“A Home and a Heaven for Children”

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.

Q. Projects?

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.

Q. Fun?

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”

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8 thoughts on ““A Home and a Heaven for Children”

  1. I must say I love how the photographs show children actively engaged, as opposed to sitting at a desk watching the teacher! Without even reading the words, I could have taken away a strong message.

    The one sentence which sums it all up for me is “you don’t always achieve your goal by driving directly at it.” Great teachers have to think like writers. They can’t TELL a story, they have to SHOW it. Interest must be captured within the very first few minutes of the lesson, or children will just tune them out. That’s why setting the stage for students to act out a story is so much more effective than the teacher reading it in a monotone voice.

    The learning atmosphere you’ve described is one which requires all school staff to share the same vision. It takes not only enthusiasm and effort, but also high quality learning materials, creativity, and shared ideas. Right now, many school administrators and teachers are “driving directly at” standards and test scores, which leaves little time for any of these things. They are teaching reactively, instead of proactively. What will it take to get them to drive the other way?

    They have to realize that they have power in numbers. Teachers certainly outnumber politicians. If they would stand together to make their voices heard, the sound would echo across the country. And parents would be sure to follow the lead. Are they up for the challenge? I hope so.

    Thank you so much for addressing my questions, and for the extremely kind words and feedback. I hope your vision of school as “a place where learning drives achievement, and love drives learning” becomes a reality for more children in the near future.

  2. Dawn, are you in the Bay Area? If so, (and anyone else reading this) let me extend an invitation to you to visit Children’s Day School in SF. We’re the school that Rick retired from last June, and we’re a physical manifestation of his vision. Check us out at http://www.cds-sf.org. We’re not perfect of course, but we’ve got our mission straight an we’re in touch with our genius. As the parent of a high school senior and two current CDS middle schoolers, I can attest that everything Rick’s saying about academic skills being absorbed best when they are imbedded in meaningful and fun activities happening in a relaxed environment proves out in real life.

  3. Thank you for sharing the information, Tracy! I’m on the east coast, but the school sounds wonderful. And I love the idea of an organic garden. You’re so lucky that your children are having such a unique learning experience.

  4. I know; I feel very lucky. And it’s been an enormous amount of work, commitment and team effort by everyone at CDS and everyone who’s ever been at CDS since 1986. We’re making our own luck, so to speak. It’s replicable. All you need is the will and the love.

  5. Thank you Rick for your amazing blog! Betsy Cordes shared it with me and I have posted it on my school’s facebook page. Your posts are an inspiration, and I plan to read your book and then have my staff read it as well. It is so comforting to know that there are other people out there “fighting the good fight” every day. It reinvigorates us to keep on.

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