In recent years, America's public education system has found itself in a period of transformation. An evolving economy demands a move away from the "industrial" model that has focused largely on preparing most students for factory work.
What the future model, or "School 2.0," looks like remains a matter of debate. But as public schools continue moving in that direction, it may be wise for administrators and policymakers to expand their view beyond simply what other publics are doing. A number of private schools like Virginia's Alexandria Country Day School are already pushing boundaries with innovative approaches in the classroom, and they have plenty of lessons for the public sector.
Located outside of Washington, DC, in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, the K-8 co-educational private school is utilizing a focus on social-emotional learning, play, and communication skills to produce students well-equipped for the challenges of some of the nation's best high schools and higher education institutions. That approach, says Head of School Scott Baytosh, is key to fostering and maintaining students' love of learning.
"I think that's kind of the Holy Grail that schools are trying to find. How do you have a really vigorous, challenging academic program that's going to really prepare them for the challenges of the future, and yet not burn them out?" Baytosh said.
During a recent visit to ACDS, Education Dive saw the school's approach firsthand during its "Festival of Learning," aimed at enriching the overall curriculum with a focus on a specific topic perhaps not covered in-depth.
SEL extends beyond the classroom
Recent years have seen the "soft skills" promoted by social-emotional learning — self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making — grab more of the spotlight in the classroom. Whether they're presented in the form of "grit," "growth mindset," "mindfulness" or other variations, they're arguably as crucial to future success as competency in math and reading.
This is particularly a focus for ACDS at the elementary level. "By starting out with these ideas of a growth mindset, a sense of empathy, a sense of community mindedness, I think it really provides them a foundation to be able to address all of these issues," said Baytosh. "I really believe that the work that we do every day, establishing that expectation of empathy and being able to turn that empathy into action, is something that we really love to see and want to foster."
The school's small size — its total enrollment is 204 — makes it easy to build a sense of community where SEL can be fostered and students can develop an expectation of concern for one another's well-being, but lessons in empathy, for example, stretch outside of the classroom. Every grade takes on a service project, said Baytosh. Kindergarteners, for example, are "heavily involved" in the Blessings in a Backpack program, which benefits children facing food insecurity. They don't just simply collect canned food and other goods, though — the students fill the backpacks and deliver them to shelters.
In the school, billboards throughout the halls encourage a growth mindset, and one fourth-grade class was discussing a writing assignment in which they were asked to describe how the world probably felt through the eyes of elderly people they had met. There are, of course, the typical bits of social-emotional curriculum with morning meeting time and advisory periods where those topics are discussed explicitly, but weaving them into all of the subject matter is an important aspect of ACDS' approach.
"I think it normalizes it as part of everyday life," said Baytosh. "It's not a separate subject that you study, it's integrated into everything we do."
Play crucial to facilitating joy of learning
One thing that really stuck out during the visit was that at no point did any student seem bored or disengaged. They all looked like they were having fun.
This level of engagement can be, at least in part, attributed to the use of play-based learning. "We really believe in integrating play into the learning," said Baytosh. "There’s a lot of good research out there on that now. But ironically, particularly in public schools because of a lot of the pressures of curriculum and expectations on testing, there's been cutbacks in playtime, unstructured time, and even the arts."
Baytosh says that, in the past year alone, the school has expanded the amount of unstructured playtime students get during recess, and the last few years have seen an expansion of the arts. The arts program is less focused on the product than on the process that gets you there. In drama, offered as young as kindergarten, students are engaged to think about what a character's motivation is and how they would physically act in the space they have, doing a lot of work with improvisation. Music and fine arts programs focus on how to visually or musically convey an idea, with music in particular utilizing a lot of jazz and improvisation.
In a kindergarten class, students were using blindfolds, tactile objects, and braille books to understand what the world is like for a blind person. At that grade level, said Baytosh, students at the school learn writing and other skills in the context of superpowers ("Put on your noticing superpower" or "Put on your word-counting superpower"). While some public schools have begun focusing on hard academics and eliminating playtime at that age, ACDS is finding the balance of the two.
"They're learning to think about their work with a light heart," said Baytosh. "So the kids don't feel like they're grinding out with homework and hard exercises. They're not getting worksheets, but they're absolutely learning to read and write and do math. They just don't know it."
Play isn't the only way students are staying engaged, though. The school has also incorporated some level of activity into regular classtime via standing desks in the middle school grades and ergonomic stools that swivel in elementary. The standing desks can be easily rolled, allowing students to engage in a group with a teacher, break up into small groups to work out in the hall, or push the desks to the side and do a simulation or act something out in the middle of the room.
Communication is critical
Perhaps most notable about ACDS is its focus on effective communication skills. Students begin working on that in first grade, but it really kicks in once they reach the middle grades. There, every student in grades 5-8 is required to deliver a formal public speech, with the goal being that they can deliver a TED-level talk by their eighth-grade year.
"If you think about 21st Century skills, there's a lot of talk about technology, a lot of talk about STEM — and we do all that. We have a very rich technology program," said Baytosh. "But we have, since our founding, had a strong sense of the importance of being able to present yourself in public: Being able to speak effectively, write effectively, and, increasingly, use multimedia technology effectively."
And as much as math or reading, these communication skills are highly valued in the corporate world. According to USA TODAY, three of the five skills valued most by employers in a CareerBuilder survey were collaborative, verbal and written communication skills.
Even in the general model of learning, those skills persist. For as much as things change in education, the basics still remain the same, said Baytosh. Even when you tear down all the walls and get rid of desks in some of the newer education models, you still have a teacher engaging a group of kids.
"Education is a field that, I think, doesn't change easily," said Baytosh. "It's been the way it is for arguably hundreds to thousands of years because, on the one hand, there is that sort of preparing kids for work — the factory model. But it also goes all the way back to Socrates: a caring adult with a curious group of people engaging in relationship and inquiry that's at the heart of it all."
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