of outdoor exposure.
Private schools across Canada have made it an integral part of their mission to teach environmental education. Many now realize that in order to get students to care about environmental protection and sustainability, they must first help them build a hands-on relationship with nature. For this reason, outdoor and experiential education programs are gaining popularity. From going on dogsledding adventures and taking overnight camping trips to growing community gardens and learning about science while exploring ponds, private schools are exposing kids to outdoor activities they’re not used to in their daily screen-saturated lives.
“Through these types of programs we are trying to inspire a sense of awe within kids,” says Grant Linney, outdoor educator and former president of the Council of Outdoor Educators of Ontario. “We are trying to make them realize that there are things much greater than themselves, and this world isn’t just about them. There are things out there that need to be respected and protected. And we know this cannot be done using a textbook.”
Beyond cultivating an environmental connection, Linney says outdoor education is vital for a student’s overall wellbeing. In fact, in the recent book Your Brain on Nature, Harvard physician Eva Selhub and naturopath Alan Logan give scientific evidence that natural environments provide measurable physical and mental health benefits.
Ultimately, environmental education is about investing in the future of our youth and our planet. Take the Halton Waldorf School in Burlington, Ont., where students in an extracurricular group called the Waste Warriors host zero-waste lunch competitions, oversee an inkjet recycling initiative, and maintain composting and recycling programs that have significantly reduced the school’s waste.
“Thinking long-term, we need kids to understand the impact of their actions on the planet and teach them that in reducing waste they can help slow down climate change,” says Barbara Frensch, a parent volunteer who leads the Waste Warriors. “If we work with these kids when they’re young, they will grow up doing the right thing. And this is vital for our planet.”
A new generation of global citizens is being educated in private schools across the country. Whether travelling abroad to help a community in need, learning a new language or developing diversity awareness initiatives in their own classrooms, private school students have more opportunities than ever to broaden their knowledge and understanding of international perspectives to help them integrate into a multicultural world.
"It's about fostering cultural awareness, a deeper understanding of international perspectives and an appreciation for the fact that things are done differently all over the world," says Dr. Elizabeth Moore, executive director of the Independent Schools Association of British Columbia. "We want our students to be broad-minded, tolerant and knowledgeable because all of these things will contribute to being able to live harmoniously in a multicultural world."
Exposure to this type of global education begins as early as kindergarten in many private or independent schools. As the world becomes smaller and more interconnected, students require a better sense of cultural literacy in order to work and live within a global context. Extending the global classroom beyond the walls of school, many independent schools organize service-learning trips, exchange programs, and cultural, sports and academic expeditions to help students see the world beyond the walls of their classroom and develop an awareness of the world outside their own frame of reference. "We have groups travelling to China to learn about food, culture and language; others travelling to Guatemala and Kenya to work with underprivileged schools in small communities; and others studying subjects like history on location in France and England," Moore says.
Global education programs like the Students Act Now and Global Experience Programs at Havergal College “seek to expose students to the perspectives and lives of others, enable students to engage in real-world problem solving and build direct and mutual partnerships to address a shared purpose.”
Private schools broaden minds to learn from multiple perspectives, students at St. John's-Ravenscourt School in Winnipeg team up with kids their age living in India to share ideas, collaborate on environmental initiatives and develop communication skills through Skype, Facebook, email and a trip to India.
"I'll never forget the last night of our trip when the Indian students came to the apartment we were staying in and we turned the common room into a dance floor," says Mary Ellen Campbell, the teacher coordinator of the India Connection program and head of the social studies department. "Dance is such a huge part of Indian culture and the kids all dressed in traditional outfits and danced late into the night. This experience truly transcended the barriers of language, class, culture and religion, and brought the students even closer together."
It's important for students to step outside their comfort zones to experience how others live, Moore says. This awareness goes a long way in helping young people see the world from more than just their own frame of reference and develop into true global citizens.
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A school's responsibility is to raise healthy students, not just educate them. That's what psychologist and mental health advocate Dr. Adam Cox believes is essential to fostering healthy schools.
Health and wellness has become more of a priority for schools today given the significant increase in stress, anxiety and depression among North American youth, coupled with numerous high-profile cases of suicides and bullying. While many factors such as genetics and biology contribute to mental health issues, environmental influences, including an increased pressure to succeed and fit in, are weighing on many young people.
When it comes to stamping out bullying and nurturing a supportive community, private schools have stepped up to the plate with extensive health and wellness programs, counseling services, and mental health resources to help students get support, cope and thrive. With a focus on prevention, private schools are able to boost self-confidence, self-awareness, and engagement in learning and wellness.
"We recognize and accept that children and adolescents struggle with similar emotional, social and mental health issues as adults do, and these can significantly impact their academic experience if not supported appropriately," says Jana-Lynn Caines, a psychologist and school counselor at Rundle Academy in Calgary.
Many private schools are also giving students the opportunity to discover their own purpose and meaning in life-the key, according to Dr. Cox, to a happy, well-adjusted child. It's no longer just about treating stress, anxiety and other mental health issues, but also about helping students move beyond the pressures they're experiencing to a place of personal empowerment.
According to Dr. Cox, who works with private and public schools across North America, the new focus is to help students find their vocation by having them participate in self-guided projects and service-learning opportunities of their choice, from volunteering at a hospital cancer unit to working alongside marine biologists. "It helps to develop the child's self- awareness, and reinforces that happiness and a sense of purpose is less a matter of luck than design," he says.
In the end, empowering youth to take responsibility for their learning has proven beneficial to their overall mental health. In many private schools where teachers provide individualized attention, students are being given hands-on opportunities to learn and grow at their own pace, helping to boost their self-confidence.