As a lead tenant of Curriculum 2020, Berwick Academy has put a stake in the ground in saying we seek to become a student-directed learning environment over time. While anything focused on students generally sounds good, I still worry that there is so much jargon out there that we need to continually remind people of our working definitions for these concepts. So for this edition of the 1791, we thought it might be nice if all of our writers could speak to what student-directed learning looks like in different divisions and different areas of school life.
For me, student-directed learning is certainly different than teacher-directed learning, but it would be a mistake to think the idea is that students will simply teach themselves. Quite the contrary – teachers arguably play a bigger role in terms of preparing, crafting learning experiences, and molding the environment of their classrooms in this paradigm. My hope is that students will truly shape, rather than receive, their education at Berwick. I also hope that our classrooms will be marked by high levels of engagement by students. To do this effectively, we need to find ways to drive their own learning in powerful and intrinsic ways.
Imagine a high school English class that feels familiar to all of us: a text is generally discussed in class after a chapter of reading was completed the night before. The teacher generally chooses the book based on a set curriculum or their own personal academic interest. After a series of discussions, a paper is assigned on some theme or topic related to the book. The paper is due in a week or two, teachers make comments on the paper, and perhaps a revision is completed along the way. While this clearly can be a useful learning experience (it was for me many times over), it has relatively little student direction. Now imagine a class that was formed based on expressed student interests from survey data we might collect at the end of each year. If the course was about identity in America, for example, perhaps students have a choice of books they might read to achieve this goal. In addition to writing papers, perhaps they have alternative options to teach a class on their reading, write a poem about identity, or make a video about their own learning. Now we start to see a different level of engagement that allows for multiple pathways focused on the same skill goals.
I could also cite examples that exist already: changing ninth grade Western Civilization a few years ago into trimester electives for freshmen, for example. Rather than taking a year-long survey course based on a textbook, our students now have the choice to dive into specific cultures of interest in a deeper way – taught by all members in the department rather than by just a few in lecture/survey format. Another example would be our Science department, which is actively working toward a program that might fuse the required material for Physics, Chemistry, and Biology into two years rather than three, allowing for a whole new level of choice in Junior and Senior years. This concept also includes the notion that Physics, Chemistry, and Biology need not be seen as separate disciplines but rather interdisciplinary in their power and application.
I also want to be clear that student-directed learning and project-based learning are not the same thing. In saying that, it is also clear that projects can offer chances for collaboration and choice in ways that multiple-choice tests cannot. However, I would never want to see Berwick solely focused on projects, nor is project-based learning the only path to student-directed experiences. With that as background, it is also true that we have some compelling examples of project-based learning in our Middle School: Shark Tank work in grade five, Global Ex in grade seven, and Project Maple in grade eight all jump to my mind.
When we consider our youngest learners, we know that student-directed learning is not the same as Montessori learning. In a Montessori environment, children are offered far more freedom to explore their own passions and topics of interest that you would see in a more structured Berwick program. If we consider our Lower School, you would see something that is far more group-oriented than a Montessori approach. Still, I would say student-directed learning is incredibly natural and embedded in the ways in which our Lower School teachers operate already – examples like play stations, activity choices, and other creative avenues all allow for student choice within the context of a larger academic goal. Additionally, our commitment to becoming more flexible in grouping students around their developmental age rather than an arbitrary birthdate is an example of organizing a school around student needs rather than teacher convenience.
As Berwick teachers continue to move our educational battleship in a student-directed paradigm, I believe the hardest challenge before us lies in rethinking assessment. Understanding rigor in the context of student choice is an important conversation. It is far easier to assess multiple-choice tests than it is to determine the rigor or quality of time associated with a video or a 3D printing project. It can be done – but it takes thought, preparation, and work. Another key frontier is growing more comfortable with group, rather than individual, assessments. While our educational system is clearly preoccupied with sorting individuals, we also know that employers need teams who can work together. The days of finding success through rote application of discrete tasks are numbered for sure in a global economy. Thus, our educational system (not just Berwick Academy) needs to be asking hard questions in this area. One group of well-known independent schools that are trying to change the assessment paradigm is the Master Transcript Consortium, which you are welcome to explore here. While Berwick has not yet joined the group, we are monitoring the conversation closely. This consortium is trying to get colleges to reimagine a transcript system based on skills and electronic database portfolios rather than numbers or letters. They tackle this knowing that a college admissions officer needs to be able to assess a transcript in less than two minutes. While there may be philosophical interest from colleges, the practical barriers to change are nothing short of overwhelming. It is a massive undertaking, which the group sees as something that would take decades. I would argue that it is a noble and important effort nonetheless. The list of member schools is noteworthy, and it may not be that assessment for college in 20 years looks exactly like it does today. About five years ago, I had the good fortune to receive a Klingenstein Leadership Fellowship at Columbia University. As part of that experience, a group of lucky heads of school visited a number of fancy new private schools and some underfunded charter schools in Manhattan. Of all of those visits, the most impressive was an underfunded charter called the I School. At the I School, every student schedule was redone every trimester, and the courses were truly constantly being shaped to students’ interests and requests. The entire school, and all of its structures, was premised on the notion of meeting student interests and needs. I think great independent schools often think they are doing this, but they also generally think they have the market on what kids need to “know” as well. I have no dream that Berwick Academy will one day become the I School, but I do think we can learn important lessons from those examples (You can explore I School here if you are intrigued). Whether it has been our Innovation Center, Global Ex, documentary projects, or other pieces of original work, I am always amazed at what Berwick students can do when we do our best to get out of their way. I will definitely miss not being a part of the journey of this student-directed battleship in the years ahead. However, I will certainly be watching closely to see where it strikes land in the years ahead, as I think it can be a powerful model for our industry.