Thinking outside the classroom
Curiosity is fundamental to learning. It can be difficult if not impossible to cultivate and encourage, however, in traditional classrooms where subject matter is closely controlled and curriculum requirements leave little wiggle room for innovation.
Fortunately for a small group of seventh graders in Stonington public schools, a program designed to encourage curiosity, that in turn will foster better and deeper learning, debuts this year. A group of Stonington teachers and administrators worked with educators at Mystic Seaport Museum over the summer break to develop a collaborative educational program that will allow middle schoolers to do a deep dive into a topic about which they have a special interest. The pilot program will begin in the second semester of the school year.
This program promises to be positive for all involved. Students will be more motivated as they get to choose their own topics and explore at their own pace. All topics will fall under the broad heading of land and sea and could range from museum curation and tourism marketing to historical research and composing sea shanties.
Students also will take advantage of hands-on learning through the treasure trove of resources available at the Seaport. Teachers will no doubt witness the positive results of having students who are eager, ready and deeply interested in what they are learning. Seaport educators will gain valuable knowledge and skills in teaching techniques. The school system will strengthen its ties to this valuable local institution.
The program also is kicking off at a time when school districts throughout the region, state and country struggle to fill teaching vacancies and the number of students entering teacher education and training programs at colleges and universities is declining.
Stonington Superintendent of Schools Mary Anne Butler told The Day recently, in talking about this new collaborative Seaport-public school program, that these factors, along with the changing nature of education, mean that classrooms will look very different in the future. Certified teachers will not be the only ones educating students, she said.
Teaching and learning in the traditional classroom setting is controlled and fairly inflexible. Subject matter is directed from the top. State mandates and standardized testing drive a fair amount of what’s taught. School day schedules are tight and regimented. Transportation availability and timing of extracurriculars can hinder flexible programming.
This Seaport-Stonington schools program, however, will break away from some of these protocols, making way for more creativity, more motivation, broader thinking, independent learning and complex thinking. This self-directed approach to learning was developed by the Right Question Institute of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The group’s mission is to improve democracy by teaching a strategy that allows anyone to ask better questions and participate more effectively in decisions that affect them.
We congratulate Stonington public schools for embarking on this collaborative learning venture. If there’s any down side, it’s that only 14 students will be able to participate initially as unanticipated challenges are worked out and wrinkles in the program are smoothed. Still, Butler said she envisions the program being expanded in the future to include both more middle school students, as well as high schoolers.
There is no doubt all school officials must think more creatively and flexibly to meet students’ needs in the face of a declining number of certified teachers. We encourage more school districts to formulate these valuable learning collaboratives with community partners.
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