Learning to Learn and the Shifting Dynamics of Work

At Waynflete, the phrase “Learn to Learn” is printed on our bumper stickers, used in public radio ads, and prominently displayed on our website. To fully appreciate why it is so much more than a slogan, you have to look at the shifting dynamic of work and the skills our graduates will need now and into the future.

A recent report by the global consultancy McKinsey identified that one third of all American workers will be displaced by automation within the next thirteen years. Thirteen years is less time than a Waynflete “lifer” takes to graduate and in that time the world of work will be upended. As a school, our charge is to prepare children for a world that will be constantly evolving. Work and careers are no longer a single path to be pursued but rather an ever-changing dynamic that requires a real willingness to retool. It takes courage, optimism, and some real skills to believe that one can reinvent oneself. At Waynflete, we believe all those qualities come when you learn to learn.

We don’t just teach skills and content: we teach children how to learn. This is an important distinction. We design our educational experience to truly engage students in the learning process and to instill in them the understanding that they are in control. The motivation to learn must come from within and we are deliberate about making learning interesting, relevant, and appropriately challenging for each student.

We don’t view effective learning to be merely the dissemination of content and skills from teacher to student. Skills are essential and content is the medium we use to develop those skills. Learning to learn, however, is about combining essential skills with an openness and eagerness to learn new things. A child who finds enjoyment and success in learning will develop into an adult who feels the same way. We believe that school must be both rigorous and engaging. Engagement leads to motivation. Motivation leads to a willingness to work hard to learn new things and to challenge oneself.

What makes school engaging? At Waynflete, we believe that learning is deeply personal and what motivates and excites one child is different than that which motivates another. A child who feels known and supported in school is in the best position to find success. Our culture encourages close collaboration between children and their teachers. A teacher who knows a child well can craft an educational experience that is both challenging and supportive.

It may seem obvious that the motivation to learn comes from within but in most educational settings that reality is not fully embraced. Content and skills are often delivered to students regardless of whether they are engaged. At Waynflete, learning is a collaborative process where students and teachers work together towards a common understanding. In most of our classrooms, students and a teacher sit in circles engaged in discussions of the material or are actively engaged in a project or lab. Students are encouraged to take the lead and share their perspective and understanding. This deeply personal approach makes certain that all our students are engaged and feel a sense of ownership over their learning.

Learn to learn is a slogan and it is a plan for life that ensures students will have the ability to learn, retool, and change direction. It is reassuring to know that whatever life brings, the possibility for reinvention is a learning opportunity away.


What A Day on the Kennebec With the Seniors Taught Me

I have been thinking a lot about the value of teamwork and how that applies to a broad spectrum of experiences. The genesis of these thoughts was the glorious day I spent riding the Kennebec waves with the senior class as part of their Outdoor Experience trip.

After willingly subjecting ourselves to a whitewaterscreening of Jaws, our bus arrived at The Forks in Somerset County, ME. The Forks is the point of convergence for the Kennebec and Dead Rivers and is the home of Three Rivers Whitewater Guide Service. We piled out of the bus, received our cabin assignments, and quickly unloaded our gear. It was 4:00 in the afternoon and we wanted to check out Moxie Falls before dinner.

Moxie Falls has one of the tallest single water drops in the State of Maine. After an easy 10-minute hike, a series of steps and handrails brought us to the edge of the Falls and a gorgeous view of the river, falls, and forest. After 15 minutes, we headed back up the trail in search of the apparently elusive swimming hole.

The swimming hole turned out to be easy to find and a handful of brave souls went for a swim. It was not a particularly wonderful day, with overcast skies and cool temperatures, and the water temperature was chilly. Most of the senior class chose to hang out on the bank of the river and watch the swimming from the warmth of their dry clothes.

In addition to the glorious views, our group received a great compliment from another group of hikers. We were told that our students were remarkably polite, friendly, and helpful. I had to agree.

We returned to The Forks for an evening of all-you-can-eat tacos, karaoke, and games.  The most exciting event was Twister and boy was it athletic. It combined a little Sumo wrestling, yoga, chess, and teamwork. The winning teams were able to force their opponents into impossible positions.

After the evening’s events concluded, we returned to the cabins to go to bed.  Actually, to be more accurate, we simply returned to the cabins and tried unsuccessfully to sleep.

The next morning, a tired group of seniors managed to get themselves to breakfast in time for our safety briefing.  It was a glorious day already and temperatures were predicted to be in the 80s and sunny throughout our rafting time.  The lead rafting guide walked us through all of the risk factors that could appear during our trip and ways to avoid them.  We then donned our life vests, grabbed paddles, and climbed aboard buses to the start of the whitewater course.

Because the Kennebec is a dam-controlled river, the whitewater fun is created by water releases.  Our guide explained that the river is usually flowing at about 2000 cubic feet per second, but the whitewater release brings that up to 5000. He described one cubic foot as the size of a chicken and had us envision 5000 chickens going by per second.

I was assigned to a great raft. My partner and I were the only people brave enough to take on the river first. I would have been happy to give up my seat; in fact, I begged to give up my seat but I had no takers. So, down the river we went.

Kenny, our guide, taught us the correct paddle strokes and encouraged us to paddle in sync.  This would provide us the greatest maneuverability and speed. Before we entered a series of rapids, Kenny would tell us how we would maneuver the raft and then would begin yelling out his commands.

The first half of our rafting trip was the most exciting with a mixture of Class 3 and 4 rapids.  Kenny’s job was to position the raft in such a way that we would feel like we were in a giant flume with water spraying everywhere. The thrill combined all the elements of a great amusement park ride: adrenaline pumping, nerves energized, and hysterical laughter all rolled into one experience.

After completing the upper part of the river, we were permitted to float through a series of Class 2 rapids and swift water. Just imagine our good fortune: the air temperature registered 84 and the water temperature was 69. It was a cloudless sky and bright sun beat down on us. It could not have been more perfect.

Since I am never one to miss an opportunity to draw a lesson from an experience, this rafting trip did not disappoint. The rapids helped me realize that the teamwork aspect of rafting is like so many things in life. If a rafting team doesn’t work all that hard, they will likely have a perfectly pleasant and somewhat boring ride down the river. However, if a rafting team works really hard and concentrates on staying in sync, they will have the most thrilling ride possible. I think this lesson can be applied to a lot of things in life.

Our day ended with a mellow float down the Kennebec followed by a picnic lunch.  It was a great way for me to get to know a bunch of the senior class and to spend a few days in the Maine outdoors.

The Right People Make All the Difference

ImageWhen our landscape designer Julie Green and I thought about building a community garden and edible classroom on campus, we were inspired by The Edible Schoolyard Project founded by California chef Alice Waters. Waters believed that a school-based garden and teaching kitchen could enrich curriculum and we wanted to create a link between our EA Farm Direct Program and our classrooms. The idea took on increasing energy when we put the concept for the garden out to the faculty. Julie and I were not certain who would be interested and were overwhelmed by teachers in the Lower, Middle, and Upper divisions who wanted plots. We had Lower School homeroom teachers who wanted a pumpkin patch and science teachers in all divisions eager to show the whole growth process from seed to harvest. Classics teachers were ready to plant Greek herbs and English teachers wanted a Shakespearean garden they could sit in with their classes.

With the interest secured, we put the deer fence up, built raised beds, and planted in the spring. Like many start-up projects, the first year was heavy on ideas and lighter on follow through. We had not exactly sorted out summer maintenance, the garden was under a thistle attack, and we hadn’t found the right person or persons to lead the effort.

ImageAnd then we got really lucky. Joe Bayer was hired as a full-time horticulturalist and Lisa Turner was hired as an English teacher in the Upper School. A California native, Lisa shares a passion for gardening and teaching and was inspired by the same edible classroom ideas that were the inspiration for our garden. Lisa and I were meeting to discuss what additional duties she would like to take on beyond her four classes and it quickly became obvious she should be the guru of the garden. Joe Bayer loved the idea of the garden and wanted to develop part of it as a nursery for flowers, shrubs, and trees that would be planted around campus.

Joe and Lisa prove that when passion, energy, and skill come together great things are possible. The garden now has a 1000-gallon cistern to capture rainwater from the roof of the maintenance building, 16 raised beds that are all being used, a nursery area for shrubs and trees, and an herb-cutting garden for the community. Lisa, Joe and a small cadre of others are raising egg-laying chickens that do a lot of good fertilizing and eating insects like ticks. We are in the process of installing a commercial composter behind our cafeteria to capture food waste and turn it into compost for the garden and campus.

In addition to regular classes and homerooms coming to the garden, Lisa joined forces with the after-care program to provide Lower School children with an opportunity to learn about plants, plant care or gardening. Lisa told me that this summer with the help of several teacher-gardener volunteers, we donated over 20 pounds of fresh produce to local food pantries. This year we will receive donated seeds from High Mowing Organic Seed Company–including seeds that will be donated to our sister school in Haiti. Now my favorite memory of the season was seeing Lisa dressed as the Thistle Witch stirring up the young hands to dig up every thistle in the garden.

Do We Need to Change the Way We Teach Math? A Hypothetical Exercise

The scenario is straightforward.  The online school, K12.com, is doing a better job at teaching math than your school.  Their outcomes on standardized tests are better, the retention of skills is better, and K12.com students are doing well in national math competitions.  This reality has been verified by a recent University of Pennsylvania study.  The secret to K12.com’s success is that their learning technology provides all students with their own differentiated path to success in math.  The technology adjusts itself to each learner in a way that a classroom teacher is simply unable to do.  In addition to the problem that your school is not teaching math as well as K12.com, your parents are beginning to ask uncomfortable questions as K12.com provides their education for free.  How will you respond?

This is a hypothetical scenario that I use as part of a workshop on innovation for graduate students in the School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. The exercise challenges the group to think about innovation in the curriculum, as well as the challenges and opportunities created by new technologies like online learning.  The main point of the exercise is for participants to sort out how their school can innovate without losing what is core to their mission and culture.

Since I started doing this exercise four years ago, this hypothetical scenario has become increasingly more realistic.  Independent tuition-charging schools justify their relevance by employing great teachers, having small class sizes, offering great programs, and providing quality interaction between students and teachers.  As the product of an independent school education and an employee of one, I can attest to these qualities being true.  My own children benefit from the quality of their interaction with their teachers every single day.  The danger that lurks out there, however, is the possibility that new teaching technologies will finally live up to the hype and perform at a comparable level to traditional bricks and mortar institutions.

In the K12.com scenario, the graduate students often struggle with the idea that an online school could be better then a traditional classroom.  Their reactions mimic many of the same concerns expressed by school administrators and teachers everywhere.  Teachers, they say, have the unique ability to read the emotional cues that students give.  They point to the fact that most parents are not equipped to have children at home.  They talk about the benefit of being in the same room as other students, learning the social skills necessary for living in our world.  The idea that students would be sitting in front of computer screens is anathema to everything they believe education to be about.

While the current iteration of K12.com and websites like khanacademy.org provide nowhere near as good an education as a great independent school, the underlying learning technology is improving rapidly.  At the heart of the improvement is the ability to tailor lessons and approaches to different kinds of learners.  And, there is a huge economic incentive to make technology-based online learning really good.  K12.com is one of the leading online schools with a market cap of over $800 million dollars.  Online schools and colleges represent the fastest growing segment of the education market.  There is a lot of money being poured into developing better ways to assess, tailor, and motivate students to learn in an online environment.  The moment these online schools begin matriculating students in any numbers at top colleges, independent schools will have another hurdle to overcome in convincing families to pay their high tuitions.

Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson make just this argument in their book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.  They argue that technology will offer “the potential for customized learning in student-centric classrooms” and will alter every aspect of the way we teach and learn. (P.38) Schools that are able to “implement this computer-based technology in a disruptive fashion,” will thrive. (P.90)  Using the example of how the personal computer destroyed Digital Equipment Corporation, the authors believe that many schools will fail to see the disruption coming and will simply become irrelevant.

So what does the threat of online learning mean for independent schools?  In my view, independent schools can thrive in this new environment provided that they recognize the opportunities that new learning technologies offer and are willing to rethink the traditional classroom.  The best ideas to come from the graduate students and others who have been part of my workshop do just that. They take advantage of the differentiated learning possibilities technology provides, combine that with the best of what teachers are able to do, and wrap it in a great school community.

Here is an example using math instruction in middle and upper school.  Currently, math is taught following the Carnegie Unit, or time-based method of curriculum design, with each year defined by a specific curriculum.  Between September and June, an eighth grader taking Algebra 1, for instance, will complete a specific curriculum and, provided the student passes, will move on to Algebra 2.  So a student that gets an A moves on with the student that gets a C even though each student’s level of mastery is nowhere near the same.  A good Algebra 1 teacher is able to differentiate instruction to a certain point, but there will often be big differences in the outcomes.

By taking advantage of new learning technologies, math instruction can become untethered from the traditional Carnegie Unit method and instead each student can progress at the appropriate rate for him or her.  Instead of going to Algebra 1 during math period, students go to the math center where they are grouped according to where they are in their own progression.  The technology provides students with problems to work on and constantly assesses their progress, tailoring the lessons depending on the students’ individual needs.  The teacher will frequently gather students in groups to teach and reinforce, while also circulating around to help individuals.  The teacher gets constant feedback about student progress and can anticipate where individual and group lessons would be appropriate.  As soon as class is over, the students continue on with their day.  The hypothetical independent school that takes this approach has not necessarily changed either its mission or culture, but it has redefined how it teaches math, the role of the math teacher, and how technology is used.

There are certainly a number of issues that arise from a change in the way we teach math or any subject for that matter.  At this point, the learning technologies have not matured to the point where a wholesale shift is even viable.  What this lesson teaches, however, is the need to be open to the possibility of what may be coming very soon, what it might mean for our programs, and what it says about the viability of independent schools’ business model.


Christensen, C. M., M. B. Horn, and C. W. Johnson. Disrupting class, how disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns. New York: McGraw-Hill Professional, 2008.