It was clear that many of our students had a lot of experience with Minecraft when some were building Rube Goldberg machines on the very first day of the fall Minecraft enrichment club.
The word “tinker” often calls to mind images of someone idly passing away time, lost in an impractical activity. At Ridgefield Academy, however, tinkering is serious play that leads to relevant learning. New this year, our Tinker Lab is a place where students, grades K through 3, have a chance to work, and play, with a variety of materials, exploring STEM concepts and solving problems creatively in the process.
This sounds impressive but why, exactly, does the Tinker Lab work?
One look at the empty Lab and you immediately sense the possibilities for learning. Every corner and table is stacked with Legos, blocks, dowels, pipes, marble runs and more. Add students to the mix, and the purposeful buzz in the room is palpable. Sometimes following independent curiosity and, at others, fulfilling design challenges presented by teachers, students are busy building, hypothesizing, testing theories and making adjustments. They’re celebrating their successes and learning from their setbacks. And whether they’re aware of it or not, they’re also very busy making connections between science, engineering and math concepts.
This interdisciplinary process, called integrated learning, is a key component of a Ridgefield Academy education. By giving students the opportunity to see the relationship between multiple disciplines and apply what they’re discovering during a hands-on project, they not only see how the skills they’re learning in the classroom have a practical application in the real world, they also recognize their own power to make an impact on that world.
“If we pull learning out of books and put it into a real world application, we just see a greater resonance with students,” says Basil Kolani, our Director of the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. “We start to figure out what interests them. We also start to change their minds about what interests them, because everything is much more engaging when it’s tangible and relatable, when they can experience it for themselves.
There’s no point in our grownup lives where we say, ‘OK, it’s math time for 45 minutes and then I’m going to switch to reading and then science time after that.’ In the real world, our day-to-day activities represent integrated disciplines. The real world always integrates subject matter. If we want students to make sense of the world around them, we need to incorporate that world into our teaching. Our Tinker Lab and similar learning models are great places to make all of that happen naturally.” The Tinker Lab, then, isn’t just a place for students to learn information. It’s also a place for them to learn “how” to learn, a place to begin asking the questions that help them to shape their own education, empowering them to be proactive components of their own learning. It’s a place where not having all of the answers is a good thing, because finding the answers is part of the learning process.
Why is this so important? In a world where technology is evolving at faster rate than we can keep up with, Educator Karl Fisch says, “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented yet, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”
To be effective, then, education must shift from teaching students “what” they need to learn to “how” they need to learn.
Mr. Kolani says that this uncertainty is not only OK, it’s one of the best parts of being an educator and a student.
“In the face of an unsure future,” he says, “and of ever changing data and technology, if the outcome we want for our students is for them to be adaptable, we have to focus on communication, innovation, open-mindedness and creativity. What we really need to provide them with are the skills they’ll need to reason, problem-solve and to be versatile. Some of the best teachable moments occur as surprises that pop up in the form of an unexpected question, observation or summary. That’s when the magic happens; that’s when we really learn.”
On October 8, 2015, Jim Heus, Head of School at Ridgefield Academy, introduced the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning to the RA community. It has been my privilege to join RA as the Center’s director as we begin to look at how, what, and why we teach what we do; ensure that every student in every classroom is given the opportunity to succeed; and as we redefine what professional development means to RA.
Excerpted from the Ridgefield Academy Patriot Blog, this post captures our excitement as we launch this new initiative.
When it comes to teaching and learning, we’re all in this together. The teacher/student relationship is nothing short of a partnership and, at Ridgefield Academy, we just wouldn’t have it any other way. While in the old days, education was often perceived as a process in which teachers transmitted facts, statistics and information to a student, what we’ve learned over the years is that for a student to truly learn, s/he needs to be an active participant in his/her education.What’s more, in a global environment where technology is rapidly changing the way we obtain and process information, those same students need to learn how to ask the right questions, solve problems and keep an open mind if they hope to be successful – in the classroom and “out there” in the world.
How do we give students the tools to do this? Earlier this month, Head of School Jim Heus discussed this very question, along with Alison O’Callaghan and Clinton Howarth, during our annual State of the School address. He said we need to begin by developing a culture of lifetime learning that begins with our teachers. In addition to encouraging them to be “curators of learning as opposed to content specialists,” Mr. Heus discussed our newly established Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning, a campus-wide initiative that is encouraging all teachers to “examine the act of teaching and the process of learning, and consistently challenge themselves to do better.” Facilitating opportunities for students to be independent thinkers and creative problem solvers is a primary goal.
Basil Kolani, the newly hired director of the center which is located right on campus, believes that for teachers to be truly effective at accomplishing this, they have to be students themselves. In the long run, this inspires the students they are teaching.
“We have a great knowledge base and skills,” said Mr. Kolani, “but to all get better together as teachers, we have to be willing to get uncomfortable – to step outside of our comfort zones and admit that there are things we don’t know. By learning about them together – from changes in the world to how to best teach – we’ll share ideas and grow. This is exactly what we ask of our students when we teach them; it’s the same form of exploration that leads to learning and improvement by our students in our classrooms. As a result, our students become the beneficiaries of teachers willing to see themselves as learners, of adults who are modeling the way they expect their students to be.”
While our world has always experienced change, the rate of that change is accelerating. This means that today’s students are going to face future challenges, jobs, technologies and methods of communication that we haven’t even conceived of yet. To meet those challenges head on they’ll need more than just facts and figures. They’ll need to know how to reason, evaluate and explore. They’ll need creativity and confidence to challenge traditional ways of problem solving so they can keep up but, even better, innovate. Ultimately, they’ll need to learn “how” to learn. Ridgefield Academy’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning is dedicated to these goals.
One of the greatest joys we experience as teachers and faculty members is watching our young students progress from acquiring fundamental skills to developing confidence in what they can accomplish. When we teach children to see themselves as capable, active participants in the classroom, we show them that they are, in fact, proactive and effective participants in the ever-changing world around them.