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Focus on whole-person education

Jan Garrison

Culver's teaching philosophy


March 8, 2022

What sets college prep boarding schools apart?

Some will say it is their architecture. Others will point to their location. Still others will say it is their size. And all boarding schools will talk about their history.

But is that of any real benefit to the student?

Culver Academies has the Collegiate Gothic architecture, a small community within easy walking distance, 830 students living on an 1,800-acre campus, and a storied past dating back to 1894.

But it also has a teaching philosophy designed to develop the whole person.

“The faculty and counselors do an incredible job in focusing on whole-person education,” Dean of Faculty Josh Pretzer said. “We could put the quality of our faculty and programming against just about everybody and be proud as National leaders in designing learning experiences for our students.”

While stating it this way feels counter to “Midwest humble,” it is founded in the intentionality of the Culver community. Pretzer shared, “We know who we are, what we believe in, what we do. Then we put time to it, which is really the currency of the realm.”

“We design systems to ensure we set goals that are supportive of students and informed by educational experts from around the World. Our history is building and changing intentionally to continually improve each student’s experience. Learning at Culver is an expectation for both our students and for our adults.”

“Our faculty are designers of learning experiences. We ask students to demonstrate their understanding and perform in various disciplines,” he added. “Our teachers are also diagnosticians, carefully assessing what students need and providing timely feedback for their learning. Faculty regularly ask students to reflect on themselves as learners. They ask students to lead their peers in learning and reflection. Then faculty go beyond what may be asked in humanities classroom in another high school and ask students to think about how what was learned impact their understanding of a larger Culver education aim, such as the cultivation of character.”

                   Dean of Faculty Josh Pretzer

It is that intentionality through the years that has gained Culver the reputation of developing responsible global citizens. Through the experiences they design, faculty and counselors ensure each Culver graduate can demonstrate competency in five areas.

  • Scholarship – Students are informed scholars and resilient, critical thinkers who solve problems and generate new understandings of the world.
  • Leadership – Students practice value-driven leadership, empowering peers to achieve goals while balancing the welfare of individuals with the needs of the community.
  • Character – Students act with integrity, embracing opportunities to practice kindness and resilience and to develop cultural and intellectual humility.
  • Well-being – Students strive for excellence with balance, maintaining a foundation of mental, physical, social, emotional, and spiritual wellness.
  • Communication – Students effectively interpret and convey complex ideas through multiple disciplines, languages, and art forms with a confidence and maturity that belies their age.

These distinguishing characteristics of our Culver graduates are focal points for a Culver academic experience. The Culver teaching and learning philosophy is informed by the knowledge of “how students learn,” Pretzer said. The model is designed to so students are “able to perform what they understand and demonstrate what they can do in an authentic context. And the competencies are lived differently in various classes because an authentic context in the science classroom may be different than what an authentic context is in a fine arts class.”

“Students are building up the skills and the knowledge necessary to demonstrate their understanding or newly learned skill,” he added. “Like our students, we are dedicated to the building of skills and knowledge about learning through practice. Faculty seek to continually implement what we understand about how kids learn in our classrooms. I hope that’s not unique in independent schools, but it certainly is a commitment of all educators at Culver.”

And the faculty members never rest on their laurels.

“Teaching and learning are complex and dynamic fields, so there is always an aspect to reconsider or improve. All academic faculty and staff intentionally reflect every year on all their commitments as an educator, working with their department chair who serves as their guide and coach to pursue an established goal.”

Faculty also have commitments to each other and work as colleagues to learning together, design curriculum, review student work, and tune the learning experience for students. They make a commitment to our mission and implementing that mission in their classroom and what they design.

This year for example, teams of teachers, counselors, mentors, and coaches are working to find common language to make the students skills, understandings, and habits of mind related to each of the competencies more explicit for students. Those will be integrated at every level of the student’s experience, so they are hearing everyone singing “from the same hymnal,” Pretzer said. The same words and ideas used by student life to describe character, for example, will be used in the Spanish classroom, on the football field, and on the stage. “I’m incredibly excited to be able to use the same language support our students experiencing the most distinct and important parts of our Culver mission,” he said.


Wellness classes meeting with CGA alumnae to discuss their workplace experiences.


That intentionality is already visible in the leadership education component. Students receive 200 hours of intentional leadership education and more than 1,500 hours of leadership skills practice through formal positions over four years. Again, this is what makes Culver stand out, Pretzer explained, “because we are so intentional in what we do.” Devoting that amount of time to leadership education shows “what we value, and you can see that lived in the curriculum.”

You can also see that lived in the wellness curriculum where students experience courses in the discipline that are responsive to our student well-being needs. Students are required to take courses in both wellness and leadership throughout their career at Culver.  In terms of leadership, “the purpose is for students to understand themselves as leaders, understand how their actions – their identity – impacts their relationships with others. How to make ethical decisions. And how do they change for the better in society.”

The leadership education is backed by scholarly research, Pretzer said, and it is designed to build the students’ capacity to “reflect on their practice of leadership” through the CMA and CGA programs or the other ways they may serve.

And students also have an opportunity to reflect on their holistic wellbeing: physical, emotional, mental, moral, spiritual, and social. Through various courses, students begin to understand how to care of themselves and now to care for others. “Not just philosophically but also practically,” Pretzer said. That is done by defining the strategies and skills they can take with them to care for their emotional health or care for their physical health.

Not all disciplines grow the way leadership and wellness do, he said. But they do include the same foundational information. “Let me build a base understanding, then let me apply it and then let me share it and teach it to others.” That may involve writing a scholarly paper or demonstrating for others.

This allows the students do “deep learning,” which is the same way professionals grow in their disciplines “or the way we talk about our leadership system. It’s all learning, so it all connects.”

The “deep learning” brings with it high expectations. But it isn’t about how many Advanced Placement or other rigorous classes a student takes, Pretzer said. The challenge comes from “how deeply you explore a discipline and then demonstrate your understanding gained from a focused study of a question or topic. That’s the hallmark of our Honors program at Culver. We look at rigor as a level of sophistication of knowing instead of how much faculty knowledge you are able to recall.”

Some students can begin their freshman year in advanced mathematics such as precalculus or a calculus option. “We owe those students a high challenge and that we provide an upper-level math curriculum that meets their needs and an opportunity to explore an aspect of mathematics deeply that they wouldn’t have at all high schools.”

But other students may be taking algebra as their first class “and we owe them an opportunity for a high challenge to demonstrate their understanding of linear equations in various authentic contexts.”


Senior Instructor Mitch Barnes holds a Humanities class at Leadership Plaza.


It is designing the high challenge appropriate for where the student is, he said, and “it exists all throughout the curriculum. Through the ways in which we ask kids to demonstrate what they’ve learned. And – by the way - many of ways students demonstrate understanding are also fascinating, fun, and inherently motiving!” Examples of assessments at Culver may be running a business with The Ron Rubin School for the Entrepreneur, taking a mission to Mars in science, creating a photography exhibition inspired by "The Awakening" in humanities, interviewing a citizen of another country in the target language to understand a global issue from another perspective, or designing, performing, and directing a dance piece in our Dancevision showcase.

The students are supported by knowledgeable faculty members who can do this work. “This is hard to design. It’s hard to assess and give regular feedback in context. And we have the most talented faculty in the country. They know they’re disciplined deeply enough to create experiences for kids in it at the right level. That requires a sophisticated level of understanding of what you do.”

Our schedule and small classes affords most of our teachers have a very reasonable student load at any one time. That gives faculty the opportunity to give the students the attention they need, support them, and provide the needed feedback to support their learning.

Another area of high support is providing the students with time to practice and receive that feedback. Meeting with instructors have class or visiting the Math Help Center, a science tutorial, or the Writing Center.

“The goal is to create student agency,” Pretzer said. “To let students be an advocate for themselves as a learner. That’s what all the systems are designed to do. How does a student become a designer of their own learning experience? How do we help them foster their agency?”

The goal is to guide the students to investigate and capitalize upon their strengths. It is an opportunity for students to pay attention to what they pay attention to. Whether that is in fine arts, science, or humanities. It is another opportunity to educate “the whole person.”

And Culver’s new advisory structure will be providing more support in the future. It will provide the student with another adult who is focused on their academic progress and support each student in telling their unique Culver story that develops through the myriad of experiences one has at Culver. An Advisor will reflect and guide students through their entire Culver career up through the college decision process and onto graduation. Pretzer shared, “The new advisory program will ensure students truly realize the distinguishing characteristics of a Culver education. Students will have an opportunity to deeply reflect on their unique Culver story and on their holistic development as a citizens, leaders, and people of character.”

Culver doesn’t sit back and say, “we’re leading,” Pretzer shared. Just like our students, the goal for the faculty, counselors, and programs is to develop and change a little bit every year. We aim to take what is newly understood about learning, decision-making, or our academic disciplines, apply it, and make intentional changes each year to be even better for our students and for the community. “That’s how we continue to get better at leading in whole person education. The expectation for continual improvement and learning is why I work and lead at Culver. It exciting to me to be part of vibrant learning community for students and for adults.”

Pretzer talks about the values of building a collegial faculty, the value of competency-based learning, knowledge vs. skills, and why research projects help professional development in a 2023 podcast here.

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