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The Experiential Teacher

August 27, 2011

We often speak of St. Andrew’s as a place that cultivates deep and sustained intellectual engagement, a place where one is invited to enter ultimately unfathomable disciplines, ways of understanding and doing, where the goal is not simply “knowing about and moving around the perimeters of understanding” (italics original) but rather embodied, inhabited, and experienced knowledge. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reading this summer about such processes, the scientific and biological basis for learning and understanding, knowledge as embodied in the neuronal and synaptic connections in our brain.

A former teacher of mine, an English professor, in her own personal statement of teaching notes that in the 17th century the words “experience” and “experiment” were synonyms, and thus she thinks of the classroom as a “group experiment,” one that follows a collective line of inquiry, an arc of new questions and answers, and then new interpretations. Each year as teachers we come to this experiment afresh: we’re dealt new materials each year in the form of the new schedules you received this morning, new students and class rosters, new classes, and we respond with new approaches. At this time of year I’m always reminded of the comprehensive research on teaching done by Teach For America over the course of their more than twenty-year existence: they found that the most successful teachers are constantly revising, reworking, and rethinking their craft. They continue to adjust and readjust and experiment, reinventing the wheel once they get a good sense of what the terrain is like.

I think this notion of an “experiment”—of trying, testing, evaluating, assessing, returning to questions, finding new ones—is particularly apt in boarding school, which is a whole-bodied, enfleshed experience and experiment in itself. As teachers we marshal our own intellectual, artistic, and athletic engagement toward this collective experiment, which comes in the form of our preparation, never to minimized, and models the habits of mind and heart that go into the doing of our different disciplines. Examples among us abound:

  • Chinese teacher Chiachyi Chiu has spent a large part of her summer using and promoting her newly published Chinese textbook and has served as a teacher of new teachers in Delaware, including our own Shanshan Xu.
  • Classics teacher Chris Childers has been offered a contract with Penguin Books for a 400-page anthology of his verse translations of Greek and Latin lyric poetry, due out sometime around the time this year’s entering ninth grade class will graduate.
  • Science teachers Mark Hammond, Kelly O’Shea, and Harvey Johnson collected some of this most innovative teachers in physics education in the country (in which distinction I would hold our group) for a conference and “shop-talking” session at School early this July on teaching and modeling instruction, building materials, labs, and videos for the upcoming year.
  • Diahann Johnson, Nate Crimmins and Joleen Hyde attended a conference on global initiatives in Costa Rica, pursuing connections for their classrooms with teachers from around world and service opportunities for both our faculty and our students.


These are just a few examples of ways we bring our personal and professional experiences and experiments to our work as models and doers of our disciplines. We will hear from each of these people and others in a series of Faculty Forums on B week Wednesday evenings throughout the year. These discipline-based habits of mind are also embodied in our series of lectures, the speakers and dates for which we will publish soon.

In keeping with this notion of experiment, like good scientists, we seek to be stewards of our craft, good record-keepers of important materials—assessments, exemplary work, and student evaluations—which we should all compile as we plan our classroom experiments both backwards and forwards each year.

Like any good scientist engaged in an experiment, we seek, submit to, and offer peer review—review of our teaching, our professional writing, our assessments, and our grading—both as we determine the internal and external standards and markers of achievement for our students, and as we pursue and give honest, constructive, and prompt feedback to our students and our colleagues. Clear, regular feedback and collegial collaboration are the surest ways of learning and growing and staying fresh in our chosen profession; our processes of review and feedback will hope to cultivate that professional growth.

As in any experiment, we seek to cultivate honest results and continue to stress to our students what academic integrity means for our disciplines and for a person’s identity and engagement with that discipline.

And, finally, just as a scientist engaged in any experiment, we look toward our next experiments, the succeeding questions, new materials and opportunities that come in our rapidly changing and critical time, where ways of communication and connection are so pervasive and yet understanding can be so scarce.

I look forward to working with all of us who work in and support our academic program in our individual and collective experiments.

– Nathan Costa, Academic Dean

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