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Harley puts students at the center of their own learning

Philosophy of John Dewey practiced to better prepare pupils for adult world

The variation in activities in a science lab in 1944. Each student is working at his or her own pace doing different activities. (Photo courtesy of the Harley School)

The variation in activities in a science lab in 1944. Each student is working at his or her own pace doing different activities. (Photo courtesy of the Harley School)

In the late 19th century, philosopher and educator John Dewey created a new way of thinking about the classroom — one that believed in democratic engagement, empowerment of students and collaboration.

This was a far cry from the traditional education of the day, where memorization and recitation were valued over individual ideas.

The Harley School was born out of Dewey’s philosophy, and has kept that focus for a century. The mentality Dewey sought to create in a learning environment is the kind of thinking the world needs now more than ever, says Ward Ghory, head of the school.

“When I walk around the city today I see things that the people who were here built: the Erie Canal, the university campuses that are built along the river or out in Henrietta; you see everywhere where our forebears had the courage and drive to literally build a city, and I worry about that today,” Ghory said. “We in our country have difficulties thinking big and we pull one another down with criticism and division. It’s hard to get major projects going, and we see our mission as preparing kids to be the kind of people to go out there and meet the challenges and want to do things that are of great purpose.”

Like Dewey’s philosophy, Harley has structured the classroom around the child. Part of Harley’s mission is to foster a joy in learning.

“Each child has individual strengths and learning styles, and we want to develop each child so they find a sense of purpose and passion (and) come out of here wanting to do something important in the world,” Ghory said. “If you (foster) a joy in learning with some goals for individual development, and you do that in a caring community where people feel included and supported, then you’re going to get excellence.”

What sets Harley apart from other preparatory institutions is the way the school runs, says Larry Frye, head of the Upper School.

A student working with PVC piping to create an LED light—part of a science lesson—in the Maker Space in 2016. (Photo courtesy of the Harley School)

A student working with PVC piping to create an LED light—part of a science lesson—in the Maker Space in 2016. (Photo courtesy of the Harley School)

“Harley is a school in the progressive education tradition, and for us that means certain assumptions about kids and certain commitments in the academic programs,” Frye said. “We start from the place that children are naturally curious about the world and engaged in it.”

While it would be easier for teachers to just “get up in front of a classroom and talk,” Frye said Harley aims to put students at the center of the experience, despite that being the more challenging approach.

Many people’s perception of Harley has been mischaracterized over the years, say Kirsten Reader, alumna, English teacher and parent of students at the school.

“Harley was known for a long time as kind of the hippie school, and some people still think of it that way today,” Reader said. “We are not to be written off as the hippie, arty school. I just wish every kid could be educated like this. What we want is a (graduate who is) kind, compassionate, a diverse thinker, smart and resilient.”

The goal is to have the students’ ability to advocate their beliefs and form educated opinions begin earlier than adulthood. Kids are ready for that kind of engagement, Frye says.

“If  you don’t have a chance to speak your mind, to ask questions, to bring a critical eye to the material you’re looking at, then there are parts of your growth that just come along a little slower,” Frye said. “You end up doing it in college.”

That’s why students are involved in decisions at Harley. In a lot of cases, new rules or events are run through the student council, rather than being decided solely by the faculty and administration.

“Progressive schools have a pretty radical commitment to students being at the center of the experience,” Frye said.

The key is emphasizing engagement in society after one’s education is earned. That is something that Harley has always stood for, Reader says.

“One of his (Dewey’s) focuses was helping children become better citizens in the world that we’re living in,” Reader said. “Part of the movement was to have kids be able to make decisions, to negotiate, to compromise and we’ve added being more mindful and empathetic.”

Jay Stetzer, a teacher for nearly five decades at the school, has seen the benefits of Dewey’s philosophy.

“The basic tenet for him (Dewey) is, if we want people to engage as adults and citizens and be voices of their communities and their villages and their neighborhoods, we’ve got to train them to do it,” Stetzer said.

Debbie Willsea, an alumna, past teacher and current Harley board of trustees member, feels the world needs leaders who do not just follow guidelines.

“It’s a school where they really truly are training leaders, preparing people to be leaders in all different kinds of disciplines, and contributors,” Willsea said. “The students are well-rounded in their understanding of the world and of how to communicate, how to raise questions and seek answers (and) not just always assuming that they know.”

Leaders need to be able to think on their own — a skill found and supported at Harley, Frye says.

“A kid who’s had some practice at the high-school level of advocating for what he or she believes in… that kid is going to be much more likely to come up with some cool new green technology that they can take to the marketplace, or whatever it might be,” Frye said. “We think that set of skills that has to do with originality and independence and entrepreneurship is something that helps kids do well in whatever arena they land in.”

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