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Parents often consider the question of whether or not their child’s educational environment presents enough challenges with traditional tunnel vision: “Kids have too much homework these days…” “If my son doesn’t start doing better on tests, he’ll never get into his college of choice…” “My daughter is completely stressed out between sports, debate team and studying….”

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is, for most families.

But grades are an artificial assessment of students’ abilities, and they help teach students to define their sense of self externally. “Traditional methodologies are used to demonstrate what you know, and they create tremendous anxiety in children. It’s outcome-oriented pressure,” says Colm MacMahon, Head of School at Rippowam Cisqua School. “There are different ways to teach, and one of them is to let students drive that train. Putting the focus on imagination and innovation in the early years teaches students skills of resilience and healthy risk-taking. Students learn that it’s OK if they’re wrong versus creating risk-averse kids.” 


Active Learning: A Necessary Tool in Our Fast-Changing World

At Rippowam Cisqua School – a private coeducational day school for grades Pre-K through 9 – active learning is at the heart of an educational system where students explore the process of experimentation. By infusing innovative thinking into the heart of the curriculum that is both immersive and experiential, students learn to enhance their critical thinking skills, delve deeper into language and mathematics, bring history to life, create with technology and further expand their minds.

Students see challenges in a broader way, one that emphasizes creative thinking and thinking differently. A belief that questions don’t have just one right answer – but rather that answers are right depending on application, perspective and thought process – helps students build confidence and move the needle away from prefacing answers with ‘I might be wrong but…’ to a more confident stance grounded in the understanding that a key component of learning is taking a stand on what you believe to be true, based on the evidence available to you.

Equipped with the appropriate skills, students become problem-solvers which opens new pathways for exploration and learning even when faced with standard norms surrounding education. In core subjects like math and science, the focus is on how innovation can be used to marry topics like physics, statistics and algebra into a more tangible, interdisciplinary course of study to help students understand how learning is applied in real world situations. In doing so, students take a more active role in their education and absorb the material on a much deeper level.

As they learn how to activate their skills, students become adaptable and can easily transition to more traditional environments or situations. For example, students are not required to take state-regulated exams due to the school’s status as a private institution, but they learn critical test taking skills through regular assessments and occasional standardized testing which is used as a measure of institutional performance rather than individual student performance. As a result, students are well prepared to succeed in formal testing programs for secondary school placement, as well as Advanced Placement and Regents exams. But more importantly, students understand that the skills associated with taking tests are just that: skills. They are not the ultimate measure of understanding or success. That said, the students are equipped to excel in this area as well as so many others.

“We give every student a different way to live with learning. It’s all about creating an environment where students take responsibility for their education and own it,” MacMahon says. “Students want to know how does all of what I’m learning connect, why do I need to know this? Our way of working with students prevents the question ‘Will this be on the test?’.”


Meeting Challenges with Creative Problem Solving

About three years ago, school leaders began to think about the importance of imagination and play in a more formulaic way. They asked themselves two questions: why a focus on imagination begins to diminish in the elementary school years, continuing through high school and how academic play fosters a sense of inquiry and anticipation about what’s going to happen next.

Rippowam Cisqua uses the Torrance Incubation Model of Creative Teaching and Learning (TIM) as one foundational concept for their curricular focus on imagination and innovation in learning and hired a Director of Innovation whose  primary focus at school is fostering innovation throughout the curriculum and the daily life of school. For younger students, Rippowam Cisqua created an Imagination Space where students, through academic play, face weekly challenges to train them how to think differently.

“Each week they face a new problem, come up with an answer that accomplishes the goal and move on. For example, we asked second grade students to find a problem in their home and create a prototype or model to solve it. My son’s problem was taking out the garbage, so he made a model of our house and designed a catapult to hurl the garbage out of the house. With these challenges, students are not being graded on it and it’s not being hung up on the walls. Instead the focus is on the experience of tackling the challenge. We turn the academic side of play into an environment of learning,” said MacMahon.

A sterling example of this educational approach is the school’s new 2,400 square foot Innovation Center which offers middle school students the unique opportunity to explore their ideas, manipulate real world materials, and test new technology. Fifth graders who are studying ancient Egyptian irrigation systems in Humanities can now design their own for a window garden and customize it to grow chickpeas to make hummus.  

“We can tell students about buoyancy or we can let them experience physics and math in an entirely different way. Last year we challenged our eighth graders to build a boat that could carry one person across the pool without sinking; their materials were two large sheets of cardboard, two rolls of duct tape, two dowels and two plastic bottles,” said MacMahon. “Through thoughtful discussions about weight distribution, statistics, and algebra, students learned valuable lessons about success, failure, and collaboration. This year, those same students as ninth graders are building a Rube Goldberg machine using a complex set of tactics to perform the simple task of knocking over a water bottle with the entire school as their platform.”


Starting at the Beginning, Ending in the Middle

Rippowam Cisqua takes an innovative approach to educating middle schoolers with an age-appropriate curriculum that caters to the needs of early adolescence. In middle school, the strong student-teacher relationships established in elementary school become even more integral to learning. In these crucial years, it’s important for the curriculum to challenge them in a way that helps develop a strong sense of self, motivates them to perform at higher levels and provides the tools they need to make good choices as their interests change and they navigate the social pressures typical of this age.

“We pride ourselves on our elementary and middle school learning. The idea for many schools is that middle school is like an airport layover – a time you spend waiting until you actually get going in high school. But our school model enables us to give kids all our resources and attention. Our unique ability to do so energizes children ages ten to fifteen to build their confidence and prepare them for the next step in their academic journey,” says MacMahon. “Our teachers are middle school experts and this focus gives our students a significant advantage.”

Rippowam Cisqua recently completed a $25 million renovation of its Upper Campus built around the mind of the middle schooler. “How we used flexibility and movement to activate learning was central to the design of our new campus. Walls can move to create smaller or larger spaces, technology is mobile to enable teachers to leverage their entire classroom or extend their classrooms outside; even the furniture caters to kids’ natural instincts to move. The result is that our students love to learn. Graduates apply what they’ve learned and are comfortable taking informed risks to find the answer to their problem. And because the world is changing at such a rapid pace, we’ve built a model to train our teachers on new ways to use creativity, imagination and innovation in their work with students. Before we were preparing kids for what we knew. Now we’re preparing kids for what hasn’t even been invented yet.”


A Full Circle Approach to Education

At Rippowam Cisqua, students benefit from a challenging academic program, fine and performing arts, competitive athletics and a wide selection of extracurricular activities before attending high school at another institution. The Rippowam Cisqua School’s approach to learning incorporates experimentation, simulation and collective and individual problem solving, as well as traditional lecture, discussion and skill development techniques. Here students learn to imagine, create, innovate and iterate to solve problems and become active leaders in their community.

Rippowam Cisqua first opened its doors 100 years ago and continues to welcome curious, engaged and eager learners into its community of Pre-K to Grade 9 students. With a 6:1 student-to-teacher ratio, a child’s intellectual development and personal growth are the top priorities. Students are educated to become independent thinkers, confident in their abilities and in themselves. In an atmosphere that promotes intellectual curiosity and a lifelong love of learning, Rippowam Cisqua School strives to instill in students a strong sense of connection to their community and to the larger world.


Rippowam Cisqua School
Lower Campus (Pre-K through Grade 4): 325 West Patent Road, Mount Kisco, NY 10549
Upper Campus (Grades 5-9): 439 Cantitoe Street, Bedford, NY 10506




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