A Book Not By the Book

book-150x150Our grown son is a journalist and author. On a recent visit home, he did a reading, discussion and signing of his new book at a wonderful local bookstore. It was exciting to have many friends and colleagues in attendance, but it was a particularly delightful surprise when several of our son’s former teachers–from preschool through high school, many now retired–showed up to hear him speak, buy his book and lend warm and enthusiastic support.

It occurred to me later that at least two of the former teachers who came were more than teachers to our son (and to our now grown daughter as well): They had also been coaches for elementary school academic team (quiz bowl and geography bee) and middle school Odyssey of the Mind (http://www.odysseyofthemind.com/), the international competition in which teams of youngsters collaborate to creatively solve problems through activities like building mechanical devices and interpreting literature through the arts.

These teacher coaches had recognized early that our son’s and daughter’s exuberance for learning and self-expression needed to be nurtured and encouraged, but also productively channeled. Years ago, while still a college undergraduate, our son observed that without the challenge of such activities from elementary school on, he likely would have lost focus and interest in school. By ensuring opportunities to stretch and compete, these teachers and several others whom our kids were fortunate to encounter throughout their school careers, not only provided freedom for our son and daughter to reach for knowledge and try out ideas, but also encouraged discipline and seriousness of purpose in doing so–pursuits that, one could argue, are extremely helpful for someone who, say, wants to write and publish a book.

It’s interesting and telling that many of these activities which so greatly benefited our kids took place in school–but outside of a classroom. My CTL colleagues who coach educators to develop project-based approaches to learning note that there is no reason why similar activities can’t be applied directly in any classroom, moving students toward meeting standards that emphasize deep learning and complex thinking across disciplines. Yet in many classrooms, such an approach still seems to be more the exception–as it was for my kids–than the rule.

What prevents such a spirited approach to learning in many classrooms? Are educators unsure where to begin, or how to ensure accountability for content and standards? Or is the trend toward challenging, project based learning actually catching on more than I might realize–and if so, where and how is that taking place? Share your thoughts, and we’ll pursue in a future post.

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