Recently my family visited a small science center that’s attached to a progressive community school. The place was packed, but it never felt crazy or chaotic. It was loud, but not ear-splitting. It was messy, but never dangerous.
My kids started out at a glider station, where they designed and raced various gliders using random objects (straws, paper clips, paper, buttons) and observing the materials and design influenced flight. They saw a live demonstration of a sewing machine and they asked questions about how it worked. In another corner, kids were making bridges out of straws.
“This is the overflow room,” a man said. “Wait until they get to the main area.”
There were places with magnets and gyroscopes, sound equipment, natural elements, a climbing wall, and a magnet station. Some were highly structured (the optical illusion station) and some were incredibly loose. Some allowed for inquiry, others began with guided inquiry. It was balanced. The workers rarely answered questions, but instead reframed questions to guide observation.
I kept hearing parents say, “I wish my kid’s school had that,” and I kept hearing kids say, “I wish science class was like this.”
And it struck me that there is a big difference between what we say we want in public schools and how we act. People paid money to visit this science center in their free time, noticed the learning, even said it would be great in school. But they stopped there. Transformation has to include the next step.
Demand better schools. Opt out if you desire. Go create a charter school if that’s the only option. But also demand quality, constructivist learning as loudly and boldly as the corporate reformers tend to do with test scores and KIPP academies.
Parents and community members need to speak out against homework, grades and behaviorism. We need to question whether life-long learning really belongs with “college and career readiness” and whether it makes any sense to treat a six-year-old like a twenty-six-year-old. We need to ignore test scores rather than buying nice homes in the areas with the “good districts” or allowing only the gifted kids to have project-based classrooms.
We need to ask whether it is logical or even humane that a kindergartner would spend the whole first week taking tests and why students in Arizona will spend 30 hours taking one test assessing one subject while their teachers take a 4 hour test to see if they are highly qualified to teach those very subjects.
We need to articulate a vision where we either walk out of the factory or we repurpose the factory to be a viable, sustainable learning community.