With all the pressure on schools today to meet various performance standards, the needs of individual students can get lost. 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 for even the most dedicated teachers to provide each student the support they need to succeed.
Fortunately, there’s been an awakening in recent years to the realization that there may be a better way. Savvy educators are taking aim at the status quo by:
- Restructuring the school day
- Adopting a small school environment
- Changing the way students and teachers interact, and
- Using practices that are learner-focused and learner-driven.
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.
How can we know the difference between these schools and those that remain rooted in inflexible 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. Traditional schools sometimes struggle with this due to larger class sizes and shorter periods. So when you are considering a new school, look for small class sizes, the hallmark of the micro school, and 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?
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 essential for active learning. 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 they 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.
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 to dig into their subjects. Deeper learning requires time and space. Schools that do this will arrange small 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.
As parents 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.
Editor's note: This blog, by Blyth-Templeton Academy Head of School Lee Palmer,was adapted from an article that originally appeared in the Huffington Post on April 20, 2017.