Since I have devoted much of the last twelve years to the birth, care and feeding of an independent holistic school for roughly 40 kids 3-12 years of age, I’m often asked To articulate what is unique about Salmonberry School – this sweet and admittedly imperfect little school on an island in North Puget Sound. And when I’m asked, I sometimes tell folks something like, “well, if you come into a classroom here during a math class, you might think it to be very similar to a mainstream school. We aren’t really all that different in terms of methods. It’s more intimate perhaps, a bit more human-scaled, but what is quite different are our goals…” Then I’d go on to talk about the values of holism and health, “transformation,” (J. Miller) “self-actualization” (Maslow) and “ultimacy” (S. Forbes) in contrast to the goals of “proficiency” and “meeting standards.”
I suppose I’ve had my “nose to the grindstone” and my “head in the sand” so to speak because recently, and for the first time in a little while, I had the opportunity to spend a day observing in a mainstream middle school, and I would now like to rescind the above statement. There are real differences that you will find at Salmonberry School, in terms of methodology as well as pedagogy and vision. Real differences! What follows are the first eleven things that leapt to my mind while sitting in a mainstream classroom that were utterly absent, and which I believe to be absolutely essential to any useful practice of education and that you will find if you come and spend a day with us at Salmonberry School. And, I should preface this by saying, the school in which I observed is quite a nice public school. Having taught public education for close to a decade I can say with confidence that this setting was one of the “good ones.” The teachers cared. The community and particularly the parents support the school in many ways. So this was the cream of the crop, a privileged environment for kids. Here’s just some of what was missing.
11 Missing Elements
#1 – Active participation Students I observed were successful inasmuch as they were able to be passive recipients of information. They were not expected to act upon the subject they were studying, nor engage with it. They were similarly expected to refrain from interacting or collaborating with one another in any way. In fact such “side conversation” was forbidden. I believe students must be active in their learning process. They should be inquiring, questioning, hypothesizing, analyzing, synthesizing, creating at least some of the time.
#2- Imagination, collaboration, transformation Related to the lack of active participation was the lack of original or creative thought, sharing of ideas, and listening and being open to the perspectives of another. Clearly there were two legitimate sources of information: the teacher and the textbook. I believe a critical element of education needs to be the striving for insight through the interplay of imagination and collaboration. Kids need to formulate and try out their ideas and then engage with others who may have a different perspective ultimately reaching for the goal of a new understanding.
#3- Open outcomes, wonder and awe Yes, of course there is such a thing as a fact and some answers are just wrong (3 + 3 just does not equal five, generally speaking.) But in this class I observed there were clearly only right answers and wrong answers. There was no room for shades of grey. The questions and the answers were all predetermined by a combination of teacher and textbook. The only questions came from these sources and they alone were the arbiters of right and wrong. I believe that for learning to be meaningful it must exist within a much more open system. Not only must the answers be open to different possibilities, but the questions themselves need to be emergent and come from the full range of perspectives that the classroom affords.
#4- Relevance to learners In this mainstream setting, the subject of “Poetry” was chosen, for example, because that was what came next in the English textbook; chapter 13 follows chapter 12. No one was looking to the kids as possible sources for curriculum inspiration. And therefore the curriculum had little to do with them, their interests, the place where they live, or their lives. I know that learners’ engagement and therefore the quality as well as the quantity of their learning varies directly with how relevant the subject matter feels to them. If the curriculum has relevance, it is immediately worthy of interest and investigation. Common sense!
#5- Experiential education Of course the most visceral sense of relevance must be when the learner experiences the subject firsthand. In the classroom where I observed every concept was an abstraction, separated from the learner by the one-way baffles that filter the information from teacher and textbook to the recipient. At least some learning must be lived, felt, seen and tasted, firsthand. This is the type of learning that sinks in deep and becomes part of oneself.
#6- Engaging physically In this school students sat at their desks. Each desk was an island within a forward-facing row. The only sanctioned physical movement was pencil moving on paper. Of course there was plenty of squirming, wiggling and knee-tapping, as the body can only remain motionless for so long. I believe there must be a part of learning that engages the body and the physical senses. The body should be a recognized mode and instrument of learning, and not only for “kinesthetic learners,” but for all. And at the very least children must have freedom of movement to some extent – at least a break to run around!?
#7- Differentiation In this school, as far as I could tell, each learner was conceived of as the same and interchangeable. All students seemed expected to have the same interests, learning styles, and skill set. Each sat for the same length of time, read the same amount of text, and completed the same assignments. I believe no two learners are the same and we must accommodate for that in our teaching. Yes, sometimes for efficiency we group kids together and approach the group as a more or less homogeneous one. But on some level we must acknowledge and value differences and uniqueness. Each learner, not just those on IEP’s, deserve modifications based on their unique developmental trajectory and their particular moment along it, their unique way of learning, and their particular way of being in the world.
#8- Teacher’s passion I was fortunate in this mainstream setting to be in the presence of a good teacher. He clearly cared and brought energy to his classroom, just as many of the kids did. However, this teacher lacked passion. I believe an effective teacher must embody passion for their subject, their learners and for the process of learning. Nothing can effect meaningful learning as much as a teacher’s passion. Nothing.
#9- Aesthetics The classroom in which I observed was depressing. From the fluorescent lighting and the dully-roaring aged HVAC system to the linoleum floor and pock-marked soundproof paneling, this room was simply a sad industrialized place to spend your childhood. There was nothing colorful or alive about it. No plants or flowers and most shamefully no student’s work in evidence. I believe that aesthetics are important. As Reggio teachers sometimes say, the classroom is the third teacher. Students have the right to be surrounded with beauty and nature, or at the very least windows!! As Sir Ken Robinson says our approach to education seems to be anesthetic as opposed to aesthetic. We anesthetize through our practice of pedagogy rather than make space for an aesthetic approach and all the life-giving potential it contains.
#10- Living whole subjects– At this school each subject was taught in isolation, according to its discrete discipline. Although “Poetry” followed “Ghanaian History” for example, it was never considered that there might be some really interesting Ghanaian poetry that has been written and that these two different subjects could be unified through an effort to keep learning whole. I believe that study should be multidisciplinary and integrated through a thematic approach. We shouldn’t be demanding that learners “change brain channels” every 40 minutes whenever the bell rings. Parker Palmer has written about the “great thing” the living subject around which the community of learners coalesces. We should be willing to let go of our mechanistic approach that fragments whole subjects into disciplines, subjects, chapters, lessons, skills and facts.
#11- Fun School is a place full of young people. Young people are designed to learn through play. There should be laughter, spontaneity, an occasional flirtation with the absurd. Humor can make school something to look forward to rather than something to dread.
7 Elements that should have been missing
In addition to these 11 missing components mentioned above. There were at least 7 other elements that I believe have no place in school. These seven elements ought to have been missing, but sadly were omnipresent and ubiquitous:
#1 Kids removed to the resource room for modified instruction – Orwellian.
#2 Shushes, a continual stream of invocations to quiet.
#3 Threats, warnings that recess time would be lost, field trips would be withheld, more homework would be given, etc.
#4 Illogical consequences: Specifically detention (nothing like making time-spent-in-school into a punishment to instill a love for the institution and for learning!) and essay writing. (Ditto, making writing into a dreaded punishment? Hmmm…)
#5 Fill-in-the blank worksheets – self explanatory, eh?
#6 Bullying – the terrible subject of an essay for another time perhaps…
#7 Bells The only authority apparently greater than the teacher within this hierarchy, trumping him and silencing him by ringing at its predetermined interval.
Have you spent time in a “good school” lately? Please contribute to either of the lists above by adding your comment.