This post is about a school were the first teacher of the day states “We approach everything with the view of children as powerful knowledge creators”. It is about a school where, unprompted, a 5th grade boy tells me that Bloom’s Taxonomy is incorrect, that you don’t need to learn basic information in order to be creative and inventive. This is a school that lives what some of us have said for so long: give students the tools of their own understanding and they will self-evolve their own futures. Hopefully you are interested and will read on!
Sabot at Stony Point is a PS-8th school with 178 students, the product of a merger about 6 years ago between two schools on the west side of Richmond, VA. It sits on a beautiful site, housed in the old home of a Virginia tobacco baron, bounded by 100 acres of designated open space forest that the school uses as a playground and outdoor lab. They plan to grow in their current configuration by another 10%, and then take a leap up in enrollment along with a building campaign. They are a Reggio school, so my visit reminded me of my learning with The College School in St. Louis about 6 weeks ago. With that impressive earlier visit at College, I came prepared to ask some deeper questions about the progressive philosophy and what it might mean to other schools interested in getting back to Dewey-type roots.
At Sabot, teachers use guiding questions, not to cover a broad map of content area but to allow students to investigate fewer themes more deeply. They have a list of “habits of the mind” that guide curriculum more than content, including taking risks with ideas, conversation, project design, and flexibility. “We certainly accommodate the individual, but we also pay a lot of attention to how the group works together, how students help each other, learn from each other.” As I have heard from a number of early childhood educators on this journey, they know that even the young students are metacognitive. “Bloom and Piaget were wrong; we tend to go high on the taxonomy at an early age and just see what happens.” Even the young students interweave writing, drawing, conversation, and music all within the same topic or question.
Teachers listen more and talk less; they inquire more and tell less. Once students understand the relative roles, it works. Teachers don’t plan ahead in detail; they have a general plan for the day, the week, and the term, but they adjust after observing the students and tweak their detailed plan day-to-day to meet the students where they are. “Students essentially scaffold the learning themselves. I am quieter and other children will finish each other’s thoughts or sentences themselves. Students will naturally go over and work with someone who is struggling a bit. And of course we know that helping to teach is the best way to learn.”
In the early grades the teacher ratio is usually a two adults with 18 students. In the older grades there is one instructor for about 20 students. “If students actually own their learning as they do here from an early age, more students per teacher in the older grades is not a problem at all. We focus on the social and emotional skills at the younger ages so by the time they get up to about 3rd grade they are really owning their own learning pathway.”
I asked what kind of teacher is successful in this environment and how they find new staff. “We find smart people who really want to teach this way, and then we have our own learning specialists who work with faculty to be successful in this framework. The critical piece is that new teachers have to share the idea that students come to school with powerful ideas, and then they can learn the rest. It might take a year or so to get comfortable with this student-teacher relationship, but then the teachers just keep getting better at it.”
We stopped in to a 6th grade class that was working in science. The students gathered around and showed me their drawings on the wall they had made to better understand the physiology of the human brain. One girl had drawn the brain as a house of rooms, each with a different function; she said that it helped her to understand and remember the brain in this way because “it is easy to remember what goes on in each room”. A boy showed how he had drawn the brain as a library, and the books in each area related to function as well: books about memory in the area of memory, books about movement or athletics in the area that controls movement. The discussion devolved into a conversation about people with strokes and what happens in the brain, some students asking questions, others posing possible answers. It was not a debate or a search for the right answer; it was like being in an idea salon. One boy knew all the parts of the brain and another related a stroke to what happens when your computer freezes.
Sabot at Stony Point is utterly comfortable with who and what they are. I had a chance to sit down with some of the leadership, and, like any smaller school, they have strategic and growth issues and challenges. They know their core values and will continue strengthening those messages they convey to their community. The students do well (better than well as you might imagine) on standard tests, and they are incredibly well prepared to go on to both public and private high schools. What was clear to me is that, like the school, the students are just as comfortable with who and what they are about. Not only do they learn content and skills, but also they know why they learn, and how they learn. This is a step in creating the self-evolving learner that most schools don’t understand. We think the students won’t “get” this metacognition, and so we keep this information to ourselves. We don’t explain Bloom and Piaget and all the rest. But they do get it; they always have and will if we just take the time to explain it to them from the beginning in appropriate language. Then they will have this powerful tool of context for the rest of their lives, after they have left us and gone off to face their own exciting futures. My sense is that students who attend a school like Sabot at Stony Point will acquire this critical element of self-evolving learning better than most.
Here are active blogs from some of the faculty at Sabot Stony Point:
Kindergarten: Gleanings (Mary Driebe)
Middle School Language Arts: Bibliogenesis (Myles Curtis)
Midde School Science (Kara Page)
Middle School Exploratory (All MS students)