framed painting hanging on a red wall with a brown wooden table beneath
June 30, 2022

Visiting the Mastery School of Hawken and Hawken Upper School

Observations, reflections & takeaways
by Alli Booth, Garrett Richie, Christine Marshall & Gene Hughes

Last month, four colleagues visited the Hawken School in Cleveland to gain insight into its teaching and learning practices. They visited two campuses:

  • Mastery School of Hawken, which launched in 2020 as a high school anchored in “real world problem-solving, mentorship, and mastery-based feedback.”
  • Hawken Upper School, which has educated high school students for more than a century.

Below are observations and reflections from their time, including takeaways from the visits, ideas, and insights that could inform Phillips Academy’s program, as well as areas of further research and exploration.

Time. Among the numerous takeaways from the visits, the topic of time received ample attention from colleagues. Central to the Mastery School learning approach, students participate in programming of various lengths of time: macros, interdisciplinary programs aimed at problem solving in conjunction with community partners; micros and studios, short, self-directed, skill- or content-focused learning experiences; and wayfinding, connections with mentors. The Hawken Mastery model, which combines learning experiences of varying frequency and duration, as well as ones that cross traditional disciplinary lines, stretches the imagination of traditional course scheduling and design.

The micro-learning approach offered particular inspiration as a concept worth exploring further. The short, intense bursts of acquiring skills and content through the micro/studio model engages students through a combination of quick sprints and regular reflection on what and how they have learned. The Hawken visit offered a glimpse of what can emerge through such an approach—namely, an ample dose of good energy. Both students and teachers expressed their excitement in consuming new ideas and content while embarking on new learning projects after short periods of time.

Assessment and Agency. The process of assessing students emerged as a topic of interest for the group—particularly, the ways in which assessments focus on what is being learned by students. Central to the evaluation of learning, both at the Mastery and Upper Schools, is the emphasis on students’ mastery of content and concepts. Working with the Mastery Transcript Consortium—also a partner to the Workshop program—Hawken students play an active role in driving their own academic journeys by regularly reflecting on what they are learning. They offer evidence of their cognitive growth and identify where they wish to take their learning next. This holistic capture of the student as a learner—a growing, emerging, developing learner—offers a model for rethinking assessment practices. While overhauling traditional approaches to grading can prove challenging, compelling arguments for alternative practices are being made—at Hawken, on our own campus, and elsewhere.

Iteration and Agile Development. Driven by the goal of encouraging learning mastery, students are encouraged to work on assignments, community projects, and self-directed explorations—and after being assessed, students continue to work on them. In doing so, students work beyond grades; they learn to process feedback from adults and peers and inject new thinking into coursework and deliverables through multiple stages of iteration. In addition to students practicing the art of iteration and ongoing development of their project work, the agile development of Hawken’s programs themselves also was highlighted as a compelling part of the visit. Hawken learning experiences are designed by creating smaller building blocks of a classroom or experiential program, gathering feedback on their impact, and nimbly redesigning as necessary. Students thus witness agile development of the academic program and participate themselves in the process of iterative project and class work, and they do so with others: their teachers, community partners, and peers. In addition to reinforcing student learning, learning experiences—and the process of developing learning experiences—mimic for students what they may encounter in their post-secondary schooling lives.

Looking ahead, colleagues welcome the opportunity to engage in sustained dialogue and discussion around the learning models at work and the process involved in bringing about meaningful change within and outside of classrooms at Hawken and Phillips Academy. Following students as they eventually graduate from the Mastery program as well as tracking the innovation exchange between the Mastery and Upper Schools top the agenda of future conversations—and serve as opportunities for reflection on the development of the Workshop and the broader academic program at Phillips Academy.

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