Student Development: How Essential School Practices and Designs Can Help

Students also develop thinking skills by learning to navigate the social, emotional, and ethical realms. How can teachers best coach kids in the habits of thoughtful adults and support them in their different rates of growth? And what does that imply for how we organize Essential schools, both in academic and in other areas?

Clinton had bombed Iraq just as his impeachment vote loomed, and both of Deb Merriam’s global studies classes wanted to talk about it. But as this teacher at the Parker Charter Essential School in Devens, Massachusetts left her second class of the day, she marveled at how different was the older teen-agers’ discussion from that of their younger schoolmates.

“They were both great discussions,” she said, “but they were at such different stages of development.” The younger class grounded its discussion in specific questions ??nailing down players, places, and events. Some students with little interest in other global conflicts paid new attention because of the furor the President’s actions provoked among people they knew. Most kids sought the teacher’s support at every turn.

“But in the older class I hardly said a word,” Merriam noted. “The kids spent the whole time hashing out the ethics of the situation??whether the U.S. could or should remove Saddam, the sanctions, the timing of the attack.” And even students who were unsure of their facts were able to garner them from the context as they took part in the group’s lively parlay about justice.

That classic progression??from the concrete to the abstract, from an intense focus on the self to an ability to integrate the perspectives of others and form original ideas??characterizes not only students’ cognitive development but also their social, emotional, moral and ethical growth, according to educational theorists from Jean Piaget to Lawrence Kohlberg and Robert Selman.

And as teachers commit themselves to Essential School principles ??about knowing students well, about coaching them to progress on the basis of performance, about mix-ing them in heterogeneous groups, about democracy and equity?? they face complex questions about how best to foster student development, not just intellectually but in all the realms of learning.

Some questions center on curriculum and instruction. If students understand an “essential question” (like “Whose America is this?”) at different levels of abstraction, for example, how should the teacher structure a class project to allow for various entry points? In a diverse group of students, how can she offer the particular support and challenge each needs?

Some center on standards and assessment, which typically classify students by age and grade level, not by their developmental stage. If a tenth grader is working hard on her research paper, but can’t yet synthesize her research into an original point of view, must the new tenth-grade standard call her deficient? How long should schools keep students whose academic development may never quite fit the state’s measuring stick? What about kids who show their growing abilities in other areas than book learning: social and emotional sophistication, for instance, or musical talent, or practical dexterity?

Taking note of not only developmental theory but recent research on learning styles and “multiple intelligences,” more teachers are asking questions like these in the classroom. But the developmental approach also raises questions about the very purposes and designs of schools.

Instead of just teaching academic subjects, it implies, schools have a broader role: They teach students how to act in the social and ethical arenas of society. What implicit messages are they sending by the ways adults relate to each other, to students, to families, and to the larger community?

Developing Understanding

Teachers in developmentally focused schools notice many links between the Coalition’s Ten Common Principles and the ideas they practice in the classroom. They may already be trying, for instance, to create many routes by which students may encounter academic material and many means by which they demonstrate what they know and can do.

To help students try out their growing abstract knowledge and ideas in an active, hands-on manner, teachers treat them as workers, often in social groups that help them make sense of what they are learning. Rather than “delivering” information, they coach students in activities that let them discover and construct knowledge for themselves.

In the early grades, teachers have long supported student development by emphasizing concrete hands-on materials, multiple learning styles, flexible age grouping, and cooperative learning activities. They encourage children to explore the concrete world, then coach them to begin to make sense of it through questions and reflections.

Whether that process takes place in a science investigation or as kids debate what’s fair, it follows a similar pattern: kids move from the concrete to the abstract, from an intense focus on themselves to considering others’ perspectives. The steps of learning take place one by one, each building on what the child has learned in the previous experience of exploration and growth.

As the number of Essential elementary schools grows, they have shared their developmental approach with schools up the K?12 pathway, at the Fall Forum and other collaborative gatherings. And through the Coalition’s pilot partnership with the Developmental Studies Center (DSC) in Oakland, California, schools affiliated with the Massachusetts and Michigan CES Centers will have access to support for integrating children’s social and ethical growth with their academic development. As well as coaching schools in its “whole child” outlook, DSC develops reading, mathematics, and “community-building” curricula to nurture qualities like kindness, helpfulness, responsibility, and respect in the primary grades.

Many Essential middle schools, too, have rooted their restructuring efforts in research on the developmental needs of early adolescents. Large schools that track students into tightly scheduled subject-area course periods, reformers assert, actually hamper learning in this crucial and volatile stage of life.

With longer time periods to work in, students can use the teacher and texts as resources and solve problems that cross disciplinary lines. Academic material holds more interest for adolescents, these schools have found, when it comes from students’ own big questions and concerns. At the Academy for the Middle Years in Philadelphia, for instance, school-wide Essential Questions (such as “Who are we?”, “Where did we come from?”, and “Where are we going?”) guide students’ class work and link it to their personal development. Eighth-grade language arts students are researching career interests, writing resumes and inquiry letters and making presentations; other classes have explored their families’ immigration histories.

Fixed Standards

Don’t Help By adapting classroom tasks and activities, teachers with a developmental outlook try to pose just the tasks that students are ready to learn and do. This perspective has important implications for Essential school teachers, who often work with heterogeneous groups of students, yet aim toward mastery of ambitious academic concepts.

For one thing, they must help students experience enough content understanding to make the critical move to the next level of thinking about it. Unless they keep in mind the varied stages of their students, they risk losing them by jumping over a crucial step.

One new science teacher in an Essential middle school, for example, noticed that some of her ninth-grade students had a hard time connecting their observational data to the hypothesis they were intended to support or refute. “I suddenly realized that their thinking was still too concrete to move back and forth comfortably between what they saw and the abstract idea it might represent,” she says. “Given that, was it fair for me to assess them all against the same expectations?” In the end, she built extra structure and guidance into the lab report, and gave extra coaching and support by asking key questions at the right time.

Similarly, a student’s success on a tenth-grade research project may depend on his readiness to go past the literal material he has assembled and form a perspective of his own. “Most kids are ready to compare two points of view, weigh them, and choose one,” says Jim Culbert-son, who coordinates the Coalition Center in Pennsylvania. “But some won’t yet be able to synthesize that material; that’s a more sophisticated developmental stage.”

Like Piaget, good teachers look to the “wrong answers” for clues. When they hear something un-expected from a student, they look for the gap between their expectation and what a student can currently do. “When kids don’t ?«get it,’ we shouldn’t be discouraged,” one Essential school counselor says. “It’s a great opportunity to adjust our coaching.”

To help students learn, Culbert-son notes, “We have to know them very well. And we need to build all kinds of choices and scaffolding into our teaching practices.” As well as developing the intellectual skills students have, teachers can spur them on to new abilities by posing problems that can’t be solved by what they know already.

The natural give and take of a mixed group can help this process, as students grow intrigued by the thinking of students who are a step ahead. But teaching kids at different levels also presents a major challenge to teachers with too many students and too little time.

“Schools typically solve this by age-grouping kids, tracking them, or putting them in special education classes,” says Ted Sizer. “But these are bureaucratic solutions to complex problems. We need to go past them to create much more thoughtful designs for how and where we teach and learn.”

Coaching Personal Growth

Both through the content itself and through the actual processes of learning, schools can reinforce important habits of inquiry, of collaboration, of confidence, and of caring that can be crucial for students’ very survival.

If they feel connected, understood, and treated fairly in school, kids are less likely to suffer emotional distress, abuse substances, or take part in other destructive activities, a national longitudinal study on adolescent health reported in 1997. Other research shows that when teachers hold higher hopes and expectations for kids, they do better in school.

Schools can pay attention to these areas of growth in various contexts, both in academic classes and outside them. (See sidebar, page 4.) But many Essential schools make a particular place for such work in the advisory groups that have grown common throughout the Coalition.

Seventh and eighth graders at Rancho San Joaquin Middle School in Irvine, California take part in a graded “advisement program,” in which roughly 20 students meet with a teacher twice weekly for two years to reflect on their academic work, talk through ethical issues, chart their future plans, and practice civic responsibility in a community-based project. The program reflects the Irvine school board’s decision to make values such as responsibility, honesty, courage, and compassion part of every school’s mission.

“People have grown steadily happier about the program for the past several years,” says Erin Hughes, who led a team of Rancho teachers in developing a set curriculum for the program, complete with calendar, lesson plans, activities, and rubrics.

“The seventh graders explore a different ethical value every month,” she says, “and work on teambuilding and cooperation skills.” In one exercise, students write themselves a “truth letter” attempting complete honesty about something that matters deeply to them, then seal the letter for no one else’s eyes. In another, they hash out the ethics of telling “little white lies,” or stealing to achieve a necessary good.

In eighth grade, advisement groups go on to design a class project answering the question, “What can we do together to make a difference in our community?” Every group must create a written plan for its project, present it for approval by the school’s Site Council, and assess the project for its effectiveness and its value to all participants.

The advisement group also supports students’ academic growth in several ways. It helps them learn what to expect as they move on to eighth grade and then high school. And at regular intervals, kids use the class period to gather academic work from other classes, analyze it according to school-wide rubrics, and prepare a portfolio including reflections on why one piece is a “personal best” and how they can do better on another. Finally, they present the portfolios to their families in a thrice-yearly conference.

Students Taking Leadership

As they work through abstractions like fairness, responsibility, and morality, students are practicing ever higher levels of thinking; and so some high schools create courses with that as their content. At Maine’s Gorham High School, students in a senior elective course called “Human Nature” investigate philosophical and ethical questions as they apply to their own lives. “They ask, ?«How do I determine what is good and what is evil? By what code of ethics do I try to live?'” teacher Mike Carter says.

Ideas like these turn far more concrete when service-learning or other such programs put them into a community context. Gorham High School trains and supports a network of students to serve as “Natural Helpers,” in whom other students can confide personal problems when they need an empathetic ear. Aside from “red flag” situations involving abuse, suicide, or the like, such information is held in strict confidence; students learn simply to listen supportively, to help others sort out issues and come to their own conclusions, and to refer their peers when necessary to the appropriate professional help. The group also plans school service events, like a breakfast for new students and a program of guest speakers about life issues that students face.

“As a freshman I had a difficult time adjusting,” one senior applicant wrote to Natural Helpers. “I didn’t want to come to school in the morning and went to sleep crying at night. I now hope I can be there for students who are having difficulties as I did, and be someone who is trustworthy, honest, and helpful.”

Students also learn by taking on tasks and responsibilities commonly assigned to adults in schools, from repairing computers to leading the work of Essential school reform. At Michigan’s Caledonia High School, which offers a course where students discuss books like Horace’s Compromise, students routinely take visitors around, present the school at workshops, and even represent it at the CES Congress.

Some 250 students have participated in summer Leadership Insti-tutes at Missouri’s regional CES Center, carrying out action research in their schools and presenting their perspectives in portfolio form at the 1998 Fall Forum. “One principal told me his kids’ participation was driving the reform in his exploring-level school,” says Laura Thomas, who coordinates the program.

Twin Buttes High School in Zuni, New Mexico is one of many Essential schools where a weekly “community meeting” builds a sense of shared responsibility and respect among teachers and students. Principal Linda Belarde also co-teaches a class about personal and social responsibility with the school counselor.

School-Day Morality

Are all these matters the rightful province of schools? Though some critics would have it otherwise, “Paying attention to the whole child’s development cannot be dismissed as a mushy emphasis on ?«self-esteem,'” Ted Sizer declares.

Instead of training their gaze exclusively on academic inputs into student achievement, he says, schools must recognize how hard it is to separate a young person’s cognitive development from the social, emotional, and moral realms.

But more important, they must take a close look at how their own policies and structures affect the way students both think and act.

Late at night, when a student looks at the 30 pages she can’t read before English the next day and figures out how to bluff it so that the teacher won’t catch on, the school has failed her, Sizer argues. And when her teacher settles for a second-rate discussion of a text she can’t quite remember because she has 150 students to teach the next day, the school has failed her, too.

Such routine school-day choices, described in Ted and Nancy Sizer’s forthcoming book, The Students Are Watching: Teaching for a Worthy Life (Beacon Press), carry both moral and intellectual weight, the authors assert. As frequent out of the classroom as in it, these choices deeply affect student learning, providing vivid models of what adults deem important, and why.

When school people choose whether to grapple with a controversial topic, or whether to sort students in ways that determine their futures, or whether they should push against the status quo, they are coaching students in the intellectual, ethical, and social habits that last a lifetime, the Sizers say.

As Essential schools explore that territory, they face a thicket of district, state, and national policies from curriculum mandates to college admission that inhibit and constrain those decisions.

In overcoming those obstacles, they will turn their schools into the proving ground where kids grow day by day toward becoming, as Eric Schaps of the Developmental Studies Center says, the “neighbors, doctors, senators, and friends” for whom we all are hoping.