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What If... School Was Filled With Wonder and Exploration Instead of Standards

Laura Solomon Parent, military spouse, aspiring educational innovator BSIE – Georgia Institute of Technology MEd, Social Foundations – University of Virginia

The internet is abuzz with theories and ideas. Initially I was energized by reading and pondering everyone’s ideas of what the world, specifically in education, will look like post-pandemic But after days and weeks I started feeling overwhelmed trying to keep a pulse on these trends and thoughts, frustrated trying to support and oversee my children’s education without a window into the greater picture, and oh, by the way, we are moving. So we are living in a temporary furnished house, not “home.” This week is our school division’s spring break. So rather than exploring San Francisco as originally planned, I decided to take a mental break. I’ve been passively watching my children explore. So it caused me to think, what if school was filled with wonder and exploration instead of standards? 

Put on your rose-colored glasses and join me on a brief idealistic journey; I am going to walk you through a project of my first grader as an illustrative example of wonder and exploration. Imagination is still very active at this age and amazing to watch. She has a pet tiger (stuffed and completely unrelated to Tiger King) that we got at Disney World last year on spring break. This tiger is named Lola and has a birthday on Friday. We love to cook and bake in our family and have a tradition that a birthday cannot pass without a cake. So early in the week my 7-year-old started planning the birthday cake. It started as a sketch on paper, then was translated digitally to Procreate on the iPad. 

She showed me what she wanted and we talked through it. Evidently, she had practiced a couple of designs in the sand a few days prior at the beach and thought it was going to need a column to support the head. Her model for this was the human neck, so we looked more closely at the stuffed animal. Then we talked a bit about the structural integrity of rice crispy treats, since she had decided this would be what the head should be made of. These weren’t long, detailed discussions, just in passing. 

Over the next few days we talked about recipes and gathered ingredients. Then on Thursday, we baked the cake. She helped collect the ingredients, then stirred and measured where she could. We threw in some discussions about what “a quarter” and “a third” meant. I peppered her with questions. “How do you know that is a half teaspoon instead of a full one?” We talked about the baking soda and how it reacts with the buttermilk to make it rise. We analyzed the shapes of the pans available in our rental house. Should it be round and square? Could we cut the square to look like the circle? They do not have two matching pans here. You get the idea. We put the cake in the oven, she assembled the head, then it was time for decorating. Voila – a tiger cake. 

Over the course of this project we addressed quite a few standards. For example, some of the first-grade science standards include: “The student will demonstrate an understanding of scientific reasoning, logic, and the nature of science by planning and conducting investigations in which (a) the senses are used to observe differences in physical properties; (b) observations are made from multiple positions to achieve a variety of perspectives and are repeated to ensure accuracy; (c) objects or events are classified and arranged according to characteristics or properties.” Or math: “The student will (a) represent and solve practical problems involving equal sharing with two or four sharers; (b) represent and name fractions for halves and fourths, using models. The student will use nonstandard units to measure and compare length, weight, and volume.” And English: “The student will develop oral communication skills. Ask and respond to questions to seek help, get information, or clarify information. Restate and follow simple two-step oral directions. Give simple two-step oral directions. Express ideas orally in complete sentences. Work respectfully with others.”

Furthermore, these types of projects support the growth of a person towards a contributing member of society, or in eduspeak, support the “profile of a graduate” or “21st century learner.” Generating an idea and finding support and resources to see it through to fruition is exactly what we want adults in a democracy to do. Or, as I like to tell my children, “be a problem-solver.” How different would our classrooms look if the students didn’t ask, “how am I supposed to do this?” or “what did you tell me to do?” But instead said, “I have a question/problem/idea, can you help me figure it out?” I recognize that my example takes projects to a depth not realistic to the classroom. However, there is a balanced approach to implementing this in a way that truly supports learners, meets the standards, and shows the students that their teachers know them. It supports deep learning and the tenets of social-emotional learning that are so vital to building equity in the education system. Allowing school to be this place of wonder and exploration gives children a safe place to grow, without fear of judgment in the form of standards or grades. What if instead of “learning fractions,” they learned to make something and felt engaged and learning fractions was simply a byproduct of this empowering experience?

Learning is occurring every second, classrooms could be places to understand each kid’s unique journey so that they support them in making connections to the academic subjects, the social construct of a naturally occurring process. What if we could use this pause to disrupt the inertia of our industrial-based system? Newton’s first law of motion states that an object “will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless compelled to change its state by the action of an external force.” What if COVID-19 is an external force that is strong enough to push the education system in a different direction? It makes sense, no one is intentionally trying to educate in a way that is no longer relevant, we are just creatures of habit. It is “what we do.” Wendy Wood, author of Good Habits, Bad Habits explains that “We spend a shocking 43 percent of our day doing things without thinking about them. That means that almost half of our actions aren’t conscious choices but the result of our non-conscious mind nudging our body to act along learned behaviors.” Maybe now, we are taking the time to reflect and think about them.


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