Hearing that I am on a mission to change how America thinks about education Dawn Morris wrote: “What does your ideal school look like? Is it hands-on? Is it project based? Is there art? Is there music? I know you think learning should be fun, but what does a fun learning environment mean to you? Is it student directed? What does that mean? What assessments are there? Are there still standards?”
She concluded with: “Having been one of those teachers who left the public schools in frustration I would say that to me, the best teachers are the ones who truly love learning, and it is a part of who they are. They do not think they have all the answers (the questions are so much more important), and are willing to accept feedback and criticism from anyone, even a child, even a new teacher.”
Of course, with that Dawn answered her own questions, but let’s be clear what is implied by her self-declaration.
Q. Hands on?
A. The children’s’ hands must be on. …and feet, and voice… heck use the whole body if it helps. Intellectual activity sticks better when it takes place in the context of total brain development. When it serves learning, use the body.
A. Of course. …as well as art, music, dance, sports, and recess. Cutting back on recess is to education what blood letting is to medicine. Teaching academic skills in physical, intellectual and emotional deprivation reveals ignorance about how humans learn. Research is conclusive that exercising one part of the brain too long compromises learning and quality goes down.
A. Fun is nature’s way of telling the mind, body and soul that this activity is right for us. Learning is naturally fun. If it doesn’t start off feeling like fun, make it fun and we learn it better. (Enter teacher stage right.) Intrinsic motivation causes better learning.
Q. Student Directed?
A. When the student becomes the agent, the author, the mathematician, work feels like love. In love with learning we tend to drive toward things that may be hard for us. The psychic rewards are so great that we choose challenges, surmount obstacles, and suffer struggle, loss, disappointment, and failure. The more students engage in activity that they love, the more they will learn from mistakes, learn from conflict and learn how to learn. (Enter genius stage left.)
Q. Assessments and Standards?
A. School will always be about mastering academic skills. The standards are clear, and we should stop going over and over them. We want kids to master the multiplication tables and to learn how to write a paragraph, but everyone knows that different kids will master these skills at different ages when their brains are ready for it. Discussing at what age these skills should be mastered is like arguing about how long Procrustes’ bed should be.
We have our tests. They are good enough, but the way they are being used in most schools is a manifestation of the archaic function of school as a social sorting device. If we wanted school to be a good social sorting device, we would sort according to things like self-expression, critical thinking, creativity, integrity, self-discipline, compassion, inventiveness, self-direction, a growth mindset and a love of learning—because these abilities do predict success. (But then it’s not so much sorting as educating.) Schools should use love, enthusiasm and inspiration as barometers of their success, because “soft” though these criteria may seem to some, they are reliable predictors of success both in and out of school. High test scores will follow.
We need to put academics in perspective. Like many things in life, you don’t always achieve your goal by driving directly at it.
Q. What would my school look like?
A. A school should be an organization of people who love to learn together. Anything that serves this end is good; anything that interferes should be dropped. All kids need structure, but there are many kinds of structure that work. I have seen desks in straight rows and classes like beehives. It can all be good and it can all be bad. It depends on the disciplined internal commitment of the teachers to continuous learning about each student as a unique individual.
So, Dawn’s marvelous self-definition points to exactly what it takes for a school to be an educational institution. My vision of school is a place where learning drives achievement, and love drives learning.
Next week: “Teacher as Learner”