If our goal is academic achievement, what is our aim?
In her New York Times piece “Playing to Learn” Susan Engel writes:
… educators should remember a basic precept of modern developmental science: developmental precursors don’t always resemble the skill to which they are leading. For example, saying the alphabet does not particularly help children learn to read. But having extended and complex conversations during toddlerhood does. Simply put, what children need to do in elementary school is not to cram for high school or college, but to develop ways of thinking and behaving that will lead to valuable knowledge and skills later on.
What does a school look like when it gets this right? Here is an example:
Last Thursday morning I sat in my car in a parking lot facing a nondescript brick building in St. Louis, Missouri. The two story wall with a double door said “school,” even without “The College School” written in big letters twenty feet above me. As I got out of my car and moved toward the door, it opened and a stream of third graders began pouring out, clearly on a mission and entirely engrossed in each other.
When I reached the door and held it open for them, one said, “Thank you.” The next said, “Hi!” with a big smile.” Nervous, that I had forgotten the name of the principal I summoned up my courage, and when the last student said, “Wait, I forgot my notebook,” I bent down and asked her buddy in a fake whisper, “What’s the name of the principal?” He looked at me as if to say, “That’s random,” and said instead, “Sheila.”
When I replied, “Thank you,” he added, as if not wanting me to get myself in trouble, “She’s the Head of the School.”
“Oh,” I said. “Thank you.”
Inside, the school glowed. As I walked down the hallway to the office glancing into the rooms, every child was on a mission. By the time I reached the open door of the office I was beaming from ear to ear, and my heart was floating somewhere just below my chin.
Joyce greeted me warmly and took me into the hallway to show me the full array of student creations on the walls, while we waited for Sheila. Joyce was calmly articulate about the relationships among meaningful content, creative expression, and clear student writing.
In ten minutes Sheila was greeting me happily and showing me the school. By the time I walked into my first classroom I had already seen dozens of examples of internally motivated learning. By the time she suggested I get on the bus to go on a field trip I couldn’t say no.
I watched sixth graders lead the seventh grade in an environmental education experience, and when there was a lull in the activity I asked a seventh grade boy, “Do you get a lot of homework”
“Yes,” he said.
Then I asked, “Do you like it?”
“Usually,” he replied.
What? Seventh graders liking homework? Well given everything else I had seen I wasn’t surprised. When kids are on a mission, they own the work, and the quality of this work showed in every part of The College School.
Kids want to learn, and they want to learn what they need to learn to succeed in the world and, duh, that includes reading, writing and all those other academic skills. Instead of aiming high, all too often adults shoot directly at the target and miss. The College School is one of hundreds across the country that demonstrate: if our goal is academic achievement, our aim should be creating the conditions for kids to create, express, love and own their learning.
Hundreds of such schools is not enough. We need a hundred thousand.