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High Standards and Achievement Hallmark of Paideia Approach
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Each week, an educator takes a stand or shares an Aha! moment in the classroom in Education World's Voice of Experience column. This week, principal Les Potter looks back on his years at an inner-city school that adopted the Paideia approach to teaching and learning. In these days of high standards, accountability, and a focus on student achievement, Potter says Paideia is an approach that warrants consideration. Included: Links to help you learn more about Paideia.

Les Potter

In the early 1990s, I faced a very challenging job -- I was appointed principal of a failing inner-city school. Our challenge was to transform the school using an approach known as Paideia. In light of today's directives to raise standards and student achievement -- and to employ less stand-and-deliver teaching and make learning more fun -- Paideia is an approach that many schools might find worthwhile to investigate.

Paideia (a Latin term for the upbringing of the whole child) was conceived in the 1930s by two University of Chicago professors, Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler. In the 1980s, Adler published his beliefs in a book, A Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto. Many schools throughout the nation have used his book to improve teaching and learning.

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Simply stated, Adler believed that all students could learn -- and learn at high levels. He believed the best education was a strict, liberal arts curriculum based on Socratic questioning. Reading, research, writing, and discussing are the backbone of the teaching. The curriculum is what you might find at your best prep schools.

The teaching strategies of Paideia are structured under "three columns of teaching." All classroom teachers spend 40 percent of their time coaching, 40 percent in seminars, and 20 percent in exercises that might be classified as didactic. Some classes didn't use textbooks; computers and journals were the norm. Students usually sat in circle or square formations. The average classroom had 30 students. We stressed teamwork, hands-on instruction, discussion, research, and writing.

Click here to learn more about what was involved in transforming a failing school into a successful Paideia school!

The Paideia Curriculum

Our school's four-year high school curriculum was pretty straightforward. You can see from the requirements below that it was a long way from "shopping mall" scheduling -- the idea that students pick what classes and teachers they want -- that is so prevalent today. The rigorous curriculum included
* four years of English;
* four years of social studies;
* four years of math (algebra I, geometry, algebra II, and trigonometry);
* four years of science (physical science, biology, chemistry, and physics);
* four years of a foreign language (Spanish or French); and
* a year of four preselected electives (physical education, health, art, and technology).

Every student had a fifth-period tutoring class each day; that class was mandatory because we knew that many parents could not help their children with class work at home.

We had high expectations for all students, even our special education students. We had students who were identified as ADD, LD, and emotionally handicapped; the special education teachers went into certain classes with the students and helped them during the fifth period.


Our school building was an old one. It was originally built for more than 1,000 students. We anticipated 500 would show up on opening day (in a school that housed fewer than 300 students the year before), but the excitement generated in the community by this new curriculum was so evident that 700 students registered the first day! We were a zoned school. That meant that students who lived in a particular zone had to attend the school in that zone, but we had a very liberal transfer policy so we attracted a lot of out-of-zone students as well as private school students.

That first year, Paidiea showed many positive results. Besides increased enrollment, student behavior improved, grades and attendance increased, and test scores improved. All students who applied to college were accepted. (Paideia schools acknowledge that all students do not have to attend college, but students are strongly encouraged to continue their education.) The number and percentage of students receiving college scholarships increased dramatically, and the local community college told us that any student who graduated from our school would receive a tuition-free education there. We saw the students' initial trepidation subside; in its place grew a very positive climate, a culture that promoted success. The Paideia feeder schools experienced similar positive changes.

The next year, I was promoted to director of schools, but the three Paideia schools (my former high school and its feeder elementary and middle schools) continued to be successful. I saw what Paideia could do for a Chapter One, inner-city school -- and I was most impressed. Many people had given up on that school. Many students had been lost in the shuffle. But Paideia -- with its high standards and expectations, and its unique teaching strategies -- breathed new life into that old and proud school building! Since that time, Adler's concept has filtered across the country; many Paideia schools exist and, in many other locations, individual teachers subscribe successfully to the three columns of learning approach.


  • Paidiea: Active Learning The National Paideia Center currently works in direct collaborative partnership with more than 100 schools in 11 states. The center features a national faculty of expert Paideia educators and serves as a source of information, training, and inspiration.
  • The Paideia Group Explore the Paideia approach on this page, from a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving teaching and learning via the approach.

Setting Up a Paideia School

In early June of 1992, soon after being named principal of a failing inner-city school, we "closed" the school. Former teachers were under contract in the school district but not necessarily at the "new" Paideia school. All interested certified staff members were allowed to re-apply. We provided candidates with copies of books and articles on Paideia so they could acquaint themselves with the concept. This same process was repeated at our feeder middle and elementary "Paideia" schools.

As the teachers informed themselves about Paideia, I formed a committee to help select the "new" staff. The questions we asked during the interview process were unusual, to say the least! We asked candidates about Paideia. We asked them about the books they liked to read. We asked questions to discern whether they were lifelong learners and risk takers. The teachers also had an hour to write a response to one of our questions. But the last two questions we asked usually told us who we wanted to hire. We asked

  • Do you believe that all students can learn and learn at high levels?
  • Do you have any questions?

The answers teachers gave us often were eye opening. We were amazed how many teachers did not feel that all children could learn. We also were surprised how many teachers had no questions about this new approach. Since the premises of Paideia include meaningful questioning about concepts new and old and a willingness to take on new challenges, the candidates were expected to have lots of questions. Those who did not were not hired.

After we selected a teacher, an English teacher for example, that teacher was put on the screening committee to hire additional English teachers. We were very democratic in our approach. After many of the teachers were hired, then we formed a teacher committee to hire an assistant principal.


After the Paideia staff was selected for the high school and its feeder schools, we held a three-day retreat to indoctrinate everybody on Paideia teaching. We brought in Paideia specialists from around the country. The training time was also a "bonding" time, a time for developing camaraderie among all the teachers who were embarking on this new adventure.

Our school district was very supportive. We hired a local Paideia expert to provide daily and weekly staff development. It was our belief that teachers who were willing to try something new should be allowed to experiment, think outside the box, and even fail. Our resident expert also worked in classrooms with individual teachers and groups of teachers -- without the principal looking over their shoulders, I should add. All this was a great help to the staff.

We also hired a community-volunteer coordinator. (A strong school-community relationship is one of the pillars of Paideia.) That person worked hard to get parents into the school and to get them involved. The parents were used to getting called into school for negative reasons; now they were being asked to come visit and to get involved -- and they responded very well!

All teachers had input into their schedules. They decided as a department who would teach individual sections of each course. Shared leadership was also evident when it came to making department decisions on budget, duties, room assignments, class rosters, testing schedules, curriculum, textbook selection, and new staff hires.

Les Potter is principal of Silver Sands Middle School in Port Orange, Florida. Prior to taking the helm at Silver Sands, Potter was principal of seven other school in four states. In addition, he has held many other central-office and university-level positions.