Dare to Imagine: The First Global School Opens in D.C. and Shenzhen

Growth image - Whittle School

“Our job is to build the first modern school—not a little better but fundamentally, radically better.” That was Chris Whittle’s charge to the founding faculty of a new global school opening in September in Washington, D.C. and Shenzhen, China. 

“The campuses represent the best thinking from around the world,” said Whittle. His hunch is that the inaugural campuses will offer an education dramatically better than current options. He wonders if, like improvements in computing power, it could become 10 times better. 

“A network beats an individual school,” said Whittle. “A system of schools can do so much more.” Whittle explained that it’s not about economies of scale; it’s about achieving higher quality than possible as individual school. 

Whittle School & Studio is the global school that Chris Whittle spent the last 40 years preparing to build. He describes his prior work building schools, networks, and companies as the trek to Mount Everest base camp—and setting the stage for an extraordinary opportunity. 

As a design partner, there’s a lot we like about the Whittle School. It features project-based and personalized learning that uses the host city as the classroom. It connects local issues to global themes—and soon will have Centers of Excellence around the world staffed with leading experts. Whittle learners will be able to connect with experts at other campuses and even travel to and study at other campuses. In addition to travel, a commitment to global competence also means dual language immersion opportunities.  

The Studio part of the name refers no only to the integrated design ethic but also the great makerspaces which are open to community learners. 

The other features we’re excited about are the extraordinary talent that Whittle has assembled and the culture and the advisory system they are developing.

Getting to Know You

From the beginning, Whittle wanted this network to have the best guidance system in the world. He explained to his faculty, “We will know each of our children—their hopes and fears; we will know each of them deeply, our school will become their school.”

Whittle learners will meet with their advisors four days each week. These intimate gatherings will build community and interdependence and foster life literacies—the skills for flourishing. The advisory process will also provide every student with at least 15 minutes of one-on-one planning time with an advisor every week. 

Whittle designers treated advisory as a new discipline, “…a set of practices in enriched contexts from which emerge learners on the path to living the Whittle graduate profile.”

Courtesy of Whittle School & Studio.

Learners will keep a learning journal. Advisors will help learners weigh personal projects and will stay in touch with parents. 

Elementary advisory reflections include “Where am I at my best?” and “How can I help others?” 

The first few weeks of middle and upper school advisory periods will reflect on “How is my transition going?” and “How can I help others?”

Remarkable Talent

Whittle learners will have remarkable experiences because the founding faculty is a remarkable assemblage of some of the best educators in the world.  

Internationally renowned historian and anthropologist Nick Dirks served as the 10th chancellor of UC Berkeley until mid-2017. He joined Whittle as its chancellor for the opportunity to reimagine learning and build a genuinely global institution. 

“We believe that each human being has magnificent potential,” said Vice Chancellor Jim Hawkins. “We see the uniqueness and value in every one of us.”

Hawkins joined Whittle a year ago after leading two famous U.K. boarding schools that between them had 1,300 years of history. Hawkins engaged the founding faculty in a values dialogue, urging them to forge deep and meaningful connections and bonds “deepening our understanding of both ourselves and the world.” 

“We dare to imagine, to challenge current paradigms, to search out great thinking and practices, and to relentlessly imagine how things could be better tomorrow than they are today,” Hawkins said.

Before joining Whittle, Vice Chancellor Rebecca Upham led Buckingham Browne and Nichols School in Cambridge for 17 years. She hosted a faculty dialogue about how the Whittle curriculum reflects the priority skills for the future of work. 

Whittle’s Head of School in D.C. Dennis Bisgaard worked at leading U.S. schools for 30 years. He speaks five languages and has lived and worked in Denmark, Germany, and Canada.  Bisgaard discussed the importance of safety and a sense of belonging. With a global student body, Bisgaard urged faculty to hold multiple realities as both host and guest. 

Before joining Whittle as its global head of enrollment, marketing, and communications, Li Jing was secretary-general at YK Pao School, China’s top independent school. She urged the founding faculty to maintain what global consulting firm Bain & Company calls the founder’s mindset: fast, agile and adaptable. 

If you’re in Washington, D.C. this fall, visit the Whittle School campus on NW Connecticut Avenue at Tilden Street. The campus—one of what’s likely to be three dozen in the world’s great cities—is just the beginning. The Whittle School will be the first school that gets better as it gets bigger: a network effect of expanding opportunity and a global learning community. 

For more, see: 

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.