9th Grade @ASESFTW Students Ask, 'What if High School Were More Like Preschool?'

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Reflections on 9th Grade @ASESFTW students’ responses 
to “What if K-12 Education Were More Like Preschool?


Chris Thinnes

If education changed like this, learning would be
we would not just need, but want —
and curiosity would have no limits…

– Riley W.

In a recent post, I shared how Deborah Meier’s work and a variety of recent experiences have led me to ask, “What if K-12 Education Were More Like Preschool?” and to pose a variety of related questions:

What do we know about children that we have neglected to honor in our commitments to traditional notions of academic excellence? What parts of this collective knowledge must we recapture and reintegrate? How might we draw on early learning practices to enrich students’ social, academic, and ethical development in K-12 schools in the years to come? 

Shortly after that post, I was excited to learn from Dave Ostroff that he’d invited 9th grade students in the Tad Bird Honors College at All Saints Episcopal School to consider that post as a provocation for further inquiry, dialogue, and discovery about their learning — in conjunction with learning walks through the school’s early childhood learning center. Since then, as student Matt A. explains:

Using the design thinking process, we have undergone a process of trying to ideate what our school would look like if we were to make our education process more like that of preschoolers. Currently we are trying to put some of those ideas into effect and observing what it does to our learning environment. We have gone on miniature adventures to our lower school to observe how the kids live and learn in their classes. What we found was amazing, and inspired us to make a change in the culture and norms of our everyday interaction.

Naturally, I was all the more excited that students in the cohort started sharing their reflections on this process as replies to that post. Many of the things they noticed on their learning walks resonated closely with my own reflections in recent months. Karoline B., for example, interviewed a number of preschool students and “noted one common element between all of their thoughts and comments…that their learning environment and teachers supported them collaborating and sharing.” A.J.’s visit to a preschool classroom revealed young learners with “a freedom to choose which station they wanted to go to first” and a teacher who “was just happy that they were writing and understanding.” Kristen G. “noticed how welcoming, pleasing, and safe the environment was;” Nicole A. agreed, explaining that “you could see it in how talkative they were, how much they smiled, and how relaxed they seemed. In preschool, everyone is friends with everyone. They’re in a loving environment surrounded by kind people, where they’re encouraged to be themselves.” Nicole A. also noticed that in the preschool classes, “there is no failure. Trying is enough.” As Kristen G. suggested, “it was a heartwarming experience that made me want to travel back in time to my preschool years to learn in an innovative classroom… All students need a lively place to learn, no matter how old they are.”

This window into the experience of early learners has led these students to ask important questions about the nature of the high school learning experience, that stand as compelling provocations for us all. For example:

How might we use what we have learned from our visit to the kindergarten and preschool classes to improve our learning environment and overall learning experience? (Christophe C.)

What if every core class could be as collaborative and engaging as it is in preschool? (Karoline B.)

How can we bring a joy back into learning? How can we help make it fun for students to learn again? (AJ J.)

How might we rethink and redesign the actual space and environment of a classroom to make it more fun and inviting, prompting productivity? (Trent B.)

What if we weren’t afraid to ask a ‘stupid’ question or get the answer wrong? (Riley W.)

I encourage you to read all of these remarkable students’ comments — many of which include vulnerable reflections on their own experience of learning, and provocative questions about the future of learning for us all. I’m sure you’ll be as inspired as I was by their example, and as eager to hear about the impact of their shared discoveries on their high school experience in the weeks and months to come. Noting the courage demonstrated by these students and their teacher to engage in authentic inquiry about the ‘real world’ of their learning, I am as confident as Riley W. that “if education changed like this, learning would be something we would not just need, but want–and curiosity would have no limits.”

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You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes