Developing Great Minds

By Heidi Smith

As part of their quest to develop a unique school model, the staff at Phoenix Rising have been visiting local schools that embody different aspects of student autonomy in the learning within the Child Centered Consciousness Based Educational Model that is currently in its development phase. These schools include, Lincoln Elementary School, Hilltop Learning Center, the Olympia Community School, The Attic Community Learning Center and Puget Sound Community School. Most of our staff also recently attended a math conference led by Dr. Constance Kamii, a protege of psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget, called Encouraging Thinking in Mathematics A Constructivist Approach. All agree that the visits have expanded their ideas about teaching and learning and generated excitement about trying new approaches in the classroom.

The math conference in particular introduced a radically different way of teaching that doesn’t give kids answers but rather demands high levels of critical thinking. “They have to use their own reasoning,” explains Specialist and Resource teacher Audrey Arpin. “The thinking process is more important than having the right answer.” Such practices create students who are not dependent on teachers and learn how to analyze each other’s answers. Third and Fourth grade teacher Jonathan Wood was also impressed. “It was eye-opening to see first graders and kindergarteners solve division and multiplication story problems when they were left to their own devices,” he says. “Students discussed their solutions, and through that discussion, and a host of agreements and disagreements with their peers, everyone was gradually convinced of the validity or invalidity of their own work. It was brilliant!”

For teaching assistant Jan Ferrari, the experience could be summed up in a statement from the director of The Attic: “I never knew how brilliant children were until I stopped telling them what to do.” The staff has begun implementing this new approach in their classrooms, and the results have been startling. “Everyone is so quiet and focused on figuring out their math problems,” says Eve Wood. “When I tell them it’s time to stop, they all groan.” For Arpin, the idea of not telling children that their answer is right or wrong, but instead asking questions has larger implications. “It applies to everything,” she says, “not just math.”

In general, as part of the school visits, says Eve Wood, “It was inspiring to see school models that used research based practices to develop critical thinkers.” Wood, who teaches first and second grade, cites the example of a five year old girl at one school during a school visit, who had been given a science kit - batteries, a wire, and a light bulb - and was told to see if she could make it work. “Look,” exclaimed the girl as the visitors walked by, “I got the light to go on!” C.R.E.A.T.E. coordinator Sonya El Debssi agrees. “I observed students as young as three completely engaged and focused on what they were doing,” she says.

Throughout the spring, the staff at Phoenix Rising will continue with their school visits and bi-monthly school model trainings with the Educational Director, Ana Ortega. According to Ortega, “A child centered environment is founded on the basis of autonomy in learning. Students are presented with opportunities to have student choice based on interest, but they are encouraged to think critically and challenge themselves as they engage that choice. Here they are developing the ability to be self-directed, and intrinsically motivated.”

As our staff gain more information and understanding of how a child centered environment works through autonomy in learning at a deep level, their classrooms will continue to expand and evolve. Stay tuned!

Meanwhile back at the school this is what happens when a teacher says to her students, "Choose the materials that you would like to work with today." No one wanted to stop when recess rolled around!

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