Saturday, March 23, 2013

Cambridge School of Weston - Weston, MA

A state of the art campus
graciously greets visitors

A boarding and day high school for 330 students, located 30 minutes from Boston, The Cambridge School of Weston (CSW) was founded in 1886 as the Cambridge School for Girls by Arthur and Stella Scott Gilman. The school moved to Weston in 1931. CSW has followed a progressive mission for many years and hosted a conference in 1987, which was one of the last gatherings of progressive educators until the re-establishment of the Progressive Education Network in 2005. A very special day was planned for me to meet with members of the staff, tour the school, and learn of the Progressive Education Lab, an apprenticeship program for teachers co-founded by CSW, The Calhoun School, The Putney School, and Unquowa. Jane Moulding, Head of School, hosted my visit.

It is the rare high school these days, as deeply committed as The Cambridge School of Weston to the principles of progressive education. The PEL partnership of CSW, Calhoun, Putney and Unquowa  has formed an alliance supporting the deep dive these schools are taking into the history, pedagogy, and cutting edge of progressive education. Not satisfied with the status quo, CSW has fully embraced new technologies and STE(A)M practices, illustrating a foundational tenet of progressive education, that schools must always be assessing the most current state-of-the-art teaching practices and technological advances to enhance student experience and learning. (In a future entry, I’ll reflect more on this aspect of progressive education, and review the parts of my journey that clearly dispel the stereotype of progressive schools as inert and not future focused).

For Jane Moulding, progressive education is defined by three primary elements. First, we place students at the heart of the school. Their passions, desires, drives, and developmental milestones inform and propel our work. Next, we cultivate critical thinking to empower creative problem solving, and we pay close attention to how students are expressing their thinking. And finally, our emphasis on social justice lays a foundation for students to participate in a democratic society. 

The daily schedule allows for
curricular innovation and
At CSW, these beliefs manifest everywhere from the governance structure (students serve on the Board of the school and participate in decision-making), to hiring policies, and to the practice of students creating curriculum. During a typical academic year, there are over three hundred course offerings, many established by a student-led curriculum committee. CSW offers a unique four-block modular schedule that allows teachers to pursue a curriculum with much greater depth than the standard forty-minute high school model.

When I asked Jane to identify the necessary components of leadership in a progressive school, I found her response unique. It starts with a light touch and an eye for cultivating teacher leadership. At progressive schools, there is a high premium on shared decision making and Jane recognizes the impulse among teachers to be integrally involved in steering the school. Accordingly, leaders must be nimble, comfortable in grey areas, and aware of the nuances that are necessary in moving a faculty or board to a place of decision.

Julie, Aaron and Sidra
To explore more of the school’s current journey as a progressive school, I spoke with three gifted members of the CSW administrative team, Aaron Hirsch, Dean of Student Life, Sidra Smith, Academic Dean, and Julie Johnstone, Assistant Head of School for Internal Affairs. Aaron represented the ethos of the faculty as never being satisfied or thinking that “we have things nailed.” This validated Jane’s point about keeping the curriculum alive. Sidra pointed to a tension that can exist when things are always being assessed and tweaked. Schools face the pressure to prepare students for colleges that are rarely progressive. Getting strong SAT scores, having the academic chops in each subject area is a prerequisite for college entrance these days. Though she does not see progressive practices as mutually exclusive from the acquisition of the knowledge necessary to do well on the SAT, Sidra acknowledges how easy it is for teachers to default to a more traditional model, when facing these pressures.

A course on flight and
Julie validated Sidra’s notion that there is the push and pull all progressive schools face these days. But she takes heart that the school approaches all aspects of its operation with student interests at the forefront. If we are willing to deviate when great learning opportunities arise, and be open to new ideas, the students will be well served. The proof is in the pudding. After all, the graduates of CSW are very successful at a wide variety of colleges and universities.

One of the most poignant moments in my visit to CSW came during a brief interaction I had with a senior student who was installing an art exhibit. It was a form of self-portraiture, and included abstract paintings, poetry and three-dimensional components. She talked about the meaning of the piece, and how she’d wanted to reflect the personal journey she’d experienced at CSW. She has found her voice and this project allowed her to illustrate how she had overcome obstacles that she faced during her childhood and over her four years at CSW.  This is where the proof is truly in the pudding: students reflecting the mission of the school in the most meaningful way – empowered, finding their voice, and ready for the next stage of life. Progressive education at its most vibrant.


  1. I really enjoy your thorough, thoughtful and caring descriptions. You are truly enjoying your time in these schools, and I am benefitting from that in your reading!
    Reading your blog entries and being immersed in the current arena of Innovation, I would like to know what for you is the difference between Progressive Education and Innovation in Education. I define myself as a Progressive Educator but am constantly talking about Innovation. It dawned on me that they might be different... It seems they are inherently different just by their speech make-up (one is an adjective, while the other is a noun). The fact that you rarely define a school as innovative, made me think about the two concepts differently.
    I look forward to your response (although I understand the limitations being on the road can pose; so don't feel rushed! :)
    Thank you so much for sharing this incredible journey and passion of yours!

    1. Hi Lisa,

      Thanks for following my journey; it has been the opportunity of a lifetime as you can imagine. It is interesting that you ask this particular question since schools are using the "innovative" descriptor more and more. I have found that some schools are moving away from the label "progressive," in favor of innovative because of some ambivalence or issues (sometimes regionally driven) that have arisen referring to themselves as "progressive."

      My distinction is clear: progressive schools align with the lineage and history of progressive education, which has a clear set of principles and beliefs. In my travels around the country, progressive schools almost universally believe that the nature of progressive education requires schools to be innovative and well versed in cutting edge technology and best teaching practices. I would include "innovative" as part of the definition of progressive education.

      An "innovative" school is less easy to classify, and the term has entered into common use among many schools, arising I believe out of the desire to be part of the 21st Century education/learning trend. Much of what I understand this trend to be is linked to the central tenets of progressive education. I wrote an article that has recently been published in the International Journal of Progressive Education ( which shows the intersection of 21st C. education and the historical tenets of progressive education.

      I hope this addresses your inquiry. Please let me know if you have any follow-up questions. Many thanks, Tom

  2. Hi Tom,
    I do have a follow-up question. What in your opinion, as a Progressive Educator, should the focus of teaching/learning be: for the students' present (where life unfolds) or for the future (an illusion of the mind that is never attainable by its very definition of time)?
    We keep stressing that we need to educate children for the future, but I think we need to change our relationship with time and educate for the present. So, what's your progressive take on this? :)

    1. Hi Lisa,

      Progressive Schools have a unique relationship with time. As much as our beliefs call for us to be aware of the future, it is equally important to not always be driven by "the next step." For example, we want to honor the 8th grade years for students, and not be driven by high school admissions. We want to slow down the pace for students to avert the anxiety that can arise when one is overly consumed with the future.

      And, progressive schools/educators are serious-minded about staying on top of the current advances in technology and curriculum. We need to be conscious of where technology will take us; and to be aware of best teaching practices.

      Your question implies the great value in allowing life to unfold and to be focused on the present. In many of the progressive schools I have visited, this is a strong part of the ethos. Many schools are incorporating mindfulness education to bring students more into a present awareness and to help reduce the stress of our modern lives. Many schools put a big premium on play and the value of learning through experience. I would think that all progressive educators would align with your suggestion that educating for the present is vital.

      In my view, progressive schools today are trying to achieve a balance. That said, if we can keep children focused on their present experience, they will be well served.

  3. Thank you, Tom. for your thorough and thoughtful reply. I am heartened to hear this intentionality is present, it is vital for the shift into a more balanced era. After all, the students of today will at some point, be the ones setting the rules for the society of tomorrow.
    I was re-reading your profile heading and read you serve as the President for the PEN. Someone from my PLN tweeted out the call for proposals for the October conference in L.A. I am currently working on a new approach to teaching Spanish and although the project is still evolving submitted a proposal out of a hunch.
    I must say I was surprised at the coincidence I just ran into (life has a subtle sense of humor). At any rate, if my proposal is accepted, I'll seek you out and we can meet face to face (I'm assuming you will be there, but will you?) This is definitely one of the perks of 21st Century living, the ability to connect virtually; and subsequently, physically by a seemingly unrelated twist of fate. :)
    I hope you are getting good weather.
    Thanks again for engaging and furthering the conversation with me. I really appreciate it.