Around The Table With Integrated Curriculum
Tom Owen '11
In the historical mythos of St. Paul’s School, few anecdotes carry as much symbolic power as the story of the School’s first day.
On April 3, 1856, First Rector Henry Augustus Coit gave each of the three students a task. Two were assigned to write compositions; one on “Adventures of a Lion,” the other on “Strength of Purpose.” The third student, more memorably, was instructed to go fishing. After the work of each student was complete, and they had taken their evening meal, the day concluded with the Rector saying the evening prayers.
While the writing assignments appear to be rather straightforward classroom tasks, the pedagogical goals of the fishing expedition and prayers are less intuitive. The most compelling argument, however, is that these endeavors were the earliest manifestations of the School’s educational philosophy. Through sylvan odysseys and twilight psalms, Coit sought to guide his students’ growth along dimensions that transcended mere academic capabilities.
This holistic approach to education was perhaps most clearly articulated in the words of the School’s founder, Dr. George Cheyne Shattuck. In his 1891 account of his motivations for creating St. Paul’s, Shattuck described how he sought to establish an institution that would take advantage of the distinct learning opportunities provided by a residential community grounded in the Episcopal tradition.
“The intellect can be trained and the mind furnished at a day school,” Shattuck wrote. “Physical and moral culture can best be carried on where boys live with and are constantly under the supervision of the teachers and in the country. . . . The things of this world are engrossing; but boys ought to be trained not only for this life, but so as to enter into and enjoy eternal and unseen realities.”
Need For An Integrated Framework
At the start of April, I sat down with Rector Mike Hirschfeld ’85, Dean of School Life Theresa Ferns ’84, Dean of Students Aaron Marsh ’97, and Dean of Teaching and Learning Lawrence Smith to moderate a roundtable discussion on the more intentional ways in which the School is carrying out its founding mission.
While the daily life of a current student looks vastly different than that of previous generations, the comprehensive educational vision Shattuck outlined remains at the heart of the SPS experience. Learning is not limited to the knowledge students gain through classes. At St. Paul’s, students grow through experiences in athletics, service, activities, and residential life. Through daily interactions with peers and faculty, and the robust relationships those experiences facilitate, they gain the skills and sensibilities to be curious and critical thinkers, empathetic humans, and actively engaged citizens.
“We’ve always talked about educating the whole child,” said Ferns. “We aim to shepherd the development of young people in all areas of their lives – not just their cognitive development, but their social, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and physical development.”
Although there is historical continuity in these pedagogical priorities, the School is not taking these elements for granted. On the contrary, St. Paul’s is currently engaged in substantial self-assessment around these facets of life in Millville. While the holistic approach to education remains a central part of the School’s identity and program, logistically speaking, each area of student life has historically been somewhat quarantined from the others.
“We’ve always had phenomenal educators here, and they’ve learned through experience how to really connect with students and help them grow in different domains,” said Hirschfeld. “But there haven’t been systems in place to make that work consistent across contexts and ensure that the different learning experiences are mutually reinforcing.”
To bridge the gap between the different contexts in which learning happens at St. Paul’s, the School is developing a sequenced curriculum that encompasses the entire student experience. The first step in the School’s vision for greater consistency is more formally defining the depth, breadth, and chronology of the academic curriculum across different departments. Currently, each individual course at the School is defined by what educators call a “scope and sequence.” “Scope” denotes the list of concepts a course will cover, while “sequence” describes the order in which the topics will be presented. Although each course is methodically planned, there is no overarching guideline that defines what concepts a student should learn each year.
Over the past year, a faculty committee has been creating a formalized scope and sequence that will more intentionally define the academic program for SPS students based on research-supported insights into their social, emotional, and cognitive development. This academic scope and sequence will be instituted by fall 2018.
What a student’s course of study does not currently incorporate, in a formalized way, are the non-academic learning experiences that play equally critical roles. How do these elements fit into the overarching scheme of a student’s progression?
“We tend to think of what goes on in the classrooms and dorms and Chapel and everything else,” said Smith, “as many curricula operating on different wavelengths.”
Using the scope and sequence as a foundation, the School will rearrange programming to include all areas of a student’s life at St. Paul’s, so both academic and non-academic learning opportunities are intentionally planned out in a developmentally appropriate pathway. To differentiate this structure from the academic course of study, the School is terming this interdisciplinary approach to teaching “integrated curriculum.”
Larger Educational Context
The move toward redefining what teaching and learning look like at SPS comes in the midst of a few important educational developments. First, as content becomes increasingly accessible through advances in technology, schools are moving toward an approach that seeks to cultivate skills rather than merely exposing students to new material. In short, there is a shift in learning to mastering process over content.
Closely related to this skills-based approach is a renewed understanding that social and emotional competencies (such as self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, and positive decision-making) need to be intentionally taught.
“We’re not just interested in developing students’ intellectual skills, like analyzing, synthesizing, and creating,” Hirschfeld said. “Equally important are social and emotional skills. Are they able to get along with others, engage in perspective-taking, and show empathy? Is our school cultivating graduates who understand other human beings?”
The second development that informs the integrated curriculum is the use of neuroscience and psychology to help drive the School’s overall approach to education.
“Teachers at St. Paul’s have long had an intuitive sense of what teaching and mentorship should look like, but our work in this area provides a new lens for their practice,” Ferns said. “With a greater developmental understanding of adolescents, faculty members can contextualize their students’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors based on a shared frame of reference and consistent vocabulary.”
This focus on the brain’s role in all areas of growth will guide the organization of the scope and sequence. By creating a research-based sequential pathway for students, the School will ensure that learners have the opportunity to learn new skills at the most developmentally appropriate times and in the right context. As students progress through their years in Millville, they will segue between different stages of the integrated curriculum.
“Fairly soon, we’ll be able to say, ‘This is our Third Form program. These are all of the skills that Third Formers will cultivate at St. Paul’s School, in all areas of life at the School,’” Smith said. “The scope and sequence will give the confidence to know what skills our students will have under their belts when they graduate.”
St. Paul’s is developing assessment tools and processes to examine the efficacy of its educational practices. Although every school has some form of self-assessment, few institutions, if any, evaluate the success of their pedagogy both inside and out of the classroom. Since the integrated curriculum includes non-academic contexts in its framework, it follows that the School requires a holistic approach to self-assessment as well.
“Developing these assessment practices from the outset are fundamental to the ongoing success of the integrated curriculum,” said Smith. “What aspects of a student’s learning here are unique to St. Paul’s? What aspects of students’ growth can we attribute to our educational approach instead of being part of an adolescent’s natural development? And how can we verify and support these claims?”
Integrating Leadership Skills
Although the integrated curriculum is actively being
developed and refined, certain programs already in place prefigure elements of this new structure. One area of note is the Living in Community (LinC) program. Spearheaded by Ferns, LinC serves as the School’s comprehensive social, emotional, and residential life curriculum.
“LinC is partially content-based, and it explores
different topics relevant to developing the self and building the school community,” Ferns said. “Lesson plans are constructed around the skills and capacities we want to develop in students so they can lead healthy, fulfilling, and productive lives.”
One subject LinC explores with Third Formers is peer pressure. The traditional approach to this topic began with a definition of peer pressure, followed by a discussion of various examples. The LinC curriculum first asks students to reflect on their sense of identity, their values, and factors that might influence them to act in ways that don’t align with those values.
“While the unit is technically about peer pressure,” said Ferns, “it’s really about social and emotional competencies. That’s the core of LinC. It helps students increase their awareness of who they are and what influences them. It gives them skills to help them grow into someone who can have his or her voice heard, understand others, and hold him or herself and others accountable.”
A related example would be the School’s more intentional approach to leadership training, which newly incorporates some of the key themes of the integrated curriculum. Over time, SPS students grow to occupy a wide variety of leadership positions, from house prefects to Student Council officers, from athletic captains to club heads. But while the ability to lead is a valued attribute at the School, facilitating the growth of potential new leaders has sometimes lacked consistency.
“Leadership training has been handled in many different domains,” Hirschfeld said, “and there hasn’t been a cohesive plan that builds and trains students to live into the leadership roles we want them to have.”
As the School continues to implement the integrated curriculum, the status quo in leadership preparation is quickly changing. Perhaps the most highly developed leadership training program is the curriculum for LinC leaders, which has paved the way for similar initiatives. LinC leaders are trained to facilitate a wide variety of educational experiences. Having already completed the yearlong LinC courses during their Third and Fourth Form years, rising Fifth Formers are grounded in a solid foundation of skills and content related to social and emotional competencies.
LinC leaders undergo further training to prepare them to support and lead aspects of the LinC curriculum. One major responsibility is co-facilitating LinC classes, team-teaching alongside dedicated faculty instructors. LinC leaders also develop and run workshops during “LinC Days,” which focus on a student-chosen topic of interest (Winter Term was devoted to mental health).
While the work of LinC leaders can be challenging, especially when a student is facilitating emotionally charged conversations, the training received prepares them to serve as knowledgeable and empathetic mentors for their peers.
“Preparing to be effective in leadership positions involves social-emotional development,”
Hirschfeld said. “These more intentional leadership-related programs help to reinforce the same skills we’re trying to foster across the integrated curriculum.”
Additionally, although the Discipline Committee may appear to be a far cry from “curriculum,” recent conversations around the meaning and purpose of discipline at the School have proven otherwise.
“We’re trying to get away from this notion of the Discipline Committee as something imposed on students when they make a mistake,” said Dean of Students Aaron Marsh ’97. “Instead, we’re working on creating a system where the Discipline Committee process is really the beginning of a dialogue about building community and fostering personal growth.”
A team of faculty members and Sixth Form officers, as well as students who have gone through the discipline process, have been discussing the consequences for various infractions and assessing if the School’s responses align with its philosophical approach. At the heart of this self-assessment is a push toward using the Discipline Committee more effectively as a learning experience rather than solely as punishment.
“Having this integrated framework gives us a mandate to reexamine our practices in all areas of School life,” Marsh said. “The discipline process can be another classroom.”
Engaged Citizenship: A Relationship-Based Model
One realm of life at SPS undergoing significant transformation is the service learning program. Planned changes are informed by the mandates of the integrated curriculum. Service has long served as a robust element of life at St. Paul’s; the Missionary Society is the oldest student-run organization at the School, and Mish is well supported by the resources of the formal Community Outreach Program. But the School has identified a critical need to bridge the gap between rhetoric and action.
“Looking at our history of community service, we have some students doing some really meaningful, deep work that fosters empathy and perspective-taking and builds relationship skills over time,” said Hirschfeld. “We have some instances where it’s not nearly as meaningful.”
Currently, students are required to fulfill 10 hours of community service per year, a number Hirschfeld described as “an extraordinarily low bar.” The parameters of the requirement often lead to students dividing up their hours between one-off visits to organizations, instead of cultivating sustained relationships.
“A student could get one hour of credit for helping the Concord SPCA clean out dog cages, be done with his or her connection to that organization, and then get three hours working at a different organization,” Hirschfeld said. “It’s not relationship-focused. It’s checking the box on hours, which is not where we want our kids to be.”
The pathway forward involves more formally incorporating service. The integrated curriculum aims to maximize the links between students’ ethical, social, and intellectual growth. Because service develops a disposition to work for the common good and provides the skills necessary to actively participate in communities, it follows that service should be more intentionally recognized as a context for teaching and learning.
Integrated Approach to Residential Life
It’s important to note that the integrated curriculum does not just lend itself to the institutionalization of formalized programs. Rather, it informs the ways in which faculty members facilitate students’ growth in all areas of boarding school life. Ferns described a hypothetical roommate conflict in order to illustrate how an integrated approach would play a role in residential life.
For Third Formers, late September is still early enough in the year to be challenged by acclimating to life at SPS, but late enough to have a substantial amount of homework. Conflicts can arise between roommates adjusting to one another’s habits – the lights-out policy, for example. How might an adviser or head of house deescalate a conflict and find a solution for both students?
The time-tested approach would likely involve the faculty member facilitating reflection and discussion. While this method often works well enough to heal the symptoms, the root causes might not be affected. Have the students learned anything useful from this experience, or are they just happy it’s over? Are they better equipped to handle future disagreements themselves?
Within the context of the integrated curriculum, this scenario might play out differently. With a greater understanding of adolescent development, an adviser might have more insight into subtle sources of the conflict. For example, the faculty member may see the issue in the context of “cognitive empathy,” a technical term for the ability to take another’s perspective – a perennial challenge for teenagers due to the nature of adolescent brain structure. If faculty members are more aware of developmentally driven aspects of a conflict, Ferns argues, they will be more effective in their advising practice.
“I think a lot of our faculty members have been doing this intuitively,” said Ferns. “I know I experienced that mentorship as a student here. I think what hasn’t been there before is a language that helps us share that experience with one another.”
Renewed Focus on the School’s Core Strengths
Because the integrated curriculum draws on new developments in education and reconfigures the relationship between different areas of School life, it’s easy to assume it represents a fundamental shift for St. Paul’s. While the School is clearly interested in innovation, the integrated curriculum should not be viewed as a departure from the overarching philosophy that governs SPS.
“These initiatives may look new on paper but, in reality, we’re continuing to do all the things we’ve always done, just in a more deliberate and cohesive way,” Smith said. “We’re taking full advantage of the opportunities for learning by being a fully residential community, a school grounded in the Episcopal tradition, and an institution that offers excellent programming.”
To Hirschfeld, too, the integrated curriculum represents a renewed focus on the School’s core strengths. “A lot of what we’re doing is describing the magic of St. Paul’s School in ways we understand and in ways we can assess,” Hirschfeld added. “We’re trying to make the School better in the ways I think most alumni experienced it – a relationship-based model that puts students at the center of all we do.”