Just how do we approach academics at Makarios Community School? In her recent blog, Jannica Morton shared several points of how a Democratic Free School is similar to Finland's #1 internationally ranked education system. Before ever reading anything about Finland’s major shift, I began to explore educational alternatives which eventually lead to the creation of Makarios Community School, the first Democratic Free School in the Dallas Fort Worth area.
Two big ideas that influenced me during this time of discovery were: 1. Nothing counts until high school, 2. The repetitive content that students experience year after year may be mastered very quickly once a student has reached cognitive maturity.
In the U.S. children attend school from the time they are at least five years old (many younger) to learn and relearn the same information, albeit with new material added each consecutive year. That seems to be the underlying issue with the dreaded summer slide where students appear to have somehow lost content from the previous school year. According to Kerry McDonald, M.Ed. (Education Policy, Harvard University) there is no such thing as summer slide. She says, "Real learning is deep and enduring. It happens all the time, all year round, including summer. Perhaps especially in summer." The idea she conveys in a recent commentary is that as individuals, children are learning ALL THE TIME in developmentally appropriate ways. When children are interested in the subject matter, they engage, learn and retain content in the same way adults do when they are researching new material. Daniel Greenberg (1995), one of the founders of Sudbury Valley School, tells the story in his book “Free at Last” of a dozen students that approached him with the request that he teach them arithmetic. Greenberg attempted to dissuade them, assuming that their parents or other adults were pressuring these 9 to 12-year-olds to pursue an academic subject. What he discovered is that these students, engaged in the process had the capacity to learn “six year’s worth” of math in 20 weeks of one-hour classes (20 hours total). Imagine that! A dozen young students completed K-6 grade math because they wanted to without year after year of repetition. At Makarios Community School we strategically plan learning opportunities for elementary and middle school students involving hands-on activities, games, stories, and classes they request. Based on their request, interest lead students at Makarios are natural learners.
Nothing counts until high school!
Several years ago I heard a home school parent giving a talk on preparing your children for college. She stressed the importance of fun, interactive learning (especially in the field of Science) when a child is young with more focus on academics as they mature into their high school years. I had had some experience with this parents’ teen daughter and was very impressed with her poise, confidence and leadership skills (she has since received a full scholarship to a state university and is earning a dual Bachelors/Masters in Bio-mechanical Engineering). During the mom’s talk, I learned that her son was completing his college degree through a prestigious exchange program and was abroad studying in Europe. Needless to say the outcomes I witnessed in her children encouraged me to heed her instruction. What I took away from my experience that day was that the only credits that figure into the awarding of a high school diploma begin with the 9th-grade year. In other words, nothing counts until high school. I began to refocus my efforts on allowing my children the freedom to play and learn in a self-directed fashion until they reached developmental maturity for earning credits. Now, I am reaping the rewards of adolescents that have transitioned their learning into more academic endeavors as they anticipate their future college/career plans. This shift transpired without the coercion of rewards or punishment related to any kind of “learning.” Given the freedom to pursue their interest in a self-directed fashion has afforded them the time to fully explore their interest AND discover academic areas they need to develop. The product is a natural desire to follow through in a way that is personal and unique to them.
At Makarios Community School, early childhood learning is rich in play and exploration. We follow that up by mentoring students through academic learning as they mature. This methodology involves various introductions to reading, writing, and arithmetic. However, we stress that these activities be engaging and interactive without the drudgery of a textbook or worksheet. In the home environment, this is easily accomplished by reading together, shopping, cooking, listening to audio books while running errands, as well as a variety of other daily living skills. But how do we do this in a school setting? Read on….
So if grade school doesn’t count (for transcripts!), what do you do?
At Makarios Community School students engage in lots of play!
Students play on their own, in groups and with mentors. These kids do not play “school” they play “School Meeting” and “Judicial Committee” according to parliamentary guidelines. (Have you ever heard a five-year-old make a motion that is seconded and carried by all?) They make up yard games and indoor games that include students of all ages as well as mentors. They build and tinker. They create music, dance, and drama. They produce visual works of art. They code, cook, and make mud pies. They climb trees, ride bikes, and rough house.
At Makarios Community School staff strew or place learning tools in the student's path!
To an outsider, this may look like play, but it is very purposeful when a group of kids gather around the giant Jenga blocks or Snap Circuits that a staff member strategically placed in the Common Room. There is almost always a puzzle out in one of the common areas that students and staff will work on for a week or two. Often a book that has been read by a mentor during Lunch and Libros will be poured over by multiple students when left on display in the lunch room. Playing with numbers and letters is accomplished in a variety of ways through manipulative materials.
At Makarios Community School we poll the students to find out what they are interested in!
Last spring one of the topics requested was a “My Little Pony” class. I took the bait and learned a ton! Do you know how many references that show has to literature, botany, character, communication and, of course, friendship? Fun and friendship aside, some of the other class topic requests that staff have developed and offered include reptiles, geography, Victorian history, reading, writing, life math, pre-algebra, and cooking, to name a few. By the way, we decided that Pinkie Pie was our favorite character on "My Little Pony". We discovered that her persona was far more complex than initially meets the eye and learned that the meaning of "you can't judge a book by it's cover" can also apply to a character.
But, what about high school and college?
Once a student reaches certain developmental milestones, they begin to engage in academic endeavors on their own. This is typically apparent around 12 to 15 years of age, but developmental “age” is different for everyone. This principle is applicable for both typical and non-typical developing children. For example, a child considered “behind” will continue to develop according to their schedule. Authors Allen and Cowdery (2015), confirm that a developmentally delayed child encounters the same markers, in a similar sequence to their same age peers, just at a slower pace. If we consider Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development it seems obvious that evaluating all students according to a norm is inappropriate. Dr. Peter Gray provides an excellent example of developmental stages, referencing Piaget, in his article “The Value of Play II: How Play Promotes Reasoning". It is important to remember that each student develops according to their unique schedule and as Dr. Gray attests, play is foundational for future development.
Regardless of when students reach developmental maturity, at Makarios, we mentor and encourage the student toward their next goal--whether college, career or other fields of interest. Students may prepare to sit for college placement exams, enroll in community college, complete a high school transcript, take the GED or apply for the Makarios Diploma Program. They truly have the freedom to strike out on a path that they have chosen with the support and guidance needed to become a lifelong, self-directed learner with the confidence to make choices in pursuit of their unique interests and goals.
12 to 16 year old students actively engaged in a game coding workshop.
Our approach at Makarios Community School is in a fashion that closely mirrors the success of Finland’s Education System. We encourage and facilitate play for our younger students, engage developing minds with big ideas, and mentor the preparation of our oldest students toward pursuits beyond high school. This is how we approach academics at Makarios Community School.
Interested in learning more? Contact us and schedule a tour, family interview, or be added to our email list to learn about upcoming workshops at Makarios Community School.
Allen, E. K., & Cowdery, G. E. (2015). The Exceptional Child: Inclusion in Early Childhood Education.
Gray, P. (2008, December 04). The Value of Play II: How Play Promotes Reasoning. Retrieved July 13, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/200812/the-value-play-ii-how-play-promotes-reasoning
Greenberg, D. (1995). Free at last: the Sudbury Valley School. Framingham, MA: Sudbury Valley School Press.
McDonald, K. (n.d.). Summer Slide? There's No Such Thing. Retrieved July 13, 2017, from http://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2017/06/28/rethinking-education-unschooling-kerry-mcdonald