In the fall of 2013, Wooster School (CT) was at an institutional inflection point. Most immediately, we were financially unsustainable, losing roughly $1 million dollars a year. As a small, tuition-driven school, one of the surface causes of our deficit was declining enrollment among families who were able to afford our tuition. Over the previous five years, we had needed to employ heavy financial aid awards to maintain class sizes.
There were deeper root causes, of course. Some were outside of our control, including our geography on the northern fringe of affluent exurbs outside of New York City. Other challenges, while related, were more in our control: We struggled to identify a clearly differentiated value proposition. While a complex issue, at least part of this challenge was related to institutional culture at the time, which while steady and consistent was not conducive to innovation and change.
In its nearly 100-year history, Wooster has arrived at viability crossroads like this before. In many respects, it has been a cyclical part of the Wooster DNA. A difference in 2013 was that there were no “angel” donors waiting in the wings. We knew we needed to take a hard look at who we were and who we wanted to be, leveraging the best of our rich history and traditions and adding to them a forward-thinking school vision that would capture our market’s attention and rejuvenate our future.
We have made many changes at our school and are on far steadier institutional footing. Enrollment is stable and now concentrated in our upper school, a significant demand-side shift. Financial assistance is at a sustainable level, a change facilitated by our introduction of a variable tuition program. Annually, we are in the black and able to find more ways to fulfill our mission and provide a Wooster education to as many families as possible. The foundation of this health is a reinvigorated institutional culture and shared school vision for what we call a human school. We have built it slowly over the years, and it continues to evolve. The execution of this work is inherently a collaborative process. Cultivating a committed team of faculty and administrators has been at the heart of our change.
As author Jim Collins has said, it is first who and then what. In 2013, the board of trustees hired Matthew Byrnes as head of school. A former public school principal and assistant superintendent, Byrnes was accustomed to the multifaceted nature of balancing budgets. He also demonstrated a clear commitment to learner-centeredness and ongoing innovation. He had a track record of not just talking about school change but effecting it. At Wooster, we sometimes refer to this latter principle as “Ready, Fire, Aim.”
Since Byrnes’ arrival, a focus on dispositions—character traits that inform our personalities and responses to different situations—has become central to our hiring philosophy and process. Certain dispositions are critical, we believe, in order to build a team of educators who, individually and collectively, are key agents in creating a culture educational researcher Richard DuFour calls a “persistent disquiet with the status quo.”
Finding our way to certain dispositions has been a learning journey in and of itself, and we’ve landed on many that we prioritize when hiring. To be successful as an institution committed to iterative improvement, team members must have significant flexibility. Our fast-moving and dynamic environment necessitates a tolerance for ambiguity and commitment to being a learner. A can-do, positive attitude is essential, as are curiosity and intellectual humility—the latter particularly important given the high degree of collaboration inherent to our model. All of these dispositions—and their inverse—are interconnected and spread quickly via emotional energy.
Over the years, and as we learned more about ourselves and who thrives in a human school, we’ve adjusted our hiring process and aligned our team to use dispositions as a primary lens. How collaborative and flexible will someone be in an environment like ours? How do they navigate knowing when to lead, and when to follow? How do they react to a lesson that doesn’t go as planned? We look ceaselessly for evidence of candidates’ dispositions in our process, integrating interviewers’ feedback and using it as key input in our hiring team debriefs and decision-making processes. While clearly interrelated, for us, dispositions supersede “content” knowledge and experience, one of our key learnings through practice.
We’ve also created experiences for faculty and administration to engage candidates’ dispositions in real time. One example is a live, team-based lesson design. In addition to requiring collaboration with a potential colleague, this process mirrors our commitment to a co-constructed school vision and broad dissemination of innovative teaching and learning practices. While direct experience in this type of curriculum development is a nice plus, it’s not a prerequisite. We’re looking for candidates who are eager to engage the process and willing to bring their authentic understanding to the table, complete with good questions, admissions of not knowing, and pushback when they disagree with a posited idea or suggested pathway.
From the beginning of our innovation journey in 2013, we knew that the better educated, challenged, and supported our faculty, the stronger our school and our students’ learning. So, as much as we adapted our hiring process, we simultaneously sought to establish a robust culture of learning.
A first step was inviting to campus Mark Church, who was heavily influenced by his work with Harvard University's Project Zero, and delving deeply into his co-authored book Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. Working with Church kick-started two essential aspects of our culture. First, it galvanized us to put thinking at the center of our work. Using PZ’s “understanding maps,” our teachers began to unpack the process of thinking, such as wondering and considering different viewpoints. Directly connected was the reminder that thinking, like any skill, can be learned and developed. It is, therefore, something we can and should build our learning intentions around, providing each other feedback on our progress and making its discussion a major and explicit through line of our program.
Second, our work with Church helped us institutionalize learning groups. These are small, flexible cohorts of teachers who meet in hour-long blocks at the start of the school day. These meetings take place on days when, rather than starting earlier and adding time to their workday, we ask teachers to arrive at the same time and begin classes later. Composed of six to eight teachers, the groups vary in composition depending on context and purpose. Interdivisional faculty might get together to look at student work with a focus on the types and depth of thinking elicited. A similarly sized group of department or interdepartmental colleagues might spend several sessions crafting or refining competencies. Less frequently, though key to our process, we come together in larger groups to share our evolving understandings and ensure new ideas are distributed among our broader faculty.
Over time and as the centrality of these groups’ role in developing our learning culture became more apparent, we increased their frequency. In 2013, we began meeting once a month. In 2014, we transitioned to bimonthly meetings. A year later, they were weekly. This past school year, we had a late start each day, and it’s a trend we will maintain for the future. Along the way, we’ve adjusted our schedule and educated our parents, both on the meta-importance of how investing in our teachers ultimately pays dividends to student learning and our school culture, but also on the actual practices in which we’re engaged during this time, and the learning outcomes and “products” that come from them.
Even with our increasing dedication to hourlong professional development, as our culture deepened, we still found time to be a challenge. We’ve found great resonance in the work of Georgetown University computer science professor Cal Newport, who speaks directly to the negative impacts fragmented attention has on productivity and thus the increased value of sustained work. After a foray into these ideas, in 2018, we operationalized them and established “deep workdays” for our team. Modeling the same cultivation of self-awareness and intentionality we believe essential for students, faculty apply for these days by articulating their learning intentions and deliverables and the connection to our institutional aims and their personal learning journeys. After approval, we then provide them half and full days of substitute coverage to direct their uninterrupted attention to a major project. At the end of the session, we debrief and share out both the products and process-based learnings to our broader faculty. Using these days—individually and in teams—we have been able to make major leaps in many aspects of our work: creating competency maps, learning new technology platforms, and developing multidisciplinary curricula, to name just a few.
A Persistent Disquiet
Developing faculty and a culture of learning requires the courage to face the hard truths that emerge from new understandings. As we increasingly adopted our learner-centered perspective and developed a deeper understanding about what works best for teaching, learning, and human development, we began to question some of our existing practices. Advanced Placement (AP) was one of them.
In 2013, AP courses, for as long as anyone on campus could remember, served as a gold-standard for rigor and college preparation. But faculty and students alike would decry the relentless march of “learning” required through the program. Further, as some colleges began pulling back on the awarding of credit—even for scores of 4 and 5—students and their parents increasingly grew disinterested in the end-of-year exams, with students instead jockeying for entrance into the classes and a good grade attached to them on their transcript. Our teachers and administrators spent a great deal of time managing this whole process, which often produced frustration as it didn’t seem to be about learning.
Our professional development exacerbated this cognitive dissonance. We further engaged Making Thinking Visible in addition to John Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning and Peter C. Brown et al.’s Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, deepening our understanding of learning science and educational research on the efficacy of different classroom practices: what Hattie calls “effect size.” From that learning, we began to develop a blueprint of what our vision of ideal coursework would be. We knew we wanted opportunities for our students to go deeper, receive frequent and personal feedback, and reflect regularly to develop their metacognition. We wanted to tap into their intrinsic motivation via thorny, self-generated questions and have them present and defend their thinking in small groups designed, as author Sherry Turkle exhorts, to “reclaim conversation.” From our lived experience, we needed a framework that was flexible enough to allow students to follow the incredible aha moments that emerge organically in rich class discussions and not feel as if that was in conflict with “covering” specific content or, worse, disadvantaging them in the race to a predetermined finish line.
Together, this push-pull led us to a tipping point and, in 2015, we decided to move away from AP and create our own flagship coursework. A core group of our senior faculty, including Byrnes, spent the year as a learning group: designing the program, talking with college admission officers, and communicating with students and parents. We were energized by the proposition that these courses would be built by our faculty, for our students, with our school’s unique culture and vision for learning in mind. We called it the Deep Learning Initiative (DLI).
Our move to DLI—a process that took three years—was both an exercise in cultivating, and a tangible product arising from, our focus on dispositions and developing a culture of learning. In part because there was no roadmap to follow, creating DLI represented an authentic “problem” we were solving collaboratively. It arose from our own collectively generated inquiry into the best practices for teaching and learning. Every member of the team, each of whom was designing both the overarching structure of DLI and their own individual courses to be part of the founding curriculum, was recognized and validated for their unique combination of knowledge, skills, and dispositions—what individuality scientist Todd Rose refers to as a “jagged profile.” Each a part of something bigger than themselves, everyone in this group was challenged to learn and grow, and to develop close collaborative relationships with colleagues.
As proud as we are of how far we’ve come in developing our school culture and a viable place in our market, we recognize both that our school is very much a work in progress and that to remain a strong human school, we must continue to evolve. We therefore see a significant part of our future as connecting more with others who share our ideals and working together to build a network of shared ideas and partnerships. In the history of independent schools, this perhaps has never been easier or more needed.
We are excited about the work ahead. We continue to cultivate a team of educators that is committed to a vision of school that is learner-centered, dynamic, and full of students and adults all learning and thriving together. We continue to invest our limited resources in developing our faculty and deepening our culture of thinking and learning. Every year, contextualized broadly by our institutional history and the reasons families choose our human school, we iterate to improve what we’ve already built, and Ready, Fire, Aim on our next project.
Learn more about Wooster’s Deep Learning Initiative at woosterschool.org/academics; click on Upper School.
The author of this article, Christopher Pannone, and Wooster’s Head of School Matthew Byrnes presented “Leadership for Human Schools,” a workshop at the NAIS Annual Conference in 2020. View slides of their presentation at nais.org/humanschools.