The topic of college never seems too far removed from conversations on a high school campus. Students think a great deal about it, teachers may see their jobs (in part) as preparing students for it, and there are a range of educators who help prepare students for and guide them through the application and admission process.

All of this is a necessary part of teaching at a high school that students, families, and teachers see as a central part of a student’s journey towards college. However, I worry that a lack of pedagogical imagination can be justified with the rationale that students need to practice certain modes of learning — sitting for summative exams or listening to lengthy lectures — in preparation for similar experiences in college.

Instead of having our pedagogical choices in high school dictated by an imagined future college experience for our students, we should instead draw inspiration from the vibrant learning experiences many of them have already had in elementary school. Put more plainly: if we wish to aspire towards educational excellence, we have better models in well-designed elementary school classrooms than we do in many features of a traditional college education.

Consider the kind of exemplary learning that takes place at a school like Shady Hill (Cambridge, Mass.). Shady Hill begins its central subject in the 3rd grade, when students focus on whaling from a range of different perspectives: they research whales and the complex economy that developed in dependence on them, they take field trips to significant sites in Massachusetts, they write fables and read stories about whales, humans, and the ocean. Teachers at Shady Hill have prioritized a unified, coherent learning experience across the year: background knowledge in science deepens the writing of myths, which are both informed by links to lessons in math and music. As a result, this kind of educational experience is designed for integration and transfer. Students make these kinds of cross-disciplinary connections by design.

By contrast, a typical student at a typical high school will take five or six classes at a time. (Ninth graders at Andover almost always take six.) With a small number of exceptions, these six classes at Andover go in six different directions: a student’s English class is not linked thematically to their math or music or science classes. As a result, they are constantly switching tasks and topics, both during the school day when they move from class to class, and in the evening, when they try to do their homework for so many different unconnected classes. The cognitive tax of this task-switching is significant and may be a factor contributing to student stress and exhaustion. In contrast to Shady Hill, where the thematic unity of the Central Subject is the non-negotiable pedagogical principle, students at Andover experience divergence by design, not convergence.

What would happen if high school more closely resembled a learning experience like that at Shady Hill? For the past five years at Andover, a group of teachers and students in the Workshop has worked together to try and answer this question.

The Workshop is an immersive learning experience for a cohort of approximately 20 Andover students [this year we have 21] who drop all of their traditional courses to instead enroll in an interdisciplinary program focused on a common theme. It is an effort to reimagine the so-called grammar of schooling — the basic building blocks of time, space, grading, and assessment — in order to rethink high school so that it more closely resembles an elementary school.

Our design principles reflect these values and aspirations:

  • Students learn and research topics centered on our theme of Experiments in Education
  • Students engage in sustained and significant ways with their local communities
  • Students present their learning publicly to authentic audiences
  • As a natural consequence of focusing on fewer things and cultivating intellectual humility that emerges from deep and sustained research, students will, in the words of Grant Wiggins, learn to “[develop] the habits of mind and high standards of craftsmanship necessary in the face of one’s inevitable ignorance.”
  • Students cultivate a series of intellectual and human dispositions, including:
    • the ability to reflect on what they know and the limits of what they know
    • the ability to participate in civic life in an informed way, with awareness of one’s possible biases.
  • Students spend time daily engaging in community-building activities.

All of the teachers in the Workshop are of course quite grateful for the remarkable education our spring term seniors have received throughout their time at Andover. And, at the same time, we want to make real a competing vision for teaching and learning: one that de-emphasizes specialization by leaning into common themes and projects, one that invites teachers to be co-learners with students, and one that reminds students of their responsibility to share engage their learning and reflections with our local communities.

This spring, we’ll make our learning and thinking visible in many ways. We’d love to be in conversation with you — please join us as we continue our experiment in education!

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