I have been drawing on John Dewey’s Experience and Education work for the past three years. So when my cousin offered a tour of the Chicago University Lab School, of course I was excited to accept!
Walking the hallways and visiting the classrooms, I was amazed by the hard work and creative pieces students shared with the community. Every wall seemed to be covered in authentic work – arts, sciences, maths, foreign languages, history (of the school and countries all over the world) and much more. Some of my favorite moments were of ‘everyday’ routines – such as shoes ‘scattered’ on the ground waiting for their owners to come back from recess; finger knitting after recess – awaiting the teacher’s direction; “do not disturb” lego creations in the making; art tables with pencils and crayons waiting for little hands to pick them up to make the next sketch; building blocks left standing after construction; and children gathering around a picture book while reading to one another during ‘break’ – these authentic moments seemed to stand out as everyday, routine, happy moments showing evidence that children are learning in a flexible environment.
As we popped into each of the rooms, it was apparent that adults were working side by side with children — either playing or working at their own pace. Children were coming in from recess (it seemed on their own) and immediately put their ‘winter shoes’ away – put on their classroom shoes – and then became busy playing or continuing projects they left to finish later. One little boy (age 4) sat down (without cue) to finger knit at a table (asking a teacher for assistance), while I saw another boy (age 4) fill a cup with water and then stood and drank it – both done independently. There was a sense of independence, but also a sense of a cooperative community — on the other side of the room, a group of children played in the ‘blocks’ area, while another child played the piano, while another group sat and read a picture book together. It was hardly quiet – but it was a productive noise level. What I loved about the noise was the laughter that seemed to overcome the chatter. Looking around, children had big smiles on their faces – some were even hugging one another. And this wasn’t just in the pre-k to 1st grade rooms. I noticed similar behaviors throughout the school. Even in the middle school – children were doing cartwheels and cheering each other on……while the Middle School principal walked through in his Roman outfit (about to “die”) at 12:30pm – due to his role in the “Ides of March” – he smiled and said, “Hello!” and “Oh, I’m about to die at 12:30pm!”
We walked into the middle school band room – their teacher had not yet arrived – just the students warming up their instruments and their bodies — talk about loud and wonderful. And when the teacher entered, all the sound and movement just dimmed and slowed as the teacher began to talk. He didn’t even have to say anything – just a small hand wave to single “I’m here, lets start.”
So why am I sharing this?
My visit to the Lab School made me think about other schools where I have worked or where my children have attended. There was nothing at this school that couldn’t be done at other schools. The social class is much different, but the elements of childhood are the same – the only difference it seemed was this sense of ‘freedom’ – - the students were empowered to make decisions on their own. If children can cartwheel in the hallway here, why not anywhere else? Or what about walking in from the playground and going straight to work/play without an adult dictating where and how to go about their choices?
I left with many questions rambling in my head:
What might happen if schools, organizations, and more educators shared a similar philosophy in management – what might change and would it be any better?
At this school, there is ONE standardized test the entire time they attend pre-k to 12 – does this contribute to the playful, interest-driven learning environment? How might we find out? And what would happen if more schools refused standardized tests? Are children learning in a playful, happy, interest-driven school? (Of course, they are!)
How might we get back to this model of learning in more schools? How might we assess our education programs differently? How does the Lab School assess their learning programs and their student’s success rates? From what I can tell, the rate of learning is not judged, it is supported. Children are given the space and time to develop – without the pressure of performing at a certain level on a standardized test each year.
What might happen if we reduced the pressure to perform or to be ‘measured’ in public, private, or charter schools across our nation?
In closing – children in the third grade participated in an “inventor’s fair” – each child invented and ‘received’ a patent for their inventions. It was most impressive and a great spin on Science Fairs! I loved that children were being given the time and license to play, invent, and work together – it is something my children wish they were given time to do at school – maybe someday they’ll be given more time — in the meanwhile, I’ll do my best to allocate time for exploration and creativity at home……per request of my daughter just the other day —
“Mom? You know what? Kids have a difficult time being creative at school, you know why? [Why?] Because we just aren’t given enough time to be creative. It takes time to be creative, mom.” – Samantha, age 9
I have to agree, it certainly does!