Two weeks ago, I walked through the double glass door of a large, rectangular, brick building that houses the Baker Demonstration School in Evanston, Illinois. To my right was the Principal’s Office, but on my left were two three-year-olds who greeted me with: “Good morning. Would you like to come to our art gallery?”
“Why yes, of course,” I replied.
“Admission is five cents,” the boy said.
“Rats,” I answered. “I don’t have any coins.”
“That’s okay,” said the girl. “Here is a bowl of pennies. It’s okay if you use them.”
“Wonderful. Thank you.” I took seven, followed them to a little red cash register on a little wooden desk just inside the door of the classroom, and handed them to the young man, who carefully counted out five pennies, put them in the register, and handed me a little, red “Ticket” and two pennies. “Here’s your change,” he said.
The girl then took me into the room full of little people (and two big ones) and introduced me to two others with, “This is Amber and Rachel. They will show you around,” which they did quite professionally.
What I saw in this pre-school class I saw everywhere as I walked around the school. Everywhere from kindergarten to eighth grade, I saw children of all ages making a difference to others, doing valuable things that had meaning for them, obviously comfortable in their own skins, making decisions, apparently loving learning and taking it for granted. Creativity abounded—evidence was even hanging from the ceiling. It seems nothing is done without creativity, and the academic product is obvious everywhere from the writing and graphs on the walls, to the conversation in the fifth grade. The teachers are teaching, all right, but it looks like the kids are doing all the work.
Baker Demonstration School is not a school for the gifted. Clara Belle Baker founded it in 1918 to demonstrate “how the mind learns,” and to graduate children who “love to learn, cherish the journey and serve the world.” Its success at doing this is obvious.
What is its secret sauce? The professionals in the school have a lot to say about that, but an outsider can guess that “Treat children as if they know what they are doing” is an assumption built into everything the adults do.
Children are vastly more capable than most schools give them credit for. When schools don’t get the kind of results that schools like Baker get, maybe it is because the whole program underestimates children. Educators from Tony Wagner at Harvard to Linda Darling-Hammond at Stanford have identified the kinds of skills the world will require of our graduates: focusing, making connections, changing perspective, creating, making judgments, finding meaning, working with others, managing conflict, planning, taking on challenges, persevering, etc.
What parents and teachers tend to ignore is that the human organism is naturally designed to do all this. By the time a child walks in the door of a kindergarten room, he or she has been practicing these skills for about 43,000 hours. Children naturally want to continue this complex engagement with the world, and many cannot tolerate not having these abilities used, developed, sophisticated, and practiced. Humans need this kind of engagement as much as they need sleep and exercise. Social, emotional and cognitive deprivation is the root cause of low academic achievement, the increased dropout rate and the poor quality of our work force.
We hear a lot about the importance of parents and teachers working together, and especially what parents can do to prepare children for school. Well, children rise (or fall) to the high (or low) expectations we have of them. At home do they get real responsibility for the real work of the family? Are they given responsibility for the climate of the classroom at school? If we want them to be responsible, we have to give them opportunities to be responsible. This is the ball the parent/teacher team needs to keep its eye on: treat children as if they are already capable of real work in the world.