Artificial intelligence. Quantum computing. The ubiquity of content and information. These are just some of the chief components of the changing landscape of society at large—a landscape transforming more rapidly and radically than ever before. Winchester Thurston, with its long-established focus on community-based and project-based learning, is intrinsically positioned to address the ensuing challenges as they relate to teaching and learning.

“Today, education is about how to use information that traditionally has been contained just to the classroom,” offers Head of School Dr. Scott D. Fech. “A model of segmented skills in each discipline isn’t the way the world works anymore. Most jobs today require us to think across the spectrum of disciplines. To prepare students to enter into our super collaborative, interconnected world, we need to mirror that world within the school.”

The Overall Lens of the Student Experience

The milieu Fech describes dovetails with thriveability, an approach to thinking strategically about learning and leadership developed by Stephanie Rogen and her group, Greenwich Leadership Partners (GLP). Rogen, who literally wrote the book on thriveability, Creating Schools That Thrive, says, “Thriveability is about the present tense, the relentless attention to a meaningful learning experience for all.” Comprising that experience, notes GLP partner and research scientist Dr. Sarah Goldin, is “the school’s culture, climate, facilities, pedagogy, all wrapped into one, but not separable. It’s not a checklist of buckets of things to attend to; it’s the overall lens of the learning experience.”

Last January, GLP led a retreat where WT’s Board and leadership team discussed the changing needs of today’s and tomorrow’s learners, and explored how different approaches to teaching and learning help students acquire the skills needed in the future workforce. Two pivotal conceptual shifts—from sustainability to thriveability, and strategic planning to strategic design—guided the process.

“My own thinking was challenged to consider not sustainability but thriveability. Sustainablilty implies simply maintenance of the good things that are currently happening,” explains Fech. “But thriveability? Well that means figuring out how to take our work to the next level and beyond. That sounds much more exciting to me!”

He specifies that while school leaders address issues with finite answers—like space (“we need more flexibility to allow for multiple kinds of learning experiences”), building the endowment, and having available more financial aid—they must simultaneously plan for adaptive needs with no clear-cut solution.

“Strategic design thinking inspires untold possibilities,” Fech muses. “For example, two teachers have developed a machine learning class, an unlikely marriage of computer science and social studies. Who would ever have thought of that ten years ago? This is what our partners, GLP, are challenging us to do—to think more adaptively. A traditional strategic plan generally plans the next three to five years. We want to be more nimble and adaptable. We want to continue to adapt our approach to learning based on the interests and curiosities of our students, and not have a prescribed curriculum in place where we say, ‘this is what you need to know.’”

A Different Way of ‘Doing School’

“What we’re doing is creating the conditions for success,” emphasizes Fech. He envisions a future that includes “opportunities in place-based learning, where students can learn in diverse environments; creating spaces within a schedule to allow organic learning opportunities to happen; applying a foreign language in another country as part of an extended immersive learning experience; and non-traditional ways of earning credit, like doing internships around a particular profession or within a discipline.”

What’s more, he adds: “We don’t need to limit learning to a certain period of the day or week. Learning can transcend that.”

In other words, says Assistant Head for Educational Strategy Adam Nye, “We have been doing very creative work, but we are doing it within a traditional school model. It is time to evolve that model to allow us to continue to innovate in the way we engage our students. It will be an evolution of how we have ‘done school,’ which will be a challenging, but essential process.”

Essential, asserts Rogen, because the accelerated pace of technology and content creation means that the future is one where learning is continuous, and simply absorbing content will no longer be enough. Students need to know “… how to find content, what to do with it, how to interrogate it, and how to make connections across lots of other things so that they can be inventive and innovative and creative.” And teachers? Their knowledge of content enables them to “understand where the connections are so that the learning is anchored, authentic, and real.”

Also important, underscores Goldin, are the social-emotional skills necessary to navigate this changing world: how to collaborate, empathize, and relate to people who are different, working across cultures and time zones. “It’s not enough to be a citizen in just your community,” she says. “Understanding what it means to be a citizen now is broader, and those core values-based, character-based skill sets that relate to emotional intelligence have to be broadened in order to adapt to a global world.”

WT’s Vision for An Uncharted, Unlimited Future

Since January, school leaders have worked steadily to develop a strategic design process that will serve as a guide to an uncharted, unlimited future, while articulating WT’s strategic vision that will guide this process. Led by Nye, this effort begins by learning from parents, students, employees, and alumnae/i through focus groups, interviews, and surveys; maintaining an open dialogue with faculty; researching emerging educational trends; engaging universities and community leaders in conversation; and looking to other schools as inspiration. The vision won’t be completed until this fall, but Fech offers a preview now:

“I think what we’re going to see are three areas of focus that will be in service of each other: pedagogy; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and the student experience. Encompassing all of this will be specifics regarding our beliefs about teaching and learning. Once we clearly define these beliefs, then I think the strategic design process will unfold from there.

“I’ve heard it said that we’re not called to do all the good in the world—only the good that we can do,” he reflects, before enthusiastically imagining the kind of experience the design could facilitate.

“What would happen if students were studying architecture in geometry, and simultaneously discussing poverty, cultural change, and community action? Wouldn’t it make sense that they would then spend six weeks working at Habitat for Humanity—where geometry makes a difference, ensuring the wall is straight and level, and the impact on the family and the community makes a difference that we can’t even begin to measure? It’s exciting to think about using our learning to give back—and understanding that we haven’t left content behind at all. In fact, we’re using it in a real and meaningful context.”

Even as WT continues to evolve, there is one thing that will never change, Fech vows, without missing a beat. “The values. The notion of ‘think also of the comfort and the rights of others’ and ‘gentle in manner, strong in deed.’ These are things that will be pervasive, that will inform the kind of work we do within our classroom and how we interact with one another. The care that we have for one another within the community, the care that we have for our outside community in which we live: all of that will feel very much the same.”