Helping Schools Shed Light on Better Learning Practices

July 23, 2012
By Victoria Groves, Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government

28 independent school heads from across the country met for a second time at Harvard Kennedy School on July 11 to help their institutions become better learning organizations. Under the direction of Richard Light, Carl Pforzheimer Professor of Teaching and Learning and HKS adjunct faculty, participants gathered to share anecdotes as well as data from a year-long survey and interview process. It was part of a multi-year endeavor aimed at helping these schools and eventually their public, large school system counterparts, integrate successful practices for the long-term benefit of students.

Becoming a better learning organization is more than just understanding how to better teach students. According to Light, it’s a way that schools can harness what’s working well and integrate it into the culture of a school. If one teacher figures out a way to teach a topic effectively, it should be documented and shared so if that teacher leaves, the institution can retain the successes for the benefit of future students. “If a new teacher uses techniques that all the students love, but she leaves [the school] after five years, what happens?” asked Light. “Is the school willing to take what this teacher did and routinely incorporate it into what everyone does, or does everyone go back to what they were doing before she arrived?”

Over the past year, the 28 participating schools surveyed their graduating seniors, both online and via face-to-face interviews, on topics including academics, advising and personal life. Questions covered topics from how well classes are taught to the college application process to bullying and tolerance. With the help of H. Peter Aitken of Cambridge-based Benchmark Research, Light compiled results that were used to spur discussion at the July group meeting. “The participants said that for the first time they’re benefiting from other schools and not just talking to themselves,” Light said. “Each school will decide how to use what they’ve learned.”

Last year’s original planning meeting launched the research phase of the project, and after the recent meeting to discuss the first round of data, schools will begin implementing changes as well as conducting similar surveys and interviews with incoming seniors. From here, Light and Aitken hope to roll the project out to public schools in New England over the next two years. “We’re learning to do this well and improve the [survey] questions,” Light said. “Next year we’ll see what each school is choosing to change, and our ultimate goal down the line is to bring this process to as many public schools as possible.

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Seminar participants

(From L to R) Annie Glosky, dean of studies, Kentucky Country Day School, Louisville, KY; Ryan Hoglund, assistant principal of Upper School, Rowland Hall – St. Mark’s School, Salt Lake City, UT; Nicole Trueman-Shaw, dean of students, Mary Institute & St. Louis Country Day School, St. Louis, MO.

“Each school will decide how to use what they’ve learned," said Richard Light, Carl Pforzheimer Professor of Teaching and Learning and HKS adjunct faculty.