Students in ICG schools are active learners. They excel by every conventional measure of achievement, but their learning goes far beyond the ordinary. They learn to think, create, and manage. They connect their knowledge to in-depth projects. They learn to make choices. In the words of a student from Carolina Friends School, “My friends at other schools have a ton of work but it doesn’t seem that meaningful. They are at school only to get into college. At Friends School, the focus is on each student getting a real education. “If you choose to work for your own education, you get so much out of it.”
Nothing is more central to life-long learning than the development of abiding academic interests. Indeed, life-long learningis
the development of abiding interests. Students in ICG schools get a broad exposure to all academic disciplines. But they also get the opportunity to make choices, both between different courses, and among subject matter within courses that they will study in-depth. Often, the work that they produce is far more advanced than if their efforts were spread thin across large masses of subject matter. They leave high school with experience producing the sort of high level work that is often, misguidedly, put off until advanced college work or graduate school.
In conventional schools, students often work extremely hard, but they typically have little ownership of the education process. They sign up for courses in either the advanced track or the less advanced regular track. Their focus is largely on the courses considered “most demanding” (i.e. look good on a college application) rather than on the courses that interest them. They study what each teacher tells them to study, and then take a test in which they attempt to show mastery of the required information and concepts. Then the teacher introduces the next topic, and the process repeats. A traditional “coverage” class may have some student-centered elements, such as discussions or debates. But in order to cover the material necessary for success on the exam, the teacher must soon move the class to the next topic. They may retain the facts and concepts covered in their classes for a period of time, but they are unlikely to achieve lasting mastery. Unfortunately, many schools give in to the impulse to “cover the basics” before allowing students to be active learners. Such efforts serve only to make students bored and passive.
“We teach science as a discovery process,” said Glenn Littledale of Putney School. “Students generate their own questions. It takes time, but it is thrilling to watch students realize that they can figure stuff out.”
Learning in advanced courses unfolds differently at ICG schools. Instead of offering courses that cover large amounts of subject matter, ICG schools tend to emphasize those that cover fewer topics in greater depth, like “Research Ecology” or “The Rise of the Right in Contemporary American Politics.“ With courses differentiated by subject matter, students follow their interests in making choices, instead of choosing courses to look good on their transcript. An interest-based choice allows students to connect their courses to the direction of their lives at that moment, just as college students do and just as all life-long learners do. Often, students get an even greater sense of ownership by participating in the design of their academic program. One of many examples comes from Fieldston School, where a committee of students chooses a book to serve as a touchstone for the whole school in the following year. “Students are in constant dialogue with us about what they do, as opposed to the teachers telling them what to do and getting on with it”,” said Hugo Mahabir of Fieldston.
Once in class, students have more opportunities to take ownership. Class periods at ICG schools tend to be longer than those at other schools, giving students more time to delve into a topic. Students are less likely to listen to a teacher talk. Instead, they discuss, debate, and simulate. Often, learning means going outside the walls of the school. At The Urban School of San Francisco, students in Constitutional Law regularly meet with judges and sit in on legal proceedings, including (recently) those for the BALCO trial related to steroids in baseball.
In science, students in ICG schools often design their own labs rather than following the instructions of a generic lab with pre-determined results. “I cared about our labs because we had to figure them out on our own,” said a student from Sandia Preparatory School. “I didn’t just do them to get a grade. I did them because I really wanted to know.” And instead of quickie experiments that last a day or two, they may find themselves engrossed in the same lab for a week or even a month. “We teach science as a discovery process,” said Glenn Littledale of Putney School. “Students generate their own questions. It takes time, but it is thrilling to watch students realize that they can figure stuff out.”
Teaching for depth rather than coverage means that classes in ICG schools often move through subject matter more slowly than do those in other schools. In subjects like math and science, that means swimming against the tide of those who equate faster coverage with more advanced learning. “In math, acceleration is the most difficult thing to resist,” said Henri Picciotto of The Urban School of San Francisco. “We’re not eager to do things early. We’d rather do things in more depth.”
“We’re not eager to do things early. We’d rather do things in more depth.”
All of these engaging activities and experiences help students take far more ownership of their learning than if they were merely studying a sequence of topics introduced by the teacher. “Passionate students drive the curriculum,” said Josh Lawton of The White Mountain School. But it doesn’t stop there. When the time comes for evaluation, students in ICG schools are less likely to study for a test than to research and create. Rather than merely reviewing what they have learned for an evaluation designed by a teacher, students take their learning and apply it in a new way. “Students here learn the ability to design something and carry it out,” said Emily Jones of Putney School, “They learn how to make things work.”
Learning at ICG schools is real, engaging, and purposeful. Students graduate with a solid understanding of themselves and their interests, as well as experience in managing rigorous projects. In the words of Mike Riera of Redwood Day School, “We want students to be able to demonstrate their knowledge, not just have it.”
Check out Secrets of the Brain to find out more about the importance of active learning.
The Independent Curriculum Group is delighted to announce that Peter Gow has joined the organization as Associate Director. Peter has spent the past 33 years at Beaver Country Day School, where he has served as English teacher, History Department Chair, Academic Dean, and most recently, Director of College Counseling. He previously worked at The Gow School, The Fessenden School, and Providence Country Day School.
The Episcopal School of Dallas will host “Fostering a Culture of Conversation: Students, Parents, Colleagues” on Monday, January 7 from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. The program will explore the ways in which schools can use conversation as a powerful tool to create community, broaden horizons, resolve conflicts, challenge conventional thinking, and hone vital skills in collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. A call for proposals is now open.
ICG members and friends are urged to check out this year’s slate of summer offerings from the Center for Innovative Teaching (CIT), sponsored by The Urban School of San Francisco, an ICG Founding School. Sessions will be hosted by the Urban School (June 18-22) and The Chapin School in New York City (August 13-17).