Old Wisdom, New Ways


There is a call for bold, new approaches to education to help students successfully navigate the accelerated pace of change they will see in their lives. At Penn Charter, our Strategic Vision puts many cutting-edge approaches into sight as we prepare students to be able to thrive in a complex world. Along with the new, I hear the note of eternity in our school plans, the sounds of early Quakers applying to the important work of education their discoveries about human nature and that of the divine they found in each person.

Quaker Voices from the past inspire our conversation about the future.

“And this I knew experimentally.”

– George Fox (1647, recounted later in the Journal of George Fox, first published in 1694)

Reflecting on the moment in 1647 that led him to found a movement that grew into what we now call Quakerism, George Fox wrote in his Journal about coming to know life’s most important things from direct experience. Our shift from textbook and lecture-centered learning to discovery by engaging in authentic, real-world projects puts the power of Fox’s epiphany to work for students.

Fox’s voice adds to research from programs like Harvard’s Project Zero and the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Literacy Network in advocating for this shift in the way we teach. More to the point and exciting about the growth of this kind of learning is how it matches the way so many of us come to know the facts, abilities and approaches that we most treasure and count on to navigate life.

It takes rewording to be understood properly in today’s classrooms, but the question “What canst thou say?”—recounted from Fox’s earliest 17th century public speaking—continues to ask students to move from retrieving facts from others into searching for their own personal understanding of truth.


“I give myself this advice: Do not fear truth, let it be ever so contrary to inclination and feeling. Never give up the search after it; and let me take courage, and try from the bottom of my heart to do that which I believe truth dictates, if it lead me to be a Quaker or not...”

– Elizabeth Fry (1799)

Elizabeth Fry expands Fox’s insight about pursuing truth in ways that are found in our educational designs. She asks that, after looking to understand things by our own reckoning and experimentation, we not be afraid of the truths we find, and that we act in ways that follow those truths. Although describing herself as timid, Fry found prison conditions intolerably dark in the light of truth, and she took action. She became a powerful reformer of the English prison system, so persuasive that she drew the support of the reigning monarch.

Expanding faculty professional development, creating wide learning networks, adding a full-time director of diversity and inclusion, growing the school’s global initiatives, and continuing our history of access to enrollment for all socioeconomic levels are strategic ways to ensure students have access to multiple perspectives at Penn Charter. Surveying the classroom, bringing out quiet voices, respectfully exploring thought from the divergent to the conflicting are examples of classroom practices that continually ask students to compare their thoughts with others, strengthening their ability to listen, wrestle and converse.

Challenging our inclinations, as Fry counsels, allows us to be more informed and, possibly, transformed, moving from one singular understanding to a collective, deeper understanding of truth. This is challenging and requires teachers, students and families to pull from the kind of courage Fry advised to achieve the sure-footing needed to move from thought into right action.



“Those who go forth ministering to the wants and necessities of their fellow beings experience a rich return, their souls being as a watered garden, and a spring that faileth not...”

–Lucretia Mott (1850)

To Elizabeth Fry’s hope that we could follow from truth into action, famed abolitionist and women’s activist Lucretia Mott added that we could be sustained by actions we take in service to others. Penn Charter’s answering this call shows in praise from the recent Friends Council on Education’s visiting team. After their time at Penn Charter, the team wrote in their nal report that the school manifests Quaker tenets beyond its walls to help the larger community and noted that we have increased our investment in service learning and social justice with the creation of the Center for Public Purpose.

The visiting team also shared kudos for Penn Charter promotion of environmentalism through the appointment of an interim environmental stewardship director, as well as a number of initiatives to reduce waste. Being in service to others and the Earth offers students the chance to partner in a process where complex issues are explored, understandings are formed, and beliefs are put into action. The actions that follow let students’ lives speak and make a difference in the lives of others.


“Each age must find fresh and living ways of solving its problems and doing its work, and not go on using static and mechanized customs, merely because they have the sanction of years behind them. We ought to get rid of our dead wood and have fresh groves and pastures new.”

– Rufus Jones (1941)

Rufus Jones, founder of what became the American Friends Service Committee, adds his own rich nature metaphor to Mott’s in this excerpt from a speech to young adult Quakers. Jones also adds that new, innovative ways are needed for each generation to do the important work of pursuing truth that leads to action.


"If there is a Quaker philosophy of education, it is eclectic, experimental, willing to live with the tensions between tradition and change, the needs of the community and those of the individual."

– Paul Lacey, Quaker educator

Our talk of engaging, creative, new ways of working with students to spark their curiosity and imagination sounds like Jones and recognizes that the pedagogical approaches that worked for us as teachers and parents may not work well for today’s students preparing for a rapidly changing world. In the same address, Jones encourages us to dig in and “...get over being afraid of newness, and be ready to venture and to experiment, with what St. Paul called a constant renewing of the mind.”

New research on learning and motivation shows that design thinking and inquiry lead to more important educational gains than rote memorization. Sounding the most fun of the lot of Quaker educators, and a bit like a modern makerspace maven, our founder William Penn foreshadowed these new discoveries when he wrote in Fruits of Solitude (1693), “Children had rather be making of Tools and Instruments of Play; Shaping, Drawing, Framing, and Building, &c. than getting some Rules of Propriety of Speech by Heart.” Jones and Penn spoke of important reasons that interactive tools, technology- rich and inspiring learning spaces, interdisciplinary classes full of inquiry, exploration, creativity, conversation and discovery are what our students need.

To give an 18th century Penn Charter teacher the last word, Anthony Benezet highlighted a harmonious combination of old and new when he described the goal of Quaker education as "educating and training up of the youth both with relation to time and eternity.”

Listening closely, old wisdom is heard in our new ways.