The culture of school and the culture of learning are changing. Inside the walls of this place we call school, we have the opportunity to look into the future and reshape the experiences of our students. Ultimately, our goal is to prepare our children to be meaningful contributors and successful in their world.
We know the industrial model that has been the bedrock of the school experience can no longer exist. At Breck, we are very committed to the rigor of a strong academic program . . . and at the same time, we are shifting the course of this program to give our learners the opportunity to wonder, explore, imagine, and create.
Tony Wagner, Senior Research Fellow at the Learning Policy Institute and author of Creating Innovators – The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World has focused decades of research on two important questions that are at the core of how we are now thinking and engaging our students in learning: What’s important? What’s essential? Wagner identifies “seven survival skills” for today’s students:
- Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
- Collaboration and Leading by Influence
- Agility and Adaptability
- Initiative and Entrepreneurship
- Effective Oral and Written Communication
- Accessing and Analyzing Information
- Curiosity and Imagination
In Lower School, I’m witnessing this shift in how our teachers are engaging learners. Let me illustrate with three stories:
Story 1. “What might you consider as you design your structure?” asked Mr. Kust during a fourth grade STEAM lesson on creating 3D structures that light up. STEAM is constructed to give students an opportunity to engage in design thinking, problem solving, and collaboration. He continued with a series of questions to connect and transfer student’s prior knowledge, “What should you remember about parallel circuits?” “Who thinks they can trace the path of electricity?” As I moved around the classroom, student engagement was skyrocketing as they shared ideas and worked collaboratively on their designs. Avery and Taylor successfully made a pizza that lit up! Elan persevered with several attempts to get his circuit to work. From trial and error, he realized that one of his leads may have shorted out.
Story 2. Just this past week, preschoolers were exploring what happens with food color and ice. Their teachers made various shapes and sizes of ice, put them in the water table with food coloring and droppers, and then watched what happened when they gave children the opportunity to explore, ask questions, and experiment. The students noticed you can make various shades of blue, ice melts in certain ways, and you can hear sounds when the dye touches the cold ice. It’s amazing to hear the oral language expressed as young children make observations and the questions that emerge from their curiosity!
Story 3. If you give young children the opportunity to make a difference, their ideas are limitless! Just ask Felix. He wanted the entire Lower School community to help him raise funds for hurricane victims this fall. With his initiative, he moved all of his peers to donate to this cause. In the end, he exceeded his goal and raised $1,200 for the Red Cross. And then, there’s Annie. She crafted a proposal for one of Breck’s philanthropy grants given to students who have ideas for helping their community. Her entrepreneurial spirit led to a group of friends joining her to make fleece blankets to keep others warm this winter.
These are just three stories among the myriad of experiences each day that are shifting the learning experience from one of listening, recalling facts, and working independently to one of creative exploration, working together, and solving real-world problems.
From interviews with students, teachers, and mentors, Wagner concluded that student engagement in school must include opportunities for play, passion, and purpose. It’s heartening to know that our focus on play is reinforced by research on how young children learn best. We know that children come to school with questions and interests . . . teachers are making room for those passions to be explored. When she was in first grade, Katie made a hockey jersey during “genius hour” because she loves hockey! And, purpose is central to our mission at Breck . . . “instill in each student a deep sense of social responsibility.” We are committed to using research to fuel our teaching . . . and are taking both small and bold steps to reimagine the learning experiences for our children. It’s an exciting time!
- Peg Bailey is the director of the Lower School