An Introduction

Nimble and Now: The Evolution of the Webb Curriculum

We are living in an era of accelerating change, much of it precipitated by quickly advancing technology: smart phones, driverless cars, surgical robots. And this, of course, is just the beginning. In their book The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (2014), MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsoon and Andrew McAfee argue that we are at the dawn of a second machine age, one that will be far more transformative than the industrial age ushered in by the steam engine centuries ago. As such, we should expect our lives to become more, not less, influenced by technology. We must all prepare ourselves for the road ahead.

What will work look like in the future? What will it mean to be a doctor, for example, in an age when robots are able to more accurately diagnose and treat patients than humans? How do you prepare for college when the notion of a university education is being redefined, as institutions such as Minerva Schools emerge and succeed?

Given these changes, the central question for us at Webb is this: what kind of education will best prepare students for life beyond secondary school, in a world constantly shifting and reshaping itself? I firmly believe that our students will need three basic skill sets or habits to find success in college, work and beyond: to be nimble thinkers, strong communicators, and facile learners. Our academic program cultivates these traits, emphasizing creative thinking and problem solving over rote memorization—all from day one.

Students at Webb begin their careers here with a new and robust core program. In it, freshman and sophomore courses are skills-based and cross-disciplinary and courses for juniors and seniors emphasize advanced study and research. One fine example of our core program is our problem-based math program, which combines skill building with real-world problem solving, pushing students beyond the routine application of basic skills. Our freshman Evolutionary Biology course is another example; it requires students to spend approximately 75% of class time doing inquiry-based labs–there are no “kitchen recipe” labs with set steps to a predetermined answer. Working with paleontologists in the lab and in the field and learning genomic research techniques in collaboration with UC Riverside’s Campbell Learning Lab are just two more examples of how our freshman students are doing “real science.” Our sophomores are exploring Integrated Physics & Chemistry, which puts them on the path learning about relationships between multiple branches of science. In just two years, Webb students experience three core sciences, allowing them to move into more advanced study as juniors and seniors.

Nimble thinkers also understand the ways knowledge moves across fields. In addition to our sophomore interdisciplinary science course, we offer an integrated humanities program. By weaving together the study of English, history, the arts, and more, Webb guides students in thinking deeply, not limited or defined by old disciplinary divisions. In our Foundations of Civilization class, freshman grapple with age-old questions about human societies, considering them from various viewpoints and utilizing multiple types of source material for study. Our American studies courses together provide sophomores with the skills and background to ask questions and think deeply about the American past, present, and future.

These connective threads are not just content-based, but skill-based. For example, rather than thinking narrowly about writing as a skill learned only in English, our students write in all subjects and learn to be articulate and thoughtful in expressing their views. And, of course, while writing is still critical, so too is the ability to express complex ideas visually and orally. That’s why our freshman humanities students’ Fundamentals of Composition course emphasizes the essentials of powerful communication across multiple genres, from the essay to film, from the infographic to the speech.

Creating digitally literate students extends across disciplines. In the fine arts, our students experiment with CAD software, 3-D printing, and Arduino robots as part of our Media Arts program. In our math program, we offer computer programming, both on our own campus and in conjunction with Harvey Mudd College, right down the road. In all of our classes, students are introduced to powerful online learning and collaboration tools.
Finally, then, a major goal of our core program is teaching students to be master learners. Facile learners understand how to learn—how to create their own learning networks both in-person and utilizing the reach of the internet, and how to ask good, meaningful questions.

By the junior and senior year, students are fully engaged in defining their own educational path. In the humanities and the sciences, students will choose from a deep and varied range of electives including APs and a growing number of Advanced Studies. Advanced Studies (AdvSt) courses are AP-level courses and beyond designed by Webb faculty to engage students in high-level intellectual pursuits and are characterized by their depth of study, their embrace of the latest in academic research, and their attention to making connections among disciplines. Advanced Studies courses in fields like paleontology, anatomy and physiology, and organic chemistry allow students to experience a rigorous science curriculum utilizing cutting-edge labs and technologies. In the humanities, semester electives such as Ethics and Modern Global Affairs, Stories & Strategies of Entrepreneurs, and L.A. Literary Culture provide this kind of in-depth, academic study. In math and world languages, advanced courses engage students in everything from linear algebra and statistics to global literature and film.

To close let me offer one more observation. Students growing up now in this “Second Machine Age” ache to experience human connections. Our own observations and experiences tell us this, but so does the latest research (check out Jean M. Twenge’s iGen as one example). The Webb community is intentionally designed and governed to nurture meaningful human relationships between teachers and students inside the classroom and out. As part of this, in every discipline, students grapple with ethical questions that lie at the heart of the human experience. Together we discuss and debate and think deeply about honor, trust, and community. These are three values central to a Webb education and no “Age” will ever make them obsolete.
    • Dr. Theresa Smith, Assistant Head of Schools

      Dr. Theresa Smith, Assistant Head of Schools

This sense of momentum and unboundedness characterizes our program. We ask students to push beyond preconceived boundaries, to embrace an ethos of exploration and discovery, to ask big questions and tackle complex problems.
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