In the Fall 2016 issue of Common Voice, former presidents of Sterling talked about their philosophies of environmental stewardship education. Here, President Emeritus John “Jed” Williamson talks in greater detail about the unique environmental stewardship curriculum of Sterling College.

We are fallible, and should not pretend that we are anything else. But we ought to be aware of what we are doing. We have a profound moral contract with our students. We insist…that they become thoughtful, informed citizens. We must—for their benefit and ours—model such citizenship.—Ted and Nancy Sizer, Coalition of Essential Schools

When I applied to become President of Sterling College in 1996, I had been seeking a position in such an institution for over a year. Putney School was one place on my list, but I came in “second” on that search, as they decided to go traditional. I learned about the opening at Sterling while attending a June wedding at the then-tennis camp beyond the Outdoor Center. Faculty members Adrian Owens and Allison Van Akkeren, friends from the 80’s (Adrian at Dartmouth, Allison from SOLO) were there, and enthusiastically told me about the opening at Sterling. Driving through Craftsbury Common that morning, I had said to wife Perry and daughter Heather, “Now this is a place I could really get interested in!” I was familiar with both Sterling—because of its reputation in the experiential education world and the whole area—because I had done a lot of x-c skiing there. I said to Allison, “When do I start?”

I did have to go through the application process, of course. I brought fresh vegetables from our garden to one interview. That may have helped this non-PhD get the job. But what attracted me to Sterling? At the time, it was a two-year college with an Associate of Arts degree in Resource Management. The course offerings were not typical of accredited Career and Technical institutions with titles such as “Triumph of the Human Spirit,” “Reverence for Wood,” “Watershed Management,” etc. The garden on campus was cranking out veggies; the barns (fairly recently built by students) had chickens, pigs, and two fine draft horses; and the campus woods were being worked. The students and faculty who interviewed me were thoughtful and obviously committed to the mission. They embodied Dr. William Glasser’s description of involvement (from his book “Schools Without Failure”):

“Let’s forget about the word “motivation” and let’s get back to this word ‘involvement.’ People who are involved become motivated; involvement is the basis for motivation. In this world, we do things because we care for others and we care for ourselves and our relationship to these others. It is a rare person who will work all alone to struggle and produce something. We need the confirmation and verification of others.”

I began my ten-year journey in the fall of 1996. Perry, who became the Director of Development, and I had some deep concerns, as we had been given several “by the way” items. “By the way, Sterling is up for its decennial accreditation with NEASC in the spring.” “By the way, Johnson Hall (now Mager Hall) has been condemned for use.” “By the way, there is a balloon payment due on our loan in April.”

We had some work to do. We too would be learning by doing. Experiential education is learning THROUGH experiences, not FROM them. The first commitment was to prepare for accreditation, and my firm belief was that we had to move to becoming a four-year baccalaureate degree program. It seemed to me that all the pieces were in place. It was just a matter of pulling them together. This began with reviewing the key parts of my educational philosophy which I believed to be embedded in the fabric of Sterling College. From a statement I prepared for my application:

Schools. I have always liked the idea that the word “school” is derived from the Greek word meaning “play.” While we all recognize the discipline and effort ultimately required for turning out any educational endeavor—whether it be a research paper, a short story, a performance, or solving a set of mathematical or scientific problems—we also know that for students to achieve success, they have to become interested, enthusiastic, and committed to the tasks at hand. Schools, especially boarding schools, are small communities. They reflect both the culture that learners and teachers bring to them and the culture that is created by how the community is governed and what approaches are used. Every member needs and deserves to be included in the process of determining these. And I believe that if there is a healthy sense of play integral to the daily life and learning routine, the chances for success are greatly increased.

Learners. Young people come to us equipped with natural curiosity, resourcefulness, and specific interests; and they all have the desire for challenge and adventure. The degree to which we all remain enthusiastic about pursuing and acquiring new information is dependent upon how we perceive our capabilities and successes. That is why I believe that for students to achieve cognitive goals, schools must also attend to the affective and social domains with equal vigor. Schools need to be willing to do this, first by deliberately committing to the education of the whole person, and second, by finding ways to enhance the contact hours students have with teachers and mentors—in and out of the classroom.

Teachers. I believe that the teacher’s primary role is one of being a problem poser rather than a problem solver. A great percentage of a teacher’s time is spent planning—behind the scenes. Some of the most successful classrooms I have been in are ones where the teacher seems to be doing absolutely nothing, while the students are all intently involved. We need more teachers who understand how to channel students’ interests towards the achievement of the academic goals and how to allow “discoveries” (such as, say, Archimedes’ principle). Students’ learning objectives must ultimately be their own. We also need teachers whose personal lives are congruent with the mission and goals of schools.

Curriculum and The Approach. Many of the basic academic subjects are well defined and, for the most part, agreed upon. But most schools have abandoned a key part of the learning cycle—one which John Dewey would have considered to be a part of “traditional” education: an immersion in direct, personal experience. I believe that as much emphasis as possible needs to be focused on this, and furthermore, there needs to be a broader attempt to achieve a more interdisciplinary approach to curriculum. This also requires a careful look at how each day, week, and term is blocked out. The fifty minute class period is appropriate for certain learning goals, while total immersion is appropriate for others. Schools need a combination of classroom, laboratory, and internship experiences to achieve a healthy balance.

Administration. Part of an administrator’s role is to model and articulate the ingredients of a healthy community. S/he must strive to involve everyone in seeking the common good, caring for each other—especially in times of trouble and need, and accomplishing tasks mutually agreed upon. S/he must also be committed to a democracy in this extended family, and to foster a sense of responsibility and respect in and for every citizen. There must come from the leader a consistent and congruent message, and there must be involvement in the daily life of the organization. Centuries ago, the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu put it this way: “As for the best leaders, people do not know their existence. The next best, people honor and praise. The next, people fear; and the next, people hate. When the best leader’s work is done, the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’ ”

The faculty came together to build our case for NEASC. How did we take the basic philosophy and the existing course offerings and mold them into the formula required by NEASC? We began by reviewing the work we had begun in our Strategic and Long Range Plan. The overview included our agreement to build our curriculum and community using the Systems Thinking model as defined in this plan, with much thanks to Dr. Perry Thomas, then Dean of the College:

“What do we mean by making Systems Thinking decision-making? This approach is based on the pioneering work of Jay Forrester and others beginning in the 1950s at MIT—work that paralleled similar movements in the fields of psychology, sociology, biology, and ecology. As computer modeling became common across these disciplines, the field became known as Systems Dynamics. Peter M. Senge, in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, translated key concepts of Systems Dynamics for business managers.

During the 1990’s, academic communities, including Sterling College, applied Senge’s recommendations successfully as they move through periods of change. If Systems Thinking is the Fifth Discipline, what are the first four disciplines?   According to Senge, successful organizations begin by:

  • Making explicit the mental models that people hold–the deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.
  • Ensuring a shared vision — shared goals, values, and mission.
  • Commitment of individuals in the organization to lifelong learning. Continually clarifying and deepening their personal vision, focusing their energies, developing patience, and seeing reality objectively.
  • Commitment to team learning. Suspending assumptions, discovering insights not attainable individually, recognizing patterns of interaction that undermine learning (patterns of defensiveness).

The Fifth Discipline entails recognizing that communities “are bound by invisible fabrics of interrelated actions, which often take years to fully play out their effects on each other.” Because all members of the community are part of the system, it can be difficult to see the whole. By studying common patterns of behavior, known as archetypes, systems thinkers become better able to solve problems in ways that address systemic causes.”

Sterling College achieved four-year status and accreditation was reaffirmed at the academic level the year before I retired. This helped moved us another step closer to sustainability and—equally as important—resiliency. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to serve. I could not have done so without the support of the whole community. I must give special thanks in addition to those already mentioned for their work before my arrival and the mentorship they provided. Anne Ingerson, for her vision, teaching, and “plain hard work” in the gardens; Harry Miller for his tenacity and demand for excellence in the wood shop; Ross Morgan for his knowledge of forestry and the key forbearers of good practice therein; Barb Stewart, who quietly did any job required; and Ned Houston, master teacher and the VP/Dean who held the ship together prior to my arrival. And deep thanks to others not mentioned by name—faculty, staff, board, donors, and my successors. We have done and are doing good work.

In another article, perhaps I’ll use the storytelling format. There are so many memorable ones that I kept track of in notes. Such as exterminating Norwegian rats down at the compost heap with Reid Bryant ’00; collecting a bushel of fiddleheads with Melissa Sikora ’98 on a spring canoe trip; building the climbing wall with Ned and students; rock climbing at Artists’ Bluff with Ned and Chris Monz (probably the only college president, vice president, and dean to be doing such a thing); fall harvest in the garden; classic visits to students on their internships; or following students on the night compass course during A Sense of Place. In all the stories are found the essential ingredients for a college deeply committed to using the experiential education cycle throughout the curriculum.



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