Learning How to Learn
by Jason Deck, Greenfields Parent
It was not until I was in college that I had a chance to do what Greenfields students do every day: Learn how to learn.
To explain that, let me back up a couple of decades.
As a young adult, I chose to attend a university with a great reputation for rigorous academics. In the years since graduating, I have been asked occasionally if I thought it was worth it. Worth the workload and the stress? Worth the lack of ancillary benefits another college would have offered (like a decent sports team)? Worth the expense?
I have given that question plenty of thought, and always arrived at the same conclusion. It was absolutely worth it, and if I had it to do over again, I would make exactly the same choice. But the reasons why are not what people typically expect. I like to summarize by saying that my undergraduate years finally taught me how to read, how to think, and how to write.
As part of earning a degree at my alma mater, every student has to complete an extensive core curriculum that takes two or three years and involves reading hundreds of books of historic, literary, and scientific significance. Any student holding a Bachelor’s degree will have spent countless hours poring over the likes of Homer, Aristotle, Herodotus, Shakespeare, and Virginia Woolf. Hundreds of pages of reading were assigned each week, and we had to both complete the readings and come to classes (typically in small groups of 20 or so) prepared to discuss and debate what we read with the professor and other students. We got very good at reading, and at debating.
But simply reading and discussing were not the primary means of evaluation for students. The vast majority of our course results were based on our papers. In many cases, we did not even have traditional exams; we were graded entirely on the basis of one or more (usually more) papers assigned through the semester. Most importantly, it was expected that our written work presented and defended an original point of view we had come to have throughout the course of the readings. Memorization and regurgitation would not cut it. The university demanded original ideas, presented in writing. So, we got very good at writing.
The practice of consuming lots of dense information by reading, creating original thoughts and points of view, then presenting those thoughts in writing was the basis of my very traditional education. I no longer remember the particulars of most of those books, but the willingness to become curious, and the ability to discover and digest new information never left. Yes, the experience was very much worth it, but for me- and this is the point- college was the first time in my education I was expected to really think. Until that point, school was about learning what I was taught long enough to repeat it back on a test.
So how does any of this relate to Greenfields Academy? As a parent and a member of the Greenfields community (and it is very much a community), I am delighted to observe and sometimes participate in the ways the philosophy of the school empowers students from the beginning of their educations to become interested and invested learners, with the skills and tools to explore their ideas and relate those ideas back to society. If college helped me learn how to read, think, and write, Greenfields students learn exactly the same from the moment they walk through the door, and they learn it while also becoming curious and passionate about themselves, their peers, and the world around them. They are taught the means by which to develop and expand their areas of interest; in some cases, by reading, but equally by seeking out knowledge and differing perspectives from children and adults around them, and around the world.
Greenfields students are given the tools and the guidance to discover information and ideas, and the forum to present, debate, and defend those ideas. Students with an aptitude for or interest in a given subject discuss and help other students in their learning. Through this process, all of the students arrive at insights and understanding they would not have come to on their own. As adults, we can see it happening, and it is fascinating.
Empowering Greenfields students from a young age to research and explore their ideas goes far beyond just providing access to the internet. In fact, I would posit the internet actually makes it more difficult for the students because of the endless and contradictory information to be found online. However, the social and interactive approach to pedagogy helps Greenfields students develop the increasingly rare ability to synthesize multiple inputs into a cohesive thesis, and to test original ideas in a community of safe learning. When a student becomes interested in a topic, s/he has the tools, the time, and the guidance to research it online, with peers, with adults, in books, and through real world experiences. This freedom to steer their own discoveries (with guidance when they need it), rather than memorize a given set of facts in time for next week’s quiz, engenders in students a genuine curiosity and excitement about their work.
What’s more, at Greenfields, students develop their ideas with a broad and deliberate perspective on global issues. Students consider and discuss what it means to them to be a positive member of their community, and of society at large. Students respect and support one another, and openly discuss their own differences and diversity. But this is not some sort of coddling commune. Difficult subject matters are not sugar-coated, nor are Greenfields students shielded from them. On the contrary, the culture of the school demands that students participate in age-appropriate open discussions about real-life issues and current events inside and outside the school.
I began this article describing my own very traditional educational experience (one I am sure many other parents share and recognize.) I wanted to emphasize the value I gained from my years in college and describe the ways the Greenfields’ approach and philosophy provide the exact same value to students. Not only are these kids learning how to read, think, and write, they are doing so using a very modern and connected toolkit, and with a global perspective that fosters a provocative sense of community and responsibility. Each of them will follow their own path, and they will carry with them the confidence, kindness, and curiosity that are the gifts of the modern and unique education they receive at Greenfields.