RA Faculty Learn a New Approach to Curriculum Design at Harvard Graduate School of Education

After preparing for a great start to the school year for their students, a team of six Ridgefield Academy (RA) faculty members also went back to school — to Harvard Graduate School of Education — for an online professional development course called Teaching for Understanding: Educating for the Unknown.

A New Approach to Curriculum Design

By taking the course, developed by HGSE Project Zero’s Tina Blythe, the RA instructors learned a new approach to curriculum design that goes beyond the simple relay of information between teachers and students. The course challenged the RA team to help students develop transferable knowledge and skills they can apply in situations they have never encountered before. Using the Teaching for Understanding framework, the team developed an interdisciplinary unit on space exploration that fosters deeper, more transferable learning for their classes. The process engaged the RA team in educational discourse with approximately 50 teams from schools around the world.

“I consider myself a lifelong learner. Taking this course has opened my mind to a whole new level of thinking. It has enhanced the way I think about what I teach. Giving my students more autonomy in the classroom has allowed for a greater investment in their learning. That is something truly lifeworthy,” said Upper School Mathematics Teacher Adele Dominicus.

Lifeworthy Education

The impetus for taking the Harvard course came from the Ridgefield Academy and Landmark Preschool all faculty summer read, Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World, written by David Perkins, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education. The book challenged RA and Landmark educators to consider the “life worthiness” of what they teach – whether the information is likely to matter in a student’s future.

“It is exciting to be a part of a faculty group that is challenging every assumption that we make about schools, what and how we teach in them, and the purpose of education today and tomorrow, and we’re already looking forward to another cohort of teachers taking the next offering of the course early in 2020,” said Director of The Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning Basil Kolani.

The Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning is at the heart of the RA experience. The Center ensures that RA programming is cutting-edge and forward thinking, is informed by the latest research, and continues to find new ways for students to have defining and unique experiences. The course aligned well with the three focus areas of the Center, which are curriculum design, learning support and enrichment, and continual teacher growth.

Understanding as a Goal of Contemporary Education

The RA team explored the nature of understanding as a central goal of contemporary education, considered what they should teach to foster understanding, and how to prioritize content. They learned how to design learning experiences that foster true understanding.

Grade 4 History and Math Teacher Nancy Freyre and Grade 4 English and Language Arts Teacher Stacy Hynes found the course provided a framework to embed the well-developed and thoughtful instruction RA teachers are already doing. “It encouraged me to hone in on what it is I want students to fully understand not only each day, but throughout a unit and even the year, and how a variety of assessment methods can be linked to showing (and further practicing!) this understanding. It was also an important nudge to all of us to design learning experiences that allow our students to develop the ability and confidence to communicate, create, collaborate, and think critically. These are the skills that will be necessary for their futures,” said Grade 4 History and Math Teacher Nancy Freyre.

“The framework helps me to better focus instruction and thus helps the students be more focused on goals and understandings and ultimately learn better. I also rethought assessment and the many types of assessment and the goal of assessment. I have a new unit that I will start in a few weeks in which I have been able to plan completely within the TfU framework,” said Grade 4 English and Language Arts teacher Stacy Hynes.

The result of the team implementing what they learned through the course in their classrooms is that their students are placed in control of their own learning. For instance, in Mrs. Clasby’s Grade 3 class, writing students developed their own rubric, a guide that listed the specific criteria for different levels of success. The rubric included instructions such as “use dialogue, end all sentences with proper punctuation, use a good intriguing title, and describe your characters.” Mrs. Dominicus’s Grade 8 Geometry class created a rubric for a project on logic and advertising that listed the following criteria for high marks: many correct details for the conditionals, each form for the slogan is shown (conditional, converse, inverse, and contrapositive), and writing and mechanics are neat and clean. The teachers know what they wanted their students to take away from their project and this is part of the assessment strategy.

The challenge for educators today is much greater than simply relaying content information to their students. Teachers are preparing students for a future that cannot yet be defined. The challenge is now to instruct for greater understanding while preparing students with lifeworthy skills they will apply in the situations, classrooms, and the jobs of the future. RA teachers, with the help of The Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning and professional development courses such as this are well equipped to meet that challenge.

The Ridgefield Academy and Landmark Preschool community celebrates childhood, pursues excellence, and cultivates kindness. Our education program is intellectually inspiring, and we foster joyful learning and mutual respect in all that we do. We empower each student to rise to their authentic self, preparing confident graduates who shape their future with ingenuity and integrity.


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