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Learning Beyond Academics

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By Matthew Riggan, Co-Founder of the Workshop School in Philadelphia

My school was recently featured in a magazine article about educational innovation in the Philadelphia area. Under each school's name, the article gave a one-sentence description of "the twist" the school put on traditional education, followed by a brief description of the model. For the Workshop School, the twist was "ditching subjects."

This is not an inaccurate characterization, I suppose. Most of our school day focuses on interdisciplinary project work. I feel strongly that organizing learning by subject privileges content knowledge over skills that are more relevant to long-term success, and generally makes the experience less authentic. And yet, as we enter our sixth year as a school, "ditching subjects" feels more like a starting point than a defining characteristic. There is an even deeper, more pervasive divide in the way most people think about school: the imaginary line between academic learning and, well, everything else.

This divide runs deep in our understanding of not only schools, but also human development. Educators often cite Maslow's hierarchy of needs as a justification for a "safety first" approach to schooling. This leads to an understanding--and eventually a practice--of classroom management as a precursor to real learning. How do we pour all of this knowledge into our students' heads if they won't sit still?

In traditional schools, this approach often manifests in "teach-like-a-champion-style" behaviorism. And as a strategy for improving test scores it's pretty effective.

Many progressive schools take a more expansive view, with less focus on test scores and greater emphasis on a broader suite of skills, from critical thinking and problem solving to collaboration, long-range planning, and goal setting.

But the divide is every bit as pervasive in progressive schools like the Workshop School as in traditional ones. Progressive educators have a litany of terms and practices to describe the work we do with students outside of traditional academics: restorative practices, trauma-informed practice, social and emotional learning, even "soft" skills (which, it turns out, are actually hard). All are important and worthwhile. But we still see them as precursors to the "real" work of learning. We may define success as a killer project instead of a high test score, but the assumption is the same: the real goal of all of this is academic work.

As an educator, my ultimate goal is not to get students to produce great work, but rather to help them become the best version of themselves, often in the face of crushing obstacles. Great project work is one example of what success can look like, but so is resilience and self-direction and the ability to ask for help or access resources. So is compassion and empathy. These are not means to an end, they are ends in themselves.

When we recognized that the hard lines that divided content areas were getting in the way of authentic work, my colleagues and I created a model for the Workshop School that, essentially, eliminated them. What do we do when we realize that the lines between academic learning and all kinds of other growth and development are equally burdensome?

What do teachers need to get really good at doing in order for this kind of learning to happen? What does the curriculum even look like? What are we assessing and how are we giving feedback? What systems and supports do we build? How are we staffed and organized? What do we need to do less of in order to create time and space for this work?

A lot of schools are already taking on these questions. The answer for me is a work in progress, and it is very much bound up with questions of equity. We serve students who grow up in concentrated poverty. They face massive challenges and in many cases have developed exceptional capabilities to deal with those challenges. When I think about helping them grow into the best versions of themselves, I don't see any distinction between learning that is academic and learning that is social and emotional. It's all just learning. (The same could be said about virtually all of my learning as an adult.)

As educators continue to evolve our understanding of learning in school, I hope we can shift the way we talk and think about our work. The quality of students' academic work will always matter, and it should. But the growth that helps students become their best selves is much more than academic.

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