In his first guest contribution to the Alt Ed Austin blog, Ted Graf, Head of School at Headwaters School, provides an excellent list of questions to ask when looking for the right school for any individual learner. If you’ve ever spent time in a private consultation or group workshop with me, you’ve likely grappled with many of these same questions. You’re invited to discuss them with Ted and other Headwaters community members at their January 26 middle and high school open house.
For most schools and those of us who work in them, this time of year is both highly stimulating and thought-provoking. On the stimulating side, we’re doing a lot of thinking, imagining, and planning for next year—how can we deepen our programs and make them more meaningful for students? Are there ways we can strengthen our culture, especially in the context of so much disequilibrium in the larger society? On the thought-provoking side, we’re finding that children and families have more and more insightful questions about how our education (or anyone’s) is really meeting a child’s needs, and I view this as a hopeful development.
So, I find myself having conversations with students and families about the “best” environment for that learner. Though it may sound counterintuitive, I urge students, in partnership with their parents, to think as much about themselves (as learners) as they do about a school setting.
Below, you’ll find the questions I encourage students to ask themselves as they consider different schools; they can be adapted for younger learners and work nicely in dialogue with parents.
In your most rewarding year of school, what was that environment like? Describe its characteristics for yourself. Are those characteristics still true for you as a learner?
What kind of learning environment are you looking for now? Informal? Formal? Bustling and busy? Quieter and more reflective? Structured? Individualized? What do you want that environment to look and feel like?
What role do your health and sense of balance play in your decision-making about school?
What kinds of relationships do you want to have with your teachers? Do you want to be known and understood, or do you prefer some anonymity? How do you feel about calling your teachers by their first names?
What kinds of students do you want to be around? After all, you’ll share hours of discussions, projects, rehearsals, practices, games, and performances together. Who motivates you? Who stimulates you? Who lights you up?
What kinds of curriculum are you seeking? Answer-based? Question-based? Socratic and discussion-based? How much research? How many projects? How do you feel about exams and the like?
Particularly pertinent to grades 4 through 12, how willing are you to use your voice to shape the learning environment around you? [At its essence, this question is asking you (and your parents) about whether you see education as something happening WITH the student or FOR the student.]
To be clear (and based on my own experience as a teacher and school leader), I am biased toward making a meaningful and vigorous education WITH the student. If you have other questions you find useful at this moment in a child’s educational journey, please share them in the comments.