What do today’s students need most from their high school experience to prepare them for college, careers, and civic life? Are AP™ courses the same as advanced learning? Are we teaching enduring learning, inspiring deeper thinking, helping students excel in the habits of an intellectual life? Nearly two years ago, the Emma Willard School faculty decided to ponder these very questions. They recognized that academically rigorous curricula was not simply taking as many AP™ courses as one schedule would allow.
The Emma Willard School faculty, under the guidance of Academic Dean Meredith Legg, PhD, took time to critically reflect on the curriculum and pedagogy that informed teaching practices at our school. The faculty chose to re-examine teaching and learning methods.
“The data is rich on how anxiety and mental health concerns are plaguing today’s students, especially girls, pursuing perfection standards. In their desire to get into ‘the best’ college, students make difficult choices that dampen their curiosity and in some cases bring on too much stress,” related Dr. Legg. She added, “Watching our students and recognizing elements in our changing world led us to explore our teaching practices.”
With awareness that the world is changing and learners are changing with it, discussions ensued among the faculty that the Emma Willard School program must equip our students to meet the extraordinary opportunities and challenges of their time. Emma Willard School students deserve a program that is focused on what matters most in learning—relevance, enduring understanding, and multidisciplinary connection. Dr. Legg believes that “our program should support each student as she writes her own unique, personal definition of what success will look like in her life.”
Striving to educate a generation of learners ready and able to meet the most pressing issues of their time led the faculty’s work. The focus of the curriculum change included balancing for breadth, depth, and a multidisciplinary understanding of learning. To this end, the faculty determined:
Living and learning in a global and inclusive community should require persistent and purposeful practice, exposure to, and understanding of the global community, and the skills necessary to build and sustain equity and justice in the world.
Using the noted program pillars as a guide, the faculty are developing advanced course offerings that challenge students to think deeply and fuel students’ love of learning. Over the next three years, Emma Willard School will phase out and replace AP™ course offerings with these unique, Emma Willard School-developed advanced courses.
The school will continue to offer a full catalog of AP™ courses in the 2020-21 school year, with progressively fewer AP™ courses offered in the subsequent two years. The class of 2024 will be the first to fully benefit from the new advanced curriculum that will fully replace AP™ courses.
Conversations and research took place with colleges and other schools that have made such a change in their curriculum. Colleges shared that Emma Willard School’s reputation is strong and unwavering. The school will clearly articulate the unique advanced learning courses on student transcripts, the school profile, and college recommendations. Co-director of College Counseling Kent Jones confirmed that “colleges see no detrimental impact on Emma Willard School’s reputation or consideration of our graduates.”
Science Department Chair Erin Hatton is excited about these changes. “This new program is going to allow teachers to focus on making classes more student-centered. As we move beyond the AP, instead of using prescribed labs, I envision implementing labs where students are asking questions, designing an experiment, collecting data, critically analyzing the data, and drawing conclusions…. Instead of lecturing students on content in order to fit in as much as possible, I imagine presenting students with a diagram or model and having the students ask questions to figure out the underlying concept on their own. In essence, class will be even more engaging and fun!” She continued enthusiastically, “We are thinking of providing more inquiry-based classes that include student choice. For example, our environmental science class uses project-based learning in addition to field trips to make the content come alive for the students. Our neuroscience class scaffolds student learning so by the end of the year the students are comfortable reading peer-reviewed journal articles and teaching the class about the research scientists are performing about the brain!”
“We know these changes will enhance the learning experience at Emma Willard School. We’ve heard many positive responses from our students and families so we know we are moving in the right direction,” stated Dr. Legg. “One parent, an economics professor, shared thinking that the AP curriculum is fairly homogenized and does not necessarily foster creativity in teaching nor emphasize critical thinking skills and stated, ‘I’m very happy to see Emma Willard School move to designing its own advanced courses.’”