I am at The Hill School outside Philadelphia today and tomorrow; I have been working with the humanities departments this year on reimagining their program, offerings, and departmental structure. But this post is not about the humanities; we are prototyping solutions later today and will have have a lot to report by the end of March.
In discussions and classroom visits today, I learned about the economics course that has test-piloted-busted some core assumptions about the student-teacher ratio. Starting a year ago, an introduction econ class has a single principal faculty member who provides lectures to up to 48 students. Eight students who took the class last year act as “TA’s” to this year’s cohort. Initially there was fear that parents would rebel against a class of this size with just one principal teacher, but that has not happened. The students are working on a more self and group-directed basis, and there has been little pushback and a lot of positive feedback.
At lunch I spoke with a junior student who had just come back from “City Term” in New York City. I asked her to think about what elements of that program might be applicable to Hill, nestled in historic, semi-rural Pottstown. Len Miller, Hill’s Associate Headmaster, agreed that it would be invaluable for her to present some of her experiences, reflections, and ideas to a group of Hill faculty who have not had a similar experience themselves.
I visited a newly renovated space that houses Hill’s three-year engineering arc. Students work in pairs and small groups to learn some basics of engineering, and then proceed through a series of design-build challenges. It is not terribly tech-heavy: some desktop computers, small leg-style robotics kits, one laser cutter and one 3D printer. There is one principal teacher handling more than 100 students, assisted by two other faculty members a couple of periods a day, who are learning the program. They anticipate by next year or the following year they will have 150 students in the program, which is enormous for a school of this size.
I asked the students what they liked about the class, what was different, and what elements might carry over to their other course work. All of the responses were variations on a theme: “This class is different in that there is not one set answer; we like that we get to figure things out on our own; we are learning to think for ourselves, and that is a more important skill in the real world than learning something for a test.”
I will challenge the humanities teams to import these lessons as they re-think their own programs and pedagogy. Chalk up The Hill School as another leader in re-thinking the industrial-era school paradigm, moving teachers out of their traditional roles, and allowing students to own more of their own learning.