Real-World Learning in Independent Schools

This article was originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of Independent School magazine.

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In 2012, I took a group of Catlin Gabel School (OR) students to Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square. We were interviewing passersby as part of a weeklong project to learn the principles of design thinking through shoes. (Portland, the home of Nike and Adidas North America, is an epicenter for shoe design.) I was with a group of 14-year-old boys who signed up because they loved basketball. As they talked to people that afternoon, however, one particular user became clear: the 32- to 38- year-old woman who needed a work-appropriate shoe comfortable enough for biking, the light rail, and walking rain-soaked streets.
As they moved on to the project’s next phase and developed prototypes, I was struck by the sharp right turn these fervent athletes had taken. I asked, “Does your team care about the problem it’s trying to solve?” One boy looked at me intensely and said, “Those women need this shoe!”
I love this moment because it reveals the power of real-world learning. The moment that these independent school students stepped off campus, they encountered real people and real needs. What could have been a purely academic exercise or an intellectual exploration of the principles of design, became real. They developed empathy for someone different and a deeper motivation for their work. Relevance drives learning. 
I loved my experience as a high school student in an independent school, but aside from one dedicated week a year, my classroom was largely confined to books and classrooms. As 21st century learning enters the rear-view mirror—we’re 19 years in, after all—that model seems valuable but incomplete. Our schools are being challenged to reconsider the way we define rigor—and the kind of programs we offer our students.
Watershed School (CO), where I am finishing my final year as head of school, embodies this move. With an interdisciplinary expedition model that anchors literature, social studies, and science in real-world challenges, our students are often off-campus exploring real-world problems in an authentic context. We started our annual Traverse conference in 2014 to connect with other schools across the country that were developing these kinds of programs. In doing so, we discovered how many other independent schools were developing models for real-world learning that made sense for them. 

What is Real-World Learning?

I’ve worked in schools for 20 years, and I’ve heard the mantra of authentic audiences for student work for most of that time. And certainly, independent schools have long found ways to get students off campus. The ideas are rooted in philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey and a progressive commitment to education for democracy.
What feels emergent among independent schools now is a deeper commitment to blurring the lines between campus and community.  Where “authentic learning” once might have meant analyzing authentic materials to discuss current events, these programs go further by taking students off campus to interview diverse constituents and design an original solution.
There’s a deeper commitment to authentic sources to help students engage with real people offering diverse and complex perspectives. Off-campus learning then becomes a consistent feature of rigorous academic learning, versus an occasional change of pace. The rethinking of off-campus and global programs also de-emphasizes touristic activities and engages with local perspectives, food, and lodging. Finally, students are developing original products and solutions that are (or can be) delivered and implemented.
What’s remarkable is how many ways independent schools are reinventing themselves to make the boundary between school and life more porous, while also regenerating a commitment to what they’ve always done well. What all of these independent schools have in common, however, is attention to shifting four key levers: program silos, assessment, time, and space.


Rethinking Silos

Started in 2004, Watershed has experienced some growing pains associated with young schools, but it began with a blank sheet of paper. The interdisciplinary expedition—a core course taken by all students—has always been a part of the school’s program. It teaches English, social studies, and science, revolving around a question, such as “What is the future of water?” Supporting questions connect to each discipline.
For example, middle school students studied the impact of climate change by asking, “What is the future of water?” Classroom work studied the science of climate change, which was leveraged during fieldwork in Aspen. While off-campus, students interviewed business owners about the potential impact of less snow while also conducting field science in assessing the region’s snowpack.
Many independent schools, of course, have longer histories and more established traditions and programs. So when working with educators elsewhere, they sometimes ask how to maintain the best of what they’ve always done well. After all, what has often defined independent schools is the quality of the classroom experience. Why would you want to put that at risk?

A number of independent school innovators are hacking program configuration to encourage more real-world learning. Lab Atlanta is one such model. A project of Lovett School (GA), Lab Atlanta serves honors-level 10th-graders for one semester only. This allows them to prepare a college preparatory mix of classes that connect with each other while also allowing for robust access to Atlanta as a campus.
Developing a program with relative independence allows the program to innovate in several ways. Although Lovett students may apply to attend Lab Atlanta, they are a minority of each cohort. Lab Atlanta’s cohort is diverse, drawn from other independent schools as well as the metro area public and charter schools. Admission is truly need blind with socioeconomic diversity not often found in our independent schools.
Lab Atlanta’s one-semester model also allows it to incubate new best practices for transdisciplinary learning, a term its leaders define as “interdisciplinary instruction plus real-world purpose.” Curating these deep connections would be a heavy lift if you started at the scale of a full K–12 school, but in time, Lab Atlanta may find itself spreading what it learns to larger institutions.
Also in Atlanta, the Innovation Diploma at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School (GA) carves out space for real-world learning by creating a different pathway for students to pursue advanced credentials in their upper school. In parallel with the school’s Advanced Placement courses and a well-developed college preparatory curriculum, Mount Vernon students have the option of pursuing a credential that documents their experience in solving real-world problems. The path includes exposure to design thinking, collaboration skills, and the opportunity to work on projects that have real-world outcomes, such as when students designed a new community park in Peachtree Station—one that was physically built to their specifications. As Bo Adams, Mount Vernon’s chief learning and innovation officer, explains it, “When projects of real-world impact lead the way, content is naturally transdisciplinary.”

Addressing Assessment


Once we begin to challenge students with more real-world work, how can we assess it in ways that reward and recognize robust, transdisciplinary problem-solving?
For Watershed, we developed a Portrait of a Graduate, which identifies the six abilities we want to build in all of our graduates: In addition to the 4Cs of modern learning (communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creative problem-solving), it recognizes craftsmanship and citizenship of the world.
We partnered with EdLeader21, a national network of school leaders focused on integrating the 4Cs, and were able to reap the benefits of its detailed rubrics that describe proficiency in many of these areas while creating similar rubrics for abilities that were unique to Watershed. Assessing these traits across all disciplines in grades 6–12 sets us up to collect evidence of learning in all six of these domains.
Beginning this fall, our students were eligible to receive awards in any of these areas—collaboration, for instance—when evidence across more than one class showed that they were performing at an exemplary level.
The Mastery Transcript Consortium, which started as a coalition of independent schools and is now expanding to public school partners, offers schools the opportunity to be part of developing a shared, ungraded transcript—and a pathway to gaining college recognition for the kind of leadership, analytical, and problem-solving skills that real-world programs develop. Watershed was proud to be one of the first schools to join this initiative, and I can’t help but notice that the same is true for many of the schools doing this work.

Creating More Time

Time is the third lever that schools are hacking to encourage real-world learning by creating large blocks of time where students can work across disciplines, travel off campus, and begin longer projects that fit well in a 45- or 55-minute window. Creating these blocks of time means dividing each day differently, as well as creating blocks within each year where students can immerse themselves in daylong courses.
Watershed operates a May Term, in which students take one course from the end of April until graduation. Hawken School (OH) has created two three-week Intensive Courses at the end of its two semesters.
Of course, using this time may be a matter of intention rather than redesign. In fact, many schools already have these blocks of time—a Winterim, J-Term, or Project Week—that could be leveraged more intentionally to connect learning to the community.
Within the weekly calendar, finding these long blocks of time is also important. Watershed’s expedition program only works because it is the only course a student can take in the afternoon, in lengths ranging from 140 to 190 minutes, depending on the day. That allows the students time to do meaning field work at the Denver Art Museum, Rocky Mountain National Park, or Google Boulder. Innovation Diploma students at Mount Vernon enjoy a four-and-a-half hour block on Thursday, in addition to their other daily rotations.

Changing Spaces

For so long, many independent schools have prided themselves on fostering bucolic sanctuaries away from the noise of the city. But now, some are building new campuses that allow them to partner with their communities in new ways. Of course, many great independent schools have always been engaged with their urban context. But for the suburban independent school, many have been reorienting their campuses.
The location of Lovett’s Lab Atlanta program—blocks from Savannah College of Art and Design and other urban treasures—allows students to walk off campus and study the city, interview stakeholders, and visit important cultural markers without bus transportation. Deisley says, “We are located in the heart of midtown Atlanta in a former graphic design studio that we rent at a submarket rate from a developer.
These new outposts don’t need to be owned. Watershed doesn’t yet have the resources, so when we experimented with building an entrepreneurship program, we used this constraint as an opportunity to form deeper relationships with the Boulder entrepreneurial community. Partnering with TechStars, we used temporarily vacant space to launch a pop-up campus in downtown Boulder. Over several weekends—with our basecamp shifting each time based on availability—we ran a program called Startup Weekend Boulder Youth. The setting allowed for unplanned cross-pollination with adult entrepreneurs and easier access to downtown Boulder for research and field interviews.
When rethinking space, it’s important to remember that bringing community on campus is just as important as taking the students off campus. Hillbrook School’s new Scott Center for Social Entrepreneurship has launched satellite spaces off campus, including WeWork’s San Jose office. But the school’s also launching an on-campus social entrepreneur program, in which a local entrepreneur will run his or her business from campus once a week. This presence allows for serendipitous moments of learning, whether it’s a moment of brainstorming together or discovering ways to collaborate on longer-term projects.
Physical transformations of on-campus space can also support a shift to real-world work. Since real-world work won’t be the same every day, flexibility and open space allows the environment to shift. At Watershed, for example, every classroom is used for expedition, meaning that an art studio also needs to be used for literature, and a science lab will need to work for Spanish class. At Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, Studio(i) and the Hive provide flexible studio spaces that are more like shared-work environments from which students run consultancies and client meetings, product design projects, VR content creation, and lab experiments.
Independent schools have long prided themselves on their academic rigor. Increasingly, we’re asking whether our traditional model for rigor is enough to drive student engagement and prepare students for an increasingly complex world. What’s powerful about these real-world programs is the way they challenge students to think in more nuanced ways, to gain empathy for others, and to develop authentic work through collaboration.
We need to rethink rigor: After all, nothing is more rigorous than reality. ▪

Greg Bamford