I have spent over 30 years as an educator and administrator in traditional private schools, serving diverse communities of students and families. With dedicated faculty and extensive resources, these and many other schools do their best to help each and every student find and pursue their unique vision for success.
Amid legislation, standardized tests, faculty needs, board initiatives, capital campaigns, and facilities management, it’s easy to lose sight of how best to support individual student learning. And because so much of education – public and private – has become about the child adapting to school, schools often struggle to adapt to meet individual student needs.
As a result, some students are unsuccessful, either dropping out of school, struggling with mental health issues, or just not being challenged enough to meet their full potential. This happens not because these students aren’t capable, but because it’s becoming harder and harder to give them the support they need to succeed.
Fortunately, there’s been a collective awakening in recent years that there may be a better way. Savvy educators are taking aim at the status quo by restructuring the school day, redesigning the physical spaces where students learn, changing the way students and teachers interact, and using practices that are learner-focused and learner-driven.
Though I had always thought about and worked toward changing the status quo in education, two years ago, I became Head of School at a new micro school that would allow me to build this approach from the ground-up.
The goal is still the same – to nourish and cultivate a generation of citizens and leaders – but disrupters are turning traditional education on its head, focusing on better supporting students and abandoning a highly-structured model that asks students to fit a pre-existing mold.
What To Look For
How can we know the difference between these schools and those that remain rooted in less flexible models? Here’s what to look for:
Learning by Doing. It’s true that some people learn through listening and others through reading, but everybody can learn by doing. Schools that use best practices in education ask their students to “do” rather than just receive content. In addition to research backing up this concept, it’s also very intuitive. You wouldn’t expect someone to become a plumber, a surgeon, or a musician by just reading or hearing about how to perform the necessary skills. This is why experiential models are gaining traction.
Traditional schools sometimes struggle with this due to larger class sizes and shorter periods so when you are considering a new school, ask how they make learning hands-on. Do the students spend time out of the classroom and off campus? Do they use project-based learning that encourages student creativity and ownership?
Student-Teacher Relationships. Great relationships between teachers and their students support deeper learning. When students come from a place of trust, they are more likely to ask questions which facilitate meaningful learning and open up valuable mentoring opportunities. Relationships between peers are also important as we know that learning in isolation is not as effective.
To find a school with a community like this, look for smaller class sizes where all students are expected to engage and interact with one another. Find out if learning is driven by merely receiving knowledge or by cultivating curiosity.
The Learning Zone. We all have a comfort zone, a learning zone, and a panic zone. In the panic zone, kids feel like they’re drowning and this emotional mindset hinders learning. On the contrary, the comfort zone doesn’t push them enough. Students learn best when we help them stay in the learning zone.
Successful schools keep kids in the learning zone by making sure their physical needs like nutrition and safety are met, but also by giving their teachers time to get to know and understand each student. By doing this, they learn what will lift students up, push them down, or pull them forward. Ask prospective schools how they manage this delicate balance.
Deeper Learning. Far too many of today’s schools structure their days around 45 minute periods dictated by an assembly-line bell. This limited schedule crams six or more classes into a day and doesn’t allow students the time and space required for deeper learning on a daily basis.
Schools that encourage deeper learning will arrange classes in block schedules and their teachers will use approaches like the Socratic method or project-based learning to help students get more out of their lessons. Some schools also are committed to getting out of the classroom to bring lessons to life, something that can more easily be done with longer class periods and more time for reflection.
As families across the metro area consider schools for this year and think about the kind of education they envision for their children, I hope they will keep these types of questions in mind. We know that one size does not fit all in education and we’re fortunate that more and more options are becoming available.
Lee Palmer is the Head of School at Blyth-Templeton Academy, an experiential micro school located on Capitol Hill. She has worked in education for over 30 years at schools such as Sidwell Friends, Trinity NYC, and Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.