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The New American Academy: Breaking the Chains of Oppressive Education

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

The New American Academy (TNAA), part of the New York City public school system, opened its doors in 2010 based on a new model for American education developed by then L. Mott School (MS 22) principal Shimon Waronker (now Headmaster of the Academy), and several other doctoral students in Harvard’s Urban Superintendents Program (TNAA, Our History). Developed as a direct counterpoint t to the Prussian educational model that Horace Mann used as the inspiration for the American public education system, The New American Academy seeks to break free of “the Prussian-industrial framework of fear, isolation, and monotony. . . [where] for both students and teachers, procedure is emphasized over innovation, uniformity over individual expression, and control over empowerment (TNAA, The Prussian-Industrial Model).

The TNAA aims to accomplish this lofty goal by breaking down and reformulating a majority of the systems that have historically been present in American education and replacing them with inventive approaches that inspire creativity, innovative thinking, openness, and efficiency, all at a lower cost than traditional schools. Is this a model that can be applied throughout K-12 and even American higher education?

The New American Academy Model
The New American Academy begins from a revolutionary premise – that the Prussian-industrial education model is a poor match for education in the 21st Century. Here, according to the TNAA literature is why this model no longer fits our educational needs:

"The Prussian-industrial model of rote, passive learning does not provide our students with these vital skills. Discouraged from thinking beyond their textbooks, our students are conditioned to conform—even while successful companies constantly challenge their employees to think “out of the box.” After systemically repressing our students’ individuality and creativity, we cannot expect them to foster the innovation our economy so desperately needs" (TNAA, Philosophy).

To counter the inherent oppression of the factory model of education, the Academy has broken down many of the traditional systems of education – there are no bells, learners attend 60 student classes, with four teachers who accompany them throughout their time at the Academy (TNAA, TNAA Model). This video provides a look inside the school.

The key features of the TNAA model are:

  • Large active classes with 60 students and four teachers (including one master teacher)
  • Collaborative planning and teaching in a team environment
  • A focus on small-group collaborative student learning with an emphasis on exploration, inquiry, and interdisciplinarity
  • An emphasis on problem solving skills, self-confidence, voice, critical thinking, self-awareness, and communication skills
  • Differentiated instruction
  • Intentional reflection at the individual, team, and community levels
  • Trilingual curriculum in English, French, and Spanish, with a goal of fluency in all three languages by fifth grade
    (TNAA, TNAA Model)

By crafting a learning experience that engages students, makes them active participants in their learning, focusses on fostering creativity and independent thinking, provides a global perspective, and helps develop leadership skills, the TNAA represents a refreshing model that, according principal Waronker, and given its success in the challenging Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, could be applied in any elementary school across the country with excellent results. But is this a model that can also be used to inform the development of innovative curriculums in higher education?

What Does the TNAA Model Offer Higher Education?
The philosophy behind the TNAA is very much in line with the ideals behind much current liberal arts education. Here is the philosophy in a thumbnail from the TNAA website:
"America requires a public educational model designed around the ideals that have made her great – freedom, empowerment, and aspiration. In these times of economic uncertainty and global unrest we can no longer afford to limit such an education to our nation’s elite. All children must learn to think and act creatively. Only widespread innovation can ensure long-term social and economic success" (TNAA, Philosophy).

Several key components of the TNAA model should appeal to any higher education institution that wishes to produce not just competent cogs in the global economic machine, but rather that wants its students to be global leaders. Here are the most important characteristics of the TNAA model that could be applied to higher education and why they are important.

  • Interdisciplinary teaching – Though less prevalent than it was even 20 years ago, higher education is still dominated by rigid disciplinary silos that inhibit the dynamic collaboration that leads to new ways of thinking and discoveries. Following the models of neuroscience, biochemistry, and nanotechnology that have taken root in the sciences, all college courses should be part of interdisciplinary groupings that help students to see the connections in our increasingly interconnected world.
  • Collaborative learning – Learning is an active process that is undermined by much of the rote memorization, individual accountability model of higher education that is currently used. While it is more challenging to evaluate students working in collaborative teams, the rewards to the students – leadership and teamwork skills, negotiated meaning formation, and better retention of material – are benefits that far outweigh the challenges.
  • Global perspective – Developing a global perspective helps students to understand the workings of and their place in our complex global economy. Such understanding needs to be cultivated through a study of foreign languages and courses that considers global perspectives on issues being examined whether they are economic, literary, medical, or scientific.
  • Creative Problem Solving and Innovation – A constant theme in this blog is the need for our students to learn how to think creatively and produce innovative solutions to the world’s problems (Marquis, 14 March, 2012). In a global economy, where almost everything manual or repetitive can be done more cheaply abroad, the final frontier for American business is in our ability as innovators. As TNAA founder and principal Shimon Waronker states in the following quote, "Only widespread innovation can ensure long-term social and economic success" (TNAA, Philosophy). While this is important at the elementary level, it is critical in higher education. Our university students are one small step from being sent out into the global economy, and without the ability to adapt and discover new economic options, they are likely to be left behind as the hi-tech, innovative future rushes by them.

There is great hope that the TNAA model might be a true innovation that will help our K-12 education system pull itself out of the current state of controversy and constant attack that it finds itself in. If this is a model that can sweep across the K-12 landscape, there might also be a real hope that some components of it might filter into higher education and help more of  our college graduates become leaders in the global economy.

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