Some days go along smoothly and stay that way. Others, not so much. One of the interesting things about working in a school is that there is seldom a dull moment. That may sound like things often go wrong, but that’s not the case. Things just go “differently.” A child who navigates assignments and social relationships nicely may hit a snag and need support. A teacher who is reliable and always on top of things may encounter a challenge that requires her to further develop her skills to best address the needs of one particular student, though these skills may eventually serve many. A well-designed schedule may be interrupted by a fire drill or an unexpected visitor. Things change, and we need to be ready to embrace the changes.Continue reading
We often hear the term “individualized learning” when referring to schools. It has been deemed to be the pinnacle of educational practice, serving students well. The assumption is that we are approaching each student as an individual and meeting his or her needs. I’ve said it myself many times. What if, instead of individualizing learning, our goal is to personalize student learning?
Attending workshops at the Learning and the Brain conference last week caused me to consider the idea of personalized learning more thoroughly. As we work in service to the children in our classrooms, we must consider their interests, abilities, passions and needs. We need to co-create their learning with them, sometimes with more teacher influence, others with more student direction and still others with a finely tuned mix of each ingredient. Personalized learning is collaborative and cooperative by its very nature. Individualized learning is meeting a child’s needs by matching them with the educational systems goals. It may be a subtle difference, but it is one that merits our attention. Continue reading
Several years ago, two friends and I led a two-week summer camp. The theme was the brain and how it works. We focused our efforts on offering activities that would allow campers to give a thumbs up or thumbs down to a variety of experiences. The goal was for them to discover what they find easy or enjoying doing, as well what they find hard or uninteresting. We all participated in activities that were easy, just right, or difficult.
Much of school is about just that. Easy. Just right. Difficult. One person’s experience is not the same as another’s, and yet schools persist in trying to make everyone’s experience the same – a factory model applied to individuals. Factories don’t exist to fit the individual; their purpose is to create conformity and uniformity. That simply doesn’t work in schools. It isn’t an effective way to learn. I may need more time to conduct an experiment or read a book but less time solving a math problem or applying logic to a given situation. We are each individuals, and many of us didn’t learn much about our learning style until we were out of school. If we were successful in school, there could be many reasons but one reason for many is that we simply knew how to “do school.” We understood the way school worked, could manage to meet most requirements with relative ease and fit into the mold. Some of us did not have that luxury. Instead, we may have struggled with things that others found easy; we may have not understood how to meet the mark and succeed in school. But, once we found something we loved to do, we figured that out, no matter how hard it was.
Many schools, like Wilmington Montessori, are trying to do things differently. We are looking for that “just right” level of instruction for every student, not just a select few. We strive to be responsive to the needs of the children in their classrooms today – not those who were there last week, last year or 10 years ago. This is a tall order but it is one that is necessary. We know much more about learning and how brains work today than we did a century or even a decade ago. We have the ability to design instruction with the student in mind. We know that we are preparing students to enter a workforce that is quite different from that their parents or grandparents entered. It is a new world, a world that is moving at a faster rate of change than ever before. We need to be responsive and adapt student experiences, ready to make it “just right” for the children who will be doing all they can to be contributing members of their world as they continue to learn and grow.
Coming across this quote the other day reminded me of so many times in life when learning just happened and just as many others when it kept slipping through my fingers. There are countless times that I have tried to do something and kept making mistakes or missing the mark, only to return to the task the next day or week and accomplish the goal in record time. Learning isn’t neat and tidy; in fact, it can be rather messy.
Years in school – as a student, teacher and administrator – have taught me that everyone can learn… on his/her time frame. This runs up against the need for schools to teach certain concepts at specified times of the year as mandated by the chosen curriculum. I ask, once again, are we teaching curriculum or children? Every teacher I know would opt for the second choice; we are teaching children. If that is the goal, how do we make sure that we are addressing the needs of those children? How do we meet them where they are each day when they may be in very different places? How do we measure their progress and set the next goals? This is the very difficult work of schools.
Teaching and learning are often not aligned. Children may be ready to learn in ways or on days that we are not ready to teach them. However, if learning is the priority and children are at the center of all we do, isn’t it time that we slow down, stop and look at the individuals who make up our classrooms? Isn’t it time to guide them in their learning no matter the day or the way?
What do children need to succeed in school? Google that question, and you will find more answers than you have time to read. However, take the time to think about it, reflecting perhaps on your own school experiences, and you will come close to an answer that will serve children well.
Children, like their adult counterparts, come in all shapes, sizes, appearances and abilities. They live in houses, apartments, in the country, suburbs and the city. They are as varied as can be and so is their learning. Some children can “do school.” They enter school at a young age, and it works for them. They know how to navigate through the information, demonstrate their understanding and successfully work within the established parameters. Others struggle with all or some of this. They can’t figure out what is expected, or don’t have the ability or skills to navigate the many demands of school. These children need ongoing support to get through their school years.
At their best, educators are continually asking how they can help children succeed. If a lesson isn’t working and a child isn’t learning, they ask themselves what else they might try. They strive to find the best approach to assist each and every learner. What helps one may indeed help another. These teachers don’t give up. They teach resilience to children by being resilient themselves. They lead by example, showing each and every day that even though school might be hard at times, they push through the difficulty, trying again and accepting the support that is offered.
To succeed in school, children need advocates. They need people who know them and try to understand them and their needs as learners. They need people around them who care, support them and bolster their confidence as they work hard to gain the skills and knowledge needed. What do children need? Caring adults, a warm and friendly environment of confidence, resilience and dedication. They need to know that we will never give up and will find ways around and through any difficulties that exist. They need to know we are on their side.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Sonia Manzano speak. You may know her as Maria from Sesame Street; she was on the show for more than 40 years. Ms. Manzano spoke about the importance of a strong early childhood education, sharing the inequities that persist today. She said of her childhood, “I was smart in the Bronx and stupid in Manhattan.”
She was speaking to Montessorians and spoke with her audience in mind. Ms. Manzano understands that children learn through play and that it takes experienced educators to guide them in their choices and explore mistakes with them along the way. As she warmed to her topic, I was profoundly moved by her statement that, “I was good in school because so little was expected of me.”
Expectations matter. It is one thing to guide children through a curriculum. It is another to learn what is needed for each child to stretch themselves, to learn all that is possible at a given moment and to communicate that we know they can reach their goals, offering support as needed. Educators must know their students. They must offer opportunities to learn and expect the best from them. Communicating expectations for success allows children to rise to those expectations and beyond. When educators set goals that require children to stretch and yearn for more, they are proud of their accomplishments. Children count on us to share the world with them and to stand firmly beside them while they explore, question and learn to expect the best of themselves and their educational experiences.
At Wilmington Montessori School, we have just sent out a new progress report and are in the process of conducting conferences with parents. As we worked to help parents understand the new format of the reports and think about the reasons for including each element on the report, I have been thinking about progress. Now, you may be nothing like me in this way, but in my life I have progressed and regressed many, many times – probably more times than I would like to consider. Interestingly, as we observe children and their growth, we look for and yearn for steady progress with few, if any, bumps along the way. Is this realistic?
Children grow in predictable ways. We know they generally triple their weight in the first year of their lives. They walk between 9 and 15 months of age. And, they begin to talk sometime before they are 2 years old. There are exceptions and there are children who follow these trajectories like clockwork. The same is true for their learning.
Each child in our school is unique, although they are all children of a certain age and are predictably learning in their own unpredictable ways. We recognize the standard patterns of growth and development as well as those that may be a bit less typical. We pride ourselves on being able to match lessons to the students’ needs; we don’t give lessons just to meet curricular or teacher needs. We very much want all of our students to learn at the pace that suits them best and to learn what they are ready to learn when they are ready to learn. Just as some of us run faster than others, we learn things at different rates.
Learning is a recursive process. Progress will be made in fits and starts. The way to ensure that children will want to learn more and will find the wonder in learning is to be keenly aware of who they are and how they learn, then wait for the moment to dangle the carrot that entices them to go further than we might have imagined. They most definitely won’t always progress in a straight line and they will have bumps along the way, but they, and you, will be glad they had the opportunity to do it their way with the appropriate support, opportunities and encouragement.