Interdisciplinary Programs Promote Truly Deep Learning at Asheville School

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Interdisciplinary Programs Promote Truly Deep Learning at Asheville School

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I always wondered why my good friend and colleague John Thorsen would leave the perfect climate and steady surf breaks of Pt. Loma for the hills of western North Carolina.  Driving up from Greensboro for my first visit to the Blue Ridge, the trees exploded into pumpkin oranges and burnt reds on a sunny fall day, I got my answer. This post is about a school that takes its time to learn and teach, to build long-term relationships with students, and to combine knowledge in ways that lead to the deepest levels of understandings.  Some would say that a small boarding school can do this and the rest of us can’t. They would be wrong. Read the quotes from students, teachers, and parents at the end of the blog and we find many of the threads common to great learning in a wide variety of settings.

Asheville School is a co-ed boarding/day school with 270 students, only about 20% of whom are international, which is low these days.  In fact, there are just a handful of these small boarding schools with small international components, no ESL, and  that do not cater to special or therapeutic needs. Head Arch Montgomery says that they know exactly who they are: “a highly relational school”.  From the daily sit-down lunch with faculty to the extensive system of advisories and the small population, they feel they “do academics as well as anyone, but relationships and mentoring better than anyone.”  They use the CWRA to assess just how well their students are prepared for the challenges of post-secondary life and are in a constant state of evolution to try to always be better.  Teachers sit in on each other’s classes and find time to meet and tweak curriculum.  They are always looking for ways to weave in the values of character, community, and inspiration alongside the accumulation of knowledge.

Over a day and a half at Asheville I sat in on a number of classes.  Some were 50 minute classes; others 90 minutes. Most were part of the four-year humanities sequence, a tapestry of interdisciplinary renaissance thinking. Had I not seen the course titles, I would have thought two were art history classes and one a course in Eastern philosophy.  The pace of these meetings was calm, the atmosphere intentional but thoughtful.  In each, the students were co-creating threads of art, writing, literature, and broad historical themes. I understood that the goal of this learning experience was not mastery of knowledge by the end of the day or week but mastery of understanding by the end of four years.  That is a supremely exportable concept that requires us to break our silos of time, subject, and adult egos.

In the European Studies class the students had paired as co-curators of a mini art and architecture show, and presented comparisons of three pieces of art, some covering up to a century of history.  They used the pieces to lead a discussion of time, place, and context.  The teacher urged the other students in the class to “ask pushing questions, not just about the thesis” of the presenters.  As “observers you need to be critical analysts, turn questions back on themselves to promote deeper understanding.” The discussion kept coming back to the way that art and architecture are not only reflective of a time, but are also predictive of things to come in history.

In the American Studies class students had prepared short presentations on art from the early 1800’s as practice for their major senior demonstrations, a year-long project of research, reading, and writing that culminates in a thesis-length paper and oral presentation.  After hearing from one of the students and giving feedback, the class jumped to a practice two minute writing drill, a design-thinking response to statements from the instructor that prompted reflection on their presentations and ways to improve both their oral and written work.  (I took notes myself; it was a set of prompts that I will use to quality check my own evolving presentations on my work.) They went straight into a reading of Thoreau: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation…”, a film clip of modern life, and a discussion of what the paintings, reading, and clip had to say about the evolution of our society over 150 years.

In the Pre-Calculus class pairs of students presented analyses on sets of United Nations data about historical population trends in various countries, using their math to consider various best-fit models, and to predict future trends.  They had done some quick research into the social and economic histories of those countries and offered ideas of why population had been impacted as shown in the data.  All of the data and results were posted up on white boards or the smart board.  They had worked the problem outside of class and used the class time to present and discuss with their classmates.  The teacher had a seat in the back of the class for the entire section.

After the last seven weeks of my own hectic pace, my favorite class was World History, where the teacher read several short poems from the Tung dynasty to get the students into frame, and then dismissed them to go outside, find a spot, alone, as was the nature of poet monks from this period, and write some poetry in the style of one of their favorite ancient Chinese authors.  I went out, sat on the porch, reflected for a few minutes, and then shut my eyes. Read on and you will hear what one of the students said about this chance to sit quietly and write poetry.

Asheville has a rich history of interdisciplinary course development. Their Project Connect is kicking off with a summer conference this June focusing on interdisciplinary studies.  The conference will be open to public and private school teachers who want to come learn and share with each other about middle and high school course work.  It will convene over 2 ½ days and will facilitate conversations and sharing of what teachers from various schools are doing to promote truly interdisciplinary courses of study.  You can learn more about the program on their website, or contact James Pharr who is heading up this very worthwhile new project.

My last visits at Asheville included three panel discussion, one each with students, faculty, and parents.  Some quotes and thoughts from each:


  • “You get caught up in your life and activities and don’t spend any time thinking about yourself.  We just spent time outside thinking about poetry and our surroundings and we don’t take the time to do that enough.”
  • “You can take a test and if you don’t take the time to think about how what you know is all connected, two weeks later it is gone.”
  • “Innovation is finding a new way to solve an old problem, or finding a new problem to solve.”
  • “I think many adults feel they have already been through their education and know what there is to know.  We know we don’t know everything.”
  • “Re-introducing yourself to something helps get it right in your mind and you won’t make that same mistake again.  Teachers here are really good about letting us go through trial and error.”
  • “We learn best when the teachers give us a project and tell us to find out how this works and what it means.”


  • “We are not doing anything that I would call innovative; this is what John Dewey was talking about more than a century ago.  We all learn better through experience, and we are creating that experience for the students.”
  • “There is the constant tension around assessment and the justification of grades.  Parents want to know what the students are learning and that they are making progress.  We know they are, but our style of learning is less focused on these short-term results.”
  • “We have been doing this a long time; we made the jump to interdisciplinary learning in 1982, so we have 30 years of it.  It starts with team teaching and collaboration.  When we are forced to collaborate we have to think about why we are doing this, what is our purpose.  It has made me a lot better teacher.  Every year I am surrendering a little more control. It is hard.  I need to think.  It makes me grow as a professional.”


  • “I fully expect a critical curriculum to be even more rigorous than a more formulaic one.  Being able to pull deep concepts together is harder than learning material.”
  • “We grew up with the old system; we have to operate on trust.”
  • “So many studies have shown that it is not academic performance that predicts success in life, it is character, perseverance, and dealing with people.  At our school we create a firm boundary of what is acceptable and what is not.”
  • “Here is what is exportable: creating a caring community of faculty who are willing to invest themselves in that sense of community, in creating that same sense of responsibility amongst the students.”

My takeaway from Asheville rests on those last three meetings. I found myself thinking back to the common shared values that drive extraordinary success at Science Leadership Academy, or other schools I have visited that do not have some of the apparent of an Asheville School, but many of the same results. The keys are captured in teachers who create that sense of community and let go their fears of teaching how they really want; parents who trust that this is the right way for their students to capture the timeless lessons of knowledge and wisdom; and students who are given the time to dive deeply and understand the value of it.

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By | 2012-10-29T10:49:58+00:00 October 29th, 2012|Uncategorized|5 Comments

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  1. Carla Golden November 7, 2012 at 9:07 pm - Reply

    Excellent article. Thank you! Wish I could go back and do it all over again! Carla Cappiello Golden, Asheville School Class of 1987

  2. pcasheville November 21, 2012 at 3:56 am - Reply

    Reblogged this on project connect asheville and commented:
    Asheville School was extremely fortunate to host Grant Lichtman during his odyssey of schools. Many thanks to Grant for this write up and for the insights he shared with us. We cannot recommend reading his blog enough. Check it out, there are great ideas in every post.

  3. Jim Fisher November 21, 2012 at 4:36 pm - Reply

    Those of us who learned via the old “silo” approach often discuss how much richer and meaningful our experience would have been. It’s often that way with life in terms of retrospective wisdom, isn’t it? Jim Fisher, Asheville School Class of 1964

  4. Kathleen Wheeler Awad December 25, 2012 at 9:07 am - Reply

    Wow I wish I could have had such an opportunity.. That’s a really wonderful education. I know an alum who is such a gift to the world community. After reading this article, it is plain where this person acquired such character. Although the person went on in education after graduation, I would bet a great deal of her impressive knowledge which she uses to be a generous and helpful person overall – came from this school.

  5. […] *If anyone reading does not already subscribe to Bo Adams' blog, "It's About Learning", and you want useful links full of imagining delivered straight to your email or e-reader, follow his blog an…  […]

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