Massively Creative, Experiential Learning at The College School, St. Louis

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Massively Creative, Experiential Learning at The College School, St. Louis

Any educator interested in truly experiential learning could easily spend a week with Sheila Gurley and her team at The College School, a 260-student preK-8 in St. Louis.  I am only going to be able to hit the highlights, but if you want to know how and why schools of the future are alive and well today, read on.  I could expert large passages from the well-articulated web site, here, but you can go there and poke around, particularly under the Philosophy section.  If there is one metaphor for this school it is this: the walls and halls are covered with the message of sustainability through the lens of student art and work product.  Rather than focusing on traditional content, which is largely about studying knowledge of the past, this school is focused on teaching students the skills and mindset to create knowledge of their own for the future.

Built around the Reggio method of early childhood education, The College School has created a program that merges high achievement in core content with a remarkable bouquet of outdoor, community, and experiential learning around the ideas of environmental sustainability.  They use this broad context to engrain real-world systems thinking in their students, even at the youngest age levels.  Students spend about 30% of their time off campus on everything from basic science research to outdoor living to community surveys linked to a city design project.  They don’t take standardized tests until the 6th grade, yet their students go on to perform very well at all of the area public and private high schools. Despite (or maybe because of) spending so much time on projects and off-campus experiences, they effectively cover almost all core standards.

Here are just a few of the bright lights that Sheila introduced me to in my morning at The College School:

  • An 8th grade field research project at three locations around the United States. Students pick roles to pursue in the field, and then come together to share and create summary projects and presentations.
  • In middle school, two days a week are dedicated to theme studies, with mini-courses and off-site trips.  This means a unique daily and weekly schedule with themes that rotate every year.
  • In 6th grade the theme has been the wilderness tradition, including a walk-about and solo sleep-out where students experience core sensitivity with the Native American tradition of connections with nature.
  • 4th graders manage the water cisterns, linked 55-gallon plastic containers that capture rainfall alongside the garden and greenhouse. Students paint them and take them home at the end of each year, taking what they learn about sustainability and water use back to their parents and neighborhoods.


  • Their large greenhouse, garden, and full-scale model stream and pond provide on-site real-world settings for the students learn and study. Each year they have a neighborhood giveaway of 2,500 native and drought tolerant plants to the community. The garden includes butterfly-attractive plants, making it a stop on the monarch butterfly migration flyway.  5th graders tag the monarchs and share their data with Weber University scientists.
  • 3rd graders go into underserviced St. Louis communities and survey people about their community structure, services, and needs.  They use these surveys to design model cities based around what they learn and the concept of a barter economy, creating a presentation of the city design and function as a capstone event.
  • The School recently purchased 28 acres of land about 30 minutes from the school where they will create an outdoor campus for thematically focused science work.  It will be kept as largely primitive, sustainable space that will support a wide range of field research projects.

None of this has come about without a ton of hard work and very intentional planning.  This is a community, under Shelia’s leadership, that shares a vision of student-focused, real-world, experiential learning.  Some of the processes that clearly contribute to their current success seem to include:

  • Mission is everywhere.  You can’t walk the walls without crystal clear understanding of the school’s values, reflected in major student art projects, journal reflections, posters, and signage. I LOVED their preK art center where the student make remarkable free-form art from collections of wood, stone, metal, and glass.
  • Reflection and journaling are a cultural imperative. Every teacher in the early grades writes a daily journal sheet that is emailed home to parents.  Student work is compiled at the end of the year and published in small, reflective booklets.
  • Teachers get release of one period a day, and additional release three mornings a week for program and professional development. Teachers are expected to constantly try out new ideas and tweak their programs.  Sheila believes in evolution, not revolution, but over a period of years, the program has undergone fundamental change.
  • The faculty creates a school wide PD template each fall.  This year the main headings under which the teachers thought about their progress were: Inspiration, Student Care, and Customer Experience. Clearly, Sheila has the faculty thinking about the value proposition of the school and communicates it both through PD discussions and the messages they surround themselves with in the halls every day.
  • Sheila hires and retains people with strong record of creativity, not just strong subject teachers. Not everyone is cut out to teach in this environment of constant reflection and refinement.
  • They develop the language of change and the skill set of managing change through PD. They have created a mindset amongst the adults that change is good and can be both comfortable and rewarding.
  • They have shifted their mindset away from the idea that changes are always permanent.  Sheila has found that people do not agonize over temporary change or pilots or trials if they don’t think of them as becoming automatically permanent.

Teaching about the natural world involves teaching students how to think systematically, which is of course exportable to non-environmental subjects as well.  They feel that even very young students are naturally good at thinking this way but by compartmentalizing our education we train this natural inclination towards systems-thinking out of the students. By creating large themes into which content is inserted, they prioritize the context, which makes the learning of content more efficient and more relevant to the students.

This is not a wealthy private school with a large endowment and a majority of students from well-off families.  They serve a diverse community and keep tuition low to compete with parochial schools, which are deeply embedded in the local culture and supported financially by parish churches.  The College School succeeds by making choices and staying tightly focused on their core mission, and by communicating that focus to families who share their interests.  Their five year plan provides a template for broad directions, but Sheila uses a decentralized, shared leadership model that is based on having the right people in the classroom, and then trusting them to try and tweak good ideas.

I spent some time with the business manager, and we talked about the relationship between the ideas that percolate up from the faculty and his budget process.   He had four points for operational success in navigating what can be murky waters of a trial-pilot-tweak mindset:

  • Does the idea enhance our mission?
  • What are we going to give up in its place?
  • How are we going to pay for it? (Donation or tuition)
  • Board committees have to understand the arguments.

My main take away from The College School is that they are an enormously creative organization that does not allow creativity to replace focus on mission.  They do an excellent job of communicating their mission both internally and to the broader community.  I can’t imagine a preK-Middle School educator who would not benefit from knowing more about both what they do and how they do it.  I hope this summary does them justice!

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  1. […] post on The College School highlights the beautiful campus including working gardens, functioning streams and wooded areas […]

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