13 Questions to Help You Observe & Understand A Boarding School’s Residential Life Curriculum!

A couple of weeks back, I wrote Learn How to Use Your Campus Tour and Interview to Your Advantage. As we move further into the campus tour and interview season, today, I want to remind families to consider what we used to call the unwritten curriculum. (I say ‘used to’ because many schools now have at least some, if not all, of their non-classroom curriculum, considered and codified.)

A school’s non-academic curriculum (also known as residential life in boarding schools) includes all the values, lessons, approaches, relationships, and communications that occur in the dormitories. It takes into consideration athletics, extracurriculars, meals, clubs as well.

Take a moment and think about how important the non-academic piece of a school is. In a boarding, or day, school, every student spends most of his/her time outside of the classroom; beyond the classroom is where a student spends most of his/her time learning and building relationships.

As one of my teachers once remarked, “we know that during your time here [at school], you will learn more from each other than you’ll learn from us… and, it’s nice to know that we can’t mess [he used a stronger word] that up too badly.”

In schools with a religious affiliation, the denomination, or religious practice, often shapes learning beyond the classroom. But, even in schools without overt religious or philosophical values set, the unwritten curriculum communicates and teaches priorities and values.

Recognizing and understanding a school’s unwritten and/or student life curriculum is key to making sure a student and family fit well with a school.

As I already mentioned, do your family and student goals align with a school organized around a religious value system? Or, do you want a more secular approach?

In all schools, religious and a secular, you’ll need to tease out and examine each school’s values, priorities and how they teach them.

In working toward fit between unwritten curriculum and student, you need to ask questions like:

  • How important is competition — academic and athletic?
  • How important are the arts — performing and fine? What role do the arts play in the school?
  • Where do the arts and athletics fit on the school’s priority ladder?
  • Is the school’s competitive priority about winning and losing?
  • Or, does the school focus on growth and lessons as the primary benefits of competition?
  • Is the school primarily oriented toward the individual or the group?
  • Is there an emphasis on empathy and understanding others?
  • Is the community, or the individual, most important?
  • Does the school recognize, teach, and encourage emotional intelligence? Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught?
  • Are the students kind to each other? Do the students support each other?
  • Are the students overtly competitive with one another?
  • If you can, find out what lessons and experiences the school’s alumni talk about?
  • Look at the types of activities and experiences — beyond the classroom — to which a school assigns resources (time & money). Are they activities and experiences that would nurture and cultivate your child?

Two (sort of) grand themes run through this series of queries — communal vs. individual experience and competition as win/loose or personal growth experience.

The question you must work to answer in establishing a tight fit between student family and school is:

In what type of environment will my student grow best — communal and supportive, or individual and competitive?

Of course, every student will be in a slightly different spot in these continuums. That’s why every school is a bit different in its offering and approaches.

You can go a long way toward determining whether, or not, you have a good fit between student and school by comparing the kind of environment that will most effectively nurture your child against your answers to these questions.

Brian Fisher

A product of both private and public education, Brian Fisher served as a teacher, coach, dorm parent, and administrator at three different boarding schools. Brian also fills the role of Director of Development at Wolfeboro, The Summer Boarding School, in NH along with being a partner at AdmissionsQuest.

More by Brian Fisher

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