Josh Kigel, Director of Quest and Special Studies, Shares His Calling for the Program He Helped to Shape

We sat down with Mr. Kigel to learn more about his deep pedagogical understanding of learning styles and differences, and how he leverages that know-how to ignite Quest students' sparks of genius.

Passionate about personalized learning — the cornerstone of a Dwight world-class education — Josh Kigel has been a member of our community for 14 years. He took over as the head of Quest in 2006, and was named Director of Quest and Special Studies in 2011. Mr. Kigel has an extensive background in special education, with a concentration in learning disabilities. Under his leadership, Quest has grown dramatically and made a reputable name for itself in the New York City independent school community. 

We sat down with Mr. Kigel to learn more about his deep pedagogical understanding of learning styles and differences, and how he leverages that know-how to ignite Quest students' sparks of genius.

Please describe your journey to becoming a teacher and Director of Quest. 

After majoring in psychology and education at Brooklyn College, I started working with people with disabilities in group homes. I worked with families on Medicaid who had a child with a disability, and did a lot of home and school visits. I also had a side job coaching basketball. Throughout my work, I wanted to make more personal connections and have a larger impact, which led me to teaching. 

My first classroom jobs were at schools in Brooklyn and Manhattan, where I was an elementary school teacher, before coming to Dwight as a Quest teacher in 2004. As we worked to transform Quest from a program that was geared toward homework help into a true special education support program, I had the opportunity to harness my background in working with people with disabilities. Working in Quest became a natural fit and I never looked back. While teaching was my career, it really felt like Quest was my calling. 

What is your educational philosophy?

Dwight's personalized learning pillar is the most important thing to me, which is what makes our school such a special place to work. This institutional commitment has allowed us to give Quest students a successful school experience that they might not have had in a less flexible or supportive setting. 

I have coached Girls Varsity Basketball and Boys Varsity Baseball at Dwight, and the connection I form with a student in Quest is like the connection I formed as a coach with players — there is a sense that we are in this thing together. A coach has to see players' individual strengths and challenges, and build a  system based on the makeup of the whole team. I use those same coaching principles in recruiting teachers and building a Quest team. As an administrator, I'm charged with figuring out how to get the best out of everyone, where they can both thrive as individuals and work well together.

At the heart of successful Quest teaching is the personal connection between the teacher and student. For years, I have been quoting Malcolm Gladwell's discussion of the concept of "withitness" — the ability to be in tune with what a student is up to at any given moment. If I had to sum up the key to a successful Quest teacher it would be that.  Over the years, we have built a team of teachers who are exceptionally "with it" and they have inspired students to shine. 

What separates Quest from similar programs in other schools? 

Quest began 40 years ago and evolved from Oxford University's tutorial mentorship model. 

When I first started here, Quest had six teachers and just over 30 students. The program was largely focused on direct academic support and was far less comprehensive. It was also far less integrated into the school; none of the Quest teachers were also classroom teachers.

Since that time, we have more than doubled the size of the team in high school and have multiple teachers who are both Quest and classroom teachers, making the program part of the fabric of the school and embedded throughout the school day. I have also worked closely with Lisa Schoenfeld, Head of Lower Quest, to align the teaching strategies we use between Middle and Upper School, as some teachers work in both areas.

Today, Quest combines research-based special education pedagogy with the creativity of design thinking to provide students with comprehensive and innovative one-on-one academic and organizational training. We help students to better understand their individual learning styles and challenges, which empowers them to overcome or compensate for learning differences and to become self-advocates.

How do Quest teachers collaborate with other faculty and parents?

Quest teachers work with faculty in their classes. Each classroom teacher is assigned a Quest teacher, whose special education support can take the form of helping students by reinforcing class content or making recommendations for differentiating content. Quest teachers also teach their specialty areas. For example, I also teach history.

Quest teachers help parents stay abreast of their children's progress through frequent contact. Quest works best when it's a team effort aimed at fostering students' success.

How does Quest benefit our diverse student body? 

The very existence of Quest allows the student body to be more diverse. Our Quest students are incredibly bright and talented, and they would struggle in a less personalized academic setting with limited support. Quest allows the Dwight community to benefit from the contributions of these students. And you can see evidence of that wherever you look at Dwight — from the stage of the school theater production and the athletic field, to the Shakespeare competition and academic honor rolls.

While the program is designed to help students with learning differences succeed in the rigorous Dwight curriculum, the integration of Quest support into the school benefits all types of learners. Many families choose Dwight because of the Quest Program for its unique ability to nurture and ultimately ignite every student's spark of genius. We are proud of our students' achievements and our alumni often share their successes beyond Dwight with us, underscoring that the benefits of Quest last a lifetime. 

You also teach history. How does your Quest expertise impact your teaching this subject matter?

I try very hard to differentiate the work I assign to students and this is no small undertaking. I incorporate the principles of universal design learning (UDL) into my classroom at all times. This means presenting key content and concepts in multiple formats, multiple times, and giving students multiple pathways to show what they have learned. The last part of UDL, engagement, is a bit more challenging because it gets into the realm of things that are outside the control of the teacher and the school, but I try to find topics that are very current and will resonate with students within the confines of the curriculum, and then live in that space as much as possible.

One of the highlights of my career was a few years back when about two-thirds of my grade 10 history class showed up for multiple lunch sessions to continue studying one of those high-interest current-event topics that we didn't have time to study in class. Their enthusiasm for learning was contagious!

You received a PD grant from The Dwight School Foundation. How did you bring that learning back to the classroom?

The grant was to develop and execute PD courses on an ongoing basis for fellow Quest teachers to support their skills in working specifically with students who have learning differences. Research is always advancing, so year to year I follow studies in the fields of special education and learning disabilities and refresh  Quest PD courses so that we're always up to date.

What are some exciting innovations in Quest this year?

This summer, I overhauled the faculty PD curriculum, which is now a multi-module Google Classroom-based course, using the same layers of differentiation we hope to see in our classes. While many PD lessons are online, some are run by Quest teachers with expertise in specific areas. For instance, Amanda Katagiri and the English team will conduct a session on teaching writing strategies.

I also participated in Dwight's Frontier Teacher training boot camp and used a lot of the principles I learned there when redesigning Quest's PD. I conducted empathy interviews and sought feedback from my early adopters, leading to what we hope will be enthusiastic participation from the Quest team. My goal is to eventually offer this special ed-focused PD to all Dwight teachers. 

What is your personal spark of genius?

That is a surprisingly tough question! I'm very patient, and I have a great capacity for seeing the good in people and providing support to those who need it. When I first started working in Quest, one of my mentors told me that I could have all the teaching strategy and pedagogical knowledge in the world, but it would be useless without compassion. 

What is a little-known fact about you?

I have two small kids and my hobby is them. I can sing all the lyrics to "Let It Go" from Frozen!

While we may not need to know every word of that song, we're glad that Mr. Kigel is so knowledgeable about personalizing learning paths for our Quest students!

  • Faculty Spark
  • Faculty Spark - Upper
  • Homepage