I suspect that virtually everyone who has been a teacher has thought of creating a new kind of school. Most of us never get beyond the dreaming phase but now and again a brave soul founds an innovative center for learning and does quite well. The rest of us lie awake at night making plans that will never reach fruition.
My imaginary school is very different from most that exist today. It focuses on the diverse needs of both teachers and students. It begins with the philosophy that flexibility is a must and that there is no one size fits all way of teaching or learning. To that end students and educators in my world would be able to choose the hours when they wish to actually be in attendance at the school. Every child would need to be present for a particular number of hours per week to fulfill curriculum requirements but would be free to set the times that work best within a fairly liberal timeframe. For example, a particular pupil may not want to begin the day until nine or ten in the morning. That would be fine as long as he or she remained in classes for at least six or seven hours based on specific academic needs. Even starting the school day at noon would be permissible since there would be classes even in the nighttime hours, making full use of the facilities, resources, and community support. Since the pupils would be present at various hours of the day and night, teachers might also choose the schedules that works best for them, including working part time if so desired. Imagine a brilliant mathematics teacher coming in after working at NASA to teach a group of advanced mathematics teachers in the evening. Think of possibilities like offering a four day school week.
The schedules might be a bit crazy to design but I’m certain that they would be possible with a bit of imagination. I have always felt that the traditional school hours favored those who are morning people and were set mostly to provide working parents with a place to put their children so that they might get to their jobs. The rest of us who prefer a later rising time have to drag ourselves around all day attempting to be perky when we are actually ready to tear someone’s head off because our natural sleep pattern isn’t being nurtured. In the more perfect world that I envision everybody is at school when it feels best, not based on someone else’s idea of how things should work.
I also quite toy with the idea of having school terms for two months and then breaking for a month so that there is vacation time year round, summer, fall, winter and spring. For those students who require extra instruction or desire additional enrichment there would be intersessions that teachers or other professionals would volunteer to coordinate, providing an additional source of income for anyone who prefer to work most of the year. They also present opportunities to develop internships for high school students with special talents and interests that they want to share.
Everyone has different modes of learning. In most schools teachers create lessons that draw on a number of methodologies hoping to include as many needs as possible. Instead of throwing a wide net and hoping to reach each individual, my school would assess every student to determine exactly which processes work best for them and then match them with teachers and programs that cater to their distinct learning styles.
All too often students struggle to learn when all that they need is an opportunity to have concepts presented in a manner that most closely matches the way in which their brains process information. I once had a student who needed time to think without interruption. She struggled whenever there was a great deal of sound or movement in the classroom. Given a quiet environment and teaching in a modulated tone she excelled. When she had mastered the material she enjoyed tutoring other students as a way of reviewing. By explaining concepts to her peers she reinforced her own knowledge and developed relationships and team interactions that did not work for her in the earlier stages of cognition. Her success was predicated on allowing her to be more solitary in the beginning and gradually bringing her into a group setting when she as her comfort level rose. Over time her need for isolation became more and more diminished. By realizing her needs for periods of quiet reflection she became willing to take risks that would have at one time frightened her. We need to be able to help every student flourish like this young lady by emphasizing the teaching styles that tap into their curiosity and the natural processing of their brains.
So much time is wasted during every school day. There are too many study halls where little or nothing is accomplished other than keeping the students contained for an hour. Advisory sessions and homerooms designed just to take care of business demand too much time. Home schooled students often cover the required curriculum in half of the time that it takes in a traditional classroom. That is because we don’t use the minutes and hours wisely and we too often ask more of our teachers than we should. We need to find aides to watch children at recess, particularly those who might teach them a new physical skill or work with them to develop healthier habits. Teachers should have access to more time to develop lessons or meet with parents or their peers. The same is true of other kinds of duties as well. By the end of a school day teachers have spent hours monitoring the cafeteria or standing in the parking lot as children arrive and leave. If we want our educators to be truly professional then we should not ask them to perform such tasks. We are missing opportunities to use their skills for tutoring or enriching their pupils.
I would like for all students at my school to create capstone projects at regular intervals during the course of the educational process. What they choose for their focus would be entirely based on their individual interests. Rubrics would be designed to insure the quality of the final products. As the children grow older the demands for their products would increase. They might continue to further develop their research or pick something different each time. The senior year products would require that they exhibit elements of writing, public speaking, mathematics and the scientific method.
Instead of simply having end of course exams all students would also have the option of creating a research paper, a product, or a solution for a specific problem within a particular subject. I’ve known many students who exhibit far greater understanding of the concepts that they have studied when given the opportunity to demonstrate real world skills. Mock trials, debates, film making and artistry are much more meaningful ways to measure learning than answers on a multiple choice test. Students enjoy showing their creative talents and as teachers we often discover hidden skills in our kids when we provide them with alternative methods for showing what they have learned.
I suspect the crazy quilt of learning that I have described sounds like the raving of a teacher who has gone mad. I know all of the protestations that are undoubtedly going through people’s minds as they think of the many ways that my ideas will never work in the real world, but this was after all a dream formed over decades of working in classrooms. I believe that we have to be willing to try new ways of educating our children if we are ever to really improve our schools. We must consider the needs of both our students and our teachers and be willing to take risks to make our classrooms happier and more productive places. We are killing the innate curiosity that we humans have in the traditional and homogenized environments that exist in far too many of our educational centers. We are losing the most valuable of our resources and we’ve got to be willing to try new ways of reaching those very precious minds. Thank goodness we have pioneers who are out there right now developing new theories that may one day revolutionize education. You’ve just read a few of my ideas. What are yours?