School: Inspiring or Damaging?

True learning -- running into 4 giant elk while hiking

True learning — running into 4 giant elk while hiking

As summer winds down, some children are probably dreading school, as though September is the time to start serving their prison sentence. We’d all like to believe that schools help prepare children to be contributing members of society, but is it possible that our educational system actually damages young people? After all, schools around the world are designed like factories – governments are trying to produce a “product” in bulk for as little money as possible. We pack students into rectangular rooms where teachers attempt to pass on the knowledge deemed important by the state. I’d like to believe that Innovation Academy isn’t part of this system, but the reality is that every day for me is divided into blocks with 26 students at a time, in which I am expected to teach content dictated by the state of Massachusetts. Is this the education that young people deserve?

Youth at IDEC 2013

Youth at IDEC 2013

Some people around the world are trying to change the model and make schools that truly meet the needs of our youth. I just returned from the International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC) in Boulder, Colorado. Democratic Education is about letting young people have a say in their own education. I used to think that I did this, but this week I spent time with people from 33 states who really let kids design their own learning. I used to think that the United States was a leader in teaching critical thinking skills, but this week I spent time with people from 35 countries who are re-inventing the paradigm of education. At IDEC, I got a glimpse of the future — a different kind of learning is possible, one that taps into the natural desires of young people to grow and contribute.

Kids are curious.

Sugata Mitra of India, Yacaav Hecht of Israel, and other educators

Sugata Mitra of India, Yacaav Hecht of Israel, and other educators

Schools don’t need to force kids to learn — they can figure things out on their own! Sugata Mitra did his “hole in the wall” experiment where he put computers into poor villages around the world, from the slums of India to rural Cambodia. Without any teacher or lesson, the kids figured out how to use them to learn. His research proved that basically all they needed was a “grandmother” figure encouraging them to keep experimenting, and the kids taught themselves. (Sugata Mitra won the TED prize for his amazing vision to build a school in the cloud, and his TED Talk is definitely worth watching.)

Kids are part of society.

Schools sometimes send the message that life begins at graduation.  On the contrary, John Dewey wrote that “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.  What if youth viewed their whole city as their classroom, and cities depended on each community member to develop? Yaacov Hecht is working to build Education Cities in Israel that make interacting with people from across the community into a natural part of learning.

A lot can be learned from being out in the world! IDEC participants hiking and learning.

A lot can be learned from being out in the world! IDEC participants hiking and learning.

Kids are individuals.

Schools need to be different for different people. At the Sands School in the United Kingdom, students choose what they want to learn, working with an advisor. If they commit to a class, they are expected to attend, but they can also choose to focus on other pursuits or specialize on one passion. This is a privilege that is often reserved for homeschooling students. Today, there are many resources for families who choose to homeschool, such as the Urban Homeschoolers Resource Center set up by Brenna Gibson Redpath in Los Angeles.

Kids learn at different paces.

Creative Resources at the Patchwork School

Creative Resources at the Patchwork School

Schools don’t need to dictate what subjects are learned in each grade. At the Patchwork School in Colorado, students decide how to spend their days, and small children learn through play. Other educators focus on using technology to help students self-pace. Marko Koskinen of Finland has created an online learning platform called Knowledge Constructors that allows students to explore questions that interest them and take control of their own pacing and methods of learning.

Kids are whole people.

The IDEC 2014 team from Korea

The IDEC 2014 team from Korea

Schools shouldn’t set such hard boundaries around what is academic and what is personal.  At the Byeopssi School in South Korea, all elementary students have subjects in Mind, Body, and Spirit. Each year has a different theme, such as fifth grade’s focus on “looking deep into myself,” and sixth grade’s focus on “expressing my individuality.” Many community groups around the world are letting youth follow their passions, such as the Earth Guardians who performed at IDEC.

Can learning happen through play?

Can learning happen through play?

All of these educational models are inspiring, and there are so many more inspirational ideas out there, from Guatemala to China. While many of these innovative models are in the private sector, there are people who are trying to bring this work into public schools. The Sage Academy is a student-centered charter school in Minnesota where students complete extensive independent projects that are self-designed and often interdisciplinary.  Windsor House School in Vancouver, Canada is a public democratic school that has been around since 1971! Students design their own learning experience in every way, even choosing the content of their classes, or no classes at all. Little by little, public schools can become more democratic.

Hundreds of commitments from all IDEC participants

Hundreds of commitments from all IDEC participants

So, what can I take back to my work at Innovation Academy Charter School? I’m not going to throw out my curriculum. In the fall, we’ll still be doing the Discovering Early America unit. We will be learning about explorers, Native Americans, colonists, and enslaved Africans. However, I have some ideas for incorporating democratic education:

  • Kids are curious, so why not build in time for them to pursue their own interests relating to this time period? I want to re-invigorate the KWL practice (asking students what they Know and what they Want to know beforehand, and ending by asking them what they Learned). My hope is to do more extensive activities to push them to ask deeper questions. I probably have twice as much content as I have time to teach, so why not let the students decide which topics they want to focus on?
  • Kids are part of society, so why not help them to connect with people around the country and in other parts of the world? Wouldn’t it be fun to Skype with a class in England and see how they view the American colonial period? Or we could skype with students in Ghana or South Carolina to see what they’ve learned about American slavery?
  • Kids are individuals, so why not allow them to choose their presentation format? Instead of assigning every student to do the same projects, I’m thinking about ways to offer choice so that their projects can be more authentically theirs.
  • Kids learn at different paces, but my units are 9-10 weeks long.  Instead of expecting a particular outcome, could I grade students on their process? What if students explored a particular topic and then wrote regular journals about their discovery? I could assess them on their personal growth, rather than expecting that every child reach the same end goal.
  • Kids are whole people. At our school, we already grade students on social outcomes, like problem solving and community membership. However, sometimes we are so busy rushing around that we don’t take time to really notice ourselves and each other. I’m brainstorming regular mindfulness exercises and written reflections. I met one teacher who told me that students answer 4 questions weekly: What did I do well? What was challenging? How did I help the community? What do I want to do next week? It’s simple, but I love it. I met another teacher who suggested that there should be only one type of rubric. The lowest level would be I impressed my dog. Then, I impressed my mom, followed by I impressed my teacher. The highest level would be I impressed myself.
Some new IDEC friends that I will be remembering as I embark on the new school year!

Some new IDEC friends that I will be remembering as I embark on the new year!

In a few weeks, my students will be sitting at desks and I will probably be writing on the white board again. I imagine that some of them will have learned more over the summer than I can offer them in school. Teaching is a challenge. More and more I see it as my job to put my own needs aside and really listen to my students. It’s the chance to witness the magic of learning that keeps me coming back for more.

5 replies »

  1. First I hope my son Joey can go there, perhaps Matthew too. Second I went to an alternative High School called Murray Road which was a part of the Newton Public Schools back in the day. We designed our own classes, we had modules where we actually did hands on learning in the field of our interests… we even had general meetings that we helped run. I just want to applaud these efforts. I have seen students fly, I was one. Thank you for being inspired and inspiring.

  2. So great to connect with you at IDEC! Wasn’t it just mind blowing!!! I’m glad to read more about your school, and thanks for mentioning Urban Homeschoolers in your blog. Also thanks for linking to my Travel Blog! An unexpected surprise.
    Have a terrific year!
    Brenna Redpath
    Urban Homeschoolers

  3. I would love to see a school, especially IACS, become a middle ground between the two. Allowing kids to bring their interests, go down tangents, spend time on what excites them…while still having some structure and guidance to move within. Total lack of boundaries makes me nervous, but so does rigid, forced learning.

    We went on a road trip this summer from here to Missouri, and my kids and husband and I learned everything from more about our Church’s history, to random and wonderful American secular history, to geology/biology/geography/social science. It was one of the most valuable experiences of our lives, and none of it was planned more than a few hours in advance other than “let’s visit Grandpa and Grandma before they finish their mission”. If we were independently wealthy, I think we’d have up and sold our home and bought a motor home to continue the trip, and the education, indefinitely.

    Yet, I do think there’s something to be said for the structure of a good curriculum and I like the form it takes at IACS. So I say, go for it, bring lots of the democratic classroom ideas in and let the kids take the lead in some ways. Let them get passionate about new things and explore them out as far as they want to go. But let’s keep guiding them and letting great teachers such as yourself and others at IACS do what you do best, designing a great education that will get and keep the kids excited about lifelong learning.

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