What I learned at the Education Reimagined Symposium 2019: #whyLCE

I was excited to learn recently that a new learner-centered school, Gantry Academy, is launching soon in Round Rock. Soon after, I had the serendipitous pleasure of meeting its founder and director, Jennifer Phillips, at the Education Reimagined Symposium in Washington, D.C. It was the best education conference I’ve ever attended, and I’m grateful that Jennifer offered to share her takeaways and insights from the symposium in this guest post. —Teri Sperry

The time is now. Kelly Young, president of Education Reimagined, at the organization’s symposium, January 17, 2019.

The time is now. Kelly Young, president of Education Reimagined, at the organization’s symposium, January 17, 2019.


While many parents feel that the standard modern education system doesn’t work for their child, we might not know that there is another way. We just have this nagging feeling that our children are not widgets to be produced by an educational factory. So, some of us are moving to private schools, where lower ratios and individual attention give us hope for a better outcome. But then we hop from school to school, looking for the right fit that we can’t articulate, only knowing that something about each offering is just not working for our child. What we are developing alone together is the concept that education should start with the learner, rather than the institution.

Education Reimagined hosted a one-day symposium in Washington, D.C., on January 17 focused on sharing the message of Learner-Centered Education (LCE). There were over 200 educators, philanthropists, vendors, and learners present; chances are you missed it, quite possibly just because you haven’t even heard the term LCE, and you aren’t alone.

A true learner-centered education is more than a majority consensus on a thematic unit topic. It allows each learner to strive for mastery at their own pace (competency-based), with personalized, relevant, and contextualized content that they themselves engage in designing (learner agency). It is rooted in meaningful relationships (socially embedded) and it does not stop in the classroom (open-walled).

As it turns out, I was sent to the symposium because the educational goals I have for my own children align directly with the purpose of Education Reimagined. This organization is fully committed to transforming all education into the learner-centered paradigm. I didn’t realize it before, but my family is just a small piece of a much larger movement. I knew intrinsically what I wanted education for my girls to look like. I could describe it to other parents as “learner-driven” or “passion-driven” or even a “hack school” model, and I could cite specific studies supporting this approach, but what I lacked was the common vocabulary and the knowledge of the sheer magnitude of the existing efforts pushing in the same direction.

After a full day of immersion with these passionate, dedicated innovators, I came away inspired and recommitted to building a better educational method for every single child! It may sound fantastical or like an unreachable goal, but here are my top takeaways from the symposium that make this dream possible. 

1. This is not a “fancy liberal fad.”

At the conference, I spoke with leaders from both private programs and public school districts, from northern states like Vermont and from heartland states like Missouri. I was not the only person from Texas there. The idea that each person is unique and learns best in their own unique way has so much research to back it up that LCE is not just trending; it’s only a matter of time before it is the new standard. How can anyone make that claim? It’s already happening in most other major industries, from personalized television programming from Netflix and Hulu, to personalized medications based on your DNA. Personalized education is not just preferable; it’s inevitable.

Jasmine McBride, a student who spoke at the symposium about her experiences in a learner-centered high school.

Jasmine McBride, a student who spoke at the symposium about her experiences in a learner-centered high school.

2. Kids are people NOW.

While this may sound like an obvious statement, how many times have you heard “Children are our future?” Implying that age limits the usefulness of a person is not only harmful but also wasteful. There are now high school students who are published authors, Emmy award winners, and mentees of Broadway superstars, all thanks to their experiences with LCE. Learner agency, the ability for a student to make decisions about their own education, seems to generate one particularly interesting outcome (among the many additional benefits): sense of self. Self-confidence. Self-esteem. Self-efficacy. I heard from the young learners I spoke with directly that even one year in an LCE program can have a major lifelong impact. The more this seed grows in learners now, the more exponentially it will take off as they take on leadership roles in the community.


3. This is the best-kept secret in your neighborhood.

Remember when I mentioned that we are each developing this feeling “alone together”? The latest study shows that up to 60 percent of the public feels that education should be aimed at preparing individual learners for personally fulfilling lives. And yet, those same people think that only 5 percent feel the same way! Start the conversation with those around you. Even if they don’t have the same vocabulary, it’s something we can discuss together rather than in isolated pockets.

What can I do for my child NOW?

First, read about Learner-Centered Education at Education Reimagined to learn more about the national conversation happening now. Familiarize yourself with the vocabulary so we can all be having the same conversation locally as well as nationally. Decide if a fully personal, engaging educational path is right for you or your child. 

Second, act locally! While some public schools near us have shifted to competency-based report cards and portfolio assessments, they are still required to teach to the standardized tests. Work with your PTA to encourage change within your school. Some private schools are run democratically. Take a proposal to your leadership circle to discuss the LCE concept in depth.

Third, drop in to one of the regular workshops hosted by Gantry Academy to help us develop the LCE method that best offers custom, individualized programs to each learner right here in Round Rock, Texas!

[For a more comprehensive review of the symposium’s specific events, read Suzanne Freeman, Ph.D.’s blog post here.]


Jennifer Phillips

Should all children be provided gifted education?

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Guest contributor Srinivas Jallepalli is the founder of Sankalpa Academy, a growth mindset school that seeks to offer gifted education to all children. Sankalpa Academy is located a few blocks from the Thinkery in the Mueller area and will be launching in Fall 2018.

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Srinivas received a B.Tech. degree from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (now Chennai) in 1991 and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Texas at Austin in 1993 and 1996 respectively, all in Electrical Engineering. After two summers at AT&T Bell Laboratories, he joined Motorola in 1996 and spent the last two decades researching advanced semiconductor process challenges affecting low power and high performance circuits. He also had the honor of serving on the modeling and simulation sub-committee of the International Electron Devices Meeting in 2006 and 2007 and finally as its chair in 2008. He is currently a Technical Director at NXP Semiconductors and holds four U.S. patents and has contributed to over fifty papers in IEEE conferences and refereed journals.

Srinivas has a keen interest in understanding child development research and the challenges that are preventing us from bringing this research to our schools. This passion has led him to conduct an extensive meta-analysis of published research and to also author a broad-ranging survey of parents and teachers.

 

“It has been a disastrous half. His work has been far from satisfactory. His prepared stuff has been badly learnt, and several of his test pieces have been torn over; one of such pieces of prepared work scored 2 marks out of a possible 50. His other work has been equally bad, and several times he has been in trouble, because he will not listen, but will insist on doing his work in his own way. I believe he has ideas about becoming a Scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous, if he can't learn simple Biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a Specialist, and it would be sheer waste of time, both on his part, and of those who have to teach him.” Mr. Gaddum, an Eton College science teacher, made these comments on the 1949 report card of a 16-year-old John Gurdon. A short 13 years after the summer at Eton, Gurdon showed that the DNA from specialized cells of frogs, like skin and intestinal cells, could be used to generate new tadpoles. The pioneering work of Gurdon has opened new doors as scientists now attempt to create replacement tissues for treating diseases like Parkinson's and diabetes. Sir John Gurdon was the 2012 winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

While it is tempting to dismiss the comments of Sir Gurdon's teacher as the product of a culture of a bygone era, this episode does offer a valuable lesson. We see time and again that profound learning and growth happen only when one has agency and is invested in his/her work and is inspired by the challenge in front of them. This is the underlying premise of Dr. Maria Montessori’s work and the Waldorf movement and of most child-centered schools. Yet, how many of us would go so far as to offer gifted education and higher expectations as the solution to struggling students in failing schools? Henry (Hank) Levin is just such a pioneer.

Hank Levin is an education economist who first came to fame in 1966 when he challenged the findings in the Coleman Report and the statistical analyses on which they were based. The Coleman Report, requested by the U.S. Office of Education, sought to identify the determinants of academic achievement. Levin’s passion for improving the educational outcomes of disadvantaged children led to decades of research in the areas of education reform, equity, and efficiency and eventually to the launch of the Accelerated Schools Project for at-risk children in 1986. The idea was that treating at-risk children as gifted and talented students was the best way to engage them and to significantly accelerate their learning. His program built upon students’ strengths and creativity. By immersing them in relevant and meaningful real-world projects, he built their capacity for insight and thus their agency. Contrast this with the prevalent remedial approaches in 1986. In fact, even today, many schools offer drills, worksheets, and other “chew and pour” approaches to disadvantaged children and thus drive them farther away from the love of learning. An independent evaluation of the Accelerated Schools found that they produced strong academic results on test scores (as weak an indicator as they are!) at a relatively low cost (Bloom 2001). In 1992, the New York Times named Levin one of “nine national leaders in education innovation,” and American Educational Research Association presented him with the Distinguished Contributions to Research in Education Award in 2017.
 

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Through a very different path, Professor Joseph Renzulli, educational psychologist and distinguished professor in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut, arrived at very similar conclusions as Levin. While many look at IQ and processing speed to determine giftedness, Renzulli proposed a three-ring model that looked at ability, creativity, and task commitment. Based on his model for giftedness and his understanding of child development, he advocated that schools should provide all students with the opportunities needed to develop higher-order thinking skills. He felt that all children can and should pursue more rigorous content. His Schoolwide Enrichment Model or SEM (Renzulli 1985), which supports child-led exploration through enrichment clusters, has been gaining significant popularity in recent years. Laurel Mountain Elementary school in RRISD is one example of a local public school that has adopted the SEM approach.

As one might expect, similar improvements have been taking place in schools outside the United States as well. Levin’s Accelerated Schools have also been established in Hong Kong, for example. It is noteworthy that in Ghana's capital city of Accra, about 80 percent of children are now enrolled in preschool by age 3. More interestingly, the preschools in Accra are in the process of retooling their programs to enhance their children’s learning and development. They are moving away from rote memorization to a curriculum that values open-ended questions, reasoning, and reflection. Very similar fundamental changes are also taking place in the elementary classrooms across China, only on a much grander scale. For example, Adream Foundation has built over 2,700 “Dream Centers” across China to foster curiosity and creativity in their young children. To promote risk taking, the foundation has explicitly prohibited judgment and criticism at these centers.

The large body of research on human abilities (Gardner 1983; Sternberg 1984; Bloom 1985; Renzulli 1986; Reis 1995; Levin 2013) bolsters the claim that the strategies employed in gifted and talented education are essential for general education as well. Given the decades of research and investment, and a lengthy federal report on improving education for the gifted and talented (National Excellence: A Case for Developing America’s Talent; U. S. Department of Education, 1993), is there consensus on what gifted education entails? Please stay tuned as I explore this further in my next blog post (the second of a three-part series) here.


Srinivas Jallepalli

 

References

Bloom, B. S. (Ed.). (1985). Developing talent in young people. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Bloom, H.S., Ham, S., Melton, L., & O’Brient, J. (2001). Evaluating the accelerated schools approach: A look at early implementation and impacts on student achievement in eight elementary schools. New York: Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Levin, H. (2013) “Acceleration for All,” with Pilar Soler, In J. Hattie & E. Anderman, Eds., International Guide to Student Achievement (New York: Routledge, 2013), 209-211.

Reis, S. M., Gentry, M. L., & Park, S. (1995). Extending the pedagogy of gifted education to all students (Research Monograph 95118). Storrs: University of Connecticut, The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.

Renzulli, J. S. (1986). The three-ring conception of giftedness: A developmental model for creative productivity. In R. J. Sternberg & J. E. Davidson (Eds.), Conceptions of giftedness (pp. 53-92). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Renzulli, J. S. (1993). Schools are places for talent development: Applying “gifted education” know-how to total school improvement. Unpublished manuscript. The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented: The University of Connecticut, Storrs.

Renzulli, J. S. (1994). Schools for talent development: A comprehensive plan for total school improvement. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.

Renzulli, J. S., & Reis, S. M. (1985). The schoolwide enrichment model: A comprehensive plan for educational excellence. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.

Sternberg, R. J. (1984). Toward a triarchic theory of human intelligence. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 7, 269-287.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement. (1993). National excellence: A case for developing America’s talent. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
 

Are we nearing a tipping point for a new model of education? A talk with Peter Gray


Peter Gray is a true pioneer in exploring alternative education models, a serious researcher in the field of education and play, and an inspiring parent and activist. He speaks and writes eloquently without academic jargon about the needs of children. He’s currently on the faculty of Boston College in the Psychology Department, with dozens of books, articles, and blog posts to his name. His most recent book is Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. And that title says it all! We also recommend a recent article that clearly explains the differences between progressive education models—which we know a lot about here at Alt Ed Austin—and self-directed learning. You’ll also find a whole universe of helpful resources on the Alliance for Self-Directed Education website.

Peter will be speaking at several locations in Austin at the end of April (listed at the end of this post), so we decided to take this opportunity to let the Alt Ed Austin community know a little bit more about his philosophy and predictions for the future. Peter is a passionate advocate for play as the most natural and powerful way children learn. And he is leading a national movement for self-directed education through the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, as he discusses in the interview below.


Tell our readers who might not be familiar with your work how you got started in the field of education research and alternative schooling in particular.

As a researcher, I was originally doing brain research, looking at hormones in the brain and how hormones affect behavior. But when my own son was nine years old, he reached a crisis point in school, in the fourth grade. He hated school, and they didn’t know what to do with him. We decided we needed to find something very different from traditional schools for him as he had always been rebelling against it. And so we found the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts.

Since then, Sudbury has become a model for self-directed education. The Clearview Sudbury School in Austin follows this model. Sudbury and schools like it are places where children are free to play and explore and do what they want to do. There are children of all ages, and the rules are all made by children themselves—the opposite of typical schools.

When we enrolled my son, he was immediately happy and thought this was just what school should be. But I was concerned that he might be living in my basement for the rest of his life. Fathers tend to need more convincing than mothers about this type of education. I see that all the time. I needed some evidence that it worked. I tried to convince some graduate students in the field of education to do a research study, but no one was interested, so I decided to do the study myself. The results impressed me. Graduates of Sudbury who wanted to go to college did go to college. Others went on to various careers and they were all happy. None of them regretted going to Sudbury, which comforted me as a father and intrigued me as an academician.

All of this launched my interest in play, and I began to study why children all over the world have this drive to play and play in certain predictable ways, which we now believe are part of natural selection and designed to make them ready for adulthood.

I’ve been pursuing these ideas for many years, and I’m now concerned about what our coercive schooling system is doing to our children in terms of time taken away from play and creating anxiety. Now I’m not just a researcher; I’m also an advocate for what we call self-directed education. We have an organization called the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, and we educate people and promote these ideas, whether through schools or through homeschooling and what is sometimes called “unschooling.”

 

Are you hopeful about the future direction of self-directed education in the United States? Where do you see our education moving in the next few decades?

The biggest barrier to self-directed education that has to be overcome—and I’m hopeful about it—is that the great majority of people just don’t know anything about it, don’t understand it, and don’t see how it will work! Most Americans are third-, fourth-, or fifth-generation traditionally schooled. School has a certain meaning for us, and there’s a lot of social propaganda about how important it is, so it’s not surprising that most people in our culture believe that school as traditionally defined is essential in order to be successful or not become homeless. We hear that all the time. But I think that the barriers can be overcome.

In the most recent statistics available from a few years ago, we saw that about 3.4 percent of American children were homeschooled, and the trend is increasing. In the past homeschooling was done primarily for religious reasons, not to add freedom to children’s lives. But now the reasons for homeschooling tend to be more about improving the learning environment, making children happier and less constrained. I think that as homeschooling becomes more common and not so weird, we’ll see the numbers increase rapidly.

We also think somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of homeschoolers are pursuing “unschooling,” but I prefer the more positive term of “self-directed education.” Both homeschooling and self-directed education allow children much more time in the day to find hobbies, discover their own interests, make friends, get involved in community activities, and all the things that are important to learning. And now there are more centers being opened to create communities and support for families who are doing this.

I see it all as a grassroots movement, and we’re heading toward a tipping point. The next stage is that there will be enough people doing this that they have some political clout. I’m not sure, but that will come when somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of families are embracing self-directed education. So what leads me to be optimistic is that we always see social change occurring slowly, gradually, as courageous people do non-normative things, but over time we reach a tipping point at which everyone knows someone who is doing it, and it no longer seems weird. It no longer seems like it’s something you’re going to be blamed for doing. That’s when real change happens. The most recent analogy is the acceptance of gay Americans and same-sex marriage. For education, I don’t know if it will take 10 years or 40 years, but we’re on a trend, and I think it will happen.

The other thing that makes me optimistic is that self-directed education is easier than ever before. The Internet has made it easy. When schools were started, there were only certain people who had knowledge and you had to go to institutions where knowledge was sequestered in order to learn. Really and truly, the Internet has now made schools obsolete. We haven’t as a society come to terms with that, but all children know that any information they need is available to them at home or anywhere by Googling it.

But what we still need is community. So i have hope that libraries will become the replacements for schools. I’d like to see libraries become community centers for activities—places for learning, recreation, and friendship. We are suffering from being isolated from each other, and there’s real value in connecting with others, especially for kids. Schools aren’t solving this problem right now.

What we’re trying to do at the Alliance for Self-Directed Education is to change from individual people trying to solve a problem to an organized movement tackling the problem. We want people to see themselves as part of the same movement, whether they’re doing unschooling at home or sending their children to a Sudbury-style school. We’re trying to create local groups to support each other.

Are there places in the country that are pushing forward faster than others in this movement?

I’m not sure we know exactly—we don’t have all the information. But it’s interesting that in Austin you have a Sudbury model school and Abrome and many unschoolers. Austin may be one of the places where there’s a real concentration of people who are interested in self-directed learning.

What new projects are you working on right now besides the Alliance?

I have a new book in mind but am not far enough along on it to talk about it. It will be about the obsolescence of schools and how their functions have been taken over by other, more efficient means.

I’d also like to mention another organization I’m involved in, which is called the Let Grow Foundation. This is run by Lenore Skenazy, who wrote the book Free Range Kids. She is concerned that we’ve really excluded kids from public spaces, and we’ve developed irrational fears about letting children be free to play and explore the world. Utah just recently passed the a “free range children” law, so the idea is gaining momentum. Lenore is the main force behind this, but I’m conducting some research and supporting it.


Thank you to Peter for taking time to talk with us! He will be speaking at four events in Austin at the end of April, so if you’re interested in his thoughts about where education is heading, you have some terrific opportunities to listen and ask questions:

What Is Self-Directed Education, and How Do We Know It Works?
Wednesday, April 25, 7pm at Abrome

Smart Schooling Book Group Discussion with Author Peter Gray
(on his book Free to Learn)
Thursday, April 26, 6pm, at Laura Bush Community Library in Westlake

Play Deficit Disorder: A National Crisis and How to Solve It Locally
Thursday, April 26, 7pm, at Laura Bush Community Library

The Biology of Education: How Children's Natural Curiosity, Playfulness, and Sociability Serve Their Education
Friday, April 27, 7pm, Clearview Sudbury School


Shelley Sperry
Sperry Editorial
 

Austin’s STEM schools are fueled by kids’ and educators’ natural curiosity

The technology and engineering sectors are producing valuable jobs in Austin and the rest of the nation, and, perhaps as a result, a growing number of parents want to encourage a love of science and mathematics in their children. It makes sense that we’re seeing more and more schools promoting Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) curricula. STEM courses and camps are popular in public and private schools, but as you might expect, the alternative schools in Austin offer some special twists. To learn more, I talked with local innovators who are taking STEM in new directions: Rebeca Guerrero and Dorothy and Kori McLain.
 

Geologists rock on at Copernicus.

Geologists rock on at Copernicus.

It’s important to be able to take a radio apart, and not get scolded!
—Rebeca Guerrero, Copernicus STEM, Language and Arts Academy

Rebeca Guerrero’s warm and supportive preschool, Copernicus STEM, Language and Arts Academy, has served children age 18 months to 5 years for the past two years.

Rebeca is a scientist herself, with a decade of experience as a microbiologist. When she realized that most young people today leave high school and head for college believing that science is too hard to master, and only for the smartest kids, she knew she had to try to make some changes. Rebeca’s own mother encouraged her to take an interest in the world and to ask questions and explore when she was very young. “As someone who used to take radios apart for fun, with my mother’s help, it was a shocking revelation that so many students are intimidated by science.”  

Invertebrates are awesome. (Copernicus)

Invertebrates are awesome. (Copernicus)

Rebeca moved into teaching and then, when her son was born a few years ago, decided to open her own preschool, allowing them to spend time together, playing and learning with other children. In the fall of 2015, Copernicus Academy started with four students, soon grew to 20, and today has about 50. The preschool combines STEM-focused play with learning in English and Spanish.

“Most of our kids speak English at home, but we have also had children who speak Korean and Farsi.” Parents at Copernicus understand the value of a bilingual education, says Rebeca, but “more than anything, families are looking for a place where kids can grow and feel supported emotionally.” With that supportive base, Copernicus educators pursue play-based learning with intention, making sure the students have experiences that spark a love of the natural world. For example, kids might spend a month learning about the solar system, including Earth’s rotation, the moon’s phases, integrating art and reading into their projects.

On an average day, you might find kids at Copernicus perfecting catapults made out of spoons, cooperating, experimenting, and showing off what they’ve done by launching pompoms. The usual routine includes time in the sun room or outside, snacks, small-group play, centers, and circle time. The staff joins in games and activities, asking questions but never telling the children what or how to play. And then there’s the music: “We sing and have dance parties every day,” says Rebeca. “We want to make sure that later in life they will say: ‘Science is not boring, it’s fun! Science is not for someone else—science is for me.’”

 

LTSA students on a NASA field trip.

LTSA students on a NASA field trip.

Everything is connected in our studies at LTSA,
like everything in our world is connected and integrated.

—Dorothy McLain, Lake Travis Stem Academy


At Lake Travis Stem Academy (LTSA), founder Kori McLain was not only inspired by her mother, she recruited her. Dorothy McLain spent most of her career as a college educator specializing in English composition and literature. Now she and Kori and the rest of the LTSA team are preparing about 25 students in Kindergarten through 9th grade for the 21st century, with a curriculum integrating STEM, critical thinking, and experiential learning. LTSA is now working on a partnership with UT High School that will allow older students to continue on at Lake Travis while benefitting from the resources the larger school can offer.

Dorothy has always believed in an interdisciplinary approach to learning. “It’s important to become well-rounded,” she says, citing a recent project in which middle-schoolers learned about the history, economics, politics, and culture of the Great Depression by writing and staging a three-act musical play.

Inspiration. (LTSA)

Inspiration. (LTSA)

“We are both experiential and project-based,” Dorothy explains. Students are engaged in hands-on, real-world activities that give them the opportunity to collaborate with each other and with outside experts to come up with solutions to problems or answer questions. At the end of each unit, instead of a traditional exam, students present their findings to the rest of the school and to the experts who have helped them. “They’re able to share their ideas with the rest of the community and have to think on their feet when the audience asks surprising questions!”

“We learn more from our failures than our successes,” adds Kori. If a model airplane a team has created doesn’t fly, then it’s back to the drawing board for more experiments. Just like in real life.

The overarching goals at both Copernicus and LTSA are to free the natural curiosity in each student and to keep them engaged and asking why? “They all see things around them and want to know more,” says Dorothy. “After that initial curiosity is aroused, we can then go deeper, encouraging them to think, ask more questions, and stay excited about learning.”


Shelley Sperry
 

Conversations about schooling: The Smart Schooling Book Group

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Alt Ed Austin is pleased to help spread the word about a new book group focused on crucial questions about educational systems and new understandings in the psychology of learning. Antonio Buehler, founder of Abrome, joins us on the blog to explain why he started the group and how you can join the conversations.
 

The majority of the parents we talk to are not eagerly looking to provide their children with a rich, self-directed learning environment. Sadly, most of the parents we talk to are trying to save their children from the trauma that is so often associated with schooling (e.g., testing, sleep deprivation, depression, bullying). One of the greatest challenges we face when talking to those parents about Emancipated Learning as an alternative to school is that it is often the first time that they have heard of an educational environment that does not rely on coercion. Most of them have never been introduced to the notion of self-directed education, or they believe that self-directed education can be achieved by allowing a student to pick a topic they are expected to write a report about. They might have heard of homeschooling, but have never heard of unschooling, Sudbury Valley, or Summerhill.

Instead of being able to highlight how we are creating a psychologically safe learning space where young people can engage in deep, meaningful, and enduring learning experiences that will allow them to lead remarkable lives, we are left trying to educate them on human psychology, the history of schooling, and the science of learning. Needless to say, a 30-minute conversation covering such deep topics is typically not enough to compel parents to take meaningful action to improve their children’s learning experiences in their current schools, to move them to alternative schools that better meet their children’s needs, or to opt out of schooling altogether.

At the same time, there are a lot of teachers and administrators who know that something is not working at their schools but do not know what they can do to substantially improve the situation.  They have most likely never been introduced to much of the research that proves that self-directed learning is the best way to deepen learning, promote lifelong learning, and eliminate much of the trauma associated with coercive schooling. It is not their fault, as the organizations they work for and the education schools that they attended go out of their way to ignore these topics, and instead focus on marginal reforms while pushing the baseline assumption that young people need to be forced to learn, and that schooling environments are where that happens.

In an attempt to spur the necessary conversations around education that are currently not happening, we will be hosting the “Smart Schooling Book Group” at the Laura Bush Community Library for the duration of this year. We will read one book each month that focuses on education, with an emphasis on the psychology that would ideally inform how we approach education, and then come together to discuss it on the last Thursday of each month.

2017 Reading List
Jan 26:  Why Don't Students Like School? by Daniel Willingham
Feb 23:  The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine
Mar 30:  Wounded by School by Kirsten Olsen
Apr 27:  Free to Learn by Peter Gray
May 25:  Overschooled but Undereducated by John Abbott
Jun 29:  Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined by Scott Barry Kaufman
Jul 27:   Gardener and the Carpenter by Alison Gopnik
Aug 31:  Drive by Daniel Pink
Sep 28:  Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood by A. S. Neill
Oct 26:  The End of Average by Todd Rose
Nov 30:  Old School by Tobias Wolff (novel)
Dec 28:  Mindset by Carol Dweck

We hope that young people, parents, future parents, teachers, and school administrators can all benefit from these readings and conversations. Hopefully, some school board members will also drop in.

Antonio Buehler
 

“A way of learning that’s full of connections”: Socratic discussion in Austin’s alternative schools

One of the most inspiring forms of learning I’ve encountered is Socratic discussion (sometimes called Socratic dialogue or Socratic seminar). Yet I often find myself in consultations struggling to adequately describe it to families who've never experienced it themselves or seen it in action. So I suggested that our staff writer-researcher, Shelley Sperry, delve into some local versions of the Socratic method with the help of students who love it. Here’s what she learned from them.
 

A Socratic discussion at Acton Academy

A Socratic discussion at Acton Academy

I remember my old high school was so divided. You were an island. But Socratic is a way of learning that’s full of connections.
                                                             —Cade Summers, KoSchool


Socratic discussions are powerful ways for students to help each other explore ideas, values, and opinions on important political, social, philosophical, and artistic issues. The Socratic method originated, as the name suggests, in ancient Greek philosophers’ methods of teaching and learning. Today, in some of Austin’s alternative schools the focus of “Socratics,” as students often call them, is on listening to all members of the group and finding common ground and new approaches, rather than trying to persuade or rigorously debate. During Socratics students try to develop a shared understanding of a particular essay, poem, or problem through analysis and creative interpretation, but the goal is never winning or losing a point but rather deepening the students’ own thinking.

As a newcomer to this way of learning, I wanted to understand how various students employ Socratic discussion in daily practice, so I interviewed three students who are fans of it. I am deeply grateful for the time they took to talk with me. I came away impressed by their ability to reflect on their own learning and communicate with a novice like me. The students I interviewed are Jesse Estes, age 18, who attends Skybridge Academy; Sam Sandefer, age 14, who attends Acton Academy; and Cade Summers, age 18, who attends KoSchool.

I learned through these interviews that the three schools’ Socratic programs have much in common as well as some differences. For example, Skybridge Socratics place emphasis on drawing personal connections to the issues and ideas under discussion. At Acton, focused Socratic discussions often explore ongoing, overarching themes like the “Hero’s Journey,” but Socratic questioning also takes place throughout the school day. KoSchool’s Socratic courses, much like college seminars, encourage students to delve deeply into complex texts and write clearly about them. I’ve edited my conversations with the three students to make these connections and subtle differences among their schools’ approaches clearer.
 

A Socratic discussion at Skybridge Academy

A Socratic discussion at Skybridge Academy

How would you define or explain Socratic discussions for a total newcomer?

Jesse: It’s an open-ended dialogue where you make sure everyone has a voice, and the goal is less important than the process.

Cade: Socratic is a more personal way to learn. Even if the group is divided somewhat in terms of the points everyone is making, you’re always connecting and learning from other people.

Sam: It’s really about learning to ask questions instead of giving and getting answers.


Can you talk about how the discussions work in practice? What’s a typical Socratic like?

Jesse: In our school, the student leader or the teacher/guide has a topic or question to consider, but then the floor is open to all students. Groups vary in size, but it’s usually about 10–12 people, which I think is optimal. We sometimes have as few as five people, but then discussion is slower. We each voice our thoughts in response to what someone else has said. Sometimes in philosophical discussions people do take sides, but in a lot of discussions there aren’t sides—there’s more of a spectrum. We do things mostly freeform and orally, but there is a whiteboard if someone needs to illustrate a point.

Cade: We practice Socratic dialogues in normal classes every day and I also host a “Bonus Socratic” after school. We usually have around 6 people, but it can be as few as 4 or as many as 11. The number doesn’t matter once you have a group that functions well. Michael—we call him a guide, not a teacher—often brings in a text, but students bring in poems and articles too. We might read the text, or part of it, to start the discussion. Then students just start sharing ideas.

Sam: We weave Socratic discussions through the day, not just in one particular time period. When you ask questions, you usually don’t just get one answer, you get another question to help lead you to an answer. So for example, if I ask someone about a math problem, instead of telling me the specific answer, the person might say: “What do you think the first step is in finding the answer?” Or they might say, “Could you try this? Or could you try that?”


Do you have any favorite discussions or moments during discussions in the past year?

Jesse: One of the best questions we had—and one that people kept talking about after class, like a running joke, was: If you have a boat and you take away one piece each year and replace it, until every piece is replaced, at what point do you have a new boat? We talked about this for three hours with no conclusion, but everyone participated and people changed opinions, and then kept talking about it after class.

Cade: I remember at one discussion a friend of mine was feeling a lot of anger coming into it, but having the Socratic turned the way he was feeling around. Discussion can help you alleviate some stresses because you can say what you’re thinking about issues—political or social or other things—and you can get some different contexts from other people and see things in a different light.
 

A Socratic discussion at KoSchool

A Socratic discussion at KoSchool

Finally, what’s the value of Socratic discussion for you, carrying forward after high school or with your family and community?

Jesse: You learn how to draw people into conversation and to really listen to and understand their points of view. I think I have a much stronger voice than I had earlier, and my perspective is wider. We’re encouraged to lead our own discussions during the semester, so you also gain leadership skills, and now I’m leading my own class. It’s inspired me to look at something related to leadership and teaching when I go to college.

Cade: Learning how to discuss and communicate is invaluable. I definitely spoke more when I started, but I’ve learned gradually to be more introspective and really listen. I think at home I take a more introspective approach now, too, and work on my ability to empathize and understand other people, including my younger brother.

Sam: I think it’s made me much more independent—so rather than relying on someone else to give me answers, I want to find them on my own.


Shelley Sperry