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Dr. Aric Visser, head of schools and programs at SYA

The Power of Place

Dr. Aric Visser, head of schools and programs, provides an inside look at SYA’s curriculum redesign.

In 2018, after several years of research and reflection, School Year Abroad launched a school-wide curriculum redesign that will keep SYA on the forefront of education and ensure a challenging environment for today’s students. Ultimately, The Campaign for SYA will be instrumental to achieving SYA’s full vision. As the second year of curricular development begins, we asked Visser for a recap and a glimpse of the future.

What prompted this redesign?

Fifty-five years ago, SYA chose a curriculum. We don’t often consider our history this way, but it’s true. SYA chose a primarily humanities-based curriculum designed to resemble as closely as possible a U.S. independent school experience. There was nothing wrong with that choice; in fact, it was a good decision. But here’s the critical question we must ask: If we were founding SYA today, would we choose the same curriculum? Would we say that our value is to be as similar as possible to school back home?

And what’s the verdict?

We believe that delivering the most valuable learning experience to our students requires being fundamentally different from school back home. If we don’t make the most of our unique strengths and resources, we can’t serve our students as well as they deserve. The continual work of getting better and better—that matters deeply to all of us at SYA.

How do you envision the end product?

SYA will always base its identity on academic achievement. We will continue to build on our reputation as an exemplary language program. At the same time, SYA will become deliberately place-based, intercultural and experiential in nature.

Can you break those terms down for us?

Sure. “Place-based” doesn’t mean teaching about place; it means that learning is delivered better because of our place. For every class or learning experience, we ask: If this experience existed back home, would it be the same? If the answer is yes, then we still have work to do. We aren’t fulfilling our mission yet through that class.

“Intercultural” is such an important concept for us, we use it twice in our mission documents. In the past, we relied on the idea that relationships and community exchange would happen outside our academic program. Today, we’re weaving intercultural connection directly into our coursework. It will be impossible to go through SYA’s academic program without engaging with the local community.

When I say “experiential,” I mean that SYA programs will become explicitly active and participatory. Across the curriculum, students will be doing hands-on fieldwork. In fact, our definition of “curriculum” becomes much bigger, encompassing all aspects of the SYA experience, from coursework to host family living. All of it will be intentionally designed to increase student initiative, decision-making, and ownership in the learning process.

Experiential programs at SYA

So where do things stand today?

We began this process in earnest last June with our first Conference on Teaching and Learning Abroad in Zaragoza. During that week, 25 SYA faculty began to define the core competencies that we want to instill in every student. The resident directors and I continued with refinements during the school year. We now have well-defined measurements by which we can assess student progress in every class on all four campuses.

Our first group of faculty advisors also completed mentorship training on how to guide students through an experiential education program. This professional development is critical because the new curriculum no longer relies on a lecture model, where the teacher’s primary function is to convey content. We still need faculty who are experts in their disciplines, but we also need SYA teachers to excel at the work of educational coaching.

Does that mean the faculty-student relationship is going to change?

It will deepen and expand. The role of student advisor will be absolutely central in the new curriculum. Their job is to shepherd students through a multifaceted program that requires much more independence than our previous curriculum. Advice, encouragement and accountability become a greater part of the teacher’s job. In preparation, last year we piloted a new advising curriculum with common themes and activities across all four campuses. This gave us a chance to test ideas and survey students about outcomes to help us refine professional development next year.

What comes next?

In June, we will hold a second conference in Viterbo that delves deeper into best-practice teaching and assessment for our new curricular model. In September, we will switch from semesters to trimesters, giving more flexibility for different kinds of coursework. Throughout the year, we will also focus on “mastery learning” and pilot curricular units in which students are asked to demonstrate specific skills along with absorbing content. Finally, we will overhaul our capstone program to make the process even more rigorous, experiential and place-based.

When you imagine SYA five years from now, what excites you most?

I think I’m most excited when I imagine the work our students will produce once they dive into these new experiences. We are going to see some incredibly ingenious projects coming out of SYA. We are simultaneously pursuing excellence in high school teaching and excellence in study abroad education. The end result will be a program that is even more transformative for our students and and can only be done abroad.