“Thirty years ago, a high school history teacher had to be an excellent lecturer, and that was usually enough to be considered an excellent teacher,” declares Amanda Greenwald, Winchester Thurston’s Dean of Faculty and Director of Middle School. “At WT, that’s just one of a teacher’s tools. Our teachers need to have multiple tools, and be adept at many different practices.”

While that’s long been the case at WT—to which Greenwald, a 20-year WT veteran and former history teacher herself, can attest—it’s more critical today than ever before, as student-driven learning takes greater and deeper hold throughout the school. As each of the WT Smart articles in this issue of Thistletalk shows, student-driven learning is flourishing at WT—and transforming the way teachers teach.

“Students deciding what they’re focusing on, how they’re going to do it, setting and managing a timeline, seeing that project or interest through to an end goal—this contributes to a changing role in student-teacher relationships,” explains Adam Nye, Director of City as Our Campus℠. “No longer are teachers the sole holders of content. Now it’s more of a partnership, where teachers serve as guides or facilitators.”

That doesn’t mean a teacher’s role is reduced, or even simplified. On the contrary, it’s more critical—and more complex. Besides imparting foundational knowledge, teachers must now also help students understand, research, interpret, and connect all of the information they accumulate. This is information which students may have gleaned through an online math or language arts program, a trip to an art museum, or through interactive animations allowing students to experiment with materials not commonly found in the classroom.

It could also come through partnering with experts in a given field, like the new model for research science and computer science innovations classes that connects students with community experts as a regular part of the process.

“In David Nassar’s class, computer science innovations, every student has a mentor who is a specialist in that field,” says Nye, who orchestrated the partnerships. “For example, one student is developing low-cost sensors with multiple functions that can be attached onto cars. This way, one would not have to buy an autonomous vehicle to enjoy those capabilities. That student is paired with a professor from the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University who provides information that David alone could never provide. During check-ins throughout the year, the student receives a wealth of information relevant to his topic, and David, who is part of that meeting, can take the information, elaborate on it, and utilize it throughout the production process.”

“The science of how people learn shows that the richer, more multi-faceted the instructional environment, and the more engaged and active the learner, the better the learning,” asserts Anne Fay, Director of e-Learning.

At WT, that multi-faceted richness comes from off-campus exploration, technology resources that multiply and magnify educational opportunities within school walls, and classroom environments re-designed to optimize learning.

“How do you teach for [important attitudes]? By providing students with ‘messy,’ real-world problems instead of simple problems that have a single, known, right answer.”

“The skills that are important today and will be tomorrow are the ones that have always been important,” declares Fay. “Critical thinking, problem solving, self-monitoring or meta-cognition, communication, collaboration, learning from feedback, to name a few. In addition to these cognitive skills, there are important attitudes such as perseverance, resilience, risk-taking, flexibility, and ambiguity of tolerance. How do you teach for them? By providing students with ‘messy,’ real-world problems instead of simple problems that have a single, known, right answer.”

Giving students the freedom to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in different ways makes an educator’s role even more challenging, Fay notes. “Teachers need to find valid and fair ways to evaluate the skills and knowledge that students have mastered across a range of projects that students might create.” That could mean taking foundational knowledge learned in a classroom and applying it outside of the classroom; developing process and learning content in a project-based, inquiry-driven course like research science; or creating a traditional essay, a blog, a YouTube video, or a website. But in each instance, assessing a student’s grasp of foundational knowledge, and measuring competency in 21st century skills now requires much more than a simple A, B, and C system of grading.

“Assessment is a craft within itself,” acknowledges Greenwald. “Often faculty design summative and formative assessments to determine what students are learning and where they need support.” Whereas summative assessments involve right and wrong answers that translate into  grades, formative assessments involve feedback. For example, a teacher may preview a student’s essay draft on Google docs and give preliminary feedback based on a rubric, or list of underlying skills, against which the final product will be graded, thus allowing students to improve their writing before getting a grade that counts. Or, after a lesson, Middle School students fill out “exit tickets” to register understanding of the day’s topic. This tells the teacher if material needs to be re-taught in a different way. Formative assessments also help to assess “softer” skills—like effort and empathy—and WT faculty have begun developing rubrics aimed at those, starting in the Middle School with “effort.”

“We went through a multi-stage process to develop categories connected to effort: preparedness and organization, problem-solving, cooperation, communication, and engagement,” says Greenwald. “Within each category are specific skills. Overwhelmingly, the teachers like having something more concrete to measure something that’s not concrete.”

In this realm, as in educational innovation, WT is leading the way on a national scale as one of six independent schools comprising the Partnership for 21st Century Assessment. “We were already on the path to developing tools that would meet our needs,” says Fay, “when the Castilleja School, a highly regarded private school in Palo Alto, California, was awarded an Edward E. Ford Foundation grant to develop, test, and disseminate assessment tools and practices for 21st century skills. As part of the grant, they proposed to select partner schools to share in the development and testing of the tools and to help in the development of scoring, and we were asked to submit an application.”

Last summer, Fay, Graig Marx (Science Department Chair), David Nassar (Computer Science Department Chair), and Christine Benner Dixon (English Department Chair), met in Palo Alto with faculty from Castilleja and the other partner schools to discuss their vision of the skills and activities each believed important for students to develop. “Each school selected a subset to focus on for the next year,” explains Fay. “At WT we are focusing on problem-solving, collaboration, and empathy. Different departments are working to develop, implement, and revise assessment tools across a range of student assignments. So rather than just getting a B on a presentation and thinking, ‘I did pretty well,’ students will have clearer feedback on particular skills they need to focus on in the future.”

Ultimately, the Partnership for 21st Century Assessment will create a tool kit of resources that can be utilized by anyone. It is this kind of vision that continues to transform teaching at WT—and to solidify WT’s position as an educational leader and innovator.

“We have a strategic planning goal to revolutionize teaching and learning at WT,” says Nye, “and we are committed not only to sharing that with our faculty, but also with the broader community so that other schools can learn from it.”