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Learning from My Experiences: A New Model for Early Education

kgbrown's picture

Kendalyn Brown

Anne Dalke

Critical Feminist Studies

8 December 2008

Learning from My Experiences: A New Model for Early Education

Introductory Thoughts:

The purpose of this project is to outline a model for a better and more productive educational system that begins with primary education. When I began this project, I intended to base my new model on research from experts in education. However, while I was researching, I was trying to make my ideas match those of the theorists. I decided, therefore, to focus my new model on my experiences in early education and my own theories about how education can be most effective. Thus, though the model should work for any age group, I have chosen to focus the application of my model on early education, Kindergarten though fifth grade. My program is not a specific curriculum for this age group, but is instead a set of principles that would help teachers to create a curriculum that is specific for their students.

I recognize that my plans and thoughts for this model may be highly idealistic and may not be achievable in any school system now in existence, mostly due to governmental overhead which prevents and in fact discourages difference in teaching and education. What I hope to accomplish with this project is a glimpse at what may be possible at some point in the future. I hope that my model presents a new way to look at early education, even if its actualization is still to come.

Memories from My Elementary Education:

Before laying out my ideal educational model, it is important to describe my own elementary educational experience, as it was a major influence on this project. I will include anecdotes in my descriptions because that is how my early memory works and I find that these moments are probably the best way for me to understand how young children learn.

Through first grade I lived in my hometown of Boone, North Carolina, a small, rural, college town in the Appalachian Mountains. My first two years of elementary school, kindergarten and first grade, took place in large, rural public schools. I have only a few memories of kindergarten that took place inside the classroom, a room with 45 five and six year olds and three teachers. I remember a lesson during which we learned the word “unique” and we got to fill out giant uniform posters by answering generic questions about what made us unique. (Only now do I see the irony in this assignment, though I am unsure of whether or not my teachers ever did.) I also remember that we had learning stations set up all around the room where we were supposed to complete the task (usually making patterns with plastic bears or spelling three letter words with little magnet letters) and then, once we had finished the activity, we were to cross our names off a lunch tray that had a class list taped to it. By the end of the week, we were to have crossed our names off all the lists in the classroom. I learned, quite early in the year, that I did not actually have to complete the assigned task to cross my name off and that none of my teachers would ever be aware whether or not I actually done the assignment.

During my first grade year, once a week we had a woman come to teach us Spanish. Though I am unsure of whether or not I actually retained any of the foreign language I was taught because I moved after that year, I do have vivid memories about learning the names of colors and counting out loud alongside my classmates in Spanish.

After first grade, I moved to Columbus, Ohio, where I attended a small, public elementary school. My school was quite diverse for my second grade year, but after that year, funding for the district was cut and so money for buses was the first item cut from the budget. My elementary school because a solely neighborhood school. I remember this change only because my best friend from second grade, Janay, no longer went to my school.

In my third grade year, I started the year in Mrs. Moreen’s class. I remember having trouble in her class and my most distinct memory was a disagreement that she and I had about whether or not rabbits were rodents. At the time, I had two rabbits and in my excitement I had been reading a great deal about them. In my reading, I had learned that rabbits were part of the Lagomorpha order and were in fact not rodents. This fact had stood out in my mind because the book I was currently reading had mentioned that people often assume that rabbits are rodents. When I corrected my teacher, she told me I was wrong. I went home and checked my book. She was wrong. When I brought the book in to class to show her that was incorrect she told me that because the book was published in England, where apparently they use a different classification system, the book’s author did not know about the US classifications. I knew, however, that these classifications were universal. I decided not to push her on the matter further.

Later in the year, my mother requested that I be moved into a newly-formed class of third and fourth graders, a third/fourth split. In this new class, I flourished. I read with the fourth graders, but my math was with the third graders. I was able to work on my own level and at my own pace and my teacher, Mrs. Polletta actually cared about what her students thought, allowing us to choose which books we wanted to read and how to structure the class time. I also remember the explorative reading activities where she would have students help others to read. That year, after switching classes, was the most successful and productive of my elementary education.

During my fourth grade year, my teacher, Mr. Goosby, actually had us writing research papers about various topics throughout the year. I remember when he handed out the assignment for our reports on presidents at the end of February, my mother went in to class to talk to him about changing the assignment to take into consideration that February was Black History Month and that March is Women’s History Month. Instead, he altered the assignment to include both presidents and women and blacks and I was one of three students who opted not to report on a president. Most students decided to do their reports on presidents because it would be “easier.”

While the last year of my elementary education was successful, I am not sure that I have specific memories that I think with contribute something significant to my discussion of a new form of elementary education. My goal in including these anecdotes is not only to demonstrate the basis of my education, but also to demonstrate the way in which young students remember their educational experiences.

Thoughts on a New Model for Education:

The founding principle of my new educational model is pronounced student involvement in the creation of curriculum and lesson planning. Having a stake in the planning of their own education will help the students to feel invested in the subjects they are learning. Also, with student voices involved in the planning of curriculum, the topics covered will be more relatable and thus more interesting to the students. In the co-planning sessions, students and teachers will work together to help create a lesson plan that will be productive for the purposes of both parties involved.

As the final project for each year, the students would work with their teachers and administrators to create a syllabus for the next school year. The teachers would come prepared to discuss the progression of classroom learning and the students would bring their own experiences to the discussion. The children’s input may be as simple as selecting which novels they would prefer to read for the next year or helping to decide which area of history is most interesting to them. Similarly, based on the specific objectives the teacher believes need to be accomplished, the students would help to plan specific assignments or experiments that would involve the teacher’s goal, but would present it in a way that students can appreciate and enjoy what they are learning.

In order for students to become better at helping to plan the curriculum for the next year, teachers must improve the students’ awareness of how different ideas function together. Therefore, the curriculum would be highly interdisciplinary, using different subjects to help introduce students to new ways of thinking. Though students may be more gifted at one subject in particular, the method that one subject uses to process information may be applicable to other areas of study. In my experience as a student, I have learned that the context of one subject may be used to help understand another. For instance, literature and history really are quite interconnected because all literature was produced in a specific historical context and the literature of a specific time can be instrumental in helping students to understand the happenings of the historical time period. Similarly, the logical thinking that is used in math can also be applied to other subjects, so that a formula can be developed to help reach a specific goal or understand a complex set of ideas from another subject. Foreign language could also be used to help students with other subjects, like history and literature, by providing a very different context for the material.

Ideally, this program should be set in a school that has a student population that is richly diverse with regard to race, cultural, socioeconomic status, religion, and educational level. This diversity is essential to the next principle of the model, which is centered on students teaching each other. Often, when a student understands a concept well, s/he is asked to wait until the other students in the class are able to catch up. Instead, this method would allow those who were further advanced to help their fellow students to learn. Not only would this allow for those who already have a grasp of the material to learn it better, but it would also help to create a bond among the students. Moreover, by teaching each other, those students who are teaching would be able to improve their communicative and explanatory skills. The students who are learning would have the material explained to them in a new way, perhaps a way that it easier to them to understand. These students would also improve their listening skills and would thus learn how to teach this (and other) material to more students in the future.

In order to help create an environment based upon mutual teaching and learning, the students’ reports would be given as a presentation to the whole class, so that the purpose of the assignment is not to tell the teacher something they (should) already know. Instead, teachers would encourage their students to select paper topics that are relevant to their personal interests, but also fit with the overall goals of the classroom. Through this method, the learning would be two-fold as not only would the presenting student learn about their topic and how to communicate it to the group, but the students who were listening would be learning from other students’ reports.

In theory, it would be preferable if students are not marked by grade or ability level, but are encouraged to try more advanced lessons as they become ready. The community of the classroom would be based upon a shared understanding of teaching and learning. Because students are helping each other to learn, it is important that there are students of different ages and ability levels in the same classroom, but that they are not necessarily distinguished based upon these hierarchal classifications.

In order to help make the teacher-student dynamic more comfortable and productive, teachers would work with students for longer periods of time. Instead of teachers being the head of a classroom for one year and then the students moving on to a new teacher, the teacher would move with the students. In this way, the education would be centered on the specific group of children instead of just the age group. The teacher would almost become a specialist in their group of students and the way that these children learn. The students, and not the material, become the teacher’s focus.

Limitations/Restrictions of the Model:

Though many of the ideas that I propose may seem difficult for the young age group I wish to work with, I believe that these principles must begin early in the educational process, even if the extent to which it can be implemented may be limited by the ages of the students. For instance, when the youngest students help teachers to prepare for the next year, it may be difficult for them to understand what the teacher desires to accomplish. I acknowledge the limitations of age, but still believe that the benefits of instituting these ideas earlier outweigh the difficulties that may be involved in helping the younger students to understand their role in the process and what purpose the process serves. Because the discussion about education begins at age five or six, when the student is ten or twelve or sixteen, they will have a better understanding of the process and will be able to take a more active role in developing their education.

Because of their varying backgrounds, which are essential to the idea of the students learning from each other, these students would have differing support from home, not only financially, but emotionally and educationally as well. Differentiation in the home lives of the students would certainly place limitations on how successful the students could be and because part of the program is learning from other students, it is important that all of the students progress in order for the group to move forward.

The model can really only be successful in small groups because the teacher really has to be aware of each child’s skill set in order to implement the co-teaching techniques. With only a small student to teacher ratio, the model requires more teachers and thus more funding. Because teachers and funding are both precious commodities in public schools, the number of students who could be affected by the model would be limited. Also, there is a specific type of teacher that is necessary to make this model successful. This type of teacher must believe in the idea that students can help themselves and each other. S/he must understand that the new model is not about being right or even teaching what is “right,” but is instead about allowing children to explore their educational opportunity and to allow for flexibility and individuality.

Concluding Thoughts:

The overall idea for my new educational model is that learning is based in skills rather than concepts. By sharing these pieces of my personal educational experience, I hoped to demonstrate that the proficiency children gain through cursive writing, state capitals, and multiplication tables is not the true basis of their education. The communicative and problem solving skills, which are not necessarily intentionally taught, are the real skills that help make students successful in their later primary and secondary education. I am attempting to point out that the ideas that are accidentally taught may be even more useful that those that teachers purposefully choose for their curriculum. As a teacher, you can not mandate learning; it happens with or without you. Instead, you should help to focus the learning toward a productive skill set that will help the students to be productive teachers and learners later in their lives.


Anne Dalke's picture

"You cannot mandate learning"

Well, Kendalyn, I think this is just totally inspired: I really admire your vision of an educational model with so much student direction @ each stage: design, implementation and assessment.

It's not as pie-in-the-sky as you imply, either; several of my children participated in the Watershed and Soundings programs @ Radnor Middle School (a public school in Wayne PA) which employ many of these principles. In Soundings, especially, the 8th grade students work together to decide which questions they most want to study, and those become their themes for the year.

So: I have some (very positive) experiences with this sort of education, and am eager to talk more about your proposal. Do you want to go on with this sort of thinking in some way? If so, here are some of my specific questions:

  • I like your decision to ground the paper in your own elementary educational experiences--you have some good stories!--but I'm not sure how they demonstrate "the way in which young students remember" such experiences. I see what you remember, but not how. What "way" has your remembering happened?
  • I applaud your decision to give students "a stake in the planning of their own education," but found myself several times wondering about the need for nudges that might lead them beyond what they are already invested in and know they are interested in. How to interest them in what doesn't....? (I am thinking here about Bryn Mawr's requirements, implemented in large part because of the assumption that we should all be pushed to explore beyond the spaces where we are most comfortable....)
  • Of course I like the interdisciplinarity of your proposal, especially the idea that "the context of one subject can be used to help understand another." I'd add to that the notion that different methodologies can be particularly useful across disciplinary lines. I'm thinking here especially of the work aaclh has done in this course, applying mathematical models to thinking about feminism. I'm remembering her final performance about the "functions" of language, and her most recent paper, Does Bryn Mawr College Foster Elitism Among its Students?
  • I'd like to explore further with you your ideas about students learning from one another. You say that the "further advanced students" will "help their fellow students learn," and that this will "help to create a bond among" them. I wonder about that. I am remembering my experiment in our class, with asking senior English majors to lead small groups in discussion of poetry, a "hierarchical gesture," I was told later, that didn't feel enabling to either the leaders or the followers. Such a pairing could contribute to feelings of competition, superiority/inadequacy. How to manage that? Is there some way to make the learning be more reciprocal? Now I am thinking of the model of Bryn Mawr's Empowering Learners Partnership Program, in which each partner teaches the other; see my partnership with Tanisha Powell as an example.
  • A related question: why should students be (or rather: how to "make" them be) invested in each other's learning? I just finished walking my College Seminar students through a collaborative writing project that was quite variously successful; what are the keys to making such collaborations work? How to help students take advantage of their differences, rather than getting into the game of trying to control the outcome of their shared projects?
  • A related question has to do with your saying that "differentiation..would certainly place limitations" on students' success; I think you can better articulate the ways in which such differences could be an advantage....
  • I like the notion that the teachers in your model are teaching "students, not subjects," and I also like the concomitant idea of forming learning communities that carry over from year to year, so they really get to know one another. I do have a concern about a possible downside to that model: the absence of newness, of not-knowing-ness, that can feed education. And surely the teacher will be less effective with some students than others; they won't have the option of moving on to find a better learning partner?
  • You can that "it is important that all of the students progress in order for the group to move forward." How will you measure progress? What forms of assessment are most appropriate for this kind of learning?
  • Your acknowledgement of the limitations of your model--the need for a "specific type of teacher," and the problem of adequate funding--are sobering. See again, though, the Radnor Middle School model for a reminder that such projects are do-able (and some explanation of just what enables them).