Student-centered Learning Environments: Redesigning One Fourth Grade Classroom

“It is sobering to realize that the majority of American schools today, barring a minority of interesting experiments, look as they did at the end of the last century”

-Mara Krechevsky & Janet Stork, Harvard Project Zero (2000)

Screen Shot 2017-11-03 at 9.04.07 AM
Click here to access a short video on our Instagram page illustrating the flexible seating arrangement in action!

When I walk the halls of our campus at The Willows, I’m not so sure the above quote rings completely true. The schools I went to as a child and that I first taught in 17 years ago definitely don’t have the unique, vibrant energy from faculty and amazing artwork enlivening the environment that we have here.

However, even though The Willows does not closely resemble a school in 1899, some features in education are notoriously slow to change. Personally, I believe it is safe to say that the classroom arrangement of individual desks facing a teacher lecturing at the front next to a board is one of those features.

This year, in one fourth grade classroom at The Willows, dynamic changes are underway. Inspired by similarly-minded teachers and school leaders across the country, fourth grade teachers Stephanie Tanner and Lily Solomon have embraced the concept known as a flexible seating classroom for their students.

This arrangement was described in a recent article in NEA Today as the “Starbucks classroom” because of the focus on creating spaces for students to sit and work comfortably as adults are accustomed to at the iconic coffee shop. Instead of rows of desks, flexible seating classrooms feature students working at standing desks, café tables, couches, on top of pilate balls and next to hokki stools.

Beyond just giving students comfortable spaces to think and work, the research behind a flexible seating arrangement highlights several potential positive impacts for students:

  • Focus and engagement: students who struggle to remain seated and still throughout the day are often better able to focus and stay engaged with the task at hand when they have some choice over what type of seating is best for them
  • Responsibility: teachers allowing students to choose what type of seat is best for them communicates the message that the student is responsible for his or her learning, and that he or she is mature enough to make smart choices

When I first heard about flexible seating coming to The Willows, I wondered what had initially led Stephanie and Lily to consider redesigning their classroom space in this manner. Both teachers shared that this past summer, they reflected on how their group of kids had a lot of energy that was sometimes hard to channel, and that traditional seating arrangements were just not fitting the needs of most students (*note – 3rd and 4th grade students “loop” at The Willows, meaning they have the same teacher and classroom for two years in a row).

After scouring Pinterest and several other education blogs that featured tips for setting up a flexible seating classroom, Stephanie and Lily pitched the idea to Terri Baird, our Director of Teaching and Learning; she loved it, and had actually already been researching flexible seating on her own. Terri asked the teachers to write up a proposal for materials, with a plan in mind to pilot this approach this year in one classroom and possibly expand to other rooms if successful.

Two months into the school year, teachers and students alike approve of the new classroom arrangement. The teachers report that students are getting more work done without becoming distracted, and are working quicker and staying focused for longer. Students are motivated to stay focused since they know that if the teachers feel they have chosen an unproductive spot, they will be asked to move. Favorite spots for many children include the standing desks, wobble tables, and the couch; least prized seating options so far, perhaps unsurprisingly, are the traditional desks – though some students do prefer them.

Other Willows teachers are showing interest in potentially changing some, if not all, of their classroom seating arrangements. In one faculty meeting where we discussed flexible seating, many teachers agree it may not be the best approach for every classroom, or for every group of teachers and students. So far, however, for one fourth grade classroom, the change has been welcome.

Telling Learning Stories Through Documentation

Documentation is an act of communication; it makes public a conversation about what we value. 

                                    -Harvard Project Zero, http://www.pz.harvard.edu

At certain times of the school year, things can feel so busy it’s tough to take a moment and catch your breath. This is of course as true at The Willows as anywhere else, especially given the number of diverse projects and endeavors always underway. A challenge busy individuals have within any organization is to make time to stop and understand the processes going on around them. A further step, beyond pausing to take stock, involves articulating what you have accomplished to others.

Last week, I was part of a group of Willows teachers and administrators that went to visit the High Tech High network of charter schools in San Diego. During the last school year, our community watched the film Most Likely to Succeed, which featured one of their high schools prominently to illustrate the power of project-based approaches on learning and curriculum building.

IMG_4616High Tech High is well known for impressive and high-quality project artifacts visible throughout their halls, and there were plenty of examples that wowed us as we toured each school. However, what caught my eye most of all was not the amazing creations on display– it was the documentation accompanying each project that helped explain the process behind the project.

Besides simply articulating details about process, the very best pieces of documentation help tell relevant learning stories about curricular projects. They might walk an audience through the steps of the process, highlight epiphanies or failures that led to necessary revisions, or unpack the knowledge that was developed by participants. Ultimately, the idea is to make the thinking and learning involved in the project visible to all in an intentional manner.

A long tradition of researchers and educators from Harvard’s Project Zero – who’ve published seminal works like Making Thinking Visible and Visible Learners – and the vast network of schools associated with the Reggio Emilia experience have long advanced the power of documentation as a tool for improving teaching and learning. According to these proponents, powerful pieces of documentation do more than just capture what happened. Instead, the intent is ultimately to push learning forward, and, as the quote above states, to make “public a conversation about what we value.”

While feeling inspired after leaving High Tech High, our visit also caused me to reflect on similar work with documentation that we’ve undertaken at The Willows. Some form of documentation regularly accompanies all of the artwork that hangs in our halls and classrooms, and we have worked this year to make some of these displays more interactive by adding QR codes for visitors to access additional relevant (and often process-oriented) content. Additionally, knowing that a great picture often tells its own story, we have provided several professional development sessions for teachers this school year on photography techniques and how to incorporate high-quality photographs into their documentation.

What’s next for The Willows and documentation? Knowing that teachers are always juggling many different priorities, we are currently exploring how we might better utilize different templates for easy input of content and photos (see this recent example from 3rd grade). tipi documentation-page-001Also, we have recently begun engaging fourth through eighth grade students in this process in Maker and Science classes, having them document their progress on projects by creating websites and digital portfolios using Google Sites. The more we can engage the whole community in the process of communicating the learning that is taking place, the better!

 

 

 

Video Essays: A Win-Win

“I’m done with my work. Can I go on my computer?”

I don’t know of any teacher who hasn’t heard a student ask some version of that question. We hear it all the time, and the query usually makes us suspicious at best.

“That depends. What are you planning on doing on it?” And therein lies the rub. The technology our students have access to can be a teacher’s best friend and worst enemy, often on the same day. To those of us who went to school in the “olden days” (pencils, paper, maybe a typewriter), incorporating technology can be a bit of a leap of faith.

When I designed a project for my class earlier this year in which they were to create a “Video Essay” about a figure or event from the Civil Rights Movement, I was only trying to give them an alternative to a “typical research paper.” Instead, why not try to do something that speaks to the times and to my students’ skills and interests? I knew what I wanted them to get out of the project; I hoped that if I gave these kids the opportunity to try something different, they would surprise me with the results.

int_17_3-8_day-one002

When the finished products began pouring in, I was floored at how good, how professional, they were. But you know what? I probably shouldn’t have been. These kids are constantly and consistently barraged with media, and as a result, have become experts by osmosis. I can’t tell you how many times I’m in front of the class teaching when some technical glitch attacks my computer. Before I know it, there are 3-6 helpful 8th graders providing me with quick fixes for not only the current glitch, but ways in which I can download a new font, change the language on my keyboard, and download a picture of a llama wearing a fez as my new screensaver.

So their ease with technical concepts such as pacing, editing, sound, music, montage, and rhythm were way beyond my expectations. But as this was still a research project, albeit one that seemed to play to their strengths, I was still concerned about some of the basics. Would they still be able to clearly convey a thesis? If so, will they be able to defend it with support? And what will that support look like?

As I watched these Video Essays, these concerns began to melt away. I watched one film about Plessy vs. Ferguson that used an iPad’s time-lapse feature, vocal nint_17_ms_intersession_bo072arration, and the student’s artistic talents to create a lesson so clear and concise, I am fairly sure I’ll be using her lesson in addition to mine in the future. Another student used editing techniques and music to create a feeling of momentum and excitement as she built toward her thesis in a video essay about our recent Intersession. Again, amazed by how sophisticated the work turned out to be.

So, is the takeaway here that students clearly no longer need to write essays, opting instead to let them play around on their computers? Absolutely not. Video Essays should be a complement rather than a replacement; an opportunity for students to learn how to develop a thesis and with valid support in a new, different way. To move scholarship beyond just creating knowledge and take on an aesthetic, poetic function.

I couldn’t be happier with how these projects have turned out. The students were excited about working in a new medium, while at the same time their strengths as thoughtful researchers were strengthened at the same time. I believe that is called a Win-Win.

*Some of the research and wording came from a website http://framescinemajournal.com/article/video-essays-in-the-cinema-history-classroom/

Intersession: The Power of Choice

Facing the waning weeks of winter and the promise of spring’s impending arrival, it’s that time of year at The Willows where we reflect on what we’ve accomplished so far this school year and look ahead to what still lies ahead. Around this same time, the school participates in the annual tradition of Intersession, when normal school routines and schedules are suspended for one week for specialized projects and classes for DK-8 students.

A year ago, I wrote a post about the success of Intersession coming down to two main elements: time and engagement. The power of both was still evident during this year’s Intersession, as I roamed the halls seeing students deeply immersed for hours in creating a wide variety of things: Escape Rooms, lamps, instructional videos, ramps and pathways for marble runs, and much more.

img_0071

 

Reflecting further on this year’s Intersession, I think one element that also contributed greatly to the success of this year’s projects was choice.

We always gave students a fair amount of choice regarding which Intersession class they wanted to participate in, but this year was unique. We worked especially hard to make sure every student had his or her first choice out of the many offerings that were made available.

Hot off the heels of November’s election, DK-8 students were given “ballots” detailing the class offerings; in grades 3-5, we even held a “primary” to narrow down an initial list of more than ten class options. Unsurprisingly, kids clamored their teachers for information shortly afterwards – “Did I get my first choice?” they asked, not knowing that we had planned for that all along!

Choice matters 

64be435c-97ef-4648-8402-8b7a63f5b1f6
instagram.com/willowscomschool

 

Why was it important for us to ensure first choice? According to research, providing choice to students is strongly correlated with motivation. Certain school environments motivate students by rewards or punishments with teacher-centered activities predominating. Intersession at The Willows doesn’t remove the guidance of the teacher but encourages students to take more ownership over their learning in a setting where time is truly given for deep learning and engagement.

Choice inspires motivation, and choice pervades the interdisciplinary learning environment that we strive to create each year at Intersession. In one popular class this year, middle school students designed original lamps, utilizing skills and resources from our STEAM2 disciplines (science, technology, art, engineering, and math and maker) and design thinking. Students were challenged to make choices about artistic and operational design features for their lamps, and to consider the impact of their choices on the needs of the potential, ideal users of their lamp. The finished products displayed for parents a week later at our Family Education Night celebrating the work of Intersession, highlighted the powerful returns we reap from providing rich, choice-driven learning environments for students.

aef4e72b-cf3a-482f-8a89-a1d86c85cffc
instagram.com/willowscommschool

Further reading

A colleague of mine recently recommended a book on this topic, Choice Time: How to Deepen Inquiry Through Inquiry and Play by Renee Dinnerstein. My copy is on order, and though its focus appears to be on DK-2 classrooms, I am excited to build on the successes of Intersession, and to seek out applications for choice to enliven all classrooms.

 

 

 

 

“Don’t Dissect the Frog, Build It”

All of sudden, learning by doing has become the standard rather than the exception. Since computer simulation of just about anything is now possible, one need not learn about a frog by dissecting it. Instead, children can be asked to design frogs, to build an animal with froglike behavior, to modify that behavior, to simulate the muscles, to play with the frog.

In advance of a visit to The Willows next week from Nicholas Negroponte, one of the world’s most innovative, revolutionary thinkers (and grandfather to one of our Kindergarteners), I was inspired to revisit an incredibly prescient short piece he wrote for Wired magazine 22 years ago, from which the above quote was taken. The whole piece, “Learning By Doing: Don’t Dissect the Frog, Build It,” is short and worth taking the time to read in full.

NNegoponte-highres-1100x400

Negroponte is well known as one of the co-founders of the MIT Media Lab and for giving the very first TED talk, where he predicted much of the modern technology we use today (see links below). Reading this Wired article again, I found it fascinating to reflect on which of his predictions for education and society at large actually came true.

One quote that really caught my eye in the  article:

In the 1960s, most pioneers in computers and education advocated a crummy drill-and-practice approach, using computers on a one-on-one basis, in a self-paced fashion, to teach those same God-awful facts more effectively. Now with multimedia, we are faced with a number of closet drill-and-practice believers, who think they can colonize the pizazz of a Sega game to squirt a bit more information into the thick heads of children.

What was true in the 1960s and the 1990s is still true today. Now more than ever, what sells in Ed-tech are just shinier devices and platforms for delivering facts and practicing rote skills. Arguably, there are times and places for facts and skills, but Negroponte reminds us here that educators need to imagine all the ways to use computers to help people learn something besides Googling facts.

Learning By Doing

Negroponte’s insistence that schools promote more learning by doing resonates most today. Essentially, this is the ethos of the maker movement, and one that informs many of the projects I choose for the maker classes that I teach at The Willows.

For example, our third graders are learning about the Native American tribes of California, specifically the villages of the Chumash tribe. Naturally, the classroom teachers and I thought it would be a good idea for the students to make their own interactive version of a Chumash village, complete with littleBits circuits and other tech-related components.

However, before even beginning to create the Chumash village, I asked students to first just build a village. To kill two birds with one stone, I actually asked them to draw and program a village using the software Microworlds EX, so they could practice coding skills while sharing what they know about villages.

The direction I gave was simple: think about what you would find in a village and try to represent that on your screen. As they worked, spontaneous discussions arose about the difference between villages versus cities; students would identify certain components (shelter, food sources and storage, water), inspiring others to add on to their villages in an organic manner. By observing and taking notes as I circulated, I was certainly learning from their doing, and as they designed I noticed they were learning a few things too.

First, given a finite space on which to build, they had to carefully consider where to place different elements of their village, and how much space each could occupy. For example, most students showed that a village has more than one building some for inhabitants to live in and others for various communal purposes; each had to be scaled and placed properly, and much revision was needed as they tinkered with their designs. Second, many students learned that in their first iterations they had omitted certain vital features; for example, only certain students included some means of transportation to move people in and out of their hypothetical village.

Of course, I could have simply read a book or showed a video about villages to them beforehand if I wanted to ensure that they all had close to identical villages with all of the same elements. But my goal was for these third graders to construct their own understanding about how villages work, rather than mimic what I told them should go into a village. Or, echoing Negroponte’s words, I asked them to build their own village instead of dissecting someone else’s.

By asking them to learn by doing, I was actively engaging them, and also allowing them to teach me what they knew or didn’t know, to inform the rest of our project.

For more on Nicholas Negroponte, here are a few links, old and new:

 

 

 

 

Learning Commons=Maximize Space & Optimize Learning

Our Library/Media Center is the heart and hub of our campus, the soul of our school, and a center for collaborative and cross-disciplinary learning. At The Willows, “learning commons” are not limited to our library space but encompass many areas on campus and together create a vibrant 21st century environment that encourages creativity and meaningful social exchange. The importance of common space in primary, secondary, and higher education is gaining attention and changing the landscape of schools.14_Campus__Construction_Photographer040

Last week, I presented with Dwight Long, Principal, and Kami Kincaid, Senior Project Manager, Pfau-Long Architecture and Elizabeth DuPuis, Associate University Librarian for Educational Initiatives & User Services Director of Doe, Moffitt, and the Subject Specialty Libraries, UC Berkeley at the 2016 California Association of Independent School (CAIS) Trustee/Head of School Conference in San Francisco on “The Evolution of the Traditional Library into Learning Commons.”

Elizabeth INT_16_intersession_GM046and I were aligned philosophically on the need for learning commons for elementary, middle, and college students with comfortable, flexible spaces to learn and collaborate as a group and study individually. Like Berkeley, our own Director of Library Services, Cathy Leverkus, has been very forward thinking, envisioning our library as a communal space, adaptable and ready to offer differentiated learning and new configurations that best meet our students’ needs in our constantly changing world.

Collaboration Builds a School Culture and Community

Our Learning Commons facilitates many different types of collaboration:STF_16_Liz-Brian001

  • Student to Student
  • Student to teacher
  • Teacher to teacher

It also allows a constant dialogue between lower and middle school teachers and teachers from different disciplines and specialties. Our campus environment is dynamic and generates an exceptionally joyful community of learners.

MS_16_CAIS_SS011We share, question, and grow together. Our learning commons enhances this collaboration, which is a hallmark of The Willows educational approach, and is instrumental in shaping the soul and culture of our school.

Intellectually and Architecturally Open

“The ideal school is designed to reflect an educational process that is nonlinear and encourages personal expression,” writes Eric Lloyd Wright, the Architect.

Our open and spacious environment inspires listening and learning on all sides. The campus is alive with endless possibilities in a climate of accessibility, creativity and companionship. 14_Campus__Construction_Photographer062The space is almost museum-like with high walls and skylights. The light and air are conducive to learning.

Hallways and common areas also serve as extensions of learning as art galleries and areas to display student work. Learning and sharing continues in this way as students are immersed in The Willows creative environment that values student work and provides students with daily proof of their own ability to impact the world with their own ideas and perspective. Teachers and students both see the projects and the work going on around them–there is great sharing and symbiosis.

Maximize Space – Optimize Learning

The learning commons configuration extends the classroom allowing for small group work and large project creation. The learning commons offers additional area to create a project too large for a classroom; teachers don’t limit their ideas knowing they may expand a concept into a commons area. KM_15_Mayflower-Experience010An example is the Kindergarten Maker replica of the Mayflower complete with wind machine, which would be impossible in a classroom, but is an exciting learning experience in the Willows 1 common space. All our spaces are intentionally flexible offering a myriad of learning experiences and cross-disciplinary and multi-age opportunities. In our learning commons, our middle school students often buddy with our youngest students assisting in hands-on projects that are the very heart of our DK-8 model, building empathy and offering leadership opportunities.

Educational leader John Dewey wrote, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” The Willows mission statement says that “each child brings our community an extraordinary gift: a curious mind, ready to explore and eager to learn.” Our mission is to grow that gift and to give them every opportunity to engage with each other and the ever-changing modern world around them.ALL_15_ViewBook129

What better way to do this than on an open, expansive learning commons and campus?

 

 

 

Time + Engagement = Intersession

Each year after Winter break, The Willows school community participates in an annual tradition known as Intersession.

Essentially, Intersession is best described by what it is not­ – a time where “normal” school time, usually chopped up into discrete blocks devoted to different disciplines, is disrupted in favor of long, less-structured sessions where both teachers and students work on complex and engaging projects. Depending on the age range, these sessions last 3-4 hours per day; with our middle school, Intersession lasted all day for an entire week.

(Click here to learn more about the nuts and bolts plus specific projects undertaken during Intersession)

IMG_9663

Why take this departure from normalcy? Essentially, I see Intersession is an answer to the following questions:

What if teachers were allowed to create projects they were extremely passionate about?

 What if these projects were heavily student-driven with students choosing which project best suited their interests?  

 What if teachers and students had long periods of time to engage deeply with the ideas and skills associated with these projects?

There are myriad aspects of Intersession worth celebrating and discussing at length, but I’d like to focus on two that I feel are the most powerful: time and engagement.

The gift of time

Releasing everyone from the constraints of their normal schedules is one of the greatest gifts a school can give itself.

DSC_0126With unprecedented amounts of time, our students were able to build real expertise, often with new skills or concepts. Immersed in their projects, they were more willing to take risks, to persevere through difficulties, to collaborate and problem-solve with peers, and to see the true value in what we call “hard fun.”

Personally, I was involved in a project called Robot Theater, inspired by Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room. For six days, groups of students created interactive “rooms” featuring a variety of small robots with lights, motors, and sensors powered by Hummingbird controllers. Students wrestled with unfamiliar tech tools (and the occasional frustrations that go along with connecting and programming them!), built backdrops for their robot “characters,” and presented to groups of amazed parents afterwards. This work takes time – especially if you want to do things right. IMG_0951

Time + Engagement

While any school can simply abandon its regular schedule for some period of time, doing so may not always result in the kind of engagement Intersession delivers. There’s a palpable sense of excitement pervading every space of each building. There’s also plenty of intensity and creative struggle, as children work to realize the shared vision for each project. One easy indicator of engagement that I saw with my robot designers: instead of going outside for snack and recess, they would regularly stay inside to test a new light or motor or finish just one more block of code!

IMG_8594Ultimately, in my mind, time and engagement go hand in hand. Without the time to really dive deeply into something, engagement will always remain superficial while everyone moves on to the next regularly scheduled block of learning. When children are shown that educators truly value their strengths and interests and are willing to give them time to immerse themselves in meaningful projects, they really rise to the occasion.

** Check back for a video we’re preparing highlighting many of the amazing Intersession projects – coming soon!

 

Reinventing Math

Most students when asked what they think their role is in math classrooms say: it is to answer correctly. They don’t think they are in math classrooms to appreciate the beauty of mathematics, to approach the rich set of connections that make up the subject, or even to learn about the applicability of the subject. They think they are in the math classroom to perform. – Jo Boaler, What’s Math Got to Do With It?

At our Learning Lunches this month, teachers and administrators at the Willows began our time together pondering two questions:

Why do so many students loathe math?

Why do many teachers feel uncomfortable teaching math?

The initial discussion that followed focused on a few recurrent themes:

  • Math is different from other more open-ended subjects – there is just one correct answer, and you’re either right or you’re wrong
  • When students struggle with math problems, teachers feel they only have a limited amount of strategies to help students get to the correct answer
  • Teachers feel less comfortable with teaching math in different ways than they learned it as students

One teacher even spoke about math as being its own language, separate from the usual language we use to engage with language arts, history or even science.

All of this set the stage for us to watch a provocative TED talk from renowned physicist, mathematician and technologist Conrad Wolfram, who will be one the keynote speakers at the upcoming Reinventing Mathematics Education Symposium being held here at the Willows on January 4th.wolfram ted

In a recent Financial Times article, “Stop teaching kids to add up – maths is more important,” he states:

At its core, maths is a problem-solving process. You specify a real-world problem, develop an abstract representation of it, calculate an answer for the abstraction and then translate back into the real-world language you started with. Before computers, almost all human energy was focused on the third stage: calculating. Now it is usually focused on the other steps instead.

Throughout the video we watched, Wolfram essentially sidesteps much of the traditional debate about how to teach mathematics, in favor of a discussion about why we teach math – and, more crucially, what math is actually taught in schools.

Wolfram’s idea for reinventing math education: use computers. Not just for calculation, but also to build conceptual understanding beyond mere calculation. He maintains that the primary way that people understand processes and procedures that drive most of our modern world is through programming; a great way to check if someone understands math, he claims, is have them write a program to do it!

Implications

Looking at our classrooms at the Willows, we can see some applications of Wolfram’s ideas, mainly in the programming that students have been doing at our school for many years now. Even our youngest students begin wrestling early on with the basics of programming as they work with Bee Bots, working later with more formal programming in Turtle Art, Scratch and Microworlds.

beebots

Beyond providing opportunities for programming (year round, not just for the Hour of Code), Willows teachers have also begun to take steps this year to reinvent math in other ways. Inspired by our school-wide theme of action, teachers in the P.E. department have started to incorporate the concepts of estimation and averages into the weekly activities happening in the gym. Utilizing pedometers for precise data collection, K-5 students were asked to estimate and then discover how many steps it took to complete a lap around the gym. Real-world results enabled rich discussions, as students saw that different student factors (pace, stride, height) influenced the findings. Further conceptual understanding of variance was explored as they worked to estimate and find the average number of steps per grade level.pe data

Further data collection and analysis has taken place in Middle School classrooms, centered around the question: What does a typical middle school student do for all four of his/her P.E. physical fitness tests?  Students estimated mean, median, mode and range for the tests, used Excel to work with the data collected by the P.E. teachers, and created graphs to make conclusions about the data. Best of all, student engagement in real-world math in action was clearly evident throughout both of these projects.

Next Steps

With our Math Symposium right around the corner, mathematics is on everyone’s mind at the Willows. Look for future posts on the subject after the Symposium in January!

Reinventing_Math_Flyer

The Company We Keep

Personalized learning is all the rage these days. Scan the latest headlines of major publications covering education, and you’ll inevitably come across lots of talk about classrooms where instruction is “individualized,” “student-centered,” and “customized.” So-called reformers from the ed-tech community especially favor this language, touting the latest software they’ve created to expertly deliver a curriculum to a passive learner in front of a computer or tablet.

In theory, no one should be against personalization. But if you believe, as many educators have for quite some time now, that learning almost always occurs in a social context, then some of this talk of creating an individualized curriculum for each child might give you pause. If one of our central aims in schools is to build vibrant communities devoted to learning, then we need to think about how individuals usually learn within communities.

In his landmark book, The Book of Learning and Forgetting, Frank Smith maintains that for millennia humans have learned from “the company we keep.” We are driven instinctively to seek out what he terms clubs – communities of influentialbook learning forgetting people – and as we identify with the members of the club, we begin to establish our own sense of identity:

…as we identify with other members of all the clubs to which we belong, so we learn to be like those other members. We become like the company we keep, exhibiting this identity in the way we talk, dress, and ornament ourselves, and in many other ways. The identification creates the possibility of learning. All learning pivots on who we think we are, and who we see ourselves as capable of becoming.

While there are undoubtedly times when individuals learn something on their own – for example, reading a book on a topic, perhaps to understand some new concept or to complete a task or a project – Smith insists that even in this case, one is joining the “literacy club,” joining the company of authors, participating in an exchange of ideas towards the ultimate fulfillment of one’s intended goal.

Learning within your club

So, along this line of thinking, we are constantly learning about our world, and there are a variety of clubs that we identify with that deeply influence this learning. Some clubs we are born into (i.e. the American club, the rural or urban neighborhood club,) and some that we are more naturally compelled to join (what Smith terms the “spoken language club” that all infants and toddlers join at some point.) The clubs that we choose to identify with not only influence learning, but actually create conditions for the kind of deep learning that we carry with us throughout our lives.

Looking at the clubs that our students at The Willows gravitate towards, I notice that there are, of course, certain common examples: some children identify with clubs centered around sports or games, others identify with art, music, or dance. By middle school, when the pressure to join one specific club or another seemingly intensifies, children begin signing up for clubs like Rock Band or the Robotics team.

One new, informal club that has emerged this year is our Maker Club. Since establishing our makerspaces within the school two years ago (spearheaded by our Director of Technology Amy Dugré) and beginning weekly maker classes during the school day last year, we have wrestled with how to give interested students more devoted time to work on self-directed projects. This year, we found four blocks of IMG_7519time, two lunch periods and two afterschool sessions, where students are invited to work alongside fellow makers and maker teachers, often learning new skills and developing deeper expertise with familiar tools and programs.

However, in addition to being interested in becoming a better programmer or learning how to print with (and often repair!) 3D printers, we have also noticed other worthwhile interactions amongst our Maker Club members. Kids are genuinely excited to have this time and space available, and are quite disappointed when we have to cancel Maker Club. One student’s excitement about their particular project has the real power to inspire others in the same room to try something new, leading to a scene we recently came upon, where four fifth grade boys were crowded around a Youtube video on how to use a sewing machine after seeing the pillow a sixth grade boy had recently finished assembling. IMG_7514

These observations align with some of the latest research on maker-centered learning, specifically research from a recent initiative associated with Harvard’s Project Zero. In a white paper reporting initial findings (that are being prepared for a forthcoming anthology called Makeology), the researchers found that “the most salient beliefs of maker-centered learning for young people have to do with developing a sense of self and a sense of community that empower them to engage with and shape the designed dimension of their world.” Young empowered makers, they argue, see themselves as people capable of finding and solving worthwhile problems, as individuals within a supportive community “who can muster the wherewithal to change things through making.”

Implications

 Thinking broadly about identity and association, several questions persist:

  • Are we aware of what draws us to our clubs, to the company we keep?
  • Do we belong to different kinds of clubs, representing diverse or divergent points of view?
  • Are we aware of clubs (or better yet cultures) that are different than our own?
  • Is it possible to learn much about a club you are not a member of?

            Further, given that all of us are compelled to join communities and learn alongside their members, what does this mean for us as educators? Exactly, how do these issues play out daily in classrooms?

For example, think of the students who have already decided by second or third grade that they are either deficient in reading or math (or both, or school in general); these students seek out classmates who feel the same and reinforce this desire to be a part of the “non-reader” or “math hater” club. What steps can teachers and school leaders take to deal with all-too-common phenomena like this?

Hello World!

Wisdom of The Willows provides a forum for members of our unique community to share their knowledge and reflect on a variety of topics. Certain posts will highlight innovative teaching and learning within our community; others will address broader issues on the minds of educators and parents worldwide connecting the experiences of our Willows community to broader, global conversations in education and parenting.

The Willows is a strong, collaborative community of lifelong learners. Wisdom of The Willows opens a window on the learning undertaken on our campus by not just students, but also by teachers, administrators, and parents alike. For example, here on this blog we will share details of the issues discussed by our teachers and administrators during our monthly Learning Lunches and at our Willows Academy (all-day professional development held once each trimester.) In addition, these articles will be accompanied by references and connections to research and theoretical bases supporting our school’s program.

In-depth profiles of parent and family educational events, as well as those centered on technological, creative or personal development topics, will also be featured.

The overall intent is to make the learning that takes place regularly in our community visible to all.

We look forward to posting more soon, and we invite you to expand your vision, explore the blog, get inspired, and join the conversation!