by Lee Palmer, Chief Innovation Officer for Blyth-Templeton Academy For most adults, thinking about our teenage years brings back powerful and distinct memories--memories of a first job, a first relationship, a significant class where you fell in love with a topic, a tough family situation, an identity crisis. These memories and experiences from adolescence go on to shape our adult lives in significant ways. In the same way that your first heartbreak may have taught you a lot about relationships, your high school learning environment shaped the way you tackle challenges, think through tough problems, learn and retain information, ask questions, collaborate with others, and think about your own skills and interests. In this post, we’re exploring the significance of a learner-driven community and why an emphasis on student agency in the learning process is critical during the high school years. Why the high school environment is so important Why do memories from adolescence related to school, work, family, relationships, and identity shape our adult lives in significant ways? Because adolescence initiates a period of important brain development that ends around the age of 25. During the years of high school, teenagers’ brains are growing and changing, forming the synapses and connections that provide the basis for their adult habits, adult emotions, and adult decision-making. Giving students more agency and freedom in their learning during high school allows them to accelerate the natural process of individuation and maturation. What is a learner-driven environment? A learner-driven environment is a carefully designed educational environment that allows students to take an active role in their own education, to make choices about what they will study and how they will study under the guidance of a teacher who knows each student personally. The educational experience supports students and challenges them to drive their own learning. Teachers still have a very important role to play in the learner driven environment. However, instead of functioning as “sages on stages,” they participate in the learning process and help answer questions or guide students as they work independently and together. Allowing educators to use their knowledge of how teens learn and to customize that knowledge for each student allows students to grow and excel at their own pace. When teachers are there to serve primarily as guides and are not distracted by their lecture notes, they are able to keep their focus on serving individual students in highly personalized ways while fostering a positive social environment in the classroom. Here’s how Blyth-Templeton creates a learner-driven environment There are three primary teaching strategies that Blyth-Templeton Academy uses to facilitate student agency and provide opportunities for active learning. All three of these approaches help us avoid the traditional classroom lecture and instead make learning an active, student-centered process. Collaborative learning Collaborative learning, through group work and through Socratic discussion, capitalizes on teenagers’ natural desire for socialization and self-expression. Students work together to complete sets of assigned problems or wrestle with difficult questions from history and literature. Asking and answering questions is the key activity that takes place between students in Socratic discussions and in group work. Through a process of questioning and discovery, students arrive at conclusions that the teacher already knows or explore open-ended questions, learning how to support their opinions with clear thought and how to learn from their peers in the process. Project-based learning Project-based learning allows students to choose and direct a learning experience within the scope of a class that concludes with a final public product of some kind--a paper, presentation, computer program, or pitch. Research suggests that project-based learning helps keep students engaged and fosters critical skills like problem-solving, critical thinking, and sustained inquiry. Experiential learning Experiential learning at the high school level encourages exposure to direct experiences, and new places and environments in order to stretch students’ imagination and capacity for abstract thinking. Connecting everything that is being learned in the curriculum with a direct experience of some kind gives real-life context to educational content and helps learning become a natural part of life. What high school experience do you want for your child? When your child thinks about high school, what types of experiences do you want them to remember? What will they have learned about the world and about themselves through their high school experience? Being a part of a small, learner-driven educational environment in high school gives teenagers a chance to develop their sense of agency and freedom while also awakening their natural curiosity and love for learning. An educational model that is built around the student and driven by the student allows each teenager to make the most of this period of cognitive and emotional growth. The result? High school graduates who are confident in their gifts and abilities, ready to tackle challenges, empathetic friends and citizens, and creative thinkers and communicators.
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