Let’s Take It Back To The Renaissance (Old School Style)
How would you react after experiencing any one of these situations?
- A 7 year old explains the importance of his yoga class that incorporates yoga, tai chi, drums, creativity, agility, body awareness, and respecting another 7 year old’s space.
- A 10 year old clearly articulates a design technology project he’s working on where he built a prototype car to test his assumptions, reflected what he could do better, and is now working on building the model car with at least 3 different design elements, functioning headlights, and a convertible top.
- An entire class easily asking question after question about that day’s science topic on Michael Pollan (A sample of his work: https://www.ted.com/talks/michael_pollan_gives_a_plant_s_eye_view?language=en), knowing that they’re helping shape that day’s lesson and they’ll get to learn answers to questions they’re actually interested in.
- A 13 year old takes an entrance exam for a highly competitive high school, learns he did great in geometry but didn’t do as well in algebra, therefore devices his own plan to get caught up before he starts his first year in high school (through self study and 1:1 tutoring from his teacher).
- A 15 year old cuts out a few weeks of his summer vacation of playing sports and playing with his friends to volunteer at his old elementary/middle school, serving as a mentor to students (giving advice like take ownership of your own learning needs and ask for what you need and want in a classroom to make you more successful) and helper in many other ways.
- Learning that one school has average exam results with their students in the 80th-90th percentile range.
I’ll share with you how I reacted… my heart sank every time. You think I would’ve learned after the first example or maybe even the second. However, it was hard to take in because it’s rare to witness this many elements successfully come together in every child (at least those I met) at a school… talk about no child left behind 😃. Every child I spoke with exuded confidence, good sentence structure, the ability to formulate coherent & detailed responses, an inquisitive nature, and an itch to learn. This ranged from 7 to 13 year olds. It’s more accurate to call these children inquisitive young learners. They all come from A Renaissance School of Arts and Sciences (http://www.renaissanceschoolportland.org/), REN. The name was chosen in part because the Renaissance was a time period when arts and the sciences were revered as critical to a fulfilling and intellectual life.
The inquisitive young learners’ projects are displayed all over the school. That
+ the socratic and project-based approach of co-learning between students and educators
+ comfy couches
+ one open space building where supplies are dispersed to force students to walk around and interact with other parts of the school
+ beautiful art work that represents cultures from around the world
+ big windows for natural lighting
= make Renaissance an environment where all learners (students and educators) can openly learn and collaborate.
The problem REN tries to solve is that every child has capabilities and a traditional school system stunts many kids’ opportunities to discover their true strengths — leaving kids disliking school and/or rapidly disengaging over the years. At REN, the focus is on finding those strengths, cultivating them, learning what their areas of improvement, empowering the kids to take ownership of their own learning, and preparing the kids for a mindset and habit set of lifelong learning. Of the things I mention above, although each seems to play a key role in building this fun, educational ecosystem, the one that interested me the most was the scratch and project-based approach of learning. All kids are evaluated in the beginning of every year based on a project they do that incorporates elements of design, technology, science, math, and art. From there, each kid is placed in classes that match their skill level. They are able to move between levels throughout the year — they don’t need to wait until the end of the year to be re-evaluated and moved up. Where needed, the classes have some lecture to teach fundamentals, but “teaching” is to a minimal. The projects is where the bulk of the learning and skills development occurs. The other interesting part was that each of the kids I spoke with happily shared the work of their fellow learners and could clearly articulate what the project was about, what they learned from it, challenges they had, and how they thought through overcoming those challenges. Action, reflection, change… action, reflection, change, etc.
The educators hired at REN must be aligned with the mission of the school — which largely includes having a lifelong learning mindset, constantly reflecting, and being collaborative.
There’s a big debate in the US and many other countries in the world about the urgency of fixing our education systems, how we’re stunting the growth and creativity of students, and not giving all students a real, equal opportunity to learn because teaching how to pass tests has become the primary goal in many classrooms. We have a potential solution to solve this issue — we need to spread it. How? Maybe this solution won’t work for every student or every country, but maybe at least it’s shown to work really well for a small subset of students. How do we replicate this or learn from what they are doing and employ some of their learned best practices?