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After nine years at the helm, Headmaster John Austin leaves a robust and thriving King’s Academy.

When John Austin began his tenure as King’s Academy headmaster in 2010, the school was just emerging from its infancy. It had some 400 students representing 23 nationalities in grades nine through 12; its first cohort of students — numbering 83 — had just graduated; the financial aid budget stood at US $4.7 million, divided among 209 recipients.

The school that Austin leaves today has 650 students, in grades seven through 12, representing 40 nationalities; its 10th graduating class is its biggest ever, with 169 members; and its financial budget has swelled to US $12 million, covering 325 recipients.

It would be correct to say that Austin guided and steered this healthy growth in the school. But to stop there is to diminish the impact that Austin has had on King’s. The fact is, King’s Academy as it looks today has been shaped — if not transformed — by the unwavering vision of Austin, a vision that puts students and their learning above all else.

From the outset, Austin began working towards that goal. “Because King’s is a young school, there’s an appetite for change and innovation and creativity that doesn’t always exist at other, older schools,” he says. “Change is built into the DNA of the school in a way that makes it very exciting.”

Change has certainly been a constant with Austin at the helm, as he left his mark on everything from online learning to establishing an entire Middle School.

In 2011, he brought the Global Online Academy (GOA) to King’s, empowering students to thrive in a globally networked society. “GOA gives kids more curricular options so they can explore more subjects and pursue ones they’re interested in,” he says. 

Indeed, GOA, of which King’s is a founding member, is being lauded in the world of education for what it offers students. According to Dean of Admissions at Stanford University Rick Shaw, “GOA is special in that they allow curious young people to explore what they’re passionate about by learning with a spectacular teacher and other, equally interesting, young adults.”

In 2012, Austin launched Arabic Year (AY), which brings students from around the world to King’s for a year of Arabic language immersion and experiential learning. “AY is really the only program of its kind in the world, allowing adventurous, international students to intensively study Arabic, immerse themselves in Jordanian culture, and learn more about a region of the world that is rich in history but widely misunderstood and misrepresented in the media,” he says.

In 2013, when the College Board invited King’s Academy to be one of 100 schools worldwide to offer its innovative new diploma program, AP Capstone, as part of the curriculum for the 2014-2015 academic year, Austin jumped at the opportunity. 

How could he not, when, as he says, AP Capstone “investigates a small number of questions in great depth, provides opportunities for independent research, and emphasizes the skills of critical problem solving, collaboration and public presentation.”

In 2015, he introduced Harkness tables in King’s classrooms, to encourage debate and discussion and to “put the student at the center of developing meaning,” to use the words of Dean of the Faculty John Leistler. 

“Creating classrooms where kids are learning by discussion is a powerful way to get them to develop skills of debate and dialogue,” Austin says. 

In 2016, Austin established a Middle School at King’s, “to create a more coherent and intentional educational program, and to provide students with a longer ‘runway’ for success.” Eschewing the grading system, the Middle School focuses on character development, debate and self-expression, collaborative teamwork, understanding and evaluating multiple perspectives, and finally, play (see related article, “Gamifying the Classroom” on page 12).

The Harkness method, AP Capstone and even the Middle School were all springboards leading to Austin’s ultimate goal — to transform the school curriculum into one that promotes critical thinking and “deep learning.” Towards that end, he has spent his last year at King’s working closely with select faculty and heads of departments to develop and enlarge the capstone program, to expand the arts program, and to increase the number of elective courses that are not aligned with any third-party exam — “courses not driven by reductive test measures but by interesting questions and projects.”

Austin’s rationale is simple. “All the research and my experience as a teacher tells me the people who are most successful and happiest are deep learners,” he says. “They are driven by passion and curiosity, and they wake up every morning excited and eager to think — to think deeply — and to be creative.”

Students who are deep learners, he says, are not learning because they want to do well on their AP Exams but because “they’re excited about the questions, and their minds and imaginations are joyfully involved in the world of ideas.”

Which leads to his beef with the external restraints imposed on King’s. “One of the great virtues of the American independent schools is their independence,” he says. “They’re not subject to really strong external restraints. We have to operate within a structure that puts the brakes on. Tawjihi [Jordan’s General Secondary Education Certificate Examination] has a direct impact on the courses we need to offer, the kind of program we offer — it weds us to the College Board in ways that can constrain innovative and creative education.”

“I’m not anti-disciplines,” he emphasizes. “Disciplines are a useful way to think about the world — it’s important for kids to think like scientists and historians, or to write like journalists. We do need to ensure that all students have those basic disciplinary competencies, but once kids have established a certain basic level, they should be given more flexibility and choice and the school should help them discover what they’re good at and give them the opportunity to express and deepen these strengths.”

Austin has a lot to be proud of. He specifically mentions his pride at the growing reputation of the school and its emphasis on deep and creative learning. But there is one thing that stands out for him, the thing of which he is the proudest. “In the end, it’s about the kinds of relationships that the school has been able to foster between students and teachers,” he says.  “When I walk around campus I see kids who have really good, healthy friendships, who are engaged in their work, who are excited about all the opportunities outside the classroom, who are working closely with their teachers. That’s what it’s all about.”

When asked if he has any words of wisdom for incoming Head of School Peter Nilsson, Austin does not hesitate. “Stay true to the mission,” he says. “Continue to focus on the three things that matter — faculty, students and program. Continue to hire and recruit the best possible people you can find who understand the mission and who love the children. Continue to recruit outstanding kids from Jordan and the world, and from a mix of backgrounds. Continue to think carefully about the educational program. And protect financial aid, because it is at the heart of His Majesty King Abdullah II’s mission for King’s.”