Tradition Meets Innovation @BCD

A couple of weeks ago I visited Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, MA.  I learned of Beaver’s innovative coded curriculum at the SXSW Edu conference and wanted to experience Beaver’s broader pedagogical model first hand, having learned that the coded curriculum is just a slice of Beaver’s innovation.  Here’s a quick snapshot of BCD:

“We look beyond tradition and beyond our walls to learn from and partner with the best.  We present classic and innovative subject matter in a creative environment that yields real results.

  • Co-educational, Grades 6-12
  • Independent and college preparatory; founded in 1920
  • 125 students in the middle school
  • 332 students in the upper school
  • 24% students of color, 20% faculty/staff of color
  • 50% of students come from public and charter schools, 50% from independent and parochial schools
  • 24% of students receive financial aid
  • Students come from over 60 communities in and around Boston and speak 20 different languages at home

Beaver’s Principal, Peter Hutton, describes mastery of content and conventional problem solving as the ‘basics’.  The overarching mission of Beaver is to raise the bar so that, “Our students are prepared for an undefined era where advanced thinking skills, essential skills, such as iteration, synthesis, adaptation, collaboration, and innovation are the cornerstones of professional success and personal development.”

I was struck by how Beaver’s physical environment is a beautiful mix of traditional and new.  Red brick buildings, the inside walls of which are painted industrial grey with shots of bright color such as pink or blue.  Sleek design with strong traditional bones.  The physical environment underscores what’s important at Beaver - choice, individual work, group work, private time, heavy emphasis on the Arts, technology and real-world application.  When I met with Rob McDonald, Math Department Chair, he described the Beaver culture and the values which underpin it.  He looks for teachers who are "collaborative risk takers", who want to learn something new - with their peers in the school and from the students.  The curriculum and pedagogy stretch beyond the walls of the school; Rob explained how 12 or 13 years ago, they let go of Advanced Placement. (AP).  He explained how oftentimes depth was being sacrificed for breadth and important ideas were being glossed over.  Indeed he went on to share how colleges are becoming more skeptical of the AP, citing how students are not grasping big ideas through AP and lack deep understanding of content.  Instead of AP, Beaver students have the opportunity to take college level courses:

“For students seeking the highest level of challenge, Beaver offers intensive honors or advanced classes in all disciplines. We offer Honors Advanced courses in science and math as well as honors sections of all required math and science courses. The Honors Advanced courses explore a topic (such as organic chemistry or calculus) in greater depth than a typical AP course. Our courses ask students to construct innovative solutions to complex real-world problems. We also offer upper level elective courses in all disciplines that are college-level in their approach and expectations.”

- in addition, NuVu studio, Beaver’s Innovative trimester-length program with pedagogy based on the studio model of teaching and learning, is receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback from colleges.  The studio provides students with the opportunity to create, iterate and collaborate in an interdisciplinary environment, working on real world opportunities with mentors who work in the field.

BCD is a learning environment which strives to tap into what students are passionate about and supports risk taking - for students and teachers alike. Peter talks about “making great mistakes”, and helping teachers to feel empowered in their work.

I was excited to visit Rebecca Roberts' Art class.  Her class inhabits the top floor of one of the buildings - not only is there much room for artistic expression and experimentation, there is also a dedicated reflection and group space, ‘the living room’.  Becky lives the ethos of an individualized, real-world, interdisciplinary approach to her work - be sure to check out her blog where she highlights her influences, curriculum and teaching philosophy.

I leave the conclusion of this posting to the inspirational words of Becky from her blog:

“I aim to create a learning environment that fosters the development of habits of mind artists use everyday in their studios. The curriculum, the design of the physical space, and the use of time encourages creativity, exploration, and innovation, while at the same time fostering the basic skills and knowledge that serve as building blocks for art making. Theory and practice overlap. Projects and assignments start with big questions about ideas and materials. Students are encouraged to experiment, to struggle, and to work toward personal solutions while learning to understand their own approach to the creative process."