Yesterday in the middle of a busy opening day– between setting up dorm rooms, finalizing schedules, meeting advisors and dorm parents, and getting ready for three days of orientation trips — families came to learn more about the academic program at White Mountain. Because not everyone was there, I decided to give a short summary of the three key points.
First, I shared why I was and am excited to join White Mountain. I quoted John Dewey (a great educational theorist and leader), who wrote: “A gardener, a worker of metals, will not get far in [their] work if [they] do not observe and pay attention to the properties of the materials [they] deal with.” The gardener or the worker of metals is the teacher and the materials are the students. Dewey urged teachers to get know their students well so as to teach most effectively; each student requires something different. Thinking about this quote in the context of White Mountain, we have so many things in place to “observe and pay attention to” each student. Being a small school means that all kids are known, but we cannot stand on our small size alone. What are we doing programmatically? Well, a lot. The commitment to student-driven inquiry puts learning in the hands of the students, and the teacher takes on more of a mentor role, guiding students to ask questions that have meaning to them and to others. By honoring student inquiry, by carving significant space for students to pursue their own questions, we cannot help – as teachers- seeing each student individually. Students have choice in their immersive Field Courses; they design their LASR projects; they regularly undertake mini-LASR projects in academic classes. This is why I am excited to be at White Mountain. Programmatically and philosophically, we believe in kids as individuals, and value them as learners.
That brought me to the second point: students will be seeing a greater focus, in terms of the feedback they are receiving, on our Essential Skills and Habits (found HERE). This Essential Skills and Habits document was built over five years ago by White Mountain after ongoing conversations with colleges, as well as after ongoing research focused on best practices in 21st century learning. (Many similar lists occur; the most notable ones were created by NAIS, The Partnership for 21st Century Learning, and Hewlett Packard’s Deeper Learning.) The Essential Skills and Habits document has served as a guiding tool for what skills we want our students to have and what habits we want them to embrace. It is important to note that the Essential Skills and Habits document emerged in conjunction with our commitment to student-driven inquiry. They go together, hand-in-hand. If we believe in student-driven inquiry, which we do, and we create space in the academic program for kids to pursue their own line of inquiry, which we do, then we needed to establish a framework and a guide for students who are essentially learning different things. The learning experience is not standardized here; it is student-driven and student owned. And research shows this is how students learn best. Two tenants guide the way in which we are working with students:
- We believe in all kids and their capacity to grow and improve.
- We believe that content acquisition should not be the only focus of learning.
Focusing on the second point, at White Mountain we believe firmly that content is not the primary focus in learning. Content provides the ingredients that allow students to ask great questions, new questions, questions that might change the way we see ourselves and the world around us, provided we commit to answering them. While content is the medium that drives the questions, the questions are what matter. As one of our teachers wrote, beautifully I might add, about our students: “we believe they are wired to learn, innately curious, and brimming with potential.” Yes! It is for that reason that we have such an institutional commitment to inquiry.
However, as David Grant wrote in The Social Profit Handbook: The Essential Guide to Setting Goals, Assessing Outcomes, and Achieving Success for Mission-Driven Organizations, “ If you do not define and assess what matters to you, someone else will do the assessing of your work, based on what is important to them.” Consider Grant’s statement in the context of our commitment to inquiry. If we so not specifically give feedback (which is a way of assessing) rooted in our Essential Skills and Habits, others will put import their own values as to what is important to them; namely, others will focus only on final grades and content learned. Yet that is antithetical to authentic student-driven inquiry. So as to address this, this summer over a third of the faculty worked to turn the Essential Skills and Habits guiding document into an instrument (or a rubric) that will allow us to give students specific feedback anchored in what matters at White Mountain. (See my previous blog to learn more about that process.)
So what addition will you and your family see?
- The same commitment to student learning and academic excellence
- Similar final “products” of student learning
- Student presentations
- Independent projects
- Foundational content exposure + preparation for college readiness tests
- In addition, there will be feedback rooted directly to the Essential Skills and Habits, using the rubric we built this summer as the guide. In particular, we will focus specifically on the habits and skills during the first and third quarter.
We committed to this additionally feedback because the skills and habits will be what builds a lifelong learner. They are what is transferable, independent of what a student studies in college or beyond.
Lastly, the third point I made yesterday, and the second “addition” to the academic program, was an introduction to our new space: The Inquiry, Innovation and Impact Lab, or the I3 Lab. The I3 Lab was built in collaboration with Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Enginnering as a place where student-driven inquiry, through a design-and-build focus, will inspire students not only to care deeply but to act upon that compassion to develop and implement solutions so that they may step into the world and make a difference. The I3 Lab is currently equipped with a laser cutter, 3D printer, basics for woodworking and a suite of arduinos and sensors for coding. We will be adding a wood shop component in the months ahead. Thus, the focus on the space is three-fold: digital fabrication; physical (wood) fabrication; and electronics. Of course, the space is not about the tools; this space was built with inquiry at the core. Facilities should not be the limiting factor in what a student can do. Now, students will feel unlimited potential to create, design, build, and test their ideas.
We believe firmly that focusing additionally on the Essential Skills and Habits and providing students with capabilities to design in the I3 Lab will further allow White Mountain students to be seen, to be known, and to have the conditions here to flourish, either building on or re-finding their deep wonder and curiosity of and in the world around them.