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Giving Kids the Keys

“Every teacher spends an hour lecturing us about rules and netbooks and textbooks and such, and we’re all so used to it, we usually just sit there either with drool hanging out of our mouths and our brains somewhere else, or doodling on a sheet of notebook paper.  We’ve heard it all before, so none of us really pay attention.  We listen to whoever we have first period, and then for the rest of the day, we sort of sit there, as I said, with drool hanging out of our mouths, half asleep, wouldn’t even notice if the teacher’s hair was on fire.”  – 8th graderbored student

The above reflection is an alarm bell.  It should signal to teachers and administrators that things need to change in classrooms.  This 8th grader may have been the only one brave enough to write and turn in such an honest opinion, but it is very unlikely that she is alone in her assessment.  Many students, whether they actually have drool hanging out of their mouths or not, are being systematically disengaged by schools and by teachers who struggle to relinquish control to their students.  Great strides have been made to move from the “sage on the stage” mentality of past generations and “student-centered” has become the norm in school literature, but many schools have yet to find a way to eliminate the scene described in the above student commentary.  We need to find a way to move from student-centered to student-driven, and all it takes is trusting kids enough to give them the keys.

Project based learning, experiential learning, inquiry, and student-written class rules are all examples of useful ways to give students a voice in their schools and in their work.  Many times, however, the limitations still exist and it is because of our attitudes, not our pedagogical strategies.  Too often adults don’t believe kids can handle the responsibility of leading and designing their own learning.  In some cases, this may be true, but it is likely because they have been trained not to.  For most of their young lives, they have been relieved of all responsibilities by their parents and teachers.  From cleaning up after them to packing their backpacks every morning for school to helping them with homework, adults continuously teach our kids to not be responsible.  When they arrive in class, most students expect to be told what to do, how to do it, and be helped if they have trouble.  The only way to help students develop a sense of responsibility for their own learning is to give them control of it.  There will likely be frustrating challenges and failures along the way for students, but it takes challenge and failure to rise to new heightened expectations.   There will also likely be terrifying moments for teachers.  They must find a way to put their organized, prepared, often linear-thinking selves in the passenger seat and realize that school needs to be about what students find compelling, not teachers.

Educators should embrace the position of navigator.  Give our student drivers the keys, ask them where they want to go, and help them get there by pointing out the various routes and possible detours.  We must resist the temptation to grab the wheel or slam on the brakes because it is the creative, optimistic, anything is possible attitude of children that pushes forward the bold ideas of innovation.  We must simply buckle up and hang on while our students lead us on adventures we couldn’t possibly have planned.

This TED talk by 12 year old Adora Svitak shows there is much adults can learn from children.

Learning between grown ups and kids should be reciprocal. – Adora Svitak



In Todd Rose’s compelling TEDtalk on the Myth of Average (see below), he tells us that “desks are the cockpits of our economy”.  This is a provocative statement which sums up the analogy he makes between fighter jet cockpits and desks in schools.  Rose explains that the Air Force, after years of poor performance, finally came to the realization that a one-size-fits-all cockpit simply did not work.  Faced with such a wide range of body types, engineers had always designed cockpits to the average size profile.  What they learned through extensive research was that this average pilot did not exist, so the cockpits were really one-size-fits-none.  From that time forward they engineered cockpits to the outer edges of the range and added the ability to adjust where needed, thereby giving each individual pilot an opportunity to find the comfort and access needed for success.  Rose has adeptly made the connection between cockpits and student desks.  If we understand that every student is different, with different strengths and weaknesses, different styles of learning, different rates of maturation and development, then why do we think that a one-size-fits-all education works?  If we design our textbooks, curriculum, learning spaces, even our desks to the average student, do we end up really designing for nobody?

classroom learning environment

designed for nobody

I am consumed with exploring questions such as these and opening up the conversation with educators around the world.  In the last few years, I have seen a shift towards the understanding that education needs to be as customizable as possible and that successful independent schools need to provide diverse opportunities designed to prepare students for future challenges that no longer lie within a predictable range.  This shift has been driven by a pledge to know, challenge, and love every student and has been furthered by strong commitment to faculty professional development and facility upgrades.

The school I work at has invested a good deal of money and energy this year into the development of more flexible learning spaces.  Desks have been removed from a middle school computer lab and replaced by a series of tables that can be arranged in a variety of formations suitable for a wide range of activity.  Everything from small group work to boardroom presentations can be easily accommodated, thereby creating a space for both student and teacher collaboration that lends itself well to project work.  More informal spaces complete with comfortable couches that can be used for group discussions and socializing have been added, while plans in the library include the possibility of mobile bookshelves for customizable and shareable learning space.

In first grade classrooms, desks were replaced by fold-able work tables on wheels.  Every day the students themselves will have the power to decide how they are most comfortable and thus ready to learn.  Need more organized workspace?  Leave the tables up.  Prefer to work on the floor?  Fold the tables, push them to the side and have all the real estate required.  In a traditional school building, minor changes such as these are certainly steps in the right direction.  Without actually knocking down walls, we are working to move past the old notions of classroom learning and encouraging teachers to allow students more freedom to move around.

In Sweden they have taken this concept and run with it.  Wishful thinking for most of us…Check it out here.

Learning takes place in many different ways.  Gone are the days when a quiet room of students seated in rows of desks is the ideal learning environment.  While that type of environment can be appropriate at times, what we have learned from Todd Rose, other thought leaders in education, and from our own experience is that an adaptive, flexible learning environment with multiple spaces and configurations is paramount to the development of student creativity and achievement.  By moving out of a one-size-fits-all mindset, we will be providing the opportunity to succeed to all students.  After all, if desks are the cockpit of our economy, than it is imperative for our future that we be sure to make those desks adjustable.

Todd Rose was not really just talking about furniture in his talk.  He was making a call to our education system to stop designing all activities, materials, and spaces to the average.  If we listen to him, we can begin to free students from the constraints traditional schools have placed on them and we can give all students an opportunity to continue to love learning.

Do Schools Give Students the Chance to Grow “Organically”?

child chasing chickensWhen we picture the animals on an organic farm, we see chickens or cows roaming free in a bucolic setting.  Happily eating naturally and growing organically, they are not force-fed filler or injected with chemicals to enhance or speed the growth process.  We often consider these animals to be the lucky ones, though they will share a similar fate in the end, compared to their counterparts in traditional farms equipped with over-crowded cages.

Students in schools are certainly not chickens or cows, nor do they deserve to be thought of as such, but the idea of school as farm makes for a compelling metaphor, one that helps guide our thoughts on what education in schools could and should look like.  What if students in schools weren’t shuttled from classroom to classroom, often constrained to a less than comfortable desk?  What if schools didn’t ask students to compartmentalize learning into 45 minute blocks of time?  What if schools didn’t force-feed students content that was not relevant or interesting to them?  In short, what if schools worked to adapt learning environments, i.e. physical space, schedule, pedagogy, curriculum, to allow for greater freedom, flexibility, and creativity for their teachers and students?  What if, like an organic farmer, we set the fences, fostered an environment for organic growth and development, and allowed our students to then be free-range?

There are certainly a great number of schools, organizations, and educators working towards these ideals through conversation and practice.  The aim of this blog is to join that conversation, share ideas and success stories from around the world, and to report on some of the efforts and experiments of one independent school that is embarking on the journey.

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