Curriculum is the main dish in a school, the substance of what students are attempting to learn. Why, then, do most professional development programs focus on pedagogy, assessment, and classroom climate? Without addressing course content, attempts to improve engagement and learning will fall flat. Students are highly attuned to the objectives of their learning activities.
The Independent Curriculum Group is one of the only organizations through which independent schools directly address school curriculum focus. Originally founded to support schools seeking to drop Advanced Placement tests, ICG now attracts schools that are thinking creatively about the content and learning objectives of the instructional program. At this event, we met a school that has formed an academic department for topics in human development, another that offers eight world languages (see p. 36), a third that schedules athletics in the morning, and a fourth that provides students with “20% time” for independent projects. Nothing provides confidence in program change better than meeting the schools that have already done it!
The Academic Leaders Retreat West was the second of two personalized, interactive conferences. The location, Ghost Ranch in Abiquiú, New Mexico, encouraged participants to engage with each other, reflect about what’s important in schools, and imagine innovative potential school programs.
Peter Gow and Jonathan Martin facilitated the group sessions. Among the highlights: Martin guided us through a systems approach to school change, elegantly blending theory with practice. In one activity, we used fishbone diagrams to identify the key institutional factors underlying the student outcomes we wish to change. For example, our group looked at student reluctance to take risks and identified factors such as teacher-defined learning objectives, grading practices, program fragmentation, and high student workload as key systems factors that inhibit student risk-taking.
ICG knows how to empower conference participants to personalize and maximize their experience. The retreat included three “unconference” sessions, in which we all proposed topics and led discussions. This allowed us to hone in on questions that were particularly on our minds and learn more about practices in other schools.
The evening events were just as significant as those in the daytime. The first evening, we watched Beyond Measure, the follow-up to Race to Nowhere. The film profiles a handful of schools, and specific students within them, who have succeeded in creating instructional program with meaning and purpose. I was struck by the stories of students who were dutifully attempting to meet their school’s expectations, but without passion. Their learning really took off when their schools launched new learning environments that featured student-defined learning objectives and authentic purpose. The second evening, Gow led a storytelling conversation about schools that have succeeded in shifting faculty culture toward program innovation.
Team professional development typically leads to program change much more than individual experiences. Three U Prep department heads joined me at this retreat, allowing us all directly feel inspired by the conference, meet all of the other participants, and then huddle with each other to discuss implications for our school. The momentum continued after the retreat, as we plugged lessons learned from the retreat directly into our ongoing strategic planning work on next generation learning.
Read the #ALRWest15 Twitter feed for more detail about the work of our three days.