Commentary, Letters to the Editor

Letter to the Editor

To the Editor:

I was fascinated and surprised to read the recent article about the scheduling task force and to note that only once did a version of the verb “to learn” come up, but that wasn’t in connection with student learning, but rather in the final statement from Marcelle Doheny: “We all learned a great deal from the conversations over the past two years and are all invested in building a consensus. Part of that will, of course, involve student input. We can certainly anticipate many spirited discussions this year.”

I’m hoping that these “spirited discussions” will have at their center the learner experience and the core values of the school, perhaps also some attention to recent themes that have surfaced, “knowledge and goodness” and what is often mentioned as an essential core value at Andover, Non Sibi.

All that said, I’m wondering whether more discussions among a task force are the ideal and most innovative approach to digging into the enormous challenge of reconsidering how to structure time at Andover. My question comes from reading the article, knowing that last year’s efforts didn’t lead to change, and having served on several such scheduling committees in independent schools. I’ll also add that I believe wholeheartedly in the importance of all parts of an Andover education from academics to athletics, the arts, student life, extracurriculars, and more. I might even argue that I’ve watched my students and my own children learn as much from athletics, the arts, camp, and extracurriculars as they have in traditional classrooms, maybe more in some moments. It all matters and yet you can “schedule anything but not everything.” I’d encourage those charged with this important work to read “A Meditation on Time (in Schools): A Constellation of Thoughts” by Eric Chandler, Head of Upper School at Kent Denver, where they, too, are wrestling with these questions.

I’d also encourage innovative work with students. The students quoted in the article struck me as having few, if any, other points of reference. They didn’t compare the Andover schedule with another, as I imagine it’s likely many of them haven’t experienced other high school schedules (or maybe just one other). In their comments, they noted small details such as when they miss breakfast, the late lunch on Wednesdays is difficult. It is hard to focus when you’re hungry, but I think that concern didn’t strike me as helpful for digging deeply into the student experience and asking questions about what best supports their learning. None of the students mentioned learning, in fact. There was a comment about longer periods enabling covering more material, but that raised my radar, as I’m finding more and more that volume does not always lead to authentic and enduring learning. I’m all for rigor, but I want it to lead to enduring, valuable, transferable learning.

Maybe there have been innovative approaches to this challenge, but if not, how about considering the following:

What if the task force worked with IDEO  — or the whole Andover community did — and an authentic effort went to a design thinking approach, starting with empathy interviews and observations about the learner experience, all aimed at carefully determining what problem(s) you’re aiming to solve? (Empathy interviews with faculty would also be critical, but again with an eye toward what best supports student learning.) Of course, there’s far more to a design thinking approach, but having just spent two days at the Nueva Innovative Learning Conference, I believe the potential for excellent solutions might come from design thinking (DT). (And, by the way Nueva School is also working on their schedule.) What’s particularly compelling in DT, I find, is the opportunity to become clear about user needs and the problem being tackled, to then make prototypes, run pilots, gather evidence of what, in fact, and, in this case, best enables students to learn and be healthy. I believe such efforts might go beyond “spirited discussions.”

What might Andover’s membership in the Mastery Transcript Consortium offer in terms of rethinking what’s possible in the program and schedule? The catalyst for that effort was what I’m hearing in the mentions of sleep deprivation and stress at Andover.

What about inviting the initiatives on campus charged with innovation to be partners in this effort, the Tang Institute and The Nest? What are teachers with Tang fellowships discovering about the learner experience that would be crucial to learn about and lean on?

What about looking at institutions who do things differently (yet rigorously), e.g. Minerva Schools at KGI, High Tech High, and Colorado College? Or the Envision Education schools, where they have a graduate profile that captures in a one-page infographic what every graduate will know and be able to do. In determining how well students have met those criteria, students do a “portfolio defense,” not unlike what people undergo when defending a dissertation. Further, the clarity in the “graduate profile” has to be helpful for thinking about students’ daily life and how best to schedule it.

Have every member of the task force spend at least one day shadowing an Andover student from the time the student wakes up until that student goes to bed. Divide up among the four grades.

Use excellent cognitive science research, e.g. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, which illuminates well what leads to enduring learning and make sure that the conditions, particularly how time is used, and the approaches are the ideal for learners.

The world has changed radically in recent years, yet Andover has a schedule that’s almost identical to the one I had in the 1980s at Berkeley High School. If I thought it were the best way to use time in a school, I’d say so. I never want change for change’s sake or for what could be a fleeting fad. But I was actually astonished when I took a close look at my son’s Andover schedule earlier this fall and saw that he has the same class at the same time almost every day. Not only was I surprised, but I was also disappointed.

There are enormous opportunities here, and given the extraordinary resources and the talent and intelligence of everyone in the Andover community, I’m optimistic that with a non sibi spirit, one aimed at considering the big picture for students, and new, inspired and inspiring approaches something remarkable, perhaps even disruptive and innovative, can happen with the schedule at Andover.

As stated on the new website, “We aspire to act with creativity and with courage in our work.” Further, the commitment to “innovation” is underscored along with how “imaginative pedagogy has long distinguished Andover’s academic excellence.” Please bring creativity, courage, imaginative ideas about pedagogy, and a well researched understanding of the learner experience to this critical work on the schedule. And, please disregard all of this, if, in fact, you’re pursuing this work in truly innovative ways with the learner experience at the center of your efforts.

With empathy,

Susan Fine, P ’20

Nov 3, 2017