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A Letter from Rich Nourie about the Spirit of Quaker Education at AFS

July 17, 2018

Dear AFS Families,

As a national leader in Friends education and one of the oldest Quaker schools in the world, AFS is well known for its deep and resonant Quaker identity. Newcomers to AFS often speak of a palpable spirit of peaceful community, joyful ambition, unexpected diversity and values that are lived and not merely talked about.

This is the essence of Abington Friends, one that is sensed from the moment you walk onto campus. Our 2017 Commencement Speaker, Erik Talvitie ’00, captured this well when he recalled the Quaker principles and practice that he encountered here as a student, noting they “are baked into the very walls of the institution.”

I see the spirit of Friends education as being rooted in strong central ideas of Quaker faith and practice that ultimately lead to a clear philosophy of teaching and learning. This vision is continually honed in the classroom and everywhere else that learning takes place. It is our collective clarity about these principles of learning that make possible the cumulative power of our program for students.

Because of this coherent environment shared among faculty, our students develop clear habits of mind and effective ways of navigating the world around them that they carry into the rest of their lives. These skills are what prepare them so fully for college and for lives of significant contribution.

As part of our 10-year accreditation process for the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools and our 10-year renewal of membership in the Friends Council on Education, I’ve been reflecting on key elements of Quaker pedagogy gleaned from my 34 years in Quaker education. I’ve shared these thoughts with our faculty, staff and School Committee, and most recently in a presentation to Abington Monthly Meeting.

As a foundation for our work with children in the classroom, I’m sharing them with you as well in the document below. Our strength as a community comes from our spiritual vitality, from our lived values and from shared ideas about teaching and learning that make a wonderful foundation for a school. I hope you find them as meaningful as I do.

All the best,
Rich Nourie


Quaker Principles of Teaching and Learning at Abington Friends School

We value direct experience as central to authentic learning and teach in an empirical tradition, centered in the questions of “What do you know and how do you know it?”

The intellectual habits of mind that we develop are rooted in the discernment tradition of Quaker faith and practice. We know that any understanding that we have, of any particular thing, is partial and incomplete at best. We continually ask, “How can we make our understanding more complete?”

Part of our process is turning to the wide resources for learning and deepening knowledge that surround us: our libraries, teachers, outside experts and mentors and digital resources. Research is embedded in every level of the program. We focus on teaching our students to be resourceful learners, leveraging the many resources that surround them to deepen understanding and to do high-quality work.

A critical practice in deepening understanding is developing and practicing skilled collaborative inquiry. We believe that examining issues through the use of multiple perspectives and experiences deepens understanding, helps us identify and challenge assumptions and becomes an important basis for higher-order thinking. Our rich diversity, across many dimensions, intentionally cultivated and critically engaged, is an invaluable resource to collaborative inquiry.

We believe in the power of reflection and use of silence to open new understanding and learning. The time we create for silence allows for perspective and ideas to develop and unfold, the time itself being an indispensable element for this process of letting ideas, relationships and possibilities emerge. From the silence, too, students discover another source of knowing and understanding that comes from their own inner lives, learning to listen to the quieter voices within and having a space in the Meeting House for sharing this deeper level of knowing.

We develop the skills and habits of critical observation, the discipline of looking closely. The object under quiet scrutiny may be a tree on our campus, a text or a piece of artwork. Learning to focus attention and awareness is woven throughout the program.

Writing is central to our curriculum and our pedagogy. Writing allows for the development and refinement of ideas, the anticipation of an audience and an exploration of words and their power to both describe and create a full range of human experience. The revision process is key in our practice and we prize all genres of writing: creative, persuasive, analytical, prose, drama and poetry.

We invite children to envision what may be possible, ways to move forward. Though we enjoy an unusual freedom as a Quaker, independent school, that freedom is not to do whatever we want, but rather to do what is best. That daily endeavor, of figuring out together what might be best, what might be possible, is embedded in our culture. It might be solving a design problem together in class, figuring out the best possible outcome for the community at the time of a serious disciplinary incident or planning a service project, but the orientation toward Quaker collaboration and the refining process it entails is educationally significant.

We believe that a highly participatory environment is essential for active learning and for developing leadership skills and a personal sense of agency. Being counted upon, relied upon, creates people of significance to their communities and an expectation of playing one’s active part of ensuring the mutual success of any collective endeavor.

Social and relational intelligence are seen to be at least as valuable as academic and intellectual accomplishment. How we navigate daily living together, encouraging a community of profound respect for each other is a central concern. We continually teach conflict resolution, clear communication skills, careful listening and development of mutual understanding as a basis for both community and individual friendships.

We view conflict not as something to be avoided or “won” but rather as an invitation to deeper engagement with critical issues. Teaching children to tease apart competing values that may be in tension with each other, to surface assumptions and to navigate the emotionally challenging terrain of conflicts happens in the classroom, on the playground and in critical conversations about difficult topics like race and privilege. Learning to closely examine one’s own point of view, listen carefully to better understand and work to develop shared understanding are benefits of this approach.

Finally, we teach all of our curriculum through a lens of equity, justice and peace-making. We encourage imagination for a right-functioning world and orient children to be agents of their deepest values. Early on, they learn to stand up for their values, and not be bystanders. As a school with a spiritual foundation that is oriented toward seeing individuals and communities at their best, we believe that all human beings have a knowledge of goodness at their core that is to be sought out, celebrated and identified as a primary motivator for doing good in the world.

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