Most kids spend the majority of their lives in school. If I had children, I would want them to get the most out of the unique opportunities that school provides. These do not include reading, writing, worksheets, or textbooks. In short, these opportunities do not include anything that students can do at home by themselves. (One caveat is that this is in an ideal world where children have resources and a suitable home environment to do work traditionally done in the classroom.) Below I highlight two such opportunities accompanied by personal anecdotes demonstrating how these shaped my grade-school days.
Probably the most important opportunity school affords is the ability to collaborate with many peers of similar age. Communication, collaboration, teamwork, giving and receiving feedback, and teaching and learning from one another are fundamental skills that serve people well throughout their entire lives. Activities that capitalize on students’ exposure to peers will always involve teamwork. Some ideas: planting a vegetable garden; building a model bridge; writing, directing, acting in, and producing a school play or musical; starting a band; creating an art project; preparing a research report and/or PowerPoint presentation; making a sundial. There are many different dimensions to these activities and no single way of doing them. But all require creative thinking – verbal, mathematical, or both – and collaboration.
Elementary school was at least fourteen years ago, and I don’t remember much anymore. But I do remember certain activities: building a pyramid out of sugar cubes, acting in the Shakespeare plays that we put on every year, competing in chess tournaments, touring historic houses in Salt Lake City and preparing a report, tutoring the younger children, watching my peers go to the chalkboard to show us how they solved math problems, helping host a garage sale and auction, memorizing and reciting poems for the class. These stand out in my mind because they were very real-world. Students need experiences like these, where they also learn math and language skills along the way.
Another opportunity is access to mentors; mostly teachers, but also principals and other administrators. Mentors should invoke critical thinking, pose new questions, guide students’ thought processes, demonstrate creativity, and help students arrive at their own conclusions backed by logic, reason, and knowledge. They facilitate hands-on activities and help students work together collaboratively. Ideally they will not only provide knowledge, but also refine students’ skills and build their character by fostering morality, comradery, discipline, and perseverance.
When I was about eight years old, a teacher gave me her keys so that I could fetch something from a locked cupboard to give to another teacher. I was thrilled that she trusted me with her keys and determined to maintain her trust. I did what was asked of me, but thought I should leave her keys on her desk where she would find them and then went back about my business. A while later, my teacher came to me with a very concerned look and asked, “Katie, where are my keys?” Even though she spoke very calmly, I could sense her anxiety. “I put them on your desk,” I said. She was relieved, and told me to always return items directly. I learned a valuable lesson that day about building communication and trust with others.
When students capitalize on being in a classroom environment by engaging in constant interaction with peers and mentors, they learn life lessons needed beyond school and throughout their careers. By applying math and language to complex everyday activities and leaving independent exploration (via online learning tools, worksheets, textbooks, etc.) as homework, students will likely remember these activities and retain the skills/knowledge needed to participate in them.