The Moorhead Academic Center and Jon Willson '82 in Action
For longtime history teacher Jon Willson '82, teaching and learning are two sides of the same coin. And he's betting on both. In his role as director of the Moorhead Academic Center, or the MAC, Willson wants to help both students and teachers make the most of their academic experience at Taft.
Willson is excited about a lot of things, but especially about helping faculty figure out ways to make student learning visible or transparent. He's taken a special interest in how the brain learns—in the science behind how humans gain and retain information. Much of his reading about brain research now informs his own teaching and his approach to helping students learn better and teachers teach better.
"I don't get involved in curriculum design," he says. "That's a departmental thing. But I want to show teachers different teaching strategies and tactics."
Faculty shouldn't see teaching as transferring knowledge to students, he explains, but as engineering better learning environments. Of course, he admits there are times when the content calls for a short lecture.
"When you do lecture, you need to stop and validate for student understanding"—ask them to write down two or three things they've just covered, to be sure that what you taught is what they learned, and to help them move that learning to a different part of the brain, he says.
Willson, who joined the Taft faculty in 1996, recently spent a sabbatical year reading about teaching (the pedagogy) and the assessment of it, and how those two go together. He then interviewed master teachers at Taft and elsewhere.
"I wanted to observe and interview great teachers, to learn as much as I could about great teaching," says Willson, who talked to legendary faculty at Watertown High and at a KIPP high school in the Bronx in addition to nine other boarding schools. "I went out of my way to find many different teachers—in art, French, math—to see everything I could."
From his research, he believes strongly in three basic but powerful ideas:
1. S/he who works, learns.
"What I get most excited about," says Willson, "even back when I was the History Department head, is the challenge of showing teachers how to teach better by shifting the burden of learning to students—which doesn't mean you're not working." It's up to the teacher, he says, to think very deliberately about what the typical student knows coming in to the class, what they need to do to recall prior learning, what the goal is for that day, and what activity will help them achieve it.
2. Challenge, engage, empower.
Every lesson, every assessment should do all three, he says. "If students are bored or feeling powerless—or that it's pointless—it's your fault. It's your job as the teacher to engage them. Your goal is to get them to do things that are harder than they think they can do," he explains.
3. Teach students, not a course.
As academic dean for eight years, Willson received plenty of unsolicited feedback about teachers from students. At Taft, whenever a student asks to change a course, they have to talk to the academic dean. "You take some of it with a grain of salt, but what I heard—almost across the board—was that when they didn't like a teacher it was because they had the sense that the teacher wasn't really in their corner, which is rare at Taft," he says.
As academic dean, before his sabbatical, Willson led changes in the academic schedule, the grading system, and the way we assess students' academic habits.
"He did this with a tremendous level of dedication to the role," says Jeremy Clifford, who succeeded him as academic dean, "while building a high degree of rapport with the students and respect among the faculty."
Willson now heads the Pedagogy and Assessment Committee, with the goal of helping faculty incorporate new and exciting teaching techniques into classrooms at Taft.
One of the things that has been most instructive, Willson says, are instructional rounds. A teacher says, "I'm doing X. Anyone want to come see me?" It's not about giving that teacher feedback. It's about what the observers can take away from seeing that teaching technique in action.
"I was impressed by Jon's excitement and authenticity in wanting to push our classrooms to a place where we are all doing transformational work," says English teacher Khalid Tellis, who recently joined the group.
In some ways, what Willson does now echoes the experience new Taft faculty get through the Penn Fellows program—an innovative two-year fellowship program between the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education and nine top boarding schools.
"This P&A group is really a wonderful addition to the faculty," says Karen May, a specialist in educational assessment and reading strategies who works with Willson in the MAC. "What Jon has managed to do is bring the same excitement and learning and camaraderie that I have marveled at with the Penn Fellows. They observe each other's classes, sharing as a community of learners. He is successfully helping teachers to share their ideas, their questions, their best practices, and their excitement—all of it under our roof. I have seen teachers, experienced teachers, come alive with this work Jon is doing.
Half a dozen teachers sit in one of the newly remodeled CPT history classrooms. The Professional Education and Growth Committee has organized a morning of professional development workshops on campus by and for faculty.
Willson—tall, lean, dark-haired, and dressed in a white button-down and khakis—is there to talk about "primacy and recency"—essentially the importance of structuring class time so that the most important parts of a lesson are at the start and end of the class block, when students are most likely to remember them.
Simple in concept, but the key, of course, is the execution. He gives each teacher a survey rating how frequently they start class with various activities, from reviewing homework or outlining the plan for the coming week, to giving lectures or short quizzes. Of course, all are aware of the gentle nudging going on. Sprinkled through the list are activities designed to better engage students, such as having them work in small groups or putting answers on the board—as he is having the faculty group do.
The goal, they learn, is to maximize those critical early minutes of class to do one or more of the following:
- Recall content from prior learning so it is accessible in working memory
- Practice skills
- Learn because the activity is novel or physically involving
- Provide feedback as to what students know in a way that might guide a learning plan
He might simply have explained the concept, but by asking faculty first to review their own behavior, they're more engaged learners.
Similarly, the last chunk of class is the second-most opportune time to engage students, he reminds the group—that is, to get students to consolidate or apply the content or skills faculty want them to practice. Again, they review their own track record of end-of-class activities and discuss (in small groups) what best aligns with this "primacy-recency" concept.
Another possible way of thinking about this, he explains, might be to ask which of the activities is likely to help students move the material into their long-term memory, or to help teachers understand what students actually learned that day.
But his work with faculty isn't limited to organized workshops or to working with members of the P&A Committee. Willson regularly gets emails from faculty wanting to share or discuss an article they've just read, whether that's the merits of flipped classrooms or the latest research on learning and the brain. At lunch, he'll happily delve into deep discussions of the advantages of single-point rubrics or low-stakes testing.
Around campus, Willson is known for the catchphrase "Work smarter, not harder." In fact, he devoted a Morning Meeting to the subject, complete with a detailed handout. He's achieved such market saturation that the school mons parodied him in a sketch, in the nicest possible way, using that mantra.
He's happy about that, but hopes students will also take the time to come to the MAC to work out in more detail just what that smarter approach might mean for them.
Piper Desorcie '20 is very glad she has. "He's very welcoming, friendly," she says. "We tried to figure out where I needed to improve—going through his worksheet. He threw out some ideas that may help: how to study properly, to work better with flashcards. In a couple classes I'm meeting with teachers more. I feel like I'm starting to understand the material better, and that's helping me to be more engaged in class, to know what I'm listening for. I have a more formal plan now of how to approach things."
In addition to being the girls' varsity basketball coach, Willson is a goalie coach for the soccer teams.
"He helps everybody," Piper says, "and is really kind about his advice to you. He'll say, 'You're doing this, maybe try doing this.' He gives advice in a way that's easy to follow and understand, but you feel like he's there with you, not against you."
Willson's own students benefit directly from his enthusiasm and expertise.
The Moorhead Academic Center
With an overarching mission to improve student learning, the Moorhead Academic Center (MAC) offers a broad range of resources and services to Taft faculty, students, and parents. The MAC staff works with faculty to incorporate research-based pedagogy and assessment into their teaching; assist students with learning strategies and study methods, and, where appropriate, facilitate their accommodations to help them become more effective academicians; and help parents navigate assessments and evaluations of their children as learners.
For more information, visit www.taftschool.org/mac
Not only do his students genuinely like him a teacher, they look forward to his class, which is saying a lot, given that Advanced Placement U.S. History has a notoriously difficult and content-heavy exam.
"Mr. Willson is definitely one of the best teachers I've had at Taft," says Stephen Cho '18, who had him for AP U.S. History and is currently the ranking scholar for his class. "I think what sets him apart is that he focuses on what students want to learn. We would do the reading and write responses, and if we had any questions or a special interest in any topic, he would gear his lesson plans to address them."
"He has this ability to make us all passionate about the material," agrees Isaiah Jones '18, who also took Willson's class last year. "He knows a lot about U.S. history, since he's been teaching for so long, so he can make connections between ideas really quickly and makes you see history in a different way. Instead of just separate events, you see it as a continuum. He puts things in perspective and makes the class really enjoyable, so it's a class that you're looking forward to."
One of the things they also appreciate is that he doesn't like to lecture.
"He just simply doesn't believe in it," says Yejin Kim '18. "And so we'd have a lot of discussion. Last year, with the presidential election—and a lot of things were happening based on race or gender—it was so much more comfortable talking about that stuff in class. He creates an atmosphere where everyone is encouraged to participate without trying to grade it or anything."
"Jon eats, sleeps, and breathes teaching and learning," says Jeremy Clifford. "I find myself thinking about a lesson plan and asking, what would JW do here? Even though he has an engaging personality and is a naturally gifted teacher, he is still very mindful and deliberate about what he does in the classroom and is still thinking of how to improve, even as a very experienced classroom teacher."
Willson likes to think of teaching as three things concurrently: curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment—or what are you teaching, how are you teaching it, and how are you assessing it?
But whatever teaching philosophy or style one embraces, for Willson, there is one sure bet: Students learn best from teachers who care.
"When I interviewed all those legendary teachers," says Willson, "they were all so different in personality and approach, but the one thing they all did, in ways unique to them, was demonstrate their caring for all students. The students felt that those teachers cared—the prickly English teacher or the Spanish teacher-mom type. That's the basis for all great teaching. It has to start with great relationships."
Julie Reiff teaches journalism at Taft and is the former editor of this magazine.