Problem Based Integrated Curriculum

At The Community School, we’re teaching students to engage with the world like no other school. We immerse ourselves in the very real work of learning through doing, by tackling problems that are affecting us all, on micro and macro levels. For this work to be relevant, impactful, and truly useful to all involved, our model is largely integrated, blurring artificial boundaries between subjects and skills.

Collectively and individually we imagine and build scaleable regional models for sustainability and hope which can be shared, especially throughout largely underserved, poor, or rural parts of our country.

In and out of the classroom, we teach water and soil sciences, physics, chemistry, engineering, botany, aquaponics, horticulture, advanced maths and introductory construction technologies. By combining these lessons with extensive contemporary readings, daily work in critical skill and disposition development, social justice understanding, and lessons from history, our students tackle problems around climate change, economic parity, and social justice.

We address these issues through project work to:

  • reduce carbon outputs and maximize sequestration or methane capture, on small or regional scales;
  • establish regional food security;
  • build stronger individuals and communities by supporting the basic human needs of identity, food, and shelter;
  • understand the complexities of manifesting change within a vast socio-political network.

In 2017-18, our multi-age pilot group embraced the challenge of addressing the question: how can we sustainably provide our own food locally, year round? The answer students tested included designing and building model systems for a bioshelter, a four-season greenhouse which uses permaculture and solar design to grow crops without added amendments, fossil fuels, or external power sources, and which includes the growing of carbohydrates and proteins, making the outputs not only environmentally sustainable but able to meet the nutritional needs of a community.

At The Community School, students are learning concepts and skills, and figuring out how to put them to use, first through modeling, then with scale construction, and finally, doing an actual build-out of their plan.

In 2018-19, we took a cue from Finland, the leading educational hotspot in the world, which is embarking on one of the most radical overhauls in modern education. By 2020, the country plans to phase out teaching individual subjects such as maths, chemistry and physics, and instead teach students by topic or broad phenomena (Macdonald, 2015). Our pilot expanded into a full-school, 3.5 hour per day integrated program. The challenge at hand, literally built on the previous year’s work of developing functional systems to sustain a bioshelter, addressed the question of waste.

Students chewed on the concept of privilege while addressing the question: is it ethical to sell our waste to someone else, and does this absolve us of responsibility for the planetary repercussions of this waste? We also tackled the waste issue by exploring, inventing, and designing a way to use locally-sourced recyclables (namely glass bottles which weren’t being recycled locally) as the building materials for our bioshelter and intentional co-housing community of tiny houses.

In 2019-20, we delved into three essential questions:

  • do the actions of one person matter?
  • what does local work to shift the trajectory of climate change look like?
  • is social inequity inevitable?

With these in mind, we drafted the ground work of designing a full-scale aquaponics and four-season growing system to provide food for our school community; three tiny houses which can provide sustainable and affordable homes for elders; and began the work to explore the benefits of building an intentional co-housing community in our region.

This design/build work will continue when we reopen in 9/21 as a semester boarding program focusing exclusively on addressing these pressing issues. Won’t you join us?

Slow Down, Dig Deep

This philosophy might be uncommon but is increasingly appreciated as essential to a vibrant and relevant 21st Century education. Think about how top colleges now seek their best and brightest:

  • Trinity’s checklist for their admissions application readers contains the characteristics we’re nurturing here at TCS: curiosity, empathy, openness to change, ability to overcome adversity, risk taking, delayed gratification.
  • Olin’s required two-day building challenge interview looks a lot like our integrated class model, focusing on problem solving and collaboration to bring to life science and math concepts while tackling real problems.
  • MIT’s Maker Portfolio shares qualities of our portfolio system, designed to have students showcase and reflect, over time, on their growth in areas above and beyond traditional academics, including critical thinking and dispositions.
  • Yale includes the option to submit a short video on the prompt describing, “A community to which you belong and the footprint you have left.”

While we’re maintaining The Community School’s founding commitment to hands-on, real-world learning, we’re definitely making sonic shifts to a completely modern way of educating the generations who will solve the myriad problems of our fine world.

Assessment and Evaluation

We believe that assessment and evaluation are tools to help learners plan, grow, and to record that growth. To that end, we assess in many ways–from extemporaneous conversations to formal presentations; journaling or lab notes to annotated plan; pencil and paper tests to problem-based projects. Students learn to assess themselves and to trust their own insights rather than to rely fully on extrinsic observation. Areas assessed include specific subject content and understanding; abilities to use skill sets to solve problems or do something; dispositions; and critical skills. Each student will actively engage in setting their own goals and reflecting on success in reaching them. Faculty use narrative evaluation as the primary communication of a student’s learning, though alpha-numeric grades are also included on transcripts to sending schools.