Debate Magazine

The Lesson That I Took Me More Than a Decade to Learn

By Stevemiranda

There’s a research professor in psychology at Boston College named Peter Gray, who writes a terrific blog called “Freedom to Learn.” He posts about once a month, and it’s always very good.

Here’s something from this month that illuminates the most powerful lesson I’ve learned as an educator:

“Essentially everyone involved in the educational enterprise—progressives as well as traditionalists—holds strongly to the premise that adults are in charge of children’s learning.  Progressive educators see teachers as clever manipulators of the child’s environment, setting things up and subtly directing so that children will play the right games, explore the right questions in the right way, and learn the right answers, ultimately so they can pass the tests. Traditionalists aim for a more direct route to imparting the right answers, without the games. Both sides believe that good learning is a function of good teaching; they just disagree on what constitutes good teaching. Both sides also believe that it is adults’ responsibility to decide what children should learn and to test children, in one way or another, formally or informally, to be sure that they are learning the right things.”

* * *

For 10 years as a classroom teacher in traditional schools, I thought I was the smart one. I was a progressive educator, which I knew was better than being a traditionalist. Yet, I was never satisfied with my practice. I didn’t know what was missing.

In the fall of 2009, I had recently started working at PSCS, when the phone rang. A woman asked me, “Are you an alternative school?”

I was flummoxed. I know what she meant by the term “alternative school,” and by her definition, yes, PSCS is an alternative school. But we don’t view ourselves that way. At PSCS, we see ourselves as a mainstream school for the 21st century.

I fumbled and stumbled my way through the conversation before finally hanging up. I walked into the office of PSCS founder Andy Smallman and asked him, “Are we an alternative school?”

“No,” he said.

“I know that, but what do you say when people ask that question?”

“Alternative schools use alternative strategies for helping kids understand geography and science and math and literature,” he said. “That’s not our product.”

“What’s our product?”

“Our product is this environment,” he said. “We provide a safe, loving, nurturing environment in which kids feel connected to a caring community, then we surround them with people of high character who are excited about life and excited about learning. Then we partner with them to help them figure out what they love to do, what brings them joy.”

That insight was what I had been missing.

* * *

I recently shared this story with a friend who is helping shape our marketing plan. She said, “Oh, I know the answer to that question. You just say, ‘Yes, we’re an alternative to the traditional school model that everyone agrees is dysfunctional.’”

* * *

One more piece from Peter Gray’s blog post:

Real educational reform, as I see it, requires a fundamental shift in our understanding of the educational process. . . . [I]t requires that we abandon the idea that adults are in charge of children’s learning.  It requires, in other words, that we throw out the basic premise that underlies our system of schooling.

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