Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Fundamentals Of Learning All Students Deserve

I recently spent time visiting my friends at Anastasis Academy. This is a small, private school started by my friend Kelly Tenkely Several years ago she wanted to put into practice many of the ideal conditions that all learners need and deserve. During my day there talking to students and the staff there were several practices and beliefs around learning that any school, no matter the internal or external pressures could model and fundamentally change the learning environment for all kids.

From my time there I found there are 4 Beliefs Of Learning every school needs to have:

  • All Learning Is Interconnected
  • Personalization Is At The Core Of Learning
  • Inquiry Drives Learning
  • Learning Happens As Part Of A Larger Community

All Learning Is Interconnected-One aspect of learning that many educators believe in but have a hard time actually executing is the belief that what I teach in my classroom is connected to all the other learning that students are doing in their other classes.

Even I am guilty of this.

When I was a science teacher I found it easy to integrate math into my subject, history too. But I did a terrible job of bringing in language arts concepts. I didn’t feel comfortable doing so. And my colleagues felt the same about my subject. It's very easy to see the subject we teach isolation as the most important.

The reality is all learning is interconnected. This is something that is embraced by the students and staff of Anastasis every day. They don’t think in individual concepts. There isn’t a math class or a history class. The students learn in topics, most of which are chosen by them (more on that later).

When we learn ourselves that learning isn’t siloed. So why when students go to school are those subjects taught and learned in isolation? If we want to improve learning we have to come to the realization that all learning is interconnected.

This type of interconnected learning isn’t unique to Anastasis. And it could be replicated at any school with any subjects with any groups of students. Once students see the connections that what they’re learning makes they begin to see what which they learn in the greater context of all that they know.

Personalization Is At The Core Of Learning-With the advent and adoption of technology in the classroom it seems we couldn’t escape the word personalization. Online access to teaching resources, coupled with technology in the hands of students was supposed to make learning personal. While this has happened to some extent we are far from true personalization in the classroom.

The students at Anastasis are not.

When a student enrolls in the school they are asked a series of questions that help to understand exactly what type of learner they are. This not only helps the teachers understand, and the staff to group similar types of learners together but it aims to help the student understand how they learn best. Once those individual learning style traits are discovered by the student they can begin to understand the circumstances in which they learn best. And it's the use of these profiles that help the educators there best craft their environment for each kid. Once we know what specifically is driving and motivating a student it becomes easier and easier to help that student grow as a learner.

Again, this is something that could be done in any school anywhere. It could be a simple one-on-one conversation or the same questionnaire used at Anastasis. Either way, actually taking the first several days of school to learn about our students and help them understand what kinds of learners they are can go a long way.

Inquiry Drives Learning-As part of this commitment to personalization the students at Anastasis work around larger issues of knowledge rather than individual concepts. For example in one room I talked to a young lady who was building a webpage as part of a project related to gender inequality.

She is 9 years old.

Throughout the year the students choose issues they want to examine in greater detail. Many of them choose concepts that are hard even for adults to research and understand. The death penalty, economic instability in their community, politics, nuclear war, the lists go on and on. And this is not just happening in the older classrooms. Even the youngest students also have a say in what they learn.

And it's not just the issues that they want to learn but it's the methods in which they get to learn them that is important. In one room students were investigating some design principles related to physics and they choose to build a rollercoaster. We walked in a room where 4 boys were building. What was unique was there wasn't a teacher in sight. They were using saws, drills, all sorts of tools by themselves building a roller coaster. They weren’t off task. They were most solidly on task. They were using the tools, materials, and methods that they felt would get them closer to their goal.

Again, not something that couldn’t happen in any school anywhere. Admittingly it would be a difficult transition to full student autonomy for most but even just allowing students to choose their own paths of discovery could go a long way to reach inquiry driving learning.

Learning Happens As A Part Of A Larger Community-During my visit to Anastasis I heard about countless adventures and service visits and trips all the students take on an almost weekly basis. While I was there the youngest students (4-5 years old) went to visit their “Grand Friends” at a retirement home nearby. But I also heard of excursions to a rescue mission to feed the homeless, a visit to a community garden to see how it could be replicated in their own community and more. The students spend as much time in their classrooms working on individual learning objectives as they do in their community working to understand their place in it.

And that's important.

Kids need opportunities to serve and learn what it's like to be in a community outside of their classroom and school. Why couldn’t time be split between the school house and students completing service projects? Why couldn’t students adopt a cause or a charity they care about and work to raise awareness, volunteer or collect money to donate? Is it possible for most schools to send their students out on field trips once a week? Probably not. But the idea of learning in the greater context of the community is something that could be adopted by all.

I did talk to Kelly about push back. Some will read this or learn more about Anastasis and say “Yeah, but...” Sure they are private. Sure their students are somewhat affluent. Sure they have small class sizes. But Kelly and her school are committed to showing this can work with a little effort. That's why she spends the same amount per student as their public school counterparts. It's not about the money. It's about the culture. It's about what they value as educators. It’s about what learning means to them.

So why don't we work to redefine learning? By focusing on learning being interconnected, personalized, inquiry-based and vested in our communities we can help to foster a deeper understanding and help to create learners that will always love to learn.

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