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What if Teachers Acted Like Students?

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Guest post by Zac Chase

To many progressive educators, answering the opening question to Chapter 3 of A Year at Mission Hill is as easy as turning to the father of progressive education, John Dewey.

To Dewey, the mind is brought to life through experiences, and more specifically, experiences that foster continued curiosity.

"There is an intimate and necessary relation between the processes of actual experience and education," Dewey wrote in his 1938 work Experience & Education, and this has been the guiding principle of progressive education efforts ever since.

Just as important to curating actual experiences for students, teaching and learning must focus on building on the curiosity of students as they move forward.

We see this in the work of Mission Hill teachers as they introduce their students to the natural sciences and the study of the world around them.

Sometimes, it can be as simple as looking, and asking a question.

In his book Making Learning Whole, David Perkins describes a kindergarten teacher who plays the "explanation game" with her students. As they examine an abstract painting, the teacher asks her students, "What do you notice?" and follows those answers with "What makes you say that?"

To many, this approach will bear a remarkable resemblance to the opening steps of the scientific method - and it should. Curating learning experiences that augment students' curiosities about the world is as simple as asking them to take note of the world around them, explain why they said what they said, and then taking it a step further to develop and work to answer the new questions these observations raise.

In Place-Based Education, David Sobel urges teachers to "make your students' experiences so good that parents won't tolerate boring textbooks."

This is a worthy goal, and I'd suggest it can be done one better, by making teachers' and students' experiences so good that they won't tolerate anything less.

We see this as part of the embedded process at Mission Hill when its teachers begin their work for the year off-site and working collaboratively. As they plan to help their students experience the natural sciences, they themselves are surrounded by nature. As they plan ways for their students to work collaboratively and cross-disciplinarily, they themselves are working together and across disciplines.

Perkins writes that this type of engagement of teachers as learners and members of the learning community is key. "Remembering that the instructor is part of the team too," he explains, "the instructor circulates all the time providing individualized guidance, a far cry from the sage on the stage model."

All of this - building experiences, inviting curiosity, noticing the world, working beyond boring - help Mission Hill Teacher Jacob Wheeler achieve the goal he has for every one of his students.

"Knowing how to find the information and how to solve the problem is what's most important for me," Wheeler says -- and Dewey would agree.

One final benefit flows from this approach. The language describing it embodies the work of Carol Dweck and her theories of fixed vs. growth mindsets. By asking students and teachers to notice problems, ask questions, and then take the freedom to work to find those answers, teachers help their students and themselves to develop mindsets of growth as learners.

Constructed in deep and vibrant ways, these experiences can have all members of a learning community asking Dweck's question: "Why waste time worrying about looking smart or dumb, when you could be becoming smarter?"

Zac Chase is a doctoral student at the University of Colorado Boulder. He writes regularly at autodizactic.com.

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