Passion, Relevance and Engagement are Keys to Learning at The Linsly School

WHEELING — Teachers and administrators at The Linsly School, an independent boarding and day school for grades 5-12 in Wheeling, know that students learn best through passion, relevance and engagement.

With an average class size of 13 and a student to faculty ratio of 9:1, Linsly is a small school by design, which results in an environment where it is impossible to hide in the classroom and where every student is known as an individual.

“Because of these personal relationships, teachers come to understand each student’s strengths and weaknesses, and can introduce material that connects with students on a personal level,” Linsly Headmaster Justin Zimmerman said. “In addition, with a smaller class comes greater accountability, more focused attention, and increased feedback, all things that contribute to improved and better learning.”

According to Zimmerman, who has an extensive professional and personal background in independent education, there is very little mystery surrounding what good learning looks like.

“Countless studies have been done, educational leaders have spoken, and we know more about the brain and learning today than we ever have before. We also know that our industrial style educational system, and one sized fits all approach, is no longer serving our population as well as it once did,” Zimmerman said. “Today our students need to focus on developing skills that will enable them to truly be successful in a rapidly changing world, skills such as: communication, critical thinking, collaboration and creative problem solving are more important than they ever have been before.”

Zimmerman explained that the challenge, however, is that many schools are not designed in such a way to enable this type of education, and mandatory state testing requirements often prevent an individualized approach.

“Consequently pedagogical approaches focus more on content knowledge and preparing students for standardized tests than the fundamental skills that are necessary for students today,” he said. “Think for a moment about your very best learning experience, a time when you were truly engaged in thought, were acquiring new knowledge, new skills, and you were enjoying the process. What comes to mind for you? Did you think of a class in school with one of the most passionate teachers you ever had, a work training program, or was it a one-on-one moment when working alongside of someone else? Or did you draw a blank?”

These are the questions that Zimmerman and administrators at Linsly are asking: What are the common elements of good learning seen in classrooms, hallways, studios, community gardens, maker spaces, labs, and schools all across the country?

Zimmerman explained that the answer can be boiled down into three things: passion, relevance, and engagement.

“In his book #EDJOURNEY: A Roadmap To The Future of Education, author and educational leader Grant Lichtman says, ‘Learning is founded in passion, which is founded in engagement, relevance, and the experience of the learner,'” referenced Zimmerman. “If passion, relevance, and engagement are the drivers of ‘good learning,’ then schools must make deliberate decisions to make sure students are in an environment where ‘good learning’ can be supported. For this to occur, I argue that Linsly’s current model serves as a great example for what can be achieved in schools today.”

Overseeing a faculty that is passionate about teaching and learning, Zimmerman said there are multiple things that happen at Linsly that allow for good learning to take place.

“In an effort to continually improve, we have been making small changes over the last several years to refine the learning experience,” said Zimmerman. “Three things that help facilitate learning at Linsly and relate to creating a good learning environment are our small classes, daily engagement, and real world connections.”

Over the last four years, Linsly teachers and administrators have been actively examining curriculum, teaching methods, and research regarding student engagement. As a result, Linsly has developed a common rubric with teachers that outlines “Eight Characteristics of an Engaged Classroom,” and the administration asks teachers to regularly consider how they can incorporate things like movement, problem solving, critical thinking, individualized instruction, real world connections, and student participation into their daily lessons.

“With passionate teachers committed to introducing engaging and relevant content in ways that immerse students in the process, learning becomes more enjoyable, more rewarding, and more collaborative, again, all things that contribute to a great learning environment.”

Linsly teachers have also recently engaged in over a year-long professional development process where they have re-envisioned planning and curriculum design, and have committed to incorporating real world connections and performance assessments into the learning process. Using a well-researched method known as Backward Design, teachers are designing learning units around fundamental content in a way that results in a final performance based assessment that mimics a real world experience, and forces students to demonstrate their understanding of the material while also enhancing their communication, collaboration, and technological skills. Introducing unique and authentic learning experiences into the curriculum creates relevance for students, engages them deeply in the process, and helps improve learning while students work through the process.

As headmaster of an independent school, Zimmerman frequently hears the argument that private schools like Linsly are only accessible to families who have the financial means to pay full tuition.

“What many families looking for good learning environments for their children don’t realize is that two-thirds of our students are local students, from West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and 60 percent of our students are on need-based financial aid, “ said Zimmerman. “There is a great deal of socio-economic diversity at Linsly. This is something we a very proud of as a school community.”

He said that perhaps the biggest difference upon entry at Linsly has more to do with motivation than it does socio-economics or academic ability.

“Our students tend to be highly motivated to do well, they have goals of attending a four-year college, and they have parents who expect them to take school seriously. Outside of that, our students are your kids,” said Zimmerman.

“Parents at Linsly tell us that their children love to come to school, that they love to learn, and that Linsly is more like a second family than a school. We are proud of this fact and believe firmly that this is the way school should be for every child. We know that our independence allows us to create an environment that may not be realistic everywhere, however, we wish could flip a switch, and help more kids feel better about school, and in return, they would have a better learning experience.”

If you would like to learn more about Linsly, contact the admissions office at 304-233-1436 or plan to attend the Upper School Information Night on April 4. The Linsly School serves students in grades 5-12.