By Andy King, Director of Upper School, Hackley School
Since launching our strategic plan, Redefining Excellence: Learning Beyond Boundaries, in October 2018, Hackley’s teachers and administrators have been laying the groundwork and spearheading early initiatives outlined in the plan. The work is exciting and inspiring. As someone with a window into the plan’s design and now its implementation, it’s clear to me that Redefining Excellence has energized our already engaged and dedicated faculty, fueling and furthering creativity and collaboration. Throughout my two decades at the school, I have always admired my colleagues’ desire and efforts to keep curricula and pedagogy dynamic, to reject complacency and to exhibit a willingness, even eagerness, to change and tinker with coursework to expand and deepen learning opportunities for our students. What’s different and better now is the strategic plan’s specific exhortation to push “learning beyond boundaries.”
So, what does this mean in the Hackley context of 2019? At a school like Hackley, one of the common “boundaries” that provides organization and direction to many areas of school life is our academic department structure. Within each department, a particular knowledge base, skill set, and certain lenses inform and define that area of study. However, the “boundaries” that delimit our departments are, thankfully, neither impenetrable nor inflexible. Rather, these borders are wonderfully permeable, inviting overlap, intersection, and expansion — invitations encouraged and amplified by the work of the strategic plan and its call for “opportunities for interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary teaching and learning.”
Just to be clear, our academic departments are not going away. We see tremendous value in employing departments as an organizing framework for the school’s academics. Our teachers within their departments do an exceptional job of teaching valuable subject-specific content and cultivating fundamental and relevant skills. But in those moments when the disciplines intersect, we should look for ways to press our teaching and our students’ learning beyond these boundaries.
Our departments have long been collaborative and teachers have embraced opportunities to work with colleagues from other departments. I have taught and attended many classes where teachers from multiple departments have joined forces to create a more expansive lesson. These are the more “informal” instances of this meaningful cross-departmental collaboration.
Special programming from last year also nourished the collegiality and spirit of teamwork that is characteristic of Hackley. Consider last year’s Ex Day in the Upper School, where colleagues from multiple departments teamed up to offer distinctive full-day or half-day courses of an experimental, often experiential nature. For instance, an English teacher and a Performings Art teacher led a workshop on comedy sketch writing and performing. A Science teacher and a Visual Arts teacher taught a course on the techniques and materials used by the Old Masters. I worked with a colleague from the Math department to explore the mathematics of fairness as related to the American electoral process. (FYI, Upper School Ex Day with many new, cross-departmental offerings will take place Friday, March 15.)
The plan’s focused call for “interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary teaching and learning” represents a more ambitious charge, especially when paired with the idea that we should push “learning beyond boundaries.” Our academic departments have already embraced this novel and audacious challenge, as reflected in several new elective courses proposed for the 2019–2020 academic year.
- The English and History Departments will co-sponsor two new minor courses: “Collaborative Storytelling and Role Play Gaming” and the “Independent Research Program in English and History.” In the former, a History teacher and English teacher will bring their twin passions of writing and gaming together in this offering sure to stir the students’ historical and literary imagination. For students eager to do intensive scholarly research and writing under the joint tutelage of an English teacher and a history teacher on topics of their own choosing, the Independent Research Program in English and History is the course for them.
- Two teachers from two different departments will bring their interest and expertise in horror literature and films to a seminar entitled “Countenancing Horror” that will take a scholarly look at this genre.
- The Science Department will offer a new major course called “Food and Power: The Science and Politics of What We Eat” that will bring together many fields of study: science, history, politics, economics, public policy, sustainability, health/nutrition and more.
- The Modern Languages Department will offer Civic Engagement for Advanced Spanish, a high level Spanish course focused on service learning, an approach that will certainly invite interdisciplinary explorations.
What unites these new offerings is the creativity and collaboration, emboldened by the strategic plan, that proved to be their midwives. Furthermore, all of them press on the traditional departmental “boundaries,” signaling the exciting permeability of our academic departments.
What, then, is the value of looking at the department boundaries with fresh eyes and promoting more opportunities for interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary learning?
First, doing so is more authentic, realistic and relevant. Head of School Mike Wirtz said it well: “Interdisciplinary learning is about contextualizing learning. Real knowledge and understanding rarely fall into distinct academic disciplines as we see them in schools.” If we want to challenge our students to tackle challenging tasks, problems and questions, we arguably do them a disservice if we oversimplify matters. Let’s have our students grapple with the complexity, murkiness and blurriness of challenging tasks, problems and questions while they are learning in an inspiring and supportive environment like Hackley.
Second, this work fosters higher level thinking, which, in turn, results in more enduring and meaningful learning. Some of my most memorable classroom moments as a history teacher came when students made original and insightful connections, whether written or spoken, between what we were discussing in class and something else that they had learned, read, observed or experienced elsewhere.
In fact, it’s clear that Hackley looks to foster this higher-order thinking from a very early age. My wife and I were recently guest readers in our son’s first grade class at Hackley and were bowled over when several of the children raised their hands to tell us that they had “a text to text connection” (where they connected the story we read to other books they had read) or “text to self connection” (where they connected what we read them to something from their own experiences). This creative, connective thinking, no matter the age or grade level of the thinker, is a hallmark of a Hackley education and an important indicator of student engagement and learning.