Fostering the Right Attitudes
By Dr. Jadis Blurton, Founder and Head of School
“Is it hard?”
“Not if you have the right attitudes. It’s having the right attitudes that’s hard.”
– Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
One of my favorite amusements recently has been watching people react to students at The Harbour School. There is that momentary startle, with the widening of the eyes and the slight lift of the eyebrows, then a bemused half smile, followed by a furtive glance at me with the age-old wordless “Oh my gosh” expression, then a return of attention to the student. So when a seven-year old explains, in casual conversation, that a Portuguese Man-of-War is not a jellyfish (“… but don’t worry, that’s a common misperception. It’s actually a colony of attached animals called zooids”) or a nine-year old launches into an explanation of antibiotic resistance or a middle-school student explains the constraints of furniture design for subsidized housing units, I love to watch the adults. In Kenya, when a team that included a hospital’s founder and the Head Nurse listened to pitches for the interior design of a new Learning Center that our students had designed and fully funded (considering factors including flexible positioning, hygiene and local sustainability), the team’s looks went back and forth from the students to me as though they were not entirely sure that I wasn’t practicing ventriloquism. Tour guides on school trips are amused to find that our students know more than most adult tourists about the countries they are visiting. People are surprised to hear that we have won the Odyssey of the Mind competition for the past three years in Hong Kong or that both of our teams were among the five finalists in Hong Kong’s Technovation Challenge and one won the competition for Judges’ Choice, while still bouncing along happily both during their presentations and between them. (“They’re so perky!” one person observed.)
But I’ve also begun to realize that folks are not just astonished because our kids are confident, passionate, knowledgeable, happy and impressive. What they are astonished at is that these kids study at The Harbour School, which describes itself as a progressive school. Progressive? Somehow, over the years, some people have begun to think that “progressive” is a synonym for “easy” and that students can’t possibly be learning if they are not at the same time mean and miserable. “But wait… isn’t that supposed to be the happy school? Don’t they have a boat?”
But that’s not what “progressive” means at all. Although there are lots of definitions of “progressive,” there are four that almost all progressive schools would agree to. And creating a school that can fulfill these characteristics is much more difficult that running a conventional school.
First, we know that we're not the ones who make learning fun. Learning is a natural instinct, and like most natural instincts it already is fun. Primates will work hard doing something they don’t like, just for the opportunity to work with a puzzle or learn something new. Learning is a positive reinforcement, like food. Four-year olds are constantly trying to learn all of the time, asking questions about everything from why the sky is blue to what a turtle has for breakfast, and two-year olds struggle over and over again to perfect a new skill like climbing over the sofa. Computer games that challenge and teach are billion-dollar industries. In order to make learning un-fun, one would have to do things like forcing children to sit for long periods in seats (which is unhealthy at any age), or create an atmosphere of anxiety where the stakes are too high to try something new and fail, or prohibit social interaction and create a competitive atmosphere where one student’s success is another’s failure. One would have to limit learning to what one person (the teacher) thinks is important, without considering relevance to the life and interests of the learner. So progressive schools try not to do those things.
Second, we know that real learning occurs everywhere and all the time and in many ways. Sure, reading, listening and memorizing are some of those ways, but they are hardly the only ones and they may not be the optimal ones for some learners or for some topics and skills. Students are also learning when they work in teams to create an interactive robotic zoo, or when they go out on a boat to measure the water quality in a threatened marine area, or when they brainstorm the best solutions to a problem like overfishing or make a movie about Hong Kong. They are learning when they wrestle, when they play music, when they perform (or write) a play and when they produce a Renaissance Faire or present at a Global Issues Conference. Learning doesn’t start when kids enter a classroom or stop when they leave it. And real learning involves knowledge, skills, habits and thoughts that persist over time, not just until the next test.
Third, we are extremely student-centered. We know that students learn most when they are learning about things that are relevant, interesting and important to them. We understand that students (and adults) are all different from each other, and we value those differences and encourage kids to explore them. Some kids are better at math, some love history, some struggle with reading, some are fascinated by science. Progressive schools are intentionally inclusive because we understand that some students, like Steven Spielberg or Whoopi Goldberg, may struggle with some aspects of the curriculum but be brilliant at others. We know that teams that are heterogeneous, composed of people who think or learn in different ways, tend to do better than those who are all the same – and our winning Technovation and Odyssey of the Mind teams certainly confirm that. Supporting a diversity of learning styles, personalities and abilities enriches everyone’s experience.
Finally, progressive education is… well, progressive. We are future-conscious. We enthusiastically research and utilize the latest technologies and pedagogies, and we attempt to prepare students for the challenges and capabilities of the future – many of which we cannot yet imagine. We are serious about developing the attributes that will be most valued in jobs of the twenty-first century, which most people agree are skills such as creativity, problem-solving, communication, critical thinking, flexibility, collaboration, kindness and self-direction. Luckily for us, these skills are only possible in an atmosphere that is encouraging and joyful. And that is why we all seem to be having so much fun.