At Wooster School, our learning environment is built on the bedrock of relationships because we know that people learn best when they feel physically, intellectually and emotionally safe. Through our small class groupings (5 – 15 students) students learn to develop relationships with teachers and fellow students that allow them to best develop their own intellectual and emotional intelligence. While developing “academic skills” like reading, writing, and computation is an important part of our mission, our ultimate goal is to produce independent thinkers who can use those skills to observe, analyze, understand, collaborate and create in multiple contexts. We don’t just want to create “academic rigor” for our students, but rather want students who build skills and pursue intellectual rigor through our academic programs. We also recognize that if we aspire to produce independent, successful, young adults who have an emerging sense of purpose, we need to teach our students at all levels how to use their developing skills and dispositions in the service of the communities within which they live and work. As such, an emphasis on the whole life of the Wooster school community, and the roles and responsibilities of students as community members, has been intrinsic to our culture since our founding in 1926.
Our expectations are high, our kids work just as hard as students at other schools, and they are facing all of the challenges inherent in growing up in our modern world. Yet when people come to visit our campus, they frequently observe that our students appear to be happier than those that they’ve seen elsewhere. We hear from our own parents that their kids look forward to coming to school. We put a high emphasis on creating relationships with adults and other students because we know that students are more open to taking risks and to working harder when they care about those with whom they do their daily work. From the comfort of familiarity comes the willingness to embrace the kinds of discomfort that leads to the best learning. We’ve designed a place where students can be happy because happy people learn better.
Making a Difference Matters
At Wooster, our programs are designed so that every student should make a difference every day. Collaboration, participation, and meaningful input are mandatory. In our learning environments, students have to make their thinking “visible,” and as they get older and progress through the Upper School, students can see the difference that they are making in the life and culture of the school community. Simply “surviving” school, staying on the margins, or “slipping through the cracks” are not options for students at Wooster. As one long-time Wooster faculty member put it, “at Wooster, every student has to agree, over time, to show us who they are.”
Our Self-Help philosophy dictates that all students participate in the life and culture of the school, from cleaning and maintaining the campus through our Jobs Program, to daily participation in our smaller classes. Self-help has been in place for decades and is testament to the fact that we figured out a long time ago how important dispositions are in the development of young people. Our school prayer urges us to produce and nurture students who are “gentle, generous, truthful, kind, and brave,” and we have built on that philosophy by incorporating much of the latest thinking on learning and behavior into creating young people who know how to learn, and are critical and creative thinkers. At Wooster, Self-help means learning about resiliency, persistence, and collaboration through taking responsibility for the physical and cultural environment of the school. All of our 6-12 students have jobs, and perhaps more importantly, must take responsibility for others’ job performance as they get older.
Pursuing Interests and Passions
We understand that young people need the opportunity to explore developing interests and passions as they progress through school. This is one of the best ways to build skills, dispositions and confidence. If properly nurtured, these interests - in art, music, athletics, theater, service, and leadership – can become integral to a meaningful life in adulthood. Unfortunately, in many schools, the pursuit of these passions ends up being limited to those that are “the best” in any particular area. More disturbing is the fact that decisions about who is the best are often made when students are just beginning to develop the mental, emotional, and physical strengths needed to fully engage in a personal passion. At Wooster, we strive to create opportunities for all students to pursue passions regardless of their current level of skill or expertise.
Students at Wooster still play three sports, or participate in theater for the first time, or take an Art Intensive class to explore their curiosity about art regardless of their past experience. We want students to explore and participate, because that is how they will learn more about themselves. We use competition to build skills - through practice, performance, and contests against other schools - not to eliminate students from the things that they love to do. We never tell a student that he or she is not good enough to be a part of our team. Not coincidentally, our students put on amazing shows, bring home trophies from Model UN, win league athletic championships, and create award-winning art and publications. When given the chance, and faced with our high expectations for them, Wooster students just keep getting better.
Skills, Dispositions, and Knowledge
Skills, dispositions and knowledge are the three pillars of our approach to thinking and learning. While all three are complex concepts that overlap in many ways, at the most basic level of distinction, skills are what you do, dispositions are how you do things, and knowledge is what you gain as you go along. We make our students thinking “visible” to them by design. We ask our students to think about their own thinking, and how to make it better, as a regular part of our programs. We also know that thinkers and problem-solvers need to apply skills and dispositions in their personal, school and eventually, professional lives, so reading, writing, numeracy, and design skills are the threads that hold the Wooster tapestry together from kindergarten through twelfth grade.
Professional Learning Community
Because we learn more every day about the brain and how it works, particularly how it learns, today’s schools need teachers who are also students of the art and science of teaching. Wooster School prides itself on being this kind of community of learners. We create the time for teachers to study and discuss of teaching and learning, and to collaborate on enriching their own practices in the service of better student outcomes. In order to teach at Wooster, one must have deep disciplinary knowledge and a keen interest in the craft of teaching, what noted educational expert Richard DuFour would call a “persistent disquiet with the status quo.” Our teachers model for students the skills and dispositions that we want them to develop – curiosity, questioning, design, experimentation, reflection, and many more.