It’s OK to worry about kids and how best to teach kids. But it’s not a new worry.
“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” That is a summary of complaints directed at young people in ancient Greece more than 2,000 years ago.
There was no Facebook or Twitter. But ancient Greeks had the same observations of the younger generation that many people still do today.
After teaching for more than 30 years, I want to reassure the public that what we are doing today in education is not that radical. Current practices revisit good ideas that are centuries old and link to the newest technologies and understandings.
You may have heard about experiential learning and the process of learning by doing. Aristotle, also an ancient Greek, wrote,”For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”
In my classroom, I distribute PlayDoh, batteries and LED bulbs, and watch as my students construct their understanding of circuits. When the Deer Isle-Stonington Elementary School newsletter announces our students are learning by doing, we are following an old, well-founded, well-tested concept.
Two hundred years ago, Johann Pestalozzi coined the motto, “Learning by head, hand and heart.” Even though many people have never heard of Pestalozzi, he is labeled the father of modern education.
Thanks to Pestalozzi, illiteracy in 18th-century Switzerland was eradicated almost completely by 1830. Other phrases you may be familiar with began with Pestalozzi: “whole-child approach,” “student centered” and “inquiry-based learning.” Pestalozzi stressed cooperation and communication between teacher and parents — and active, rather than passive, learning.
Today, teachers like me seek the same goals. I provide daily opportunities for discovery. I have an endless supply of ingredients for baking soda and vinegar fizz, white glue and Borax slime, yeast and peroxide “elephant toothpaste.”
My grandson attends an expeditionary school similar to those in the Portland area. The expeditionary-learning model may be the newest trend in education and was developed by Outward Bound and Harvard University. Each grade embarks on several major explorations with the goal of promoting critical thinking and creative problem solving.
Students start with a guiding question that has a local connection, such as “How does the weather in our area change over time?” or “What factors does it take for a business to be successful in Portland?” Their school song and school pledge center on the phrase “learning by head, heart and hands.”
Another model that’s a hundred years old is the Waldorf school that also emphasizes the teaching of the whole child and uses the same phrase: “head, hands and heart.”
Same words, same worries. We want our children to use their minds and their caring to take risks, to experiment and to succeed.
Collaboration is an integral part of the learning process. Desks are in groups, not rows. The arrangement of students and lessons are fluid and change day-to-day, week-to-week. I’m putting my lab tables on locking casters, so we can roll them around and configure into groups of two, four, six or eight.
I am evaluated based on what types of questions I ask of my students. Some questions demand small answers and quick thinking, such as, “What are the four phases of matter?” Other “higher order” or open-ended questions have many possible solutions, such as “What happens as one phase of matter changes to another?”
I know it is my job to balance the amount and type of questions I ask in my classroom because it is my job to elicit thinking. For decades, I have heard the phrase, “Be a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage.” My task is to put together a learning experience — such as building a model of a volcano with magma — and step to the side.
I facilitate as the students discuss, analyze, predict and problem solve. I do not lecture. The oldest and most powerful teaching practice for encouraging critical thinking is Socratic teaching. I give students questions, not answers.
“How do you know a chemical reaction took place? What is your evidence?” I ask.
I always worry about how to connect my students to their community, the environment and to the future. In 1994, my New York classroom was the first in the school to have a modem and a digital camera. We collaborated electronically with students across the United States to track the migration of the Baltimore Oriole.
From 2013 to 2015, my Deer Isle children participated in the online New Naturalist Program of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, and students across Maine identified challenges in their communities and shared solutions with each other. The Deer Isle issue became the threatened beach grass along the Causeway Beach — of which the 7th grade has proudly taken stewardship.
I have been studying digital fabrication in order to pass those skills on to my students. I want them to tinker, which used to be an old word. These days, tinkering is associated with computer design, vinyl cutters and laser cutters. Taking things apart, and putting them together in new ways is the “maker space” movement, which spans from MIT to my elementary school.
The processes of design thinking, persistence, planning, trying, failing and trying again are centuries old and are paired with 21st-century machines. Now there’s a 3D printer in my classroom, and I organize weekend tinkering workshops to utilize the digital fabrication machines at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts.
I’m always looking to learn something new because I want my students to always learn something new.
In 1957, the launch of Russian satellite Sputnik caused our schools to more strongly emphasize science and mathematics. This led to a generation of innovation in technology and engineering in which the United States landed people on the moon, sent robots to Mars and explored the depths of the Earth.
Current concern about global success has led to a continued push for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. I add engineering to my science classroom. We design and build Rube Goldberg contraptions; we test book supports constructed from index cards and paper clips and rubber bands.
I expect students in my classroom to someday create innovations that I cannot even imagine today.
I believe the best parts of education today, as well as the challenges of teaching children, have been around for a very, very long time. They cycle and thread themselves into our educational practices. It comforts me that the ancient Greeks and I have similar worries.
Children are social beings. They love to chatter, and it is their role to discover their self-identity, and question ideas and people around them. It is the role of teachers to engage those energies and channel them toward the future. Onward.
Mickie Flores, who teaches science at Deer Isle-Stonington Elementary School, is the 2015 Hancock County Teacher of the Year.