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Active Learning

Derived from a combination of research-based best practices, our commitment to active learning, as described in the Seven Hills Method, creates a highly engaging learning environment for our students.

At the most fundamental level, active learning means that students are deeply engaged in the subject material. Inspired by intriguing questions or problems, they pursue sustained investigations, rather than merely absorbing information from their teachers.

The teaching methods articulated in the Seven Hills Method were derived from the work of several educational thinkers: progressive educator, John Dewey, who championed “learning by doing”; Harvard’s David Perkins, whose “Teaching for Understanding” framework encourages teachers to guide students to apply knowledge in unfamiliar contexts; and Ted Sizer of Brown University, who saw the ideal school as a safe place for students to explore and to “exhibit” their learning in authentic ways.

Active learning helps students build both the intellectual and interpersonal skills they will need to solve problems in the real world. Students learn to dive deep into topics that hold high interest for them. They examine root causes by studying complex systems and present their own findings through a wide variety of media. Each year, supported by approximately 30 curriculum renewal grants, our teachers develop new inquiry-based projects to engage students in authentic inquiry and problem-solving.

Division Specifics

Sensory integration and motor development play a key role in learning during a child’s early years. We design lessons that engage all of a child’s senses, while incorporating movement as much as possible. Our classrooms, muscle and activities rooms, gyms, art spaces, and music rooms have many resources that stimulate touch, sight, hearing, taste, and smell. Children work with materials that require large and fine motor skills and allow them to explore texture, temperature, and weight. They may use play dough one day, and practice forming letters with shaving cream the next.

On the Doherty Campus, pre-kindergarteners may study the makeup of red blood cells using a variety of materials, including ping-pong balls. In a lesson taught by a visiting presenter, the parent of a Seven Hills student, a vascular surgeon filled a sensory table with water and red and white balls to illustrate how blood cells move through plasma. Excited eyes opened wide as the students listened to the beat of their own hearts and those of their friends through a stethoscope.

Lotspeich pre-kindergarteners study the human body using relatable resources to learn about complex systems. They draw full-size outlines of their own bodies, hang them in the halls of the Early Childhood Center, and decorate them with paper organs, one by one, as they explore the various systems. To learn about the function of lungs, they blow up balloons and release the air to represent inhaling and exhaling.

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In their Living Biographies, students use their research to transform themselves into a historically significant character of their choosing. For example a fourth-grader might become a mustachioed Albert Einstein, confidently and dramatically sharing his life story and wisdom with his peers.

In their fifth-grade Inventions Unit, hats that zap static from your hair, indoor clotheslines, wheel enhancements for lawnmowers, remote-controlled bird feeders and shoes that also serve as stepstools, all ­­absorb students’ attention for hours on end. After learning in social studies how early technologies helped navigators solve the challenges they faced in the new world, students research and brainstorm ways to solve modern-day problems, conceptualizing designs, creating cardboard models, and eventually building full-size prototypes.         

Learning to read critically and proficiently are crucial skills that can accelerate your student’s education at any level. Our Reading Program places great importance on developing a lifelong love for reading, and in a way that is integrated through the student’s entire academic journey. Our youngest students learn letter-sound relationships through a multisensory approach, and because 85 percent of the English language is structured predictably, children become aware of phonetic patterns even at this early age. These patterns are then taught systematically as children begin decoding words for reading and writing practice. We also introduce children’s literature, whether read aloud by teachers or selected independently by students, bringing with it a wealth of vocabulary awareness, differentiation in reading levels, and a growing appreciation for the written word. These skills continue to build through the grades, turning your student into a highly successful reader and writer, prepared for what’s ahead.

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Sixth-graders wrap up their intensive study of Asia with a day devoted to hands-on activities and lessons about cultures of many Asian countries, including India, China, and Korea. On Asia Day, students may learn how to play cricket, become amateur calligraphers, or enjoy a kung fu demo from a local dojo. The day ends with a celebration of Holi, an Indian Festival of Colors that welcomes the arrival of spring. Students gather outside to throw handfuls of colored powder in the air, making for a fun and fascinating experience.

Using pasta, cardboard, and hot glue, seventh-graders create towers for the Shake Table Project to learn firsthand, basic architectural principles and to simulate how engineers in places like San Francisco design earthquake-resistant structures. Students learn what’s going on beneath the Earth’s crust, and how that affects what happens on the surface. They also begin to understand how people work together to save lives.

From mid-April to the end of the school year, eighth-graders explore alternate energy sources through the Wind Turbine Project, a culminating exhibition that gives student teams a chance to apply all the physical principles they have learned for the year in an authentic design project. By designing turbine blades of differing shapes and reconfiguring gear ratios, they seek the most efficient energy transfer to power lights and mechanical infrastructure of simulated microcities.

The concepts of freedom and human rights have changed dramatically over the centuries and in different socio-cultural systems, so it’s a challenging subject to navigate. In our Human Rights and Responsible Authority unit, eighth-graders explore the history of oppression and of freedom movements, making actual and virtual visits to the museums like the Center for Holocaust and Humanities Education or by critiquing documentaries, like the groundbreaking 1968 “Blue Eyes-Brown Eyes” experiment conducted by third-grade teacher Jane Elliot.

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The Tournament of Greatness gives our Upper Schoolers the opportunity to research and articulate the historical impact of a particular historical figure. In a month-long competition, freshmen and sophomores go head-to-head in a battle of historical significance. After each presentation, the combatants field audience questions about their figure’s historical impact, drawing from their extensive knowledge of the political, social, scientific, or religious context in which that figure operated. A jury of students rule and select a debate winner.

Learn More About Upper School Signature Programs