Great schools have several things in common. They have a mission that is unapologetically followed and provide two important things to all students: a space that encourages the academic development of children and a supportive community to address the social emotional learning of all.
Since the beginning of February 2020, SPS has intentionally embarked on a process to improve the teaching and learning for all students. Beginning with the sudden transition to a remote platform, the teachers developed skills in curriculum implementation that encouraged us all to reconsider the methods we had relied on prior to that point. A dedication to professional development around effective teaching practices, specifically small group instruction and questioning in the classroom, occurred leading up to this point, but we began to place greater emphasis on meeting a wider range of learners, all of whom had returned from three and a half months of online learning. Differentiation techniques, ongoing assessment, and benchmarking standards led to a greater efficiency in student learning. Formative assessments, feedback, and observation of engagement in classroom behaviors was also begun with consideration to the learning outcomes of each student. Continued observations provided feedback for teachers regarding classroom methods as well as the effectiveness of each instructional practice. This loop has served both the students in their learning and the teachers in their instruction.
Teach Every Student; provide an environment which is conducive to learning as well as engaging, joyful, and developmentally appropriate.
Great schools have several things in common. They have a mission that is unapologetically followed and provide two important things to all students: a space that encourages the academic development of children and a supportive community to address the social emotional learning of all. The Academic Purpose of St. Peter’s includes many aspects based on the age and stage of the child, but the following aspects are critical to success for any learning environment and focal points for our instruction:
The concept that relationships are a pedagogical tool, and that teachers harness relationships to support student learning is important in the experiences of SPS students. Knowing students well and developing a system for this knowledge to be shared with all adults in the school supports the sense of academic care. Training and systemic transitioning of students through the school is practiced and enhanced each year. Teachers demand of one another to be approachable, alert to students’ needs, and helpful. Student learning is the responsibility of all teachers and meeting students where they are enables this learning to be effective. If students are not safe to learn, re-learn, and explore knowledge, because of the relationships they develop with their teachers and peers, their experience will be limited.
“Be kind, compassionate, and inclusive…” These words are the beginning of our School’s Community Code and help frame how we interact with one another. An inclusive curriculum takes each person into account and is aware of differences not to be tolerated, but to be celebrated. Programs are inclusive to our diverse families and the surrounding community, encouraging opportunities for each person to thrive and for School to be the meaningful experience we all know it can be. Our purpose is to continue the work we have begun to foster a sense of belonging while engaging students in an experience that meets their needs, expands their horizons, and challenges them academically, socially, and personally. Diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging are important words, and we act with them in mind when we live out our Mission and our Code.
Decontextualizing learning favors the structure of the content, not the needs of the students. Content centered on cross-disciplinary connections, an emphasis on holistic, constructivist, project based learning, and a focus on student’ interests, questions, and concerns define integrative learning opportunities. St. Peter’s has created this environment and at its core is that content is centered on integrated thematic units. Teaching students how to learn is a key component to their education. Departmental approach bears little resemblance to the way individuals think and problem solve. It was created out of convenience and the school should continue its move toward integrated, thematic, project-based learning. A child’s education that is built using memorization and recitation of discrete facts or on isolated disciplines will then, according to brain research, hard-wire children to perform that way. If, however, we construct a curriculum around creative problem solving and broader learning-how-to-learn skills, students will develop those skills and the patterns of learning developed through primary school will support their learning through life.
Play at school is not confined to recess. Play, and the inherent value of the experience, is a necessary and joyful aspect of school. Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish Educator and Author, said this about play, ‘Play is how children explore, discover, fail, succeed, socialize, and flourish.’ We understand that through play children develop stronger social competencies such as self regulation which allows children to persist through challenging activities. Children build intellectual flexibility and creativity as they learn to navigate peer relationships and cooperative play situations. From preschool through eighth grade, we honor the power of play because at St. Peter’s, childhood is cherished.
Classrooms need to be academically demanding, places where there is an emphasis on mastery of challenging content. Each student arrives to class with a different level of need and therefore challenging each student is personalized and needs to take into account their experience in classes as well as outside of school. Known educational psychologist, Vegotsky’s concept of a “zone of proximal development” is critical for learning to be effective and for the time on task to be the most impactful for each student. Knowing the student and what they need to be appropriately challenged is the key. Too easy and the child finds no value, but too difficult and the child feels overwhelmed and may not engage. Finally, challenge leads to engagement and that is critical for student learning in all environments.
Educator John Hattie described setting challenging goals as a powerful part of the overall equation of what makes the difference in learning. Additionally, the difference in emphasis on task-oriented goals, (also known as mastery goals), versus performance-oriented goals is crucial. Task-oriented goals address establishing expectations to achievement targets. Performance-oriented goals focus on comparisons of student learning outcomes. Thus, task-oriented goals underscore effort where performance-oriented goals underscore ability. Task-focused goals lead to greater effort by students, increase engagement, and increase student learning.
Schools should be active places where active, passionate, and engaging people, (teachers, students, peers, etc.) participate in the act of learning. In active learning, teachers should require students to be initiators of their own learning while guiding the students in this pursuit. Teachers should create active spaces with direct involvement and provide students with a greater sense of agency. Active learning is directly related to student autonomy, self-regulation, and achievement. This coupled with the other areas of focus lead to better understanding and commitment by the students.
Great schools are defined as venues of participation and engagement, not passivity, ritual and boredom. Students in engaging classrooms have voice and choice, and classrooms are places where construction of understanding is more important than transmission of information. The norm of engagement underscores project-based learning opportunities and application-oriented tasks as well as work that is interesting, varied, and meaningful. A school that is engaging means educators might stop worrying about how to transmit information, and concentrate instead on how to make learning enjoyable, because only when going to school is a joyful experience will students be motivated to learn on their own, and grow in the process.
Striving for an environment in which students can learn as members of communities is a hallmark of a St. Peter’s education. Collaborative work underscores the importance of task completion over the competitive aspects of many classrooms. Academic norms of community-focused learning removes the notion that learning is predominantly an individual activity. Students should be responsible for their own learning and that of their peers in a cooperative learning environment. Ideally, each classroom should have a feeling of interdependency where each person is benefiting from the work that other students are doing. Unity among students is both a goal of our SEL Program and a necessary benefit from the work that is undertaken and the types of experiences teachers and students create for learning to thrive. Teachers willingness to use students as co-teachers and peer tutors enables learning to be transformative and not simply teacher directed. Cooperative learning between cross-age groups is paramount to effective achievement.
Meaningful work and authentic pedagogy define “successful” schools. Relevancy for students is critical for engagement and purposeful learning. Providing purpose to activities and explaining the relevancy signals to students that the work is important and worth their time and effort. If these aspects are not present, the student becomes disengaged, extrinsically motivated to do what is asked rather than understanding the value of the experience while it is happening. When the norm of meaningfulness is present, there is a heavy concentration on performance tasks and problem-based activities. Meaning provides a willingness for students to engage and give greater effort.
Seeing school through the eyes of the students and not simply through the demands of the curriculum is the hallmark of student centered learning opportunities. Building instruction around the experiences and needs of the learners allows for each student to feel connected to their education. Centering experiences for students that place importance on their lives and interests is difficult, but creating activities with their needs in mind help them understand the meaning and purpose of their experiences. Teaching and learning in which students have voice, choice and receive considerable attention encourages students’ commitment and their engagement. Schools where student-centered learning is practiced identify three key components: 1) teaching becomes subordinate to learning; 2) good classes are defined primarily on the basis of process rather than content of teaching; and 3) students are engaged in their overall learning, not simply the classes they attend.
At the heart of evidence-based teaching is feedback. Feedback to students is primary, but when teachers pay attention to the formative effects of their teaching, instruction improves and student learning increases. Another aspect of feedback is evidence from students’ self-assessment efforts. Feedback, through the use of rubrics, reduces discrepancies between a student’s current understanding and their performance toward a learning goal. Productive formative feedback is focused on the level at which students are working. It is directed toward progress on tasks and the processes embedded in those tasks rather than toward each student on a personal level. Feedback also supports students’ understanding if goals are specific and challenging, but simple to understand.