A recent article in Independent School, the magazine of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), laments the overuse of the word "innovation." John Gulla, Executive Director of the E.E. Ford Foundation says, "The use of simplifying, summative words...can easily give rise to imprecision, if not outright confusion...I would like to reclaim some sense of the term innovation for change that is truly transformative...We should reserve the term for a breakthrough, an upheaval, a metamorphosis, or even a revolution in how we approach education, not for more minor alterations."
What an excellent challenge for schools.
In this spirit, NAIS held its first Innovation Hack this summer inviting WRA as the only boarding school to participate in the small group summit in Washington, D.C. There, Associate Head of School Kate Mueller and Director of Information & Education and Dean of Faculty Matt Gerber strategized with six other independent schools on what constitutes true innovation in the classroom.
While there, Mueller and Gerber shared details of the school's new independent curriculum, including the move beyond AP to College Level "CL" courses; the daily schedule redesigned for deeper exploration and fewer transitions; and the Literacies program, starting for this year's Freshmen Class with Learning to Code and Learning to Make in The Center for Technology, Innovation & Creativity (The Center).
"There was a lot of interaction with the other schools, and it's always great to hear their ideas and receive their feedback," Mueller said.
Over the two-day conference, school teachers and administrators discussed how ideas transform into action and used the image of a "magnetic mountain" to plan their strategy.
For Gerber, the mountain metaphor was resonant.
"The idea is that you're always climbing," Gerber said. "What is the summit for your school? What are the types of hikes that you're taking, and then how do you descend? Once projects get started, how do they get implemented and carried out?"
Gerber continues to oversee and encourage innovative new teaching approaches in The Center. Recently, for example, students in Dr. Robert Aguilar's Pathology of Human Disease class built mazes for the mice used in their research and experiments. Dr. Ralf Borrmann's Compass class regularly meets in The Center as they shepherd their various projects from concept through completion. Mr. Douglas Ray continues to think of innovative ways for his student-writers to push beyond putting pen to paper. A popular assignment is the 3-D personal narratives he asks them to outline on wooden blocks.
Promoting innovation in the classroom, The Center, and every corner of campus is one of Reserve's top priorities, indeed a calling card as the school pushes forward with bold plans. Mueller said the constant pursuit of true innovation creates a feedback loop where both new ideas and an evolving curriculum "drive and feed each other at the same time."
"These are programs that benefit our school but first and foremost they benefit our students," Gerber said. "They will have access to opportunities you won't be able to find at any other high school in the United States."