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Innovation at St. Mark's: More Than a Buzzword
Innovation at St. Mark's: More Than a Buzzword

Innovation is one of the most commonly used words in today's education literature. St. Mark's publications are no exception to that trend. Indeed, we are very proud of The Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, a major initiative of our Strategic Plan, and often write about its innovative work.

Innovation is one of the most commonly used words in today's education literature. St. Mark's publications are no exception to that trend. Indeed, we are very proud of The Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, a major initiative of our Strategic Plan, and often write about its innovative work.

However, one needs to be thoughtful when using the term innovation because overused buzz words can become so trite that they cause eyes to roll, or worse, become meaningless. Another issue that arises when discussing innovation in schools is that schools typically innovate as a matter of course, changing their educational program in response to new educational theory and in response to changes in the larger world. So, the most important question to ask ourselves is "what is unique about the way that St. Mark's School innovates?" The answer to that question is "a lot!"

The very fact that St. Mark's possesses a well-resourced Center dedicated to innovation in teaching and learning is distinctive. The Center's programs, skillfully led by Director Colleen Worrell, foster intellectual vibrancy, resulting in novel classroom practices that positively impact student learning. An inveterate reader, Colleen regularly presents book suggestions about teaching practice to faculty, and her Twitter Feed #SMLearns provides concrete examples that can be readily applied. Patterson Innovation Grants, which Colleen oversees, fund faculty research and implementation of educational pilots that grant recipients then share both with St. Mark's colleagues and at educational conferences. These innovation grants supplement a very generous faculty professional development budget which encourage teachers to constantly refresh their courses, incorporating the best educational theory.

The Center's Assistant Director for Student Enrichment, John Camp, celebrates the results of innovative curricular work in the monthly online academic journal he edits, Leo, which publishes student and faculty work and essays. Students and faculty alike are proud of being published in Leo and Leo articles inspire students and faculty by providing models for exciting innovative intellectual work and by providing a forum for sharing that work.

The very location of the Center, in the heart of the Main Building, sends an implicit and explicit message to St. Mark's students, and adults as well as visitors about the value St. Mark's places on innovation. The offices of the Center's faculty are located on its main hallway, providing ample opportunity for students and adults to drop by for conversation. Students make frequent use of The Center's small group study rooms because teachers are assigning more and more collaborative projects. As we walk by these rooms every day we see engaged learning taking place, further reinforcing an atmosphere of intellectual vibrancy.

The School's foundational documents: the Motto (Age Quod Agis); the Mission Statement; and the Strategic Plan's Fifteen Educational Outcomes also help make the approach to innovation at St. Mark' unique. Indeed, they encourage innovative practice that fosters academic and personal growth. The phrase Age Quod Agis implies a desire for continuous improvement; our mission statement directs the School to kindle a passion for discovery; and among the relevant Educational Outcomes we find fostering creativity and interest in knowledge for its own sake. Faculty use these documents as reference points for work inside and outside the classroom.

Meaningful innovation at St. Mark's is also fostered by our courage to take bold initiatives. In particular, we have made three substantial changes in how we allocate time, revising our daily schedule, our weekly schedule, and our annual calendar. While I am aware of schools that have employed one of these schedule innovations, I do not know of a school that has implemented all three. Each of these innovations benefits student learning in a different way. Two long blocks in each course between Monday and Friday fosters deep examination of subject matter, a two-and-a-half hour stand-alone course on Saturdays allows for experiential as well as traditional academic learning and a three week form based program in early June allows our students to understand their place in the larger world beyond our campus.

These schedule innovations foster habits of mind which are essential for success in the world our students will enter. Success in a Saturday course in an unfamiliar subject, or a Third Form Lion Term outdoor education curriculum at Brantwood Camp in Southern New Hampshire encourages a growth mindset and a willingness to take responsible risks. St. Markers will find themselves calling upon these habits of mind as they seek to make a mark in a world that is changing more fundamentally and more rapidly than ever before.

The approach to innovation at St. Mark's is also distinct because we incorporate curricular elements, practices, and structures from a variety of educational traditions. We imagine our educational program as a hybrid, combining elements from the traditional end of the educational spectrum with elements from the progressive end of the educational spectrum. A St. Mark's education features traditional elements like close reading of texts and sustained attention to building writing and speaking skills and also features progressive elements like learning by doing and working with one's hands as well as with one's mind.

Another hybrid feature of our educational program that facilitates meaningful innovation is our commitment to employing timeless educational practices in new and different ways, ways appropriate for the twenty-first century. We believe that gaining content knowledge is as important as ever. Some educators argue that content knowledge is less important today than skills because information is so readily available on the Web. At St. Mark's we continue to recognize the centrality of content knowledge to a first-rate education. We believe, as Durham University Education Professor Conrad Hughes asserts, "you cannot be a seriously skilled person at anything if you do not know a lot: to create something powerful, you need more than imagination, you need experience and technique; to be a critical thinker you must be able to substantiate your judgments with accurate factual knowledge; to have good communication skills you must know how to master a language."[1]

How one gains content knowledge and how one uses the knowledge one gains can be different than in previous generations, thanks to the availability of web resources and the variety of presentation mediums students can use effectively. Extensive factual research can yield tremendously sophisticated student oral presentations complemented by a carefully composed poster or Power Point.

One of my great joys is listening to our faculty describe the new approaches to learning that they are incorporating into their work with our students. Another joy is watching the results of the faculty's deep thinking, research, and collaborative lesson planning when I visit St. Mark's classes. The faculty's enthusiasm about bringing the best classroom innovative and traditional practice to our students is infectious. Day after day I see and hear evidence that meaningful innovation is making St. Mark's an impressive intellectually vibrant place to teach and to learn.

[1] Conrad Hughes, "The Centrality of Knowledge in a 21st Century Education,"