My master's thesis project was about mobile learning. Studying the history of education as compared to the known facts about learning is kind of depressing, as you realize how mismatched Western schooling systems are for the actual process of learning and especially for sparking a love for lifelong learning. I am really pleased to report of one successful effort to move schooling much closer to learning here in my town.

“Our goal is to bring out the best in girls; it's already there, we teach them how to remove the obstacles to seeing it, believing it, and using it.”
- M. Brandon

The Seattle Girls School is an experimental independent school begun in 2001 that seeks to use modern brain research for a more effective schooling experience for girls in (American) grades 5-8, specifically in the areas of science, math, and engineering—areas that girls find difficult and frustrating in traditional schooling. The school is headed by the impressive and communicative Marja Brandon. In the first year the school had 30 students and as of winter 2004 has grown to 130. Brandon has hopes that the school will eventaully hold 250 students.

In contrast to traditional schools that are constructed around agricultural cycles and work best for small groups of boys, SGS is built around nine "brain lessons" derived from modern brain science, circadian rhythms, and natural learning cycles.

  1. Meaning before detail: Teachers first communicate macroscopic meanings via experiences and dicussions, and only then begin to discuss details. For example, in their 8th grade curriculum (see below) the students take flying lessons and actually co-pilot a plane before they discuss the avionics and physics that permit humans to fly.
  2. Every Brain is Different: Teachers are taught to respect the variability in learning styles by teaching in multiple modalities and encouraging groups to learn in the ways that fits them best. Students are encouraged to face their frustration and suspect that it is the style of teaching that doesn’t fit rather than the subject. This encourages self-directed learning. Furthermore, students are encouraged to become specialists in the general topics that are being discussed.
  3. People are natural explorers: Evolutionarily, we are active learners and not well-built for passive absorption. Active students are more focused and attentive. Teachers avoid lecture formats and focus on hands-on projects.
  4. Sleep is important to the learning process. Sleeplessness slows recall, attention to detail, and processing speed. The hours of the school respect circadian rhythms, starting around 9:30 AM and continues only until 3:30. There is study group or sports for an hour afterwards, but neither is required. Parents are encouraged to let students get 9 hours of sleep each night.
  5. Repetition is critical for memory: The core ideas in each lesson are revisited again and again in different ways by both the teacher and the students.
  6. Humans are primarily visual learners: All lessons must incorporate compelling visuals that are ideally interactive.
  7. Focused attentional states facilitate learning: Teachers and students are taught to recognize when their attentions are drifting. School hours are designed to stop before the attention-low point that naturally occurs opposite maximum REM during sleep.
  8. Excercise aids learning: Motion activates brains, and SGS teachers rarely plan to have their students sitting for longer than 10 minutes at a time. This lessens boredom and the tensions often experienced by students of this age who are asked to sit quietly and listen.
  9. Stressed brains don't learn well: Cortisol slows down problem solving, processing, and memory. So teachers and students are taught to recognize stress and resolve the source when it is impeding learning.

The year-long curriculae are all custom designed by Brandon.

Where is the grammar? Mathematics? More traditional lessons from the Trivium and Quadrivium are not studied as independent subjects, but are interspersed throughout the excercises when and where they fit.

Culminating events: at the end of each term, the school invites outsiders to participate in the term review. The girls stand at microphones on stage and make presentations. Afterwards they take cold questions from the audience, often professionals in pertinent fields.

Mentors: Each student has a volunteer mentor from the community (specifically not in their family) who are screened by the school. Students have one scheduled activity each month at the school, and are encouraged to have one unplanned meeting to discuss ongoing class projects.

One terrific moment in the student’s weeks is Wednesday afternoons, when a professional from a field unrelated to their coursework visits the school to hold a workshop (the school calls them internships, but this implies much more than what was described). These workshops have included gourmet cooking, marketing, poetry writing, glassblowing, and mock trials.

Why is it only girls?

Brandon says that most of her approach and curriculae will work for all-boy or mixed classrooms, but she has to start somewhere, and chose to address the system's discrepancy against girls first.

How is it working?

Well, it's only in its third year so it's hard to say. Students aren't given grades and only submit to one standardized test that is administered by their parents, so such measurement tools aren't available. The school has recently had its first class graduate to high school, though. Some have gone on to other independent schools, others have gone on to public high schools. Informal interviews with teachers in the schools indicate that the girls are excelling as self-starter students and class leaders, after some adjustment period. The students themselves report that they're doing well, and that their biggest surprise has been the much larger size of classes and the seeming meaninglessness of busywork given to them. They feel somewhat forgotten, but are learning the power of the anonymity and the opportunity to exercise leadership.

Can it scale?

This is perhaps the biggest challenge that Brandon sees facing her. The teachers must be taught to think in new ways. It's hard work. Can the entire teaching workforce be expected to put in this kind of effort? Some families have expressed difficulty in matching the hours with their own work hours. The school's adherance to evolution and diversity won't play well in more conservative districts. And it's expensive. The school has made a huge effort to underwrite the tuition for underpriveleged students (40% receive scholarships), which requires a lot of money. Much has been given from the Gates Foundation, but Bill and Melinda can't fund the entire world like this. If anything can scale, it will hopefully be the approach. But as Montessori and others have learned before her, schools are kind of like churches and kind of like prisons. They exist partially of their own momentum, victims of an investment trap of a truly governmental scale.

Despite these challenges, I'm really excited to see modern science and learning theory being tried to create a real learning environment. Let's hope this experiment succeeds enough to herald positive changes in the rest of the educational system.

Sources:
lecture by Brandon
http://www.seattlegirlsschool.org/

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