Transforming the Way Students Learn

by John Campbell, English Department Chair
English Department Chair John Campbell writes, "What would a school look like that asks students to learn like highly invested problem solvers?"
 

In the summer before I began my teaching career, I attended a two-day conference at The Pingry School in New Jersey, which was basically a crash course in how to teach. At the conference, I was treated to many practical workshops that would inform my approach to lesson plans for years to come. But when I think back to those earliest days in my teaching career, I think most of a workshop I attended that was meant to promote retention in students. “People learn best,” the workshop leader had quipped at the start of the presentation, “when they are asked to teach.” Then, with a wry smirk, he turned to his notes and proceeded to run through several “next-best” strategies for promoting learning and retention in the classroom. In hindsight, I can’t remember much of what he showed us that day, though I’m sure I found it useful—what I do remember, almost two decades later, is his quip. Indeed, it’s haunted me, in a way, for the better part of my teaching career. Why was I taught these “next-best” strategies for student retention? Why hadn’t I learned how to encourage students to approach the content as teachers do? Why weren’t schools asking students to take even more active roles in their own educations? The short answer, I discovered as a young teacher, is that that isn’t how schools work; that’s not how they were set up so many years ago by the N.E.A’s Committee of Ten. But what if they were?

Eight years ago, a group of alums from MIT asked themselves a very similar question: What would high school look like if it were redesigned to reflect the active, independent learning experiences that one encounters later in life? Or, more specifically, in their case, what would high school look like if it were redesigned to approximate an architectural design studio? How would students respond if the problem-based approach of architects and designers suddenly became the spark that initiated their learning? How would classroom instruction benefit if students worked with coaches who responded directly to the needs and questions of each student as they arose rather than with traditional teachers who led them through a prescriptive curriculum? These questions and many more led Saeed Arida, Saba Ghole, and David Wang to found NuVu in Cambridge, MA back in 2010, a school which I was lucky enough to visit with several Wheeler colleagues in April of last year.

In our first visit to NuVu — though, to be honest, it felt, to our group, more like a discovery — we immediately felt the impact of the learning environment that Arida, Ghole, Wang, and their colleagues had created at NuVu. Everywhere we looked in that gaping studio space, we saw small groups of students working together. Some sat at desks, tinkering with wires and molded plastic, while others slumped into couches typing busily on laptops; still more gathered around a monitor running through B roll footage for a documentary. This school was buzzing — with work! As we made our way around the room, checking in with NuVu’s students and coaches, we took note of how invested the students were in their projects (largely because they had created them) and of how eagerly they wanted to share not just their work with us but also their respective visions. Not one student hesitated to speak to us that day. All of the reluctance and shyness that one can fairly expect to encounter in any cross-section of assembled people was gone — had been banished by keen student investment.

Later that night, once I’d had the chance to reflect on what I’d seen in NuVu’s studio space, I thought back to the seminar I’d attended some twenty years before in Basking Ridge, NJ, back to that question that had intrigued me before I’d even started teaching: What would a school look like that asked students to learn as their teachers do? What is lesson planning or curriculum design if not the answer to the very specific problem of how to help different types of learners acquire the same information? Next year, in the NuVuX studios at Wheeler, students will be encouraged to learn like architects, like teachers, like highly invested problem solvers. For we’ve found a program, in NuVu, that takes what’s best about how adults learn and transforms it into active pedagogy.

John Campbell
December 2018
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Founded 1889

The Wheeler School is an independent coeducational college preparatory day school for Nursery, Pre-K, K-Grade 12 serving Providence, RI, Greater Providence and Greater Boston. The Hamilton School welcomes Grades 1-8 with language-based learning differences.