Thomas Jefferson School in St. Louis, Missouri is one example of a STEM school. The introductory blurb from the school’s website reads:
Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology uses a STEM-focused curriculum that starts with the Freshman Integrated Biology, English, and Technology program and culminates with a technical lab project for seniors. The school boasts 13 specialized research labs, ranging from astrophysics to microelectronics and oceanography.
What appeals to me here is firstly the integration of English teaching within, and not separate from the Biology and technology studies; and secondly the diversification in the facilities to include science frontiers outside the traditional Chemistry and Physics.
Note: STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematic, a program supported by the US National Science Foundation. Equivalent academic bodies in Australia are the Australian Science Academy and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering. These organizations have been consultants in the development of the P-10 National Science Curriculum. They have a considerable potential for encouraging change in Australian school education. But where are the equivalent to the Thomas Jefferson School in Australia? My fear is we will still have a top down approach, with the curriculum content dictated by academic masters, and not a style of education that fosters child-centered discovery learning.
The Park Schools of Buffalo and Baltimore provide another example of quality education from the USA. These institutions were founded on the ideas of John Dewey.
The goal is “to learn how to learn and enjoy learning, to engage creatively in the discipline of learning, to experience success and to risk failure, to practice freedom with responsibility, to transform challenge into opportunity, to be curious, to explore and to discover”
Expanding on this, I quote from school philosophy section of The Park School of Baltimore’s website:
“The conviction that the child contains inner strength, talents, and powers which can be liberated and nurtured allows a variety of educational techniques and methods and is manifested in the school in different ways. Accepting this belief requires recognition of the excesses it may bring: occasional sentimentality, self-indulgence, disorder, and untidiness. Yet it insists that the teacher’s authority as an adult and as a scholar should be used not to suppress or constrain, but to provide the skills, opportunities, challenges, and encouragement to bring about the flowering and fulfillment of the individual to think and act in the world with responsible freedom.”
Statistical evidence exists to show that these schools achieve excellent results in mainstream testing and academic performance without being slaves to set curricula or rigid timelines. Just a quick glimpse at the variety and richness of the school’s summer camp program would make most Australian school students feel envious. Offerings include a Video Game Creation Camp, a Musical Production Camp, a Young Film Maker’s Camp, a Jewish Art and Culture Camp, and a Five Star Basketball Camp. All the camp programs are totally integrated across the ages 11-17.
Another American school that is based on John Dewey’s philosophy is the Laboratory Schools of the Chicago University (LSCU), with five divisions from Nursery to Year 12. When Dewey himself founded this school in 1896 few educators thought much about how lessons would be used outside the classroom, and almost none considered the fact that different students could, and probably should, learn by different means. Today the school’s mission statement reads:
“We ignite and nurture an enduring spirit of scholarship, curiosity, creativity, and confidence. We value learning experientially, exhibiting kindness, and honoring diversity.”
The Lab community has a rich array of cultures and is proud of its depth and breadth of diversity. In 1942 this was the first independent school in America to admit students of African-American heritage. Today Lab families speak more than 40 languages at home and identify themselves as having 59 different nationalities.
The Arts, especially Music, dramatic performance and sport all play a very important role at LSCU where laboratories, workshops and gymnasiums replace more traditional classrooms. (Queenslanders would be interested to know that their high performing sporting teams are known as the ‘Maroons’ because of the colour of their paying strip.) At the Lab Schools there is a big emphasis on learning through experience outside the campus. Summer field study offerings in 2013 include a biogeography and earth science study trip to Yosemite National Park; involvement in research projects at the Archaeological Research Centre at Crow Canyon in Colorado; a visit to Ghana in West Africa to participate in community service in rural villages; and a trip to Ecuador for a cultural immersion experience.
I can’t leave the American educational scene without commenting on the remarkable phenomenon which is the Khan Academy. Started by Salman Kahn as a way of tutoring his young cousins in mathematics using on-line communication, he developed YouTube videos as teaching tools and was willing to make them freely available to any teacher or student. From its start in 2004 the Kahn Academy had grown to provide tutoring to six million students by 2012. The growth was exponential. The academy now provides graphic teaching videos for students from P to 12th grades in not just mathematics, but also Chemistry, physics, biology and history and the range of subjects is increasing.
Kahn argues that much of student disillusionment with formal education is the way they are confined to being passive receivers, as topic by topic, concept by concept, is shuffled through in the application of the curriculum, leaving many of them with multiple holes in their knowledge and understanding as the teacher moves on to the next set of lessons. This ignores the facts we know people learn at different rates and learn best when they have the interest and motivation to build on what they know. The pace of learning is a reflection of learning style not of intelligence. Schools need re-programming so students can work at their own pace, take their time if necessary to master the basics, and with guidance take control of their own learning agenda.
Schools experimenting with the Khan system have followed his advice and ‘flipped’ the classroom, giving students educational videos to watch at home and do the ‘homework’ in the classroom. The classroom is humanized. It becomes an activity workshop where teachers circulate and assist students having difficulties while students may also gain help and guidance from their fellow classmates. Progress is plotted for all students on the ‘knowledge map’ and ‘dashboard’ while they may gain energy points and ‘badges’ for achieving goals. If well organized parents, tutors and teachers have unprecedented visibility into what their students are learning and achieving. Identifying problem areas is easy and remedial steps set in place.