Friday, October 9, 2015

A School Grows in Brooklyn

Today we feature a guest blog by Elizabeth Frank, the Head of School at Sage Heights School, which will be opening in Brooklyn, New York in September 2016. Dr. Paul Yellin is an Advisor to Sage Heights. The school will utilize the approach of Mind, Brain, and Education to apply best practices in the classroom from research in Neuroscience, Psychology, and Education. Sage Heights is a member of the Harvard International Research School Network.

Everyone is different. We say it all the time, but is it fully embraced by our schools, by us? When taught and nurtured according to their individuality, children are more engaged with the process of learning. Educational research has confirmed what many parents and teachers experience daily; each child is infinitely varied from the next and cookie cutter solutions do not meet their needs. Recognizing our inborn differences allows for children to develop their passions and strengths, while fostering challenges and aversions.

Jillian is an advanced eight-year-old who doesn’t have to try very hard to get perfect marks at school, and tests above the average range on assessments like the ERB. She is often praised for her brightness and quickness. She is starting to avoid anything she thinks is too hard, because she fears the grown-ups might discover her secret. She believes, “If I can’t do this fast and easily, then I must be dumb,” keeping her from her own unique potential to learn and succeed.

Charlie is a seven-year-old gregarious kid who excels at school, is athletic, and very popular. However, he recently retreated into himself, refusing to participate in activities he once loved, after his beloved grandmother passed away.

Annabeth is six and loves books, words, and games. She has great difficulty staying out of trouble. Lately, she’s been left off the birthday invitation lists of her classmates.

Henry is a six-year-old, well liked, quiet boy. He loves building intricate structures with blocks and avoids anything with letters or numbers.

All four students are typical and should be treated as such. We do not learn in synchronistic ways and sometimes life gets in the way. All can excel if the adults in their lives help to cultivate their challenges and support their gifts, while emphasizing the natural differences in all of us. We want schools to see our children for whom they are and respond to them as their lives unfold.

All children are learning machines and learning begins with the brain. Neuroscience tells us brains are unique and plastic. There are no two duplicate brains in the world, now or ever. While the basic structure of our brains are the same, at the molecular level differences can be detected that affect our ability to learn, even in identical twins. If all people are different from one another, it follows that instruction should be differentiated. Differentiated doesn’t mean easier, but rather creating high challenge and low risk for each individual.

Additionally, the brain’s plasticity is occurring constantly as we encounter the world. Our brains automatically rewire neural paths with each song sung, picture painted, soccer scuffle, or negative/positive thought. Schools and parents can use this plasticity to their advantage by creating environments where they reinforce important skills and belief systems around learning. Days should be designed to develop proficiencies in reading, math and other content areas, but more importantly on effort, collaboration and problem solving strategies. This way students become ready for the challenges of adult life. Isn't that what school should be for?

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