Beaver Country Day School
“Understanding How Kids Learn”
When Head of School Peter Hutton got an iPhone, everyone on the staff at Beaver Country Day School heard about it. Hutton, who has led Beaver since 1992, loves to experiment with new technologies. “He would always come in excited about some new thing he could do with his iPhone,” said Peter Gow, Director of College Counseling.
Hutton’s passion for new possibilities, whether it be in technology or education, is an elemental force at BCDS. Few heads of school embrace the creative destruction of designing new curriculum with such gusto, and everyone who works at Beaver is drawn into the process. “If you work here, you have two jobs,” said Rob Connor, Assistant Head of School. “One is teaching your class, but you also engage in the process of making education better. You need to think institutionally and developmentally.”
As a teacher, the first order of business is to put yourself in the shoes of the students. “It’s all about understanding how kids learn and meeting them where they are,” said Hutton. Or, in the words of Andrew G., ’09, “The school fits the students and not the other way around.” That idea may sound simple, but it is rooted in the complexities of modern brain science, which has revealed in detail how minds create knowledge by making pathways in the brain. Traditional models of learning present students with lists of facts and concepts to be covered, but the information rarely sticks because the learner is not in control. “Instead of teaching students to master facts, we emphasize in-depth understanding,” said one administrator. “We’re not telling them what to think; we’re helping them learn how to think.”
“Teachers here are very good at making sure they don’t inhibit you while trying to help you. Students don’t just sit there while teachers lecture. We’re doing things and coming to conclusions on our own.”
To English teacher Nicole Lipson, an important secret lies in giving students the opportunity to take control. “I can ask them to look closely at a scene. But if they know they need to read it closely in order to act it out in front of their peers, they’ll be much more motivated,” she said. Lipson is also careful not to unwittingly pre-empt student thinking. “If you show a film at the beginning, students think that’s the way the play is supposed to be staged. But when students act it out first, they’re much more critical of the film and able to see it as just one person’s interpretation.”
To Michael E., ’09, such savvy is a hallmark of the Beaver faculty: “Teachers here are very good at making sure they don’t inhibit you while trying to help you. Students don’t just sit there while teachers lecture. We’re doing things and coming to conclusions on our own.”
In 2006, Beaver decided that it would no longer teach College Board AP courses. It was a choice to put students first. “When you take control away from teachers, they are no longer designing assessments for the kids sitting in front of them,” said one teacher. Nor could the school rationalize its commitment to teaching students of varied learning styles and multiple intelligences while offering advanced courses culminating in a single, one-dimensional evaluation. Instead of advanced courses that were shallow surveys, the school wanted more focused courses on engaging themes. Without AP, “our students can dig into the meat of stuff rather than reading 32 chapters in 32 weeks,” said Connor. That means advanced courses on topics such as Exploring the Roots of Islamic Extremism, Complex Systems Modeling, Cryptology, and Monsters and Degenerates, a study of dark figures in the novels Conrad, Wilde, Woolf, and others.
The impact on Beaver’s science curriculum has been particularly profound. “Do we really want our best science students doing biology labs that have the same answer every year? That’s not research,” said Hutton. Today, Beaver’s Advanced Biology is divided into three one-term segments: DNA and Genetic Science, Ecology and Field Studies, and Anatomy and Physiology. Students in eleventh and twelfth grade now more often design their own labs to answer real questions. One student worked for three months to try to learn whether Gatorade was more effective than water in maintaining or boosting athletic performance. (Conclusion: Gatorade simply provides extra calories.) Another student measured the effectiveness of mouthwash and toothpaste in eliminating oral bacteria. (Among products with the same active ingredient, mouthwash was more effective.)
“Do we really want our best science students doing biology labs that have the same answer every year? That’s not research,” said Hutton.
Beaver is also a national leader in using technology to enhance learning. On a daily basis, its students contribute to a profusion of blogs, wikis, webzines, and twitters. Beginning in 2009-10, all students will be required to bring a laptop to school.
On a recent morning, Peter Hutton chuckled at the thought of how educators often try to keep new technology out of the classroom. (Think math and calculators.) At Beaver, physics students use the GPS capability within cell phones to study force and velocity. Hutton cites an initiative of the Consortium for School Networking entitled “Learning to Change/Changing to Learn.” It is a motto that fits Beaver well.
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