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Advanced Topics Emphasize Applied Learning

Emanne Khan
When Upper School students began the process of selecting their classes for this year last spring, their options for higher level courses were different than in the past. Throughout the school year, there had been buzz amongst the community about moving beyond the College Board’s Advanced Placement curriculum, and the newly-designed Advanced Topics courses arrived as the realization of that goal.

Implemented this fall, Advanced Topics, or “AT,” courses replace AP courses as the highest level classes available in the Upper School. They are a cornerstone of the new academic vision, which prioritizes 21st century skills including “collaboration, communication, creativity, and curation of information.” Despite the fact that AT courses were created to be equally as rigorous and challenging as their AP counterparts, many members of the Derryfield community wondered why the faculty decided to break away from the well-established AP program.

Per Head of School Mary Halpin Carter, “Our academic vision is built on what research and experience tell us is best for learning and the best preparation for the workplace. Research tells us that for knowledge and skills to be optimally put in long term memory, the time between acquiring and applying ought to be as short as possible.” Educational researchers have found that project-based learning, academic competitions, and student-driven research are a few methods that allow students to put what they learn in the classroom into practice--activities and opportunities that require time that is not always available in the standardized AP curriculum.

Dean of Academic Programs Lindley Shutz added that as time went on, the AP curriculum began to feel more and more focused on memorization for the culminating exam despite teachers’ and students’ best intentions. “Our Derryfield teachers were confident that we could create experiences for more meaningful, sustained and inspiring learning; higher engagement; and better preparation for college and work life for our students,” she said.

The planning and preparation for the AT curriculum spans the past several years. Ms. Shutz noted that, “drawing on brain based research, visits to other excellent schools, best practices learned in workshops and conferences, our conversations with our many community partners, and the future plans created by each of our departments,” the faculty sought to answer the question: “How can we keep the best of what we do and prepare students to thrive in the 21st century?” AT courses were born out of that extensive research and thoughtful inquiry, and many teachers have been working on designing their offerings since last fall.

Ms. Shutz shared that “Each AT course is designed to not only prepare students for the rigor of college level classes, but to immerse students in independent research, to harness technology, and to make connections across disciplines.” In AT Mathematics, students will analyze stocks, explore current financial markets, and experiment with TradeStation software; in AT Biology, students will “isolate, sequence, and characterize” plant genes and regularly interact with scientific literature; in 11th grade AT History, students will practice using physical and digital archives to conduct historical research. These are just a few examples of many in which students will be afforded greater freedom to drive the direction of their learning and acquire skills relevant to our modern world, aided by more class time allotted in the new schedule.

There’s no need to fret about how colleges are receiving the new offerings. “Derryfield's Advanced Topics courses have generated a great deal of excitement,” Director of College Counseling Mr. Barnard said. “Colleges are looking for applicants who are engaged in their learning and able to work both independently and collaboratively with peers and faculty. The depth and breadth of these offerings allow for students to explore interdisciplinary content that is inspiring and challenging. Original research and embedded service will distinguish students in unique ways.”
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