School of Discovery

Education Reformation Illustration by Kwang Choi

Education Reformation Blog

Let’s face it: Middle school is not working. All by itself, the age range is a difficult time of life for people, not to mention the nature of the middle school model. Eleven to fifteen year olds are experiencing some drastic changes to their minds and bodies. Research has shown that this time in a child’s life will set the stage for the rest of his or her life:

“[Dr. Jay] Giedd hypothesizes that the growth in gray matter followed by the pruning of connections is a particularly important stage of brain development in which what teens do or do not do can affect them for the rest of their lives. He calls this the ‘use it or lose it principle’ . . . ‘If a teen is doing music or sports or academics, those are the cells and connections that will be hardwired. If they’re lying on the couch or playing video games or MTV, those are the cells and connections that are going to survive.’ ” (Giedd)

Without a solid foundation or proper motivation, adolescents are headed for a difficult life.

Having this information, it is shocking to know that the middle schools in my district (and I’m sure in other districts) do not require passing grades of students to move on. We get students in high school that did not pass one class in three years. Middle school students learn very quickly that they don’t have to do any work in school; middle schools don’t want the older, more mature kids with the younger ones, so they push the students through, regardless of whether students pass their classes or not. If parents haven’t been proactive and established a love for learning in their children, students in the “use it or lose it” stage of brain development have created a bad habit that will, more likely than not, stick with them for the rest of their lives.

This is why the next step after The Never-Give-Up Initiative is crucial. My plan is that students will start their secondary education in 7th grade (not 6th grade, as is currently the norm) already having mastered a core curriculum. The students who are moving forward will have no gaps in their education. Also, they will be anywhere from 9 to 13 years old, depending on how quickly or slowly they learned the material.

Even though core standards are a good start for the elementary level, much of what students need to function as adults goes beyond what facts they need to know; they need to know how to think and solve problems. My proposal will make 7th and 8th grade crucial years for students; it is during these years that they will discover who they are, how they learn, and what they may want to do with the rest of their lives. By the end of 8th grade, students will be able to make choices for which direction they want to go in high school.

School of Discovery

School of Discovery will be the next step in preparing students for the world outside of school walls. Currently, 6th, 7th, and 8th grades are a continuation of the same subjects taught at the elementary level. That needs to change. If the Never-Give-Up Initiative taught mastery of the core concepts, then students will need something more in secondary education. The next level should begin students’ exploration into problem solving and independent thinking. In elementary school, I suggested that students have Discovery Hour; at this next level, that’s all they will be doing. They will discover how all the concepts and skills they learned can be used to solve problems; they will need to learn collaboration, innovation, and communication. Teachers will become facilitators and mentors, rather than dispersers of knowledge and discipline.

School of Discovery will not be content-based, but project-based. It will emphasize real world connections so that students will realize they can make an impact at whatever age they are. They will also work in groups, learning collaboration and communication skills and developing leadership skills. These projects will not be simple poster-board projects, but in-depth, high-level thinking projects, where students will be held accountable for their thinking and reasoning.

For example, here’s a project that might be presented in School of Discovery:

The Smith family just moved to Colorado. Mrs. Smith has a job as a fulltime professor at UCCS. Mr. Smith does not have a job yet. He has a degree in engineering. They have two children: an eight year old boy (who has ADD) and a twelve-year-old girl.

  • Where should they look for a house?
    • What price range should they look for?
  • Where should the kids go to school?
    • What are the school options for the children?
    • Discuss the pros and cons of each school.
  • Does Mr. Smith need to get a job?
    • Discuss the pros and cons of either decision.
    • If he gets a job, what type of job could Mr. Smith get?
  • Create a budget for the Smith family with Mrs. Smith’s income only.
    • Create another budget with both incomes, depending on what Job Mr. Smith gets.
    • Where can they cut corners to have enough money to survive on one income?
  • What are some alternatives to combating ADD?
  • Students will also need to create some type of model of the area the family will live in and need to travel to for their jobs and schools
    • It can be computerized, hand drawn, or a three-d model of a topographical map. The idea is that they are using the arts as part of the project.
  • Students may also choose to write a story or a play in addition to or instead of the descriptions for each part of the project.

In this one project, students will use geography, math, and science; they will learn about professions and budgets. They will also use writing skills, research skills, and test the reliability of sources. They will need to collaborate with each other and become organized; they will need to talk to their parents about budgets and jobs and raising a family. Teachers will be around to answer questions and point them in the right direction, as well as evaluate the solutions. Through this project, students will also learn about themselves and what they get excited about. They will learn how they like to learn. Do they like to sit in front of a computer, or do they like going to a place or person and talking directly with him or her. Do they like math, geography, or science? Do they like writing or art? Students will also learn to appreciate the value of things and how hard their parents work for the things they have.

Eventually, projects will be service orientated: Students may need to solve the problem of poverty in a certain area of the country, or come up with a plan to end hunger in a third-world country. By this time, students will have been solving problems for at least a year, and will instinctively know they have to research the area, organize people, investigate if other initiatives have been tried and what the results were. Of course students will continue to use all subjects throughout these projects, while learning new concepts and theories that will be necessary in order to solve the increased complexity of the problems.

These projects will continue to develop students’ strengths and passions, which will prepare them for the next level in school. It will personalize education so students can drive their own learning. With this model, students will use their higher-level thinking skills, hardwiring positive habits for the rest of their lives.

How feasible is this plan for those middle-school years? Let me know what you think.

2 thoughts on “School of Discovery

  1. This plan for education is unlike any plan I have heard before, and it is difficult to wrap my mind around the implications of this. According to most people, my learning style is probably really odd. I prefer to simply sit in class taking notes, then study for a test or quiz at home, and finally take an exam. I despise labs and projects; I partially believe this is due to my learning style, but I also think I see labs and projects as a waste of time. I thoroughly enjoy taking notes and even reading text books. I like being challenged with new material, and I believe taking notes is one of the best ways to do this.
    I do think that middle school needs to change, however. I went to a private, Christian school in sixth grade and seventh grade, and then transferred to a large public school for eighth grade. I pretty much took a step backwards in everything but math. My classes covered material I had already learned in the previous years. This made classes very boring. Because of this, I believe moving students ahead because of what they do or do not know is a very beneficial thing. In math classes, for example, they identify students as “advanced” at a young age and place them into higher classes, but I wonder why this isn’t done in other subject areas as well. Students who understand concepts better should move ahead while students who do not understand should stay behind.
    This is probably jumbled up, hard-to-follow thinking, but it partially responds to the post. Thank you for writing these Mrs. Hawkins; I know you truly care about students and our futures.

    1. Thank you, Laura, for your comments! I agree with you about moving ahead when you’ve mastered the concepts. If schools can do it with math, why can’t they do it with other subjects?
      I also agree with you about certain types of projects–and group projects can be a nightmare! I tried group projects over the years; I would have a few groups that were stellar, but the rest either had one person doing all the work, or the whole group did nothing. I haven’t attempted a group project in over five years for that reason. However, I had to teach research skills to my students; a project can be the best way to do that. The big question: How do I get students interested in research? That’s why I created the 60s Project. I wanted students to research information they cared about, and asking students to research how something they love got its start in the 60s seemed like a good starting point. I would say 90% of my students loved that project and learned so much about their topic, but also about research. If I could collaborate with other teachers in math, science, social studies, and the arts, and we all worked together to make sure students were using all of those subjects in that project, how much more could they have learned? Instead of group projects, what if students collaborated with each other to find solutions? Each student would do his or her own work, but each student could talk with other students and teachers, discussing possible directions and solutions. I see value in that.
      I do not want to get rid of traditional classes completely; I do want students to learn concepts they can immediately apply in order to find a solution to a problem. We need to somehow create a classroom model that allows students to find their own learning style and use it to develop problem solving skills. The best class we have at school right now that blends those things is Journalism. Students have to take everything they have learned and use it to create a newspaper. The problem is: How do we fill the pages with relevant and interesting information? How do we make it appealing to the reader? You and the other leaders find the solution every month, and you help other students find solutions as well. I couldn’t be prouder of all of you!
      But Journalism is a small example of what school could be like. I’d like to see that type of class on a larger scale. What would that look like?
      I’m working with that idea now. We’ll see what comes of it 🙂
      It means a lot to me that you read and commented on my post, Laura!
      Thank you!

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