Hudson Lab School: A Conversation with Cate Han and Stacey Seltzer

Q&A   04 June 2019
By Cate Han, Hudson Lab School, and Stacey Seltzer, Hudson Lab School

 

My hope is that parents can strip away the fear of not conforming and reframe their thinking from “I hope my child will not fail in life” to “I hope my child will thrive in life.”

Cate Han
Co-Founder

Q: What path led the two of you to co-founding Hudson Lab School?

Cate: Stacey and I began our careers in finance and met at Columbia Business School. Our educations helped us achieve many goals, but at that point in our lives, we didn’t really think about how work could bring personal fulfillment. We just went with the flow. We had separated work from the rest of life, and it was just something you did—like school.

Post-business school, we both worked in the London startup scene. In our work with entrepreneurs, we put aside normative ideas around work and began thinking about work that inspired us. I honestly had no idea what truly inspired me because I had spent so much time achieving goals that were limited to a narrow definition of success.

When our kids came along, I took a Montessori course and immediately fell in love with the thoughtful approach to child development. Our first daughter attended an AMI Montessori school, and I loved that children had choices and could follow their interests. I loved that children enjoyed learning as a process, rather than as a means to a goal. That was when the seed for Hudson Lab School was planted.

Stacey: I was particularly interested in education in high school, which guided my decision to attend Brown University, where the founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, Professor Theodore (Ted) Sizer, taught. I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Sizer building interdisciplinary curriculum for high schools and learning about the public education system around Providence, Rhode Island.

That was my path for the first two years of college. Then, I ran head first into the traditional education curriculum structure through other courses. I went from seeing learning as a very hands-on experience to seeing how it is implemented when we only look at statistics as our main driver. It didn’t appeal to me, so I shifted and ended up in the finance and startup world.

 

Today, children are graduating into a world that has a ton of technological change (compared to when we were growing up) where—even more than ever—they will need to be lifelong learners and have the ability to retrain themselves over the course of their professional lives.

Stacey Seltzer
Co-Founder

When we moved back from London about five years ago, our eldest daughter was in Kindergarten, and she was experiencing this intense, test-driven, super-structured approach that we felt had no bearing on the world outside of school. And, as Cate and I looked more into the traditional system’s structure, we saw it had not changed since we were children. We felt that would do a disservice to our children and to children in general. We wanted to build a school that would teach children the life skills that would help them thrive as adults—things like agency, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration.

Today, children are graduating into a world that has a ton of technological change (compared to when we were growing up) where—even more than ever—they will need to be lifelong learners and have the ability to retrain themselves over the course of their professional lives.

Q: What was the trigger that made you want to transform education for the upcoming generations?

Cate: I was inspired to transform education when I saw my daughter head down the same path Stacey and I took: Do well in school, go to a good college, get a desirable job, and then learn what is actually meaningful to you. It’s backwards. We’re born curious, and kids should have the opportunity to understand what drives them and let that excitement drive their learning. Not the other way around.

In Dark Horse, Todd Rose writes about successful people who took non-traditional paths. Dark horses pursue what motivates them personally and succeed because of it.

Another trigger was how schools breed perfectionism. Compared to young boys, young girls have a higher likelihood of being perfectionists—wanting to meet teacher expectations almost to a fault. There is a wonderful book called The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman where the authors show girls perform very well in school and outperform their male peers, but when they enter the workplace, this perfectionist behavior does them a disservice.

We saw this perfectionism begin to develop in our daughter. She was very good at playing the game of school, and she stopped taking risks because she didn’t want to fail at anything. It was something I did as a student, and I know the shortcomings that come with it in the long run. It’s very good for school but not so much once you graduate.

Stacey: The other piece that shows up for me is hiring recent college graduates. At my venture development firm PreHype, we’ve launched 50 startups over the last ten years and hired hundreds of new employees. There are new college graduates who look incredible on paper but are ineffective on the job. The moment they get off the conveyor belt of the traditional system, they flop over. Without the traditional structure in front of them and being told all the hoops they need to jump through, they don’t know how to approach the world. They aren’t effective employees, and you see a lot of them simply get stuck in their work.

This test-driven approach where we jam kids full of facts as opposed to teaching them critical thinking, collaboration, leadership, empathy, and agency does them a disservice. All the information in the world is at our fingertips. With the expansion of machine learning and artificial intelligence, all the easy tasks in the world will get squished out by machines. What remains is the complicated stuff in the middle, which is people-related. At Hudson Lab School, we want to prepare young people for that world.

Q: What would you say to people who question the viability of learner-centered education when implemented with our youngest learners?

Stacey: That’s a great question and one we certainly hear frequently. There are several components as to why we believe it’s important children start this type of learning early. The first comes from the fact we are all born into this world craving knowledge and being creative learners. Think about how amazing it is that we all learn to talk. We go from nothing to being able to effectively communicate in the span of two or three years.

Our view is that for students who are starting learner-centered education at the high school level, they have already been trained in a particular way that has conformed them to a system that doesn’t allow them to see or reach their maximum potential.

During the peak of NASA’s space program, they provided a creativity test to potential employees. Then, they grew curious about how different age groups would perform on this test. They discovered over 98% of three, four, and five-year-olds would score at the highest levels of creativity, but by the time they were adults, only 2% scored at the same levels. We want to start as early as possible to ensure our kids don’t shut off their creativity.

Cate: If you start learner-centered education at the high school level, kids have already begun to excel at convergent thinking. At Hudson Lab School, we are taking what comes naturally to children and providing them with the tools and resources to explore that further, as opposed to teaching them how to conform.

For the learners who come to Hudson Lab School after experiencing traditional education for a few years, we see this incredible transition where they move away from asking “is this right?” or “is this done?” to “is this quality work?” or “is this something I’m proud to show the world.”

Q: What transformation have you seen in young learners at Hudson Lab School?

Cate: At Hudson Lab School, we’ve removed the goal posts that kids understand at traditional schools. All of a sudden, they’re not just looking at their performance relative to their peers. It becomes a lot more about the quality of their contributions to conversations, their approaches to problem solving, and their considerations of community beyond the classroom environment. The goals are much broader at Hudson Lab School.

In our last student-parent-teacher conference, our daughter told us what she enjoyed studying, what she excelled at, and what she needed to work on, and then the conversation dove into who our daughter is as a leader. She drove the conference about her own learning.

Stacey: One of the things that makes Hudson Lab School so unique is that we are co-located in a nursing home. Our physical space is shared with 200 residents at Andrus on Hudson, which offers an incredible opportunity for our students to develop empathy, work with people who are not like them, and understand the difficulties of old age.

We now have a second-grader who spent half his first grade year (at another school) in the principal’s office because he couldn’t do the “sit at a desk” type of learning. During our winter project, we asked our learners what simple solutions they could come up with to improve the lives of the senior residents.

This second-grader began noticing how isolating it can be to grow old. When he did an observation in the nursing home’s cafeteria, he noticed many residents weren’t talking to each other. Everyone seemed so isolated, hanging out on their own.

 

To have a student who was struggling in his previous school come in and be able to do math, design, language, and project management along with learning empathy and observation is a perfect example of the impact this kind of approach can have.

Stacey Seltzer
Co-Founder

His solution was to create a conversation game. He made a chutes and ladders style game board where each space represented one of three types of conversation cards—Teach Me, Tell Me, and Would You Rather. He designed and 3D-printed the game pieces, created around 200-300 different playing cards, and then tested it with the residents.

My favorite part about this story is no one ever finished the game. Once residents got three or four questions into the game, they began having natural conversations with one another and the game didn’t matter anymore. Our student recognized that once residents started talking, they kept on talking for hours.

To have a student who was struggling in his previous school come in and be able to do math, design, language, and project management along with learning empathy and observation—and to be super successful at it—is a perfect example of the impact this kind of approach can have.

Q: What is one question you wish people would ask you more about the work you are doing at Hudson Lab School?

Stacey: I think it’s hard for people to envision what a progressive, project-based approach looks like for students this young. I get really energized when talking about projects developed by our educators that incorporate the core skills of math, reading, and writing and combine them with future-readiness skills like design thinking, systems thinking, and collaboration.

I also like to talk about how our teachers act as lead learners and coaches for our students as opposed to being in front of the room lecturing all day.

Cate: There is a great book by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans from the Stanford d.School called Designing Your Life where the authors talk about the importance of reframing. We can spend all of our time trying to solve a problem only to discover it was never the problem we needed to solve for in the first place.

Rather than a question I wish people would ask me, I hope parents search within and ask themselves what they really want for their children. My hope is that parents can strip away the fear of not conforming and reframe their thinking from “I hope my child will not fail in life” to “I hope my child will thrive in life.” I hope they will trust that each child’s unique characteristics and interests will define their path to fulfillment. At the end of the day, we find happiness through understanding ourselves and pursuing what inspires us.

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