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After almost 17 years of teaching you’d think I’d have it figured out.  Yet there I was, teaching in the “ideal school” that I founded in 2017, teaching a micro-class of 6 students, and I realized that I was still failing as a teacher.

I could list, for days, all the things that are going right at Headwaters Academy.  It’s an incredible environment.  Our visitors tell us so, our parents think so, and our students know so.  They are learning at a far faster pace than their peers, enthusiastic to learn, motivated, physically fit, critical thinking, and entrepreneurial.  They are, in short, miles ahead of their same-aged peers.  Yet I still wasn’t, at that point, getting the maximum growth and success that I could from each child.

The very next day I made our largest change since the sheer audacity of opening such a different school in 2017.  I sat with the children, handed each a piece of paper, and said “let’s list what we need to learn today, what we want to learn, and what will be fun.”

As we understood the learning goals a form of tracking learning began to take shape.  Students knew what they had to get done.  Some formal lessons best in a group were scheduled at particular times, running groups were established (inspired athletes at 11 a.m., those who are running to be fit at 9:30 a.m.), and recesses where there would be supervision decided.  We maintained our group lunch.  But everything outside of that, including what to work on, when to work on it, when to seek help, when to eat, when to rest, when to play was left open to the students.  They literally managed their own day.

The result:

We got more work done in one day than we would in two (and we already, before the change, as one recent visiting teacher remarked, get more done in an hour than most schools in a day).  Children had time to play.  They found that it’s best to tackle the big jobs first.  They didn’t get lost in the crowd – they couldn’t.  We taught EVERY lesson at a table, where no one could hide.  Students got 1:1 attention each time they needed it.  They negotiated with each other – from who was using the guitar room to when they should all have recess together (oddly none showed up for the 2:15 recess – “we all have things to do still” they noted. “We’ll be out tomorrow”).

We are still perfecting this idea… it is early days yet.  But I think, as this point in time, that I may have finally answered, at least for myself, “how children best learn.”  And from there I’ve been able to implement it.

Is there another model out there like ours?  No, certainly not.  When we opened we chose not to be under any particular model – each has its problems because each fails to take into account that every child, literally EVERY child, learns differently.  But I am reminded of the Montessori method as well as the Harkness Method best delivered by Philips Exeter Academy.

Maria Montessori believed that children’s inherent desire to learn should guide their learning.  She was correct… but building a model around this is, again, almost impossible and fails to resolve the a number of issues – mostly moving from a model developed decades ago to our modern day.  In my own experience, working at a Montessori school myself I could see firsthand where its limitations were found.

The Harkness Method, which is used in a growing number of northeast US schools, hits the mark.  We have found our stationary whiteboards, where we used to stand and deliver lessons, are far less used. We have resolved to teach most often at a table where our very placement means that no one is elevated above any other and that no one can “hide” and have that blank stare that kept me up one night last week.  We reach every student… that isn’t just good business – it’s a moral imperative.

At the end of the day we will have not just self-directed learners, but also individuals able to manage their own schedules.  When we think back we realize this is the ‘Socratic Method’ and that it was replaced with desks in rows and a teacher at the front to meet the needs of an industrial age.  That isn’t today’s reality – it should not be the reality in schools either.