Merriam-Webster defines education as “the action or process of teaching someone, especially in a school, college, or university.” But that definition falls far short of what transpires at WT, says Head of School Dr. Scott D. Fech.

“We are a school committed to progressive education. For me, this is the application of knowledge in relevant situations,” he explains. “It is not learning content for content’s sake. Students can learn a mathematical or scientific formula, but if they don’t know when or how to use it, it is just an academic activity. Progressive education is about learning for use, adaptation, and application. It is about equipping students with lifelong skills, including critical analysis, communication in multiple modes, exploration of multifaceted ideas, and the ability to acquire and apply knowledge to solve complex problems.”

student holds up experiment
Grade 7 student Aleah Cooper participates in a project that is focused on understanding and action to master science concepts. Progressive education emphasizes hands-on projects that use real materials rather than relying solely on textbooks.

Fech began forming his philosophy when, as a high school French teacher, he realized his students’ learning was limited by conventional methodology. So, he dug into language acquisition research, scrapped rote memorization, adopted comprehensible input—a methodology incorporating action and visuals with real-life situations—and witnessed students’ fluency soar. Later, as an administrator at the acclaimed University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, founded by renowned progressive educator John Dewey, Fech’s thinking rooted deeper still.

“Dewey’s philosophy was, ‘Let’s do it!’ We are living and using information right now. This meshes seamlessly with WT’s strategic priorities. It’s why City as Our Campus thrives—because it’s about how content is living and breathing and being utilized on a day-to-day basis out in the field. It can’t help but be interdisciplinary,” says Fech.

Developing Curriculum Through Multiple Lenses

“Interdisciplinary learning reflects how learning occurs naturally in most contexts,” states Director of Academics Desiree Jennings. “It helps students engage in deeper levels of learning, and it teaches students the value of learning about a single subject from different perspectives and through different lenses. It also provides teachers with the same opportunity—to learn and teach about the same thing through a different lens.”

An elementary teacher turned administrator, Jennings knows well the benefits of interdisciplinary coursework. Throughout last year, she worked closely with WT faculty to review and revise curricula at each divisional level, digging in with individual teachers to define the purpose of their curriculum and ensure that it remains the driving force shaping curriculum decisions—all while maintaining focus on how that purpose aligns with WT’s Philosophy of Teaching and Learning, Mission, Equity and Inclusion Statement, and Strategic Priorities.

“Learning about our curriculum from the administrative end has allowed me to experience the curriculum itself as a vehicle for questions, challenges, and joys in a whole new way because I am able to focus on listening, observing, wondering, and sharing ideas with my colleagues at a much broader level. Among the most important things I’ve concluded is that to align our curriculum from PK through grade 12, and to consistently refine and develop it, we need a systematic approach.”

two students read books
Collaborative learning is a key component of progressive education. Grade 1 students Harper Liu (L) and Amy Ai (R) support each other in their reading comprehension. 
teacher talks to student
A personalized approach to learning helps students to pursue their individual goals in a meaningful way. Math Teacher Heather Crowley (L) guides grade 7 student Henry Katz (R) in her self-paced algebra class, which empowers students to pursue their learning at a pace appropriate to their mastery of the content.

As part of that process, Jennings will incorporate recommendations from The Glasgow Group, with whom she and others at WT worked during the past year to conduct a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion audit. The Glasgow team asked faculty to examine parts of their curriculum through different lenses, analyze their work within that context, and consider what more could be done.

“They also examined existing curriculum documentation and curriculum resources such as classroom texts, assigned readings, learning activities, and other resources,” says Jennings, adding that such work is necessary in the pursuit to reimagine learning.

“Progressive education recognizes the school as an essential part of the community and society, the value of developing intellectual curiosity within the student, and the importance of curriculum reflecting the society it is developed within.”

Systematic Faculty Support

WT’s commitment to progressive education, and to evolving its curriculum, includes a strong framework for supporting faculty. The Summer Curriculum Program is a key component, providing stipends, space, and other resources for the summer exploration and development of proposed projects and courses. Jennings has extended the program throughout the academic year by meeting periodically with teachers to learn about project implementation, objectives for integration into curriculum, and any support still needed to attain teaching and learning goals. All of this will inform Jennings’ plans for curriculum development going forward, while building on successful efforts already in place.

“Middle School Math Teacher Heather Crowley worked last summer on further developing her self-paced algebra course. In Heather’s own words, this model ‘allows students to move at a learning speed that feels most comfortable to them’ and includes instructional videos, assignments for skills practice, checking completed work, games and activities to review and strengthen understanding, and daily opportunities for small group lessons and one-on-one instruction,” explains Jennings. “This model is exciting to me because it is designed to meet the needs of diverse learners, which helps to ensure that students are both making good learning progress and having a joyful, affirming experience in math class.”

Fech, after sitting in on a recent class, offered only praise: “I have never seen such individualized instruction in a class of that size in my life.”

teacher talks to student
A focus on developing social and interpersonal skills prepares students for life after school. Seniors Leo Hoglund-McGuirk (L) and Tamia Pugh (R) share ideas during a class discussion.
elementary students mix green goo
Kindergarten students Mira Hoskoppal (L) and Connor McBride (R) engage in a science experiment to build their observation and experimentation skills. The main driver of progressive education is hands-on, experiential learning so students develop their skills as well as knowledge. 

The Fulcrum of Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning

As WT expands its commitment to progressive education, the importance of interdisciplinary learning and teaching becomes ever more apparent—and so do the possibilities for the Joan Clark Davis Center for Interdisciplinary Learning.

“The magic is in teachers working together with colleagues and with students—bringing classes and disciplines together,” explains Fech. “The Davis Center will inspire people to think differently, to allow for flexibility and collaboration in new ways that foster critical thinking and problem solving.”

“Interdisciplinary learning is one of the goals that teachers have been asked to work on in the Upper School,” says Director of Upper School Dr. Anne Fay. “Some exist already, such as Machine Learning and the Implications of Artificial Intelligence (AI), and Interactive Storytelling and Video Game Design. Other courses under development include Memory, Culture, and Identity, which will engage students in science, history, music, art, and rhetoric as they examine memory as a process grounded in science and formed through social interaction and cultural experiences. In all these courses, one goal is for students to learn that successful engagement with complex problems requires the involvement of multiple disciplines.”

Equipping students to acquire knowledge, and to become adept at adapting and applying it, is an outcome that students and families should expect of progressive education, Fech offers. “I think that’s what makes our students more interesting to colleges, because they do think in this way. They’re going to challenge the system. They will have already made these connections in interdisciplinary ways that many of their peers—who went through a much more classical program that segmented things by design—will not have done.”

teacher exercising with students
Progressive education takes a whole child approach, attending to intellectual, as well physical, social, and emotional growth. Dance Teacher Kassandra Humberson ’08 leads students in physical movement activities that meet that goal. 
high school student spraypaints
Junior Sid Sadashiv participates in a collaborative Urban Art project with students enrolled in City College of New York, which motivates students to communicate and exchange ideas about social justice through art. Engaging in creative methods to learn about social responsibility is part of WT’s approach to progressive education.

Change and Challenge on the Horizon

Such connections and skills will only flourish and even proliferate as WT moves away from outside, content-centered curricula such as Advanced Placement (AP) courses (a decision made after years of careful deliberation), and toward more offerings of “authentic, project-based learning courses that engage students with content and skills to address real-world problems that are very student-centered, where pacing and topics are responsive to student’s learning needs and interests, and where students will be able to dig deeper into the content and skills of a discipline,” explains Fay.

“For example, a course in data science will replace AP Statistics and will focus on the concepts, tools, strategies, and methods at the intersection of data analysis, computing, and mathematics; an advanced alternative to AP Computer Science—which focuses solely on the Java programming language—is Computer Languages and Structures which will introduce students to different programming languages in the context of problem-solving. In English, AP Language and Composition would be replaced by Rhetoric and Communication, which will provide students the opportunity to learn the theories and practical tools of persuasion employed in several different fields.”

“The thread that stays the same”

Reflecting on the vast arc of Winchester Thurston’s history, Fech declares that the school’s evolution is as much about the future as it is about the past.

“These are the moments that who we are continues to be the thread that stays the same. In the late 1800s, when Miss Mitchell and Miss Thurston created schools—initially as two, and then as one—they broke boundaries to provide an education for women that was on par with what was being given to men, and to prepare them for college. They were progressive at their core. They challenged the system. They created change. Their legacy still drives who we are; not only is it alive and well—it is thriving. So, in addition to fulfilling the vision of our strategic priorities, our commitment to progressive education is really a nod to our founders. They were ahead of their time, just as WT is now and, I believe, always will be.”

A Collaborative Culture of Teaching and Learning

Teaching, like learning, is a dynamic, interactive process—“nowhere more than at WT, and never more than now,” declares Assistant Head for Education and Strategy Adam Nye. “As we continue seeking innovative ways to refine and enhance the learning experience, our faculty need support to navigate this work.”

Such support abounds within WT’s Formative Development program, a robust faculty support and professional development system that—along with the Summer Curriculum Program—extends the work of reimagining learning and deepens the school’s commitment to progressive education.

How we feel about the year art
Faculty collaborated with artist Emily Marko during a professional development workshop to share and document their hopes for this academic year.

Program components include:

Mentorship: Each new faculty member collaborates with a mentor, assigned based on needs and interests, for the first two years of teaching.

Goal Setting and Collaboration: All faculty members set goals (at least one of which is focused on reimagining learning and one devoted to diversity, equity, and inclusion) to help identify and pursue areas of growth; experiences are then designed to foster communication and collaboration on shared goals.

Professional Development: All faculty members receive a generous budget to pursue professional development aligning with their goals and the strategic priorities of the school.

Focus Year: Occurring on a three-year rotation, the Focus Year includes intentional reflection of goal progress and professional development; guided curriculum development and refinement; classroom observations; and collaboration between colleagues.

Though each component is crafted with distinct supports and purpose, they share common goals: to encourage participants to engage in honest self-reflection, share in candid conversation, and use insights they glean from the process to accelerate their growth as teachers. The focus is on improving teachers’ practices through an interactive process where they can express their aspirations and receive input on their particular skills, strengths, and areas for growth.

The benefits of Formative Development, asserts Nye, are far-reaching, long-lasting, and fundamental to teaching and learning at Winchester Thurston. “The Formative Development mission statement recognizes that, ‘As faculty are involved in a process in which they engage in dialogue and self-reflection to improve their practice, they model the very growth mindset that we expect from our students’—in this collaborative culture, student learning can’t help but be enhanced.”