Despite the testing season all of America’s public schools face this spring, some schools give hope that it can be different. Educators in those schools make a choice to define children’s learning by something more than scores on selected response tests. They’re beacons on a distant shore, but they do exist.
It’s good news that it is not just private schools or publics with low numbers of economically disadvantaged learners who’re making the choice to offer vibrant, challenging learning opportunities. Some schools with higher percentages of students with risk factors are also saying “there’s got to be more to learning than the test-prep curricula.”
When a school-wide shift towards “something more” occurs, it’s usually the result of principal leaders who step up and give permission to teachers to teach other than and beyond the test-prep curricula. Teachers, in turn, support such principals as champions of their work. This happens now in some schools across America. At the core, it’s about shared culture, beliefs, values, and understanding among staff. Perhaps, the oft hidden work within these schools represents this generation’s “educating as a subversive activity,” a revised version of Postman and Weingartner.
Educators who foster novelty and variety (Schlechty) in learning experiences believe that choice promotes learners’ curiosity, interest, and passion, prerequisites for commitment to lifelong learning. But, as with teachers everywhere, these teachers understand that preparing students for short-term reductionist tests often feels like the most important item on the teaching to-do list, all year long.
They also believe the work of educators isn’t defined by the short-term, but rather the long-term impact of children growing up to be adults who value learning for life. When young people in their classrooms engage in learning filled with opportunities to design, invent, think, create, build, research, write, and connect, their drive to learn becomes evident to parents and teachers alike.
“When my daughter began working on this engineering project, she would wake up every morning saying she couldn’t wait to get to school.” (A parent, engineering fair)
Such teachers know that children who develop the dispositions and competencies necessary to pursue learning quests without a teacher’s step-by-step directions will become inventors, designers, creators, entrepreneurs, and researchers of the future. They know that young people who sustain self-directed learning will likely become curious, interested adult learners who continue to use problem-solving skills beyond the classroom doors, regardless of whether they choose careers as varied as carpenter, architect, or sculptor.
“ If there’s one gift I would like to guarantee the 6th grade teachers, it’s that my fifth graders will come to them with a love of learning. Some will struggle with reading, but if they love learning, they’ll have the resiliency to keep working even when the work’s hard. “ (A colleague, circa, 1982)
There’s an elementary school in the district where I work that just finished a multi-day exposition of engineering projects designed and built by every child from pre-schoolers to fifth graders. They fabricated digitally in collaboration with UVa’s Curry School edtech grad students. They worked with educators from the UVA engineering department to explore physics concepts through inquiry centers. They constructed hands-free inventions to help people move around in dark spaces. They built boats to test weight-bearing float capabilities and vehicles to hold egg passengers safely while flying down ramps towards certain doom on the hard floor. What makes their work different is their conscious shift four years ago from the tradition of holding an elementary version of the tri-fold science fair project.
The teachers and principal took a look at what they wanted children to accomplish while learning how scientists work. They discussed how an inquiry-driven, student-determined engineering project would look different from elementary learners replicating the traditional science fair project. They talked about how to use time at school for children to construct their projects as kid-work, not adult work. They planned the ties of an engineering focus to the full local curricula and the state standards. They saw this learning as being about research, reading, writing, math, science, history, art, communication and technology – some call it STEAM, others STEM+.
When I toured the engineering fair, I realized that this school, like all schools, is a work in progress. They define what it means as a staff to draft, revise, and edit their work as team in the name of learning their own and their children’s. The engineering fair included a lot more contemporary technology than was present a year ago – iMovies, digital fabrication lab work, and IWB projections used in different spaces to stream events such as the egg drop in progress. They also displayed constructions made completely from found objects – toilet paper tubes, egg cartons, etc. Some kids used old tech, batteries, wires, and bulbs, to wire up projects.
What’s most special about this exposition of student project work is the school takes this on as a year-long focus with the fair occurring two weeks before high-stakes testing begins – and despite the challenges of an ever-growing population of English language learners. The teachers do what they believe is necessary to prepare all children for such tests. However, they do not sacrifice their children’s important learning for life on the altar of high-stakes test performance.
I doubt few of the graduating class of 2023 who’re in kindergarten today in this school will remember their high-stakes math test scores, but I bet they’ll remember the increasingly complex engineering projects they created as they moved from K to fifth grade. Their teachers want them to experience learning that matters – which includes arts, sciences, humanities and physical fitness activities valued along with reading, writing, and doing mathematics well.
“I like doing projects like this. I wish we could do this all the time.” (A 4th grader, engineering fair)
When I left the engineering fair, my last image was of a group of teachers in the late evening standing in their project area, parents and children dwindling away from the school’s learning exposition spaces – the foyer, halls, library, cafeteria, courtyard and gym. They stood there talking about the day, their work with children, the projects completed. They were doing what natural professional learning communities do. They debrief. They talk about their children’s learning… their own learning…what comes next.
As I walked away from the teachers, I thought perhaps their peers in Finland might have felt at home on this night talking with these teachers about learning. On the way home, I wondered if we’re not as far away as we might think we are.