I have a picture of my son at six months, sitting in a bath in the kitchen sink, looking with astonishment at a bar of soap in his hand. What was he thinking? I’m making a guess, but I don’t think that he was amazed at the bar of soap. I think he had just learned that his hand could pick it up and, although he was pre-verbal, he was probably thinking, “Oh! So that’s what my hand can do! Next!”
There is a new documentary film on the horizon called “Re: Thinking: Inspiring change in American Education.” It begins with many action shots of babies doing what babies do on their own, without anyone teaching them how. Human beings are born to learn. A baby watches the world with intelligence behind those bright eyes. He or she is trying to make sense, determine meaning and order from their observations and interaction with their environment and the people around them. In this hour-long documentary by filmmakers Deborah C. Hoard and Rachel Ferro, the questions are posed: What happens to learning when a school focuses on how we think and sharing what we think? How effective is this in changing the culture of a school? How does this new culture affect the development of individual students and teachers? This is a paradigm shift from the current emphasis on providing correct answers on tests and instilling a reluctance to express oneself for fear of being “wrong.”
The exemplars are three public schools with different challenges.
· The Lehman Alternative Community School in Ithaca, NY is a middle school/high school of about 300 students that does not use report cards or letter grades to evaluate students. Instead they have a “Graduation by Exhibition,” which demonstrates student achievement with a “variety of essentials.” It also reveals the uniqueness of each young person. Self-discovery is embedded in their process
· Bard High School Early College, Queens, NY fosters a school culture of intellectual vibrancy. Students are engaged in process, celebrating their diversity, and a call to rigor in their work. They each learn how they learn—a skill that is essential to the unknowns of a rapidly changing world.
· Green Hills School, Greendell, NJ teaches children meta-cognition—an awareness of their own thinking and how the language of thinking helps them build knowledge.
The film also looks at BLaST- a regional educational service agency created by the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1971 to serve the needs of 250,000 students in two counties. It sees itself as the cornerstone of creative ideas, problems solving, scientific discovery, business success, interpersonal communication, social change and democracy. They are trying to produce a society of thinkers—an ambitious vision, indeed.
One outcome, very visible in the film, is intense student engagement. There are no rigid rows of students facing a teacher at a chalk board. There are conversations, diagramming of ideas, listening to each other in small groups, and reading and sharing great books. Thinking is evident through student articulation and writing, and yes, struggling to understand. Instead of producing conformity and standardization, this approach strengthens diversity, confidence, self-expression and communication. It is also a lot messier than strict accountability systems. Hard to put these individuals in a box.
The schools look ordinary. There is some technology around. But the profound difference shows up as the light in eyes of students and teachers. Learning is such a socially human endeavor!
Full disclosure: I am a product of progressive education from a school (LREI) that is now more than 100 years old and, although I’m not as old as the school, I’m still thinking and learning.
“Re: Thinking” is making its debut on October 18 in Washington, DC. Details are on its website.