Commentary

Students Learning How They Learn and How They Don’t

At Pittsfield Middle High School in southeastern New Hampshire, the students are individually and actively involved in their own learning. This enlivening approach to education, which I’ve been advocating for years, is beginning in an evolving number of schools around the country.

Here, Emily Richmond of the Hechinger Report, an education news site, writes, “student-led discussions, small-group work and individual projects dominate” (“Putting students in charge to close the achievement gap,” Emily Richmond, The Hechinger Report, Oct. 24, 2014).

As Noah Manteau, a senior at Pittsfield, tells Richmond: “There used to be a lot more of teachers talking at you — it didn’t matter if you were ready to move on. When the teacher was done with the topic that was it. This is so much better.”

Richmond adds: “Educators, researchers and policymakers at the state and national level are keeping close tabs on Pittsfield, which has become an incubator for a critical experiment in school reform. The goal: a stronger connection between academic learning and the kind of real-world experience that advocates say can translate into postsecondary success.”

This kind of goal could turn future generations of Americans into more knowledgeable participants of what our nation began as: a self-governing republic whose Bill of Rights guaranteed each American individual constitutional liberties.

For years, educational reformers have too often just glibly emphasized “critical thinking” as a key goal of education. But students who are mainly talked at by teachers and then graded by collective standardized tests don’t get to do much critical thinking in school.

By contrast, here is some of Richmond’s report of a class she observed:

“In an 11th-grade English class … Jenny Wellington’s students were gathered in a circle debating Henry David Thoreau’s positions on personal responsibility.”

One student asked: “Do you think Thoreau really was about ‘every man for himself’?”

To this, another student responded: “He lived alone in the woods and didn’t want to pay taxes. So yeah!”

“Sitting off to the side,” writes Richmond, “Wellington took rapid notes. When she noticed the conversation being dominated by a couple of voices, she politely suggested someone else chime in. Otherwise, she stayed out of the way and let the discussion take shape.”

So how, at Pittsfield, are these individual learners being graded?

Richmond answers: “The traditional grading system has been replaced with a matrix of ‘competencies,’ detailing the skills and knowledge students are expected to master in each class.

“Students are graded on a scale of 1 to 4 — with 2.5 considered ‘proficient’ — and those numbers are converted into letter grades for their transcripts.”

In addition, “teachers meet at regular intervals to review how closely their instruction is aligning with the competencies; they use on an online database to continually track individual student growth.

“Additional online classes allow students to further challenge themselves and earn college credit …”

And dig this: “The Extended Learning Opportunities (ELO) program allows students to earn credit for workplace experiences that reinforce their academic studies, such as interning at a dentist’s office or the local radio station.”

Accordingly, “all of this means students are shouldering more responsibility for their own learning.

“And they are expected to develop the kind of critical thinking skills — not just rote knowledge — required for ‘real world’ success.” (Emphasis added.)

So how is all this working out?

“Pittsfield’s superintendent, John Freeman, is among the first to acknowledge that adopting student-centered learning was a bold move. Student performance on statewide assessments has long been uneven, and teachers and administrators know there is still significant work to be done.

“But test scores are just one indicator, and based on multiple other measures, including higher graduation and college-going rates, Freeman feels confident that student-centered learning is moving Pittsfield in the right direction.”

Also worth noting is the composition of the town’s students: “Pittsfield, a former mill town, has about 4,500 predominantly white students, and the Middle High School serves about 260 residents. Fifty-six percent of them qualify for free or reduced-price meals.”

Although these kids are predominantly white, I haven’t the slightest doubt that encouraging active individual involvement would be of exceptional, sustained value to predominantly black or Hispanic schools and those other schools with underserved students.

In Pittsfield, Richmond assures us, “student-centered learning is fully in place in the high school, and elements of it are being phased in at the middle-school level. The long-term plan is to eventually add it to the nearby elementary school.”

From time to time, I will keep you up to date on those results.

Superintendent Freeman tells Richmond: “People in our community wanted schools to be places where students’ passions and interests were recognized, and their deficits and weaknesses addressed.”

He adds: “We’re thinking not just about what happens within these walls, but preparing them for success at least seven years beyond high school graduation.”

And conceivably, I believe, for the rest of their lives.

Laureen Avery of UCLA Center X, an education program that focuses on public schools, tells Richmond:

“I’ve never seen any school — big or little — pay such close attention to student data.”

Not just “data,” but continuing real-life evidence of how students learn.

Among voters in 2016, I challenge students, parents, teachers, school board members, state legislators and those in Congress to compare their school systems to what is happening in Pittsfield. What achievements are their school systems making to deepen and individualize students’ futures?

I don’t know whom I’ll vote for president in 2016. But if any candidate convinces me that he or she has believable plans for increasing students’ love of learning, I — despite arthritis — will be at the polls early.

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.