Science instructor Sarah Day wandered around the lab tables at Loyola High School physics classroom, watching as students built and wired small model houses with electricity. Though she found the school to be much like Marlborough, there were some marked differences.
First, of course, the classroom was filled with boys instead of girls. Then the students were freshman instead of upperclassmen. Also, all the courses were taught in an inquiry-based form, which Marlborough currently does in its middle school science classes, but not in its upper school ones.
“It’s harder to teach this way,” she said. “It takes teachers out of their comfort zone,” she added.
This year, Day and numerous teachers arranged time away from their own classes to visit other campuses near and far to observe different curriculum choices and teaching styles. They did so at the encouragement of Head of School Barbara Wagner, who hoped they could bring new ideas back to Marlborough as the school considers upcoming changes for its next ten-year strategic plan.
Though department heads have consistently visited other schools, Wagner, beginning at the school’s annual Educational Council Retreat just before the school year began, stressed the importance of all teachers helping to gather new ideas.
“The goal was more purposeful this year. Revising the ten year plan requires new ideas,” said Dean of Faculty Martha Schuur.
Day said that she was able to see Loyola as they experimented with their science curriculum. The school recently switched the sequence of their science classes, now teaching physics to freshmen, chemistry to sophomores, biology to juniors and electives to seniors.
“They started with the end goal in mind – science-literate graduates. They had the courage to make drastic changes, and flipped their entire curriculum,” she said.
She said that witnessing this allowed her to learn from Loyola’s experiences.
“Visiting other schools takes things out of theory and into practice. You see what works and what the pros and cons are and what the barricades were to overcome,” Day said.
English instructor Susan Cope traveled much further for her visits, heading all the way to Washington and Canada to visit two schools.
“I looked for schools as different as I could find from Marlborough,” she said.
One was Whatcom Hills, a Waldorf School where experiential and interdisciplinary learning are emphasized. Cope said that the lack of school bells ringing and the relaxed teaching style made the school feel very organic.
“He could vary the pace and his classroom management was magnificent,” she said of the eighth grade teacher she observed.
The other school she visited was Stratford Hall, a school with an International Baccalaureate program that emphasizes multilingual ability and a global perspective. Cope observed a senior seminar.
“The teachers become more of a coach than a judge,” she said.
Cope spoke highly of her experience visiting other schools and encourages other teachers to do the same.
“A fresh breeze has blown through my brain,” she said, adding that observing other schooling systems allowed her new ideas and perspectives.
Assistant Head of School Laura Hotchkiss said that although not all teachers could make the time to visit another school, she was pleased with the number who did.
English Department Head Joseph Koetters noted the difficulties and amount of logistical planning required for teachers’ visits to other schools.
“It is a testimony of dedication to students that teachers don’t want to leave their classes to a sub,” he said.
However, he said that while not all teachers are able to visit every year, he encourages it.
History Department Head Catherine Atwell, who traveled with Schuur to the East Coast this fall, observed classes at six high schools, including one where classes are based on round-table discussions.
“The students generated discussion instead of the teachers telling the students what they had to know and them writing it down,” she said. “It’s very exciting as an educator…It speaks to the kinds of 21st century thinking skills students need to succeed.”
Hotchkiss said that visiting schools provides a greater understanding of what is happening at other institutions as well as Marlborough, an issue especially timely for the school given the opening of the new Academic Resource Center.
“There is a new opportunity for collaboration and innovation, and seeing other schools helps teachers think of ways they might innovate,” she said.
She said she hopes to continue the trend of teachers visiting in the future.
“Our next step is to keep it up next year. That’s something we can always work on, keeping the learning community alive,” Hotchkiss said.