Thursday, September 1, 2016

Embracing Spontaneity in Learning

“Spontaneity, in my view, is the best antidote to fear and habit, both of which are part of our repertoire but should not dominate. Fear and habit hold us back and make us predictable. Spontaneity opens the door to creativity and happiness, in part because of the unpredictability it brings.”
                                                                                   --Joachim Krueger, behavioral psychologist

There are lots of things to see on our expansive campus—flowers visited by interesting insects, lovely gardens, friendly ponies.

So I was a little surprised when Ethan, a first grader, stopped on our campus stroll to stare at a dripping downspout on the side of a building. “Where is the water coming from?” he wondered. We imagined the water’s downward path and our imaginations traveled upward to its origin: a gutter. In short order, Ethan determined that the gutter collected rainwater, which flowed into it from the sloped ceiling of the building. From there, we talked about the force that causes all things to be pulled downward to the lowest point: gravity.

Having goals for a child’s learning and a plan to get there is important. Our teachers have created curriculum continua to enumerate objectives at each stage of a child's development, and they plan rich learning experiences accordingly.

At the same time, spontaneity is a critical part of learning. It sparks curiosity, stokes wonderings, and sets questions ablaze. Ethan might have become interested in gravity if he were told to read in a textbook about how a downspout in a gutter system is an example of water traveling via gravity. But by discovering this simple, elegant system on his own, his innate sense of wonder made the “lesson” all the more powerful—and memorable. 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Think Kids Aren't Capable?--Think Again

Is a 10-year-old capable of higher-order, sophisticated thinking?

The traditional factory-like system of education would say "absolutely not." Kids are meant to be passive. They are in school to absorb knowledge, to listen to the teacher, to sit quietly and follow along, to behave. These are the standards on which they are judged.

At High Meadows, I regularly observe powerful evidence of the capability of young people that flies in the face of such small thinking. On Thursday mornings this spring, I am mentoring a group of fourth and fifth graders who are engaged in inquiry through our International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program. We discuss the progress of their inquiries that will lead to a capstone public exhibition at the end of the school year. 

The central idea of the students' inquiry is Humans have the ability to act on their beliefs and values to improve the relationships and health in their communities. From there, my small group narrowed their focus to Supporting medical research improves the quality of life for people today and future generations. Individual students are studying advances in research in ovarian cancer and cystic fibrosis. One student is studying how medical research on humans in space can help people here on earth. They share research studies, email responses from experts, and questions they have devised for interviewing more experts and those affected by disease. The sophistication of their thought--and their ability to accurately and passionately speak about their work--is nothing short of remarkable. 

These mornings always remind me of how capable our young students really are. It saddens me that some schools treat kids with what amounts to intellectual and social disrespect. It's no wonder so many of them dread going to school. 

This morning, the students were brimming with vivid excitement as they told me about their visit to a science museum yesterday. "There was just one thing," one of them said. "They wouldn't give us a tour guide because they said fourth and fifth graders are too young to understand and don't behave well." Despite that caveat, they led themselves through the exhibits with fascination and purpose. And good "behavior." Another student continued, "We almost told them that we were older kids who are just small for our age." Now there's some higher-order humor for you.

So back to my original question: Are 10-year-olds truly capable? At the best schools (including High Meadows, of course) the answer is an emphatic "absolutely!"

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Redefining Rigor

“Demanding, difficult.” “Thorough, exhaustive, accurate.” “Strictness, severity.” All are modern definitions of “rigor" I found in various dictionaries. And I also found one particularly troubling  synonym: "misery.”

Lots of parents are looking for an “academically rigorous” school experience for their child. But I know no parent who want their kids anywhere near an “academically miserable” school.

So let’s take that word and reframe it. It’s good for kids to experience discipline, thoroughness, and challenge. But the best schools present rigorous experiences that are also deeply thoughtful, mind-expanding and exciting.

Which of these rigorous experiences do you want for your child?

Do you want plodding, closed-ended, multiple choice bubble tests with only one right answer? Or assessments that require students to analyze real-life situations and dilemmas that have more than one answer?

Do you want kids to have mountains of repetitive homework that robs them of family time and sleep? Or do you want homework that is meaningful and reasonable—like reading or practicing a modest number of math problems?

Do you want kids to memorize facts that will soon be forgotten? Or do you want them to learn how to find facts for themselves and use them in an authentic way?

A few years ago, teachers at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, a school widely regarded as the pinnacle of traditional rigor, conducted a powerful experiment. At the end of the academic year, the teachers administered highly traditional science tests to high schoolers. The tests were replete with facts and formulas that required significant memorization. Lawrenceville students being high achievers, it was not surprising that the average grade was 87%. In the fall of the following school year, the teachers, without prior notice, administered a nearly identical (and even simplified) test to the same group of students. The average grade? 58%. You read correctly. Students retained virtually nothing over the summer. What, then, was the value of what they had “learned?” This experiment set Lawrenceville on a new path of designing cognitively rich and meaningful experiences for its students.

The rigor of today is not what it used to be. It still implies hard work, discipline, and completeness. But it also means that students engage meaningfully, cognitively, and authentically in learning experiences.

And it certainly doesn’t have to mean misery.