After a decade of teaching at Blair Academy, Joe Wagner has evolved into a leader in all aspects of campus life. In the classroom teaching biology, coaching on the baseball diamond or guiding students as dorm head, he has modeled learning as a lifelong pursuit in search of one’s best self, and his students are all the better for it. This year, Mr. Wagner embarked on his newest educational journey when he was appointed Blair’s Dean of Teaching and Learning.
Mr. Wagner joined Blair’s science faculty in 2014. During the school year, he teaches AP Biology and serves as assistant baseball coach and dorm head of Freeman Hall, a junior boys’ dormitory. Joe is a graduate of Hamilton College with a BA in biology and a minor in religious studies. He earned an EdM in the mind, brain and education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2020.
We sat down with Mr. Wagner to discuss his tenure at Blair and learn more about his new role, including his research in generative artificial intelligence (AI). Dive into the Q & A below to get to know more about one of the newest members of the academic office.
Q: You are nearing a decade of teaching at Blair. What has been your favorite part thus far?
A: It is difficult to name just one component—I find the work that we do here deeply fulfilling and incredibly important. That said, teaching Honors Biology with first-year students will always have a special place in my heart. Both the course and my pedagogy have co-evolved over time. I was lucky enough to formulate much of it while I was in grad school as a project for a course called Applying Cognitive Science to Teaching and Learning. Our first-year students enter our classroom as young, curious scientists, and experiencing the awe and wonder that are part of the natural world energizes and inspires me.
Q: In your new role as Dean of Teaching and Learning, how are you supporting students at Blair?
A: There are two ways of thinking about this for me: first, in the ways that I work with the faculty on their continued growth will positively impact the work they do with students and second, in overseeing projects that directly interface with students.
On the faculty side, I am committed to sustaining the practice of instructional coaching at Blair. Part of this work emerges from the work of my predecessor, Amanda Lucas, who developed an observation system from Craig Randall’s Trust-Based Observations: Maximizing Teaching and Learning Growth. This semester, I plan to observe all of our teaching faculty to gain a global perspective on what constitutes a Blair education, holistically.
With students, I both oversee the aspects of the ninth-grade experience and have been working to integrate an understanding of AI into our teaching and learning. For the ninth-grade experience, our vision is to develop their self-awareness, agency, resourcefulness and metacognition as they enter Blair. We do this by encouraging reflection in our study hall spaces and through teaching them effective study strategies, which is supplemented by their experience with Neuroteach Global Student, a gamified program that teaches them best practices for learning.
Q: What interested you the most about this position?
A: I have become someone who often contemplates the “why” questions of education. I have also become someone who wants to remain in constant cycles of growth and change in pursuit of the best version of myself as a classroom educator and beyond. To me, the Dean of Teaching and Learning ought to be the quintessence of reflective practice at Blair, and I have been interested in this line of work since my second year here, when this position was first created. After a continued series of transformative professional development experiences (for example, graduate school and the Klingenstein Summer Institute), my desire to do this work persisted and grew.
Q: You have shared that ideally, all Blair courses are based on concepts, themes and processes—our curriculum is not about covering content but uncovering ideas. Diving into the importance of relational learning and meaning making in Blair classes, how do you hope to further develop a communal vision of teaching and learning at Blair?
A: Our most powerful instructional moments occur when we transcend sense-making and begin to enter a space of meaning-making, which I view as the North Star for all in-class experiences. To achieve this, we will need to shift our mindset and instruction from a deficit-thinking to assets-based perspective or funds of knowledge that students bring to bear (i.e., the banking model). It will be important to balance student and teacher voices, and encourage our teachers to be content experts who coach and design, as opposed to disseminating information.
Q: You are leading a faculty and staff book club at Blair, and the club’s first pick is The End of Average—a book that revolutionizes how we think about using averages in education, employment, industry and just about everything. Why did you feel this read was important to share with the Blair community?
A: It is a provocative piece, and one I am familiar with from graduate school. It has impacted the way I approach work with students and how I think about the systems that exist in the world. I think it can be important for us to zoom out and examine critically the structures and institutions that have shaped the modern world. I think the author, Todd Rose, does a great job of interrogating the state of the individual in modern society and asks the reader to consider the ways in which we design structures that accommodate his three principles: jaggedness, contexts and pathways. An understanding of the multidimensional nature of constructs like talent and intelligence are necessary components of teaching and learning.
Q: Generative AI is very likely a tool that will disrupt industries, and knowing how to strategically leverage it will give students a competitive advantage in higher education, work and life. How is Blair working to ensure students understand the power of these tools and to incorporate it consistently across the learning process in appropriate ways?
A: We have grown the capacity of our faculty and student body in several ways. This summer, all faculty received training on the capabilities of generative AI, and we also asked them to consider the ways in which it might disrupt our ability to assess authentic student learning. We have formed a committee to consider both the effective integration of AI into classroom spaces in addition to thinking about what will be necessary for our students to understand. Several teachers are already using AI tools to empower learning. Personally, I have allowed my students to generate feedback on their writing to better develop in them skills for which they are being assessed. In addition, my J-term course will ask an important question: What is the ceiling for the quality of student work when they are given full access to the latest AI models and dedicated time to work together on a shared product or business idea?
Q: I have heard you have been intentional in becoming well-versed in the power of AI tools to ensure our employees are also early adopters of the technology. How have you done this and what has been the most interesting thing you’ve learned along the way?
A: I have become a voracious consumer of content related to AI. Over the summer, I took courses designed for educators on the topic, watched lectures, listened to podcasts, read from thought leaders, and, yes, talked extensively to AI myself. I use generative AI frequently, as I think of it like a coworker. I am not sure of the most interesting thing I have learned, but the most interesting things that I have done have arisen from moments in which I was not capable of producing something (for example, code), and suddenly it takes me 10 minutes if my input is strong enough. If one can speak conversationally with these tools, then they can access the potential of them. The natural language processing component of generative AI (particularly ChatGPT-4) is its greatest feature.
Q: Our transition to an advanced curriculum designed by Blair faculty, which will better prepare our students for success, will also amplify our ability to offer teachers autonomy and professional fulfillment. In what ways are you assisting that process?
A: In addition to being involved in the proposal feedback process throughout this year, I ran our Sigety Faculty Summer Institute over the break, which centered around the design of our advanced curriculum. We had 34 faculty members participate in this summer’s Institute, the largest turnout to date. It was dedicated time for faculty to leverage best practices in course design to shape their courses and for department chairs to shape the vision of advanced coursework in their disciplines.
Q: What do you feel are the main benefits of learning in an environment such as Blair?
A: Relationship-based learning is the most invaluable feature of a Blair education that we live each day here. At Blair, we position students at the center of the learning experience, and we design courses, units and lessons with them in mind. The identities and experiences of our students matter deeply to our teachers, and we give space to connect those components of students’ lives to their learning. In turn, our students bring the authentic versions of themselves to the classroom, and we as a faculty learn together with them.