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Definitely Not the Way You Learned It, Mom and Dad: Preparing Students for the Modern World

Friday, November 10, 2017

Call to mind the trials and tribulations your parents shared about growing up and going to school. You remember, the oft’ told tales like: “When I was a kid, I walked three miles to school in the rain and snow, uphill, both ways.” Now, realize: That is what your kids hear when you describe how you learned math in middle school.

Were you a superstar math student who “got it” naturally, or were you someone who just did not have a brain for math? The view that some students have “math brains” and others “just can’t do math” was widely shared in math classrooms of the past. What we know now is how very damaging that falsehood can be. One of our math class norms is that all students have the ability to do math at the highest level. To that end, all students are encouraged to pursue either “deeper or further” math assignments. Deeper assignments give students more practice in a skill they are developing and further assignments let them apply a new skill to more complicated and challenging problem sets. The students always have the choice of which direction they want to go in. Digging deeper because they find they need more practice to acquire a skill, or reaching further because they know they’re ready for a challenge, are both formative ways that our students discover and grow their natural math abilities.  

Remember spending hours with paper and pencil solving equation after equation for homework? Practice, practice, practice until you had the procedure memorized without flaw. Our goal is for homework in seventh grade to be a lot different than that. Seventh graders complete a problem-solving assignment each week, using strategies and math skills to answer a problem they have not received any direct instruction on. Students are encouraged to collaborate, draw pictures, use models, and utilize any tools they think might help them arrive at a solution. They are graded on their mathematical reasoning and effort. Creative ideas are celebrated and mistakes are examined and discussed. Students quickly learn that identifying and sharing their missteps are essential parts of learning how to solve problems.

Likewise, learning Latin has evolved dramatically at GUS. Picture a traditional Latin classroom: Rows of desks point towards the chalkboard, where the teacher has written the principal parts of a verb from the first conjugation. Students sit restless and bored in their chairs. The teacher strolls up and down the aisles, hand clasped around a yardstick, leading the class as they chant in a dull monotone, “amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant.” Later, the students diligently take notes as the teacher pontificates in English on the function of the ablative absolute. A few students who are “good at languages” love the class; the rest know all too well the truth of the old rhyme, “Latin is a language, as dead as it can be; first it killed the Romans, and now it’s killing me.”

Visit a Latin class at GUS and you’ll observe an altogether different scene. Most days, the students are sitting not at desks but in a semicircle of chairs, with no pens or binders to distract them. Or they might not be sitting at all. They’re acting out a story or using their bodies to gesture the meaning of a Latin word. The board is filled with Latin phrases and the connections between Latin and English words the students have discovered and written down. The drone of ritualistically chanted conjugations and declensional endings has been replaced by the sound of students using Latin—shouting, singing, and, yes, even laughing.  

Latin vocabulary had a crucial role in the development of modern science, mathematics, law, and medicine because many of the foundational texts in these fields were written in Latin. When you consider the fact that over 60% of the words in an average page of English come directly from Latin roots, it’s easy to see the benefits of studying the language. But Latin pedagogy from one hundred years ago was strikingly similar to math class in “the good old days”: Students were expected to passively absorb and regurgitate pages of information about Latin grammar, with the idea that this knowledge would eventually translate into skills. For the vast majority of students, these hoped-for skills never materialized, and generations of young men and women left Latin class with the false impression that Latin was difficult and dry, and worst of all, that they simply weren’t good at it.

At GUS, we know the truth about how people learn languages and how much fun it can be. Decades of research into second language acquisition have yielded some interesting (and surprisingly obvious) insights. For one thing, while humans might learn to read, understand, and speak languages at different rates, almost everyone is capable of learning a second language as easily and naturally as they learned their first. For another, it turns out that the knowledge we learn about a language has very little impact on our ability to do things with the language. Research shows that the easiest, most effective, and most fun way to learn another language— whether that language is living or dead, real or made up—is to read, hear, and use that language in ways that are interesting and entertaining. By learning Latin that way at GUS, students get all the many benefits of learning the core language of Ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance without spending their careers as Latin students hating the language they are studying. Latin at GUS—just like everything else—is about making connections between subjects, expressing yourself in new and creative ways, and learning how to learn.

Learning how to learn is an essential part of the whole GUS program, not just Latin and Math. Our students are not merely consumers of information, they are also explorers. Even John Dewey warned against the impracticality of “teaching by pouring in, learning by passive absorption” in his writing on Democracy and Education. So, in Math and Latin, for example, knowledge acquisition isn’t about speed or memorization, but mostly the opposite. Learning at GUS is an adventure, not a performance, and all the students are encouraged to take part in the journey.

Embracing mistakes, collaborating, learning deeply, and having fun—these are just some of the defining characteristics of a GUS education. No, these are not the experiences that many of us had, but that’s a good thing. After all that memorizing, how much content do we even remember from our days at school? Remember pouring over encyclopedias? The kids who had a set at home were the lucky ones. Today, no one is as dependent on content knowledge as we used to believe. Staying up all night to memorize verb conjugations or how to multiply fractions won’t secure the jobs of tomorrow. What students do need is the ability to problem-solve, to draw on the past to understand the future, and to think creatively about how to handle challenges.

It’s not surprising that many schools are shifting their academic focus to skill-building. We see this in the Common Core standards and in much of today’s literature on education. But, at GUS, we don’t need to reacess our teaching methods. The how we teach is already in line with the 21st century skills our students need. Your child’s schooling might feel very far from your own—and it is, farther, even, than yours felt from your parents’. Your children will be adults in a world where we can’t even predict the information they’ll need to know and the jobs they’ll perform. So our way of preparing future generations has to be different. Our goal is, and must be, to foster creative thinkers, innovative problem-solvers, and flexible collaborators. We must help students learn how to learn, to embrace questions, to welcome the unknown. As Charles Fadel and colleagues Maya Bialik and Bernie Trilling point out in their work on curriculum redesign, “This is an opportunity. Humanity can reflect, adapt, and act proactively to shape the future we want.” This opportunity is not wasted at GUS. It pushes us to offer the most innovative and forward-thinking program we can, and as a result, to model the very traits we strive to instill in our students—collaboration, innovation, and creativity.

It takes courage to be different, to try new things, to push thinking to a new place. The approach that makes us GUS might feel foreign to some, but we hope it also feels exciting and empowering. We are different for a reason, and not only in how we teach, but also in our approach to balance, to the social-emotional needs of students, and to our commitment to an experiential, place-based program. You might not recognize all aspects of your child’s school experience, but we are confident that you share our desire for an education that prepares young people to face the unknown with confidence. May the next generation do better than we have and may all our hopes for their futures be realized. May our graduates bravely trust and go forward prepared for a new world. That hope is why we do what we do.