Connecting Schoolchildren to the Real World? That's Extraordinary!

One of the perks of my job is that I get to visit extraordinary schools and classrooms. It is rare that I don’t find a school visit to be inspiring, but over the years, I have seen a couple of places that really stand out. They are so inspiring that I have used each of them as an example in presentations and conversations hundreds of times, but I still want to share them more broadly.

Why do I find them so inspiring?

First, in a world where people have come to associate excellent teaching with heroic effort, these examples show what can be done through simple, commonsensical activities that any teacher can do with ordinary levels of training and resources.

Second, they involve establishing meaningful connections between students and the world outside of school. I often say that we have designed schools and schooling to be optimal for learning to read, write, and do math, but they couldn’t be worse environments for studying the real world. Both of these examples overcome the limitations of modern schools to enable students to study the real world.

Finally, they do not seek to fill students’ minds with as much knowledge as they can in a short period of time, which has become the default practice in modern schools. Instead, they develop conceptual understanding through experience over an extended period of time. Given the choice between having young people acquire large quantities of knowledge in short periods of time or developing conceptual understanding over extended periods, which do you think will be most valuable to them and their communities in the long run? For me, there is no question.

The Goodwillie Environmental School

The first example is a school just outside Grand Rapids, Michigan, that I visited seven or eight years ago, but I remember like it was yesterday. Called the Goodwillie Environmental School, it is a magnet middle school on a 28-acre plot of mostly wooded land. Here are a few of the facts about the school that made such an impression on me:

Every day, the buses let the students off on the opposite side of the property from the school building, and the students walk a half-mile through the woods to the school building.

The students eat lunch outside every day all year, rain, snow, or shine, unless there is lightning or a dangerous storm.

At the beginning of the year, every student identifies his or her own spot in the woods. Every student spends at least 30 minutes, at least once a week, in that location, observing and recording in words and pictures what they see, hear, smell, and feel in a phenology (“seasonal change”) journal.

Every aspect of the curriculum is tied to environmental themes, and the temperature in the school is kept at 65 degrees F during the colder months to make it easy to transition from inside to outside throughout the day.

Since many students wear fleece and hats throughout the day, one of the school’s slogans is “hat hair is cool,” and there are no mirrors in the bathrooms.

Bank Street School for Children

The second example is very different on the surface and nearly identical in concept. This one is found in the heart of New York City at Broadway and 112th Street. It is a program at the Bank Street School for Children, an independent school that is part of Bank Street College.

They have many wonderful programs at the School for Children, but the one that captured my imagination is a project focusing on the Hudson River that is conducted in second grade. In this project, the students in each class collaborate on a study of all aspects of the river through firsthand observation, interviews with adults, and consultation of primary and secondary sources.

The most important parts of their study are the firsthand observations and interviews of adults. Students travel the two blocks from their school to the river on multiple occasions throughout the year to observe what takes place in, on, and around it. They plan and conduct interviews of people who work on or near the river as well as experts in the history and science of the river.

This study is wonderful on its own, but what makes it such a fabulous example of excellent teaching is what the students do with what they learn. Over the course of the school year, they build a physical model of all the aspects of the river on a tabletop measuring approximately 15 feet long and 3 feet wide.

The students create their model out of everyday materials, adding to it bit by bit, as they learn new things. When I visited in March, the model was extensive. It included a papier-maché hill on one end, representing the headwaters of the river in the Adirondacks, and butcher paper painted blue at the other, representing the bay past the tip of Manhattan. In between was a 1.5- to 2-foot-wide, blue-painted river with boats on it; bridges across it; and all kinds of signs, buildings, people, and vehicles on either bank.

Through serious discussion and debate, the students had determined what to build and how to build everything in their model. They had designed ferry landings and built ferry boats, which they could move from one side of the river to the other in a simulation of their daily schedule. Soon before my visit, they had been learning about pollution in the river, and so there were also freshly made signs along the banks requesting that people not litter.

Since this is second grade, the students were allowed to play with the objects in their model during lunch and recess, but the rest of the time the model was reserved for serious building and simulation.

I was intrigued to learn that the students were just about to start studying the history of the river, which they were going to learn in reverse chronological order. The teacher explained that as they went backwards through history, they would start removing elements from their model in a step-by-step process that would leave the river and its surroundings in a pristine state, representing the time before humans settled in the watershed.

An Underlying Lesson for Education

As I said before, I find these inspirational because they are simple, connect students to the real world, and develop real understanding, but I also believe they have a deeper lesson for good geoeducation. Young people will do amazing things when we ignore our usual expectations about what is appropriate for them and what they are capable of. Second graders will conduct sophisticated interviews of adults and create functional models and simulations. Middle school students will suspend their concerns about physical appearance and will develop deep connections to natural cycles. Making this happen doesn’t require a heroic effort, just a change in priorities and approach.

Follow Daniel Edelson on Twitter: @NatGeoEdelson