In an article titled “What Keeps School Leaders Up at Night” in the Winter 2019 issue of Independent School Magazine, K-12 educational consultant Grant Lichtman disseminated research from his interviews with more than 250 heads of school and senior administrators. Curious about the main concerns that are front-of-mind for school leaders, he set out to collect data about the future of independent schools. Overwhelmingly, the responses pointed to a recognition that there is an urgent need to think outside the box and embrace change.
“Change” can be a scary word for some, especially when it comes to organizational change. But Lichtman writes, “While defining and sustaining truly core traditions, our school cultures have to become much more welcoming of change.” This shared sense of urgency has a lot to do with the push to innovate in schools and remain relevant in a drastically-changing world.
In the data collected from his research, Lichtman summarizes, “there is broad convergence that student-driven, student-centric learning, which is fundamentally different from the teaching-centric model of the past, is relevant today and has a much better chance of being relevant in the future.” This philosophy has been widely embraced at Fessenden, and we have seen firsthand how positive the learning outcomes are when students have a say in their learning; they become happier, more engaged, and genuinely inspired to learn.
Something as seemingly simple as student choice has rippling effects on learning outcomes. Several years ago, Fessenden redesigned its reading curriculum to utilize data-based and standards-based instruction and foster a learning progression from Pre-K through Grade 5. The goal was to accelerate progress in reading and literacy, and one of the more distinctive components of the program is the freedom of students to make their own book selections throughout the school year. This change, an intentional emphasis on student choice, led to an increase in the number of books boys read and a skyrocketed enthusiasm about reading in general.
The term “sage on the stage” is often used by educators and schools, and there has been an increasingly negative connotation with it. Teaching content in a lecture-style classroom is going out of style. So what’s in fashion? School leaders are beginning to connect the dots between the silos around which schools have functioned for hundreds of years must be broken down. “Engaging in change is the responsibility of ‘us,’” writes Lichtman. “Our teachers need to understand the real meaning of valuable innovation and how to lead those changes by becoming comfortable risk-takers.”Perhaps the most tangible outcome of this vision is the work being done in Fessenden’s Ciongoli Center for Innovation (CCI). Built in September 2016, the CCI is a 2,400 square foot learning space equipped with 3D printers, laser cutters, and an array of tools and materials to enhance a student-centered approach to learning. It encompasses three expansive makerspaces, a machine room, and a collaboration classroom. But it’s not the space itself that is most impressive—it’s the learning and teamwork that happens inside the space that truly inspires.
Putting students at the center of their own learning can be intimidating for some teachers who are used to a specific style of content-based instruction. “It’s way more fun to learn this way,” exclaims Curt Lewellyn, our Director of the Center for Innovation. “Not only does it reflect real-world problem solving, it teaches children—and adults—that artistic expression and innovation can be messy, and that great ideas don’t always form in neat, orderly silos.”
No matter which camp you fall into, Lichtman argues that “we have crossed a tipping point,” and we must “reimagine and redesign the traditional school operating system.”
You Tell Us.
What do you think about the perceived urgency around changing private schools’ approach to curriculum and student learning?
It’s interesting that schools are going to try and put kids in charge of their own learning more. I think that it’s important to get my kids the best education I can find. A private school should be able to teach them efficiently.