Emily Jones, Head of School, The Putney School (VT) is featured as the cover story profile in OESIS Network Magazine, December 2021.
The door closed. All attendees including senior administrators had to leave the room. But the student members of the Board of Trustees of the Putney School (VT) remained. The Executive Committee of the Board was in session. Emily Jones, Head of School, wondered what her father would have thought if he had witnessed this situation: he had been fond of ridiculing the notion of the whole child and famously dismissed class discussions as “the half-baked wisdom of peers.” These student representatives to the Board were not simply observers but full voting members and trusted advisors, who had shown the capacity to profoundly shift the conversations of the institution. Their very presence made the conversation more nuanced and productive: the most recent impact had been a wholesale redeployment of endowment investment strategy to reflect alignment with school values. Student Board members were essentially being challenged to demonstrate a number of the core competencies that are identified as “rubric-assessed Throughlines” in the rich Putney curriculum: Ethical, Cultural, and Social Justice Perspectives, Argumentation, Collaboration, Designing and Building, Inquiry and Research, Literacy and Communication, and Self-knowledge / Self-regulation.
When Emily Jones arrived at Putney 15 years ago, the school had strong bones from the inspiration of its previous 70 years: for decades the school had eschewed the extrinsic effects of grades by not actually sharing the letter grades in class subjects until the Junior year. It had never made a distinction between the curriculum and the co-curriculum, seeing learning as non-siloed, and it had made real space for student autonomy, leadership, and struggle. Its founder was an assistant to Jane Addams, who herself founded Hull House and was a great influence on progressive educators like John Dewey. Jane Addams, in her words, saw education and democracy as inseparable, and thought schools should “provide a center for high civic and social life” and “to test the value of human knowledge by action.” Putney had all the elements to be a thought leader and a model of education reform but had never combined those elements into a synergistic community of progressive education. It was an ideal opportunity for Emily Jones to interlock the pieces, align the curriculum, assessment, and learning experiences while creating a community fabric that appealed to her sense of a purpose larger than the school itself.
We chose Emily Jones as our featured Head of School this month as much for her accomplishments at Putney (more on that below) as for her clarity on how education holds together. Ironically, for someone who does not serve up emotion or empathy as the first course when you meet her, she has a very intuitive understanding of the importance of emotional balancing in building learning capacity. Some might call it a lens for an internal locus of control. Her central mantra reiterated constantly to her faculty is to think about how students receive their learning opportunities or assignments, NOT on how they are presented; a fundamental piece for student self-regulation and emotional buy-in. For Emily this is a strategy resting on an observed conviction that over the past 10+ years society has been sending kids the message that they have no autonomy; in a dangerous world, life happens to you. Thus, there is an external fix, often in the form of an adult, to solve your problem: a tutor, therapist, counselor, or even medication. As a result of that mindset, more kids have shifted to an external locus of control replacing emotional self-sufficiency that for centuries has been the foundation of a productive and happy life.
Emily wants all her students to be struggling — not just the ones with low grades — and for that struggle to be seen as the essence of learning (as the research supports). That connection between struggle and learning creates the foundation for the connection between Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and Project-Based Learning (PBL). It is very difficult to integrate SEL into the curriculum without project-based opportunities for students to struggle instead of being provided the required reading and answers. The result is that most Social-Emotional Learning gravitates to the current counseling solution of creating safe environments rather than empowering students to become brave learners. The same reduction principle applies to DEI. Emily wondered out loud during her Keynote at OESIS Boston:
“DEI practitioners often have to ask white people to sit with their discomfort while we learn, but we don’t hear that in other contexts. I hope that the idea spreads — that we can sit with discomfort while we learn, and that we can openly ask our students to do that; while they learn math and while they learn self-regulation. It’s a gentler way of asking them to struggle when struggling is really what we want them to learn to do. Our culture’s insistence that everyone be emotionally comfortable all the time has not served our children well.”
In the larger context, the way kids receive what we provide in terms of learning opportunities sends another message to Emily. It is a message that has become louder by the day in the media-overloaded world they occupy: the world needs to change for them. What we have served to our kids at every opportunity is an external cause (AKA blame), which simply reinforces the message.
Over the past six years, the Putney School has become a great example of a progressive school that has redefined the school experience and its curriculum, bringing them into alignment with its original mission. The Putney Core has three components: Throughlines, Subject-Centered Objectives, and Essential Experiences. The process started with each discipline defining essential skills and knowledge, defending their choices and positions to other departments, and looking at the intersections between disciplinary objectives. Throughlines (also called competencies) were then generated consistent with the school’s values. And these Throughlines had to be measurable so they could be assessed, and they included aptitudes and habits of mind, which can be demonstrated in a variety of disciplines. Subject Standards and Throughlines were given a solid foundation of rubrics that defined performance levels. Students were given real autonomy in immersive projects that were then assessed according to the rubrics. Larger leadership experiences and the opportunity for hard work, such as board participation, grew out of that philosophy.
How does the Putney experience compare with what we are seeing at independent schools in general? Putney’s process is one that most schools resist because they lack the capacity to have difficult conversations on an integrated, student-empowered program. Most schools have therefore taken extrinsic detours or shortcuts in the pedagogical and curricular worlds that were supposed to move the ball (SEL, PBL, CBE, and DEI) and the resulting expediency enabled little of the actual promise. With SEL, those detours often involve not investing in the emotional strength of faculty and then understanding the student’s emotional starting points and reactions to learning opportunities, as well as not offering deeper learning assessed project opportunities. With CBE, the natural detour is picking off disciplinary skill standards and aggregating them into mastery credits rather than embedding real cross-curricular competencies or through lines. With PBL, the natural detour is transforming end-of-unit assessment into a kind of project that has presentation attributes, but fewer larger life skills and experiences. With DEI, the easy detour is adding some curriculum tweaks to offer windows and mirrors into diverse contexts without building community trust and integrated programs.
Emily Jones retires from the Putney School (VT) this year having threaded a needle of alignment that few schools have attempted. For the students, the school presents more like an opportunity map than a curricular map. The result is a once-fringe, rough and ready, progressive school that looks far more future-ready than most independent schools that still battle the content “opportunities” of the last century.
Meet Emily at the OESIS Baltimore Conference for Heads & Leaders, Feb 28-March 1.