Does Your School work for your Child?

A.S. Neil, the founder of one of the world’s oldest democratic schools once said, “The school should fit the child, not the child fit the school.”

Too many schools set themselves up in a particular standardized way so that a child attending that school needs to fit in to that way of being. Often, public school administrators and teachers do recognize that all children are different and do make efforts to try and make the life of that child and the child’s learning as meaningful as is possible within the system which is set up. But the system does not make this possible.

Through my years of teaching and school administration I have spent hours and hours trying to make the curriculum and content I was responsible for delivering fit the children under my care, desperately trying to differentiate my lesson plans so that they could access the learning at their level.

DSCN5959The administration in schools spend hours, days, weeks and months tweaking or snipping around the edges of a school system with the aim of improving test scores and trying to help children understand and retain the information given.

Schools try instructional grouping (putting them in different groups in a particular subject based on skill) and tracking (putting a group of kids on a track that involves multiple subjects). They ‘fast track’ children into ‘gifted and talented’ groups for students who are advanced beyond the majority of the class, or ‘special needs’ groups for students who are deemed to not be able to retain and understand the information for whatever reason.

Labels like ‘gifted and talented’ are terms I have largely disliked in my career. In fact, when I was a school principal, a parent came into my office and proudly declared that at her son’s last school he had been ‘gifted and talented’. My reply was that all the kids at our school were gifted and talented in some way it was just that we needed to discover in what way they were gifted and talented. Equally, another prospective family came to my office and said that her child had ‘special needs’, to which my response was the same, “All our children have special needs, it’s just a question of identifying their strengths and weaknesses.”

I, of course was being a little facetious. I knew exactly that their previous schools were attempting to group their children with other ‘like’ children. But I also knew that under the system the schools offered, my school included, there was a reasonable chance that they would fall through the cracks.

So, despite the billions of dollars spent on education reform (which, as I described is just snipping around the edges or pasting up the cracks of a failing system) schools still lose kids. Many don’t just ‘fall through the cracks’; the system labels them at an early age and they are squeezed through the cracks like icing in a tube.

How does a school fit the child? How can a school fit every child that walks through the door? The answer is surprisingly simple. Schools need to recognize that it is not their right or duty to decide what a child must know. The vast amount of acquired human knowledge cannot possibly be learned. So we should accept that and not have the gall or audacity to think that we know what a child should learn. Let children be free to explore what interests them. It may take each individual a while, but children will eventually lean towards an area of human knowledge or discovery that interests them, and then they will study that in detail and with passion and with intrinsic motivation.DSCN5423

So many great thinkers, explorers and inventors turned away from traditional schooling and followed their hearts and passions instead. Shouldn’t all children be allowed that privilege?

Whether that ‘learning’ be the arts, design, Math, astronomy, cooking, music- it does not matter.

A school that is democratic and free gives children exactly that. A TRUE voice in THEIR school and the freedom to learn in the way they were born to learn.

Ben Kestner,Co-Founder and Staff Member, Glacier Lake School

Categories: 21st Century Learning, Born to Learn, Classroom Environment, Curriculum, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Play- Passion-Purpose- Tony Wagner

Categories: Born to Learn, Curriculum, School Culture | Leave a comment

Backwards Design in the Music Classroom

Teacher: We’re going to learn about The Baroque period today, including such great composers as Bach, Handel, Scarlatti and so on.

Student: Why?

Teacher: Why?….well,…because it’s a very important period in musical history.

Student: Why is it so important and aren’t there hundreds of different periods or styles of Music?

Teacher: Indeed there are. Pre the 20th century, music can be divided in to approximately four main periods; Medieval, Baroque, Classical and Romantic but at the turn of century there was an explosion of styles including Jazz, Gospel, Pop, funk, and the list goes on and on.

Student: So why are we spending time on the Baroque period? Can’t we start with Jazz? My mum plays Jazz saxophone and it’s really cool.

Teacher: Well……(Pause)…because Baroque is on your test I’m giving you in a couple of weeks and Jazz isn’t. You want to pass the test don’t you?

Student: Yes. C’mon then. Start telling me what I need to know for the test on the Baroque period.

The teachers’ hands in the above example are somewhat tied. If the test is external and based on a standardized process which will have ramifications on the student, the teacher, and indeed the school, then there does seem to be a need to ‘pass’ it. The fact that the teacher says “The test I am giving you in a couple of weeks” suggests to me it is not. Rather that the teacher has just decided that the Baroque period is important and that is what needs to be learned.

In my present school we don’t have any external standardized tests until the IB diploma which is equivalent to A levels or APs. I say equivalent, I mean it’s an external exam students take at age approximately 18 years old, which is a factor in their university placing. We have standardized cognitive ability tests and ISA tests which look at reading, writing and math compared to like schools around the world, but they do not affect the school as such, but rather help us to understand where the child may need extra help. We of course assess students regularly both formatively and summatively to check for understanding.

So let’s look at the example above again. If the test mentioned requires that the students be able to regurgitate as much information about the Baroque period as possible, then passing the test definitely favours the student who can easily remember and regurgitate facts.

Let’s assume that the test is not external and therefore the teacher does not need to give it. And let’s assume that the Music teacher is teaching an 8th grade class (year 9 in the UK system).

The student, of course, may or may not choose to take music for an IB diploma subject but we’ll also assume s/he will.

There is a section in the final exam (5 years away for this student) that is called the listening paper which is 30% of the overall marks. Students are given a number of pieces of music to listen to and they are asked to comment on what they are hearing. They don’t necessarily need to exactly name the composer and date written (although if they did it’s be worth mentioning). What they will be asked to do is to comment on what they hear in terms of melody, harmony, instrumentation, form etc. These ‘elements’ of the Music may lead them, like any good detective towards being able to place the music in context of time and possibly guess a composer or performer etc. The student could be given a piece of music from literally any period or style (so hundreds of possibilities). So the exam is clearly not asking for a right or wrong answer, but rather for students to be able to apply knowledge and understanding in an unfamiliar situation using higher level thinking skills. GREAT. So we’ve established the exam (in this case) isn’t so bad after all.

My first question to the teacher would be to ask what the goal of the lesson is. Where does it fit in to the overall scheme? What are the desired outcomes? Yes, the UBD initiated amongst you will recognize already that we are thinking about backwards design. What will they need to be able to understand? How will you be able to check for that understanding?

Once this is clear, the teacher can outline a learning plan. For example to look at the elements of music and make sure the students are familiar with critical analyzing music they listen to as well as to expose them to a number of music periods and styles.

So a crucial factor for this 8th grade teacher in this particular school, is to know what the ‘end’ result will be. What the end aims are. Knowing this, the teacher will be able to sit down with her or his colleagues from the department or high school and plan a curriculum outline backwards.

OK let’s go back to the original Teacher student conversation. It may have gone like this:

Teacher: You need to be able to listen to music critically, in other words, listen to any piece of music and talk about what you hear. This will actually be a question in you exam in 5 years time! We’re going to learn how to do this. To be able to listen for key elements in the music so that you can be like a detective and work out roughly when, who, how it was written.

Student: Wow, that’s going to be difficult. Aren’t there hundreds of different styles?

Teacher: Yes, but they can all be broken down in to what are known as ‘elements’. Think of them as clues to help you to solve the puzzle.

Student: If there are hundreds of periods, which one are we going to start with?

Teacher: Do you have any particular music you like?

Student: Well my mum plays the saxophone and she says that’s Jazz. It’s really cool.

Teacher: Great lets start with Jazz. We’ll need to look at a number of key periods a well as explore the different elements of Music as we go along this term.

Student: We could bring in Music each class for the rest of us to listen to –Kind of sit around listening to music.

The teacher now has the student(s) hooked. They see a point to what they are doing. They are ready to give it a try.

Here is an extract of the IBO group 6 aims:

The aim is to enable students to:

Express ideas with confidence and competence and develop perceptual and analytical skills.

 Backwards design is crucial.

IBO Music Subject Outline

Categories: Curriculum, UBD | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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