The Key to a Deeper Level of Learning

In their study of aerodynamics, third graders at North Shore Country Day build and fly paper airplanes. They assess what works and where their efforts fall short, logging their data into lab journals. Sometimes their airplanes crash, and that’s OK. These students are learning that the outcome is often less important than the process of learning.

Pushing students to learn by taking risks is a big part of educational life at North Shore Country Day (NSCD), a private independent school for 525 students in junior kindergarten through 12th grade. Exploration, participation and experiential learning are the foundations of learning for all students at this 101-year-old Winnetka school.

“Participation is a part of the way we do school and it reflects our roots in the progressive education tradition of 100 years ago,” says Tom Flemma, NSCD head of school. “What it looks like is nudging kids into places they wouldn’t necessarily go, gently but consistently.”

Lower and Middle School students present their work through public speaking, which helps build confidence and strong communication skills. Every student is required to participate in two main-stage theater productions during their Upper School years, and all students have the opportunity to collaborate and contribute through team-based athletics such as tennis, golf, field hockey, cross-country, basketball and volleyball. Together with a focus on community service, a wide range of academic courses, including opportunities for advanced individual research, students at NSCD experience education through the broadest definition of “classroom” — where failure is a critical part of success.

“There is a growing consensus that learning by doing is an incredibly powerful approach to education. It’s not new, but it has become more common, particularly in independent schools where the richness of the experiences means kids have the opportunity to really practice,” says Flemma. “I’m not talking about doing worksheets, but building things, using their hands and iterating.”

Fostering resilience

Because NSCD is a close-knit community where teachers work to build environments where everyone feels safe, students can grow even when they fall short on something they are trying to achieve, Flemma explains.

“Struggle isn’t the goal obviously, but it’s essential to growth. We can normalize the fact that nobody is perfect and that we all make mistakes. That can make learning richer and deeper, and also lower stress levels,” he says.

The result is resilience, an important skill for children to develop. “Resilience and adaptability are central to everything we try to teach, and there’s no better way to build resilience than with a little bit of carefully calibrated struggle.”

When a school can help a student understand that the process of learning can be just as important as the outcome, students build humility and empathy, says Flemma. “Those are both qualities that are hugely important, and that we are sorely lacking in the world today. They are what we very much try to actively cultivate through our curriculum and our day-to-day life at school,” he says. “Intellectual humility is the awareness that you don’t know everything, and a real part of learning is being open to the things you don’t know or have gotten wrong. This fosters openness to dialogue, and that’s a skill that is very important, especially today.”

Connecting, understanding and empathizing

On the beautiful 16-acre NSCD campus, students of all ages interact with one another and their teachers continually, building understanding and empathy through connection.

“We have a buddy program where we match students of different grades for activities throughout the year,” says Flemma. Seniors are matched with kindergarteners, which offers predictable admiration directed upward to the oldest NSCD students.

“But the bigger impact is on the seniors who, when they are forced to be fully attentive and open to a little kid for 45 minutes every two weeks, they have these moments where they can feel free to be a kid again,” Flemma says. “It’s almost the most lovely thing you can imagine.”

North Shore Country Day School is a junior kindergarten through 12th grade, college-preparatory school founded in Winnetka, Illinois in 1919. With rigorous academic pursuit as the cornerstone, North Shore provides many opportunities for all students to excel – in the classroom and the laboratory, on the stage and the playing field, in their communities and beyond. For more information, visit

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