WMS is one of a few small boarding schools in New Hampshire with new ideas about learning. Find out more how the environment in small schools like the White Mountain School can be beneficial to students in this podcast with Tim Breen, Head of School.
John Maher: Hi, I'm John Maher. I'm here today with Tim Breen, Head of School at the White Mountain School, a private college prep day and boarding school in New Hampshire. Today we're talking about small boarding schools and the small school community. Welcome, Tim.
Tim Breen: Thanks, John. It's great to be here.
How Big is WMS?
John: Tim, tell me a little bit about White Mountain School and the size of the school in terms of students and faculty.
Tim: Well, we're about 125 students and about 25 to 30 faculty, and with that, we have a community that's just a little over 150. With a community that size, everybody really does get to know each other, sometimes we say three-dimensionally, not just by name, but by name, by trade, and by contribution. What that means is it's really clear that everybody makes a contribution in the community. Nobody's invisible here and that makes a real difference in terms of the setting and the sense of responsibility we all have for making this a great place.
Benefits of Small Schools
John: What are some of the other benefits of a small school?
Tim: I think at a small school, students are more likely to engage in a variety of activities, because they're less worried about social posturing, less worried about what others might think, and it's a safer place to try new things and to maybe engage in that sport you've never tried or get up on the stage in theater if you've never done it. And frankly, you also have the courage to ask that question in class that you might not have thought of. There's actually a lot of research to suggest that if you feel more comfortable in your school community, the academics are actually better, the learning is better for you.
John: The school then gives the students the freedom and the opportunity to pursue their interests and be individuals, decide what's interesting to them and then pursue that and in a deeper way than you might have at a different school.
Tim: Malcolm Gladwell in his book, The Tipping Point, talks about community size, and how once you get over about 150, the community has to become more bureaucratic. With a community our size, we're able to really treat and honor students as individuals and that extends to how we can interact with them on a variety of levels including academically, and we can really ask them, “What are you interested in and how can we help you pursue that in a rigorous and creative way?”
The Impact of Small Boarding Schools
John: What impact do you think a small boarding school like the White Mountain School can have on the wider educational community?
Tim: When I've worked at larger schools, it's harder to institute changes and it's harder to evolve a program. For a small school, you're able to do that better, and I actually think that because we're blessed with being this size, we have a responsibility to the larger educational community to be trying new things and to be sharing what we do. We're doing a bunch of that already in terms of hosting some teachers coming here, sharing the work we're doing on student-driven inquiry and sort of helping students learn to ask great questions and pursue them.
Student-Driven Inquiry Learning
John: You mentioned the student-driven inquiry sort of style of learning. Can you tell me a little bit more about that? Are you trying to get that type of education more widespread and in the general educational community?
Tim: Yes, absolutely. These days, if it ever mattered how much you could memorize and recall on a test, it matters much less now. What matters now is who's asking the next question, who's asking the most interesting question and who's putting together the ideas in the new way. We're really trying to help students learn to do that, and it involves two important pieces. One is knowing how to frame a really good question, a question that's going to drive the conversation forward, that's going to make the world a better place, ultimately. Then, knowing how to research that. There's access to a lot of information on the web, but we also have to work with students to figure out how to find the good information, the useful information on the web.
John: Is the technology the reason why memorizing facts and figures isn't as important anymore? Because what we have right in our pockets now has the answers to all of those basic questions. So what you're saying is that the more important thing is to try to find out what the next question is and pursue topics in a deeper way than just learning facts and figures?
Tim: Yes, we sort of jokingly say that learners beat knowers every day, and we really want our students to develop into independent learners, and that does mean starting with a question. Certainly, the research, there's a real convergence, the research on cognitive science and motivation suggests that if students are more engaged and able to choose some of the path of what they're studying, they are going to be more engaged. If it's a question that matters to them, the learning is going to be deeper, and then it also -- the resources of the web now allow that to happen really easily. Frankly it also aligns with success at college, so the kinds of skills you need to succeed at college and beyond are the same kinds of skills you need to do student-driven inquiry.
John: All right. Well, that's really great information, Tim. Thanks again for speaking with me today.
Tim: Thanks, John.