Featuring Mr. Robertson, Director of Teaching and Learning

Mr. John Robertson is the newly appointed Director of Teaching and Learning at Woodstock School. After a few thought-provoking discussions with him during English class about education, language, and the IB program, I decided to interview him in order to gain insight into his goals for the position and approaches to teaching.

How long have you been at Woodstock, and what are the positions you have held here?

I’ve been at WS for 8 years. I came as an EAL (English as an Additional Language) teacher, and after the first year I became head of that department. I was head of languages for a few years, then stepped down from that position to pursue a second masters, which ended last year. I co-founded Summer at Woodstock six years ago. I started the home languages program here just before the IB came in, and home language lends itself well to the IB.

How would you define learning?

Teaching and learning, in general, are two sides of the same coin. Learning is a process that our brains do. It’s natural, it’s something that we want to do as humans. When the brain stops wanting to learn, I wonder if that has something to do with how we’re getting it to learn. As a basic definition, learning is taking new information and putting it onto old information. 

What does teaching mean to you?

As teachers, our job is to make the invisible visible. I might know how to write an essay and how to structure a thesis statement, and although I might not have to think about how to do that now, there was a point where I didn’t. It’s about going back and trying to break that process apart. With paraphrasing, for example, people say to put it in your own words, but we often forget that there’s a structure and a way to do that.

Teaching is helping people get somewhere that they couldn’t get otherwise. In education, we talk about scaffolding a lot, and it’s seen as something used to help certain learners get to another point, but really, all of teaching is scaffolding. We’re helping people progress and grow.

What are a few of your favorite books?

The Waves by Virginia Woolf, which I had our literature class read, is definitely one of my favorites. I’m currently reading Babel by R.F. Kuang, a fantastic linguistics book about how powerful language can be and how language can challenge oppression. My biggest influence in education was not an education book. It was actually a neuroscience book called Reading in the Brain, which helped me understand what’s actually happening when we read and process information. That’s probably my biggest influence on my own teaching.

What does your new position as Director of Teaching and Learning entail?

The first thing I wanted to do was meet all teachers and figure out how I can support them better and what kind of knowledge already exists that we can use to make ourselves stronger.

One of the other definitions of integrity, not in an honesty sense, is in the sense of a building, making it stronger. Thinking of Woodstock as a building and teachers as a major part of that, what do we already possess that can help build integrity as a community of teachers and learners?

What are some of the aims that you wish to accomplish in the new role?

I’m going to be working on a policy that looks at Woodstock’s approaches to teaching and learning, and how to ensure that we stand out. Our unique situation and setting can be used in education.

The goal is for teachers to have a shared language, so that when we give instructions in class, we use the same language so we’re not overloading students.

I’m very interested in the area of working memory and teaching skills. In the IB we hear about ATL skills a lot, and a lot of the skills are based in educational psychology. One thing that people don’t often understand about skills is that when they’re first put into practice, it will slow processes down. This can frustrate teachers and students because you learn a new skill and it feels like it’s not working. But that’s because it takes more working memory to use the skill. As it’s used more, it moves into long-term memory, and research shows that production then increases.

You’ve been at Woodstock since before the shift to IB. What have you observed during the course of this transition? How do you think that your new position can help enhance the IB program at Woodstock?

The IB at its core wants to integrate with a system that’s already in place. Woodstock had a lot that we had created over the years, and one of my goals is to find ways to integrate the IB alongside things that make Woodstock distinctive.

A major part of the IB is interdisciplinary learning. What do you think the value of interdisciplinary learning is, and how can we integrate it into the classroom?

Interdisciplinary learning is everything. Any break in learning is pretty artificial. The siloing of different disciplines is artificial. Looking at the history of knowledge, it wasn’t segregated the way it is now. My goal is to break down those boundaries. I’ve been encouraging teachers to ask students what they’ve been working on in their previous lesson that day, just to try to get students and teachers familiar with everything that’s happening around them and make connections across subjects. That’s what the IB talks about and that’s what Woodstock is about. The more our brain starts making connections between subjects, the better learning in all subjects will be.

How has the pandemic affected education at Woodstock? In your opinion, what is the need of the hour right now?

In talking to schools around the world, I think the pandemic has just hit everyone hard. The systems and structures that used to exist have just deteriorated during the pandemic, at Woodstock and everywhere. In a positive way, this is a great opportunity to look at our past and think about what existed that was really working that we want to bring back, and what wasn’t really working but just became part of the structure. It’s given us the chance to deconstruct our systems and develop something better.

Historically, a key aspect of Woodstock culture has been its international student and teacher community. Especially from your perspective as a language teacher and head of home languages, how do you think this can influence, or does influence, the learning environment?

I started the home languages department just before the IB came in, and I find that the IB does that program very well, in allowing students to get a bilingual degree and study the literature of their own language. There’s so much research on why that is incredibly important for critical thought and accessing the kind of thinking we need at an academic level.

Every culture brings something different. Systems are better with diversity. There are a lot of elements that we can bring from different cultures that we can integrate into the community. I used to have home language interns, and we looked at getting different signage, art work, and systems from different cultures – like the recycling system in Japan. There are so many aspects that we can bring in to strengthen the whole community. 

As far as internationalism goes in general, the more encounters and experiences we have with other humans, the more human we become. As we increase diversity, Woodstock can be a microcosm of the world. We can experience something here that I hope can be closer to the future. As the IB says, others with their different opinions can also be right.

So, we have already started to implement the AI chatbot ChatGPT in our English classes. How do you think ChatGPT can be integrated into Woodstock education as a whole?

I’m still learning about ChatGPT, and I think that it’s going to be a powerful tool for learning. It can differentiate learning, along with helping people learn to ask questions for themselves and learn at their own pace. As mentioned earlier, the goal of teaching is to make the invisible visible. ChatGPT can be a big part of that – if we learn how to use it as a tool instead of something that just does our work for us. 

Part of me sees it like a calculator. It’s just a tool, and yes, maybe people don’t memorize the same timetables they used to memorize, but now they’re able to go beyond.  It can help us jump more quickly into critical thinking and not worrying as much about structure, but we need to learn to use it correctly.

Post-pandemic, what do you see as hopeful or inspiring about Woodstock education today?

We just finished a strategic plan created over the pandemic. We spoke to about 500 different people – teachers, dorm parents, current students, alumni – and came up with eight Woodstock distinctives that will be shared very soon with the whole community. The focus is on environmentalism, interdisciplinary learning, and making the most of our place in the Himalayas. I see a lot of hope with that. This is an opportunity to decide what we want to be.

Asha is editor-in-chief of the Woodstocker.

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