Trend Lines: Clarifying the Purpose of Advisory Programs

Summer 2021

By John Stegeman

zp_independentschools_rendering_trendlines.jpgAs academic programs become more nuanced and differentiated, college admission more competitive, and the world at large more confusing and challenging, students need more and new kinds of support from the adults in their lives. One important way to do that is through advisory programs, which many schools have—but which also get a bad rap.
If you ask independent school leaders about the status of their advisory programs, they often say, “Well, we’re making some changes, and it’s coming along.” If you ask an adviser the same question, they are likely to offer sharper criticism or less clarity, perhaps vaguely referencing “relationships.” More generous students will say, “I really like my adviser, and I enjoy the time we spend together,” but others will offer a more scathing review, along the lines of “advisory is a waste of time.” Why does advisory have such a notorious reputation for ineffectiveness?
Most advisory programs suffer from insufficient leadership, confusion or disagreement about mission and purpose, not enough time and training, and little or no buy-in. And since advisory usually does not carry academic credit, get a grade, or appear on a transcript, it is all too easy for students to deprioritize the experience. The solution, then, is to clarify the purpose of advisory, reprioritize it within the institutional structure, and cultivate support from school leaders, faculty, students, and parents.

A Necessity

Students are contending with a lot. There’s a skyrocketing mental health crisis among adolescents, with increasing diagnoses of emotional and behavioral disorders—from anxiety and depression to eating disorders, self-harm, and suicidal ideation—which combine to make suicide the second leading cause of death among older adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, the rapid pace of technological and social change is making careers, families, and future lives hard to predict or plan and work toward. And the pressures that derive from a hypercompetitive college admission process, combined with the impact of social media, lead to another factor that is negatively impacting adolescents today: a culture of competition and comparison, which exacerbates (or perhaps even causes) the mental health crisis and makes it harder to equip students with the nimble and collaborative skills that the 21st century workplace purports to need.
While some schools have made small changes to address these challenges, structural and institutional intransigence prevents them from coming fast enough to serve this generation of students. Teachers teach across disciplines, and educators in many fields have produced tangible and meaningful pockets of change. Most independent school courses include much more inquiry, collaborative, and project-based learning than they did 20 years ago. Leading independent schools have begun to move beyond standardized AP curriculum, and some have even reimagined the form and function of the high school transcript. But a large-scale restructuring of secondary education remains elusive. We’re left with a small slice of time, often squeezed into the middle of the day, when some of this important work is supposed to happen.
By developing a curriculum for advisory, one with a scope and sequence that is vertically and horizontally aligned with other school activities, students can grow the metacognitive and reflective capacity to guide themselves into adulthood, the social and emotional awareness to feel secure in themselves and their relationships, and a sense of community in the school that promotes belonging and shared purpose. 

Good Thinking

So what does a robust advisory program look like? There are three key features that work together to guide students and create positive school cultures.

The first factor builds healthy individuals and puts adolescents on a path to become fully actualized adults. Positive psychology has become ubiquitous in educational theory, inspiring buzzwords and book titles—including Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, and Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence—but lest we dismiss this trend as merely a fad, it is important to recognize just how much we now know about what constitutes a healthy human psyche.
In the midst of increasing diagnosis and treatment of psychological pathologies, it makes sense that we put at least as much effort in teaching our students to build happy, healthy lives as we do intervening when things go wrong. While student well-being rightly undergirds many classroom, curricular, and organizational decisions in schools, it is rarely taught explicitly to students outside of advisory programs. Advisory is a logical place to house this important content, and empowering students with this insight makes a lot of sense. In fact, such explicit instruction aligns with the second key feature of a well-conceived and well-functioning advisory program: metacognition.
It is widely known that clear and insightful thinking, especially on complex subjects, requires an individual to step outside of the thought process periodically to think about thinking. Good classroom instruction does this through sharing a daily agenda with students, starting a discussion or presentation by activating prior knowledge, structuring a major assignment with a rubric, and preparing students for summative assessments with review exercises. As academic programs become more complex and the pathways to the cultivation of the disciplinary mind become longer and more convoluted, we need to build layers of reflection and metacognition into our program as a whole, not just within individual courses. We now have refined methods to coach executive function as a way to support students with ADHD and other forms of neuro-divergence. Incorporating even simplified versions of those methods into advisory benefits all students and cross-pollinates the classroom practices of teachers who serve as advisers—improving instruction, outcomes, and the student experience across the school.
The third key feature of an effective advisory program is that it provides teachers and school leaders myriad opportunities to establish and convey (or shift, if needed) school values, norms, and cultural patterns, all while building relationships and community. Advisory is a natural place to house, discuss, and prepare for school traditions. It also provides a microcommunity that is conducive to organizing experiential and service-learning opportunities, which are the kinds of shared experiences that increase students’ feeling of belonging and give them people to turn to when they need help or advice.

Learning As We Go

While a written curriculum can serve as an invaluable anchor that provides structure and guidance to a strong advisory program, it is only one step in any programmatic design, redesign, or implementation. Advisory faces several unique challenges that distinguish it from other school programs. For example, few teachers had advisory as part of their own school experiences, and they rarely have much background in positive psychology unless it’s their content area. Proper executive function coaching is a distinct art and science in its own right. And for those reasons, alongside the development of an advisory curriculum, school leaders should provide training and professional development to new and experienced advisers alike.
Teachers do not need to become experts in the science of happiness or cognition to talk with students about those subjects. But leading a discussion on a topic that one has not mastered can be unsettling. Advisers need permission to be learners alongside their advisees when it comes to such conversations and should establish a partnership with learning specialists or school counselors who might develop advisory content. This can be a helpful way for advisers to navigate resistance or discomfort and for students who may balk at the value of a given advisory activity. The adviser can say, to themselves or to students, “These are some interesting ideas—let’s take a minute to consider them before we make up our minds.”
As we plan advisory curriculum and individual lessons, we should make a concerted effort to build student buy-in; it can go a long way toward generating a positive culture around the program. Asking students specifically about their experiences and their priorities through periodic surveys and simply communicating with them about upcoming plans for advisory activities or changes are good ways to cultivate buy-in. Similar conversations with parents can build support at home for efforts at school.
At times it may be necessary to discard plans to make space for emerging issues like current events or a community loss. But the bulk of advisory ought to be anchored in the structure provided by a curriculum. In this way school leaders can match time to task and avoid the danger of advisory becoming “just one more thing.”

Go Deeper

Advisory is just one part of the school experience that can be reimagined to focus on student health and well-being. Read more about prioritizing social-emotional learning and student wellness on the Independent Ideas blog, where you’ll find articles such as:
Sharing Our Stories: Building the Empathy Muscle by Affirming and Honoring Identity” by Ralinda Watts
Strategies for Educators to Live, Teach, and Lead With Compassion” by Carolyn A. Curis
Slowing Down in the Fast Lane: Changing Pace in Global Education” by Karina J. Baum
John Stegeman

John Stegeman is currently head of upper school at Eastside Preparatory School in Seattle, Washington.