A Note from Chris | Designing Student Experiences

A Note from Chris | Designing Student Experiences

Dear Whitfield Friends,

Veteran English teacher Larry Hays and I have been swapping teaching stories since I arrived at Whitfield, sharing everything from books we love (and love to experience with students) to educational philosophy. The last 18 months or so are the longest period I’ve spent away from the classroom since 1997, and I’ve really missed it. So when Larry came to me and offered me a couple of weeks in his English 12 course to do some teaching, I leapt at the chance. I wasn’t able to be in all five of his sections, but I was fortunate enough to spend the last couple of weeks with one class of seniors talking about one of my favorite books: Samuel Beckett’s experimental play, Waiting for Godot

Written and first performed in the early 1950s, Godot is a play where, famously, nothing happens–twice. The two central characters are waiting on a country road in the middle of nowhere to keep an appointment with a vaguely but unquestionably consequential person named “Godot,” who never shows up, first in Act 1 and then again in Act 2. The characters don’t feel they have the freedom to leave–meeting Godot is important! So the duo spend the play talking, arguing, joking, and passing the time while waiting–forever–for the person or moment that they believe will give meaning and direction to their lives. (It sounds strange, and it is, but I promise you, it’s great!)

I love teaching the play with seniors because they understand in a deep way what it feels like to wait for other people to decide their fate–college decision letters being one but not the only example. They are also perfectly poised to confront the easy trap of waiting for that moment or event after which one’s life can finally begin–after classes end, after graduation, after they get to college, (after they get their first job, or the right job, or the right house, or the right car, …). These are challenges we all wrestle with, as adults, and I love having these conversations with young people at this age. They are hungry to talk about big ideas and to think critically about the kind of life they want to make for themselves.

And to be clear, when I say the seniors and I had conversations, I mean that literally. One of the things that drew me to Whitfield is the alignment between my own beliefs about how students learn and Whitfield’s long commitment to experiential learning and to student-centered, collaborative classrooms. 

As a young teacher, I was eager to share all that I had learned in college and graduate school, offering carefully prepared lectures and lessons. At the same time, I was very theatrical, marching around the room, jumping on desks, dramatizing the literature I was so passionate about. I took pride in my teaching, and students enjoyed my courses: My classes were fun and full of good intellectual content. But, looking back now, I can see clearly they were–inadvertently–all about me and my experience.

Over time I had mentors and colleagues who challenged me: Yes, your students may be entertained or interested–but are they learning and how do you know? How much do they retain from your lectures? And, most challenging of all: Who is doing the real intellectual heavy-lifting in your classes? Which is more conducive to student learning–listening to you think or being given the opportunity to think for themselves?

It didn’t happen overnight, but, as a teacher, I ultimately became less interested in telling students what I thought–and became more interested in hearing what they thought. I did less talking and showing–and more observing and coaching and listening. 

And, in the end, I came to a completely new understanding of my role as a teacher: Instead of being an instructor, the explainer and question answerer, I became a designer of student experiences. My job was to create opportunities for students to learn with and from each other. Inevitably, my students did less sitting and listening and watching–and did more talking and thinking and doing. My students spent their time explaining their ideas, defending their positions, supporting their thinking with evidence and reasoning, revising their theories in light of new evidence–and, as they did all of these things, they were learning.

Do teachers need to explain things now and then? Of course. But the research–from clinical and field studies to brain science–is unambiguous: all students learn more deeply and more enduringly–and are more intrinsically motivated–when they are learning by doing, when they are actively engaged in developing their own understandings. 

At Whitfield, this educational philosophy is in our DNA. Since at least the headship of Mary Burke, Whitfield teachers have been creating student-centered classes and active learning experiences—not because it’s nice to have these things but because they know this is how students learn best. And that tradition continues to this day. Whether it’s getting off campus for W Day, hands-on work in Science or Art, a collaborative project in History–or a conversation in English class–we work to design rigorous, mind-expanding, and sometimes life-changing experiences for our students.


Chris Cunningham, Ph.D.
Head of School