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Challenging “the Way We’ve Always Done it”

For over 150 years, the United States Department of Education has been making decisions about what school should be like for young people in our country; what the purpose of education is, how to measure that purpose and how money and resources are distributed to public schools. There was definitely a time when the United States unquestionably had the best education system in the world. However, according to several data sets, our rankings have been falling by international standards over the past three decades.


But regardless of where we stand compared to other countries, the true test of a k-12 school is its students’ preparedness for both higher education and adult life. Will our students have the skills and knowledge they need to do whatever it is they’re going to do next? That’s a very different question indeed, and we know that there are wide disparities between US schools that are just blocks away from each other.


At their best, rules created by the Department of Education and public school boards should ensure that all students have equal access to a great education. We know that this isn’t what really happens, despite an emphasis on “standardization.” Even before the year 2020 brought all of our routines and norms crashing down, we at Greenfields were asking “Why?” and “What if…?” to push back against a deteriorating system.


You may know that at Greenfields, we aren’t too keen on boring yes-or-no questions with “correct” answers. But we do love questions that challenge simple assumptions and open up possibilities. Here are a few questions we’ve used to reimagine education for the world our students live in today:


Why just “suck up and deal with it?”


As parents and mentors, it’s tempting to teach our kids to “go with the flow” to a certain degree—that life is full of compromise, and that we shouldn’t expect to be catered to. But isn’t it just as important to know our own limits and seek out a better situation if we can? So why struggle through at the public school in your neighborhood if it’s not working for your child?


In a conversation with Greenfields parent Mitchel Bleier on the Education is Life podcast, we discuss several of the “shoulds” and “supposed-tos” of public school culture. For instance, why do school in huge, cavernous buildings that make us feel small? Why “trudge through” the curriculum together if that means students still won’t get the time and attention they need to really engage?


Why teachers, letter grades and homework?


When we see the negative effects of these public education basics: students moving through their days disengaged and demoralized, parent/child relationships suffering, the first instinct is to ask why the child isn’t “fitting in.” But after a while, our leaders started to question those hallmarks of education—are they really critical to reach learning outcomes, or is there another way?


Our interview with Guide Becca Penzick gets into what a functioning classroom looks like without all that “red tape.” When students are able to focus on goals that they create, at their own pace, the results are far better (and more interesting) than what comes out of a traditional classroom. It is possible to swap rote memorization, lectures and testing for a slightly more chaotic, but more engaging and personalized, classroom experience.


Why separate school from real life?


Another issue that arises from a standardized curriculum is a separation from what’s going on in the world. Not only are students learning the same little slice of each subject that every other student learns, but the assignments they do are quickly graded, then left behind and forgotten. They are “practice” for the “real world,” but not a part of it. It’s like a sandbox, but a lot less fun.


In his episode of Education is Life, Guide Pawel shares examples of all the amazing things he has seen kids accomplish, far beyond our expectations. His question is: why not let them? If a six-year-old wants to build a skateboard, why not let him try? This goes back to something we discussed in our first point—there is a “challenge zone” where students aren’t being held by the hand, but can learn to fail safely as they attempt bigger and better things. When their projects and assignments aren’t “real,” many students won’t ever get comfortable with the degree of failure that adults experience as a part of life.


Why is the decision about schooling different from any other parenting decision?


From the diaper brand we buy to our bedtime routines, the media we expose our children to and more, doing our research and making informed choices is a huge part of our role as parents. But that is not at all how we approach schooling! Over the past 150 years plus, parents haven’t had much of a choice besides public school or private school. For the vast majority, that choice is limited by income. And as a society, we have been fine with it.


But we don’t have to be. So why accept what your public school system says is important? Have you ever explored what’s important to your family when it comes to education? What is “success” in life, and is public school really effective at creating that?


Towards an Answer


There are few “right answers” at Greenfields. Guides don’t answer questions, but ask them in a way that encourages critical thinking and empowers students to find the answers that work best for them. It’s less about learning what’s “correct,” but what’s effective and what makes a difference. That’s exactly how we like to make decisions for (and with) our school community.


Keeping it small is a key part of our strategy. In smaller groups, students can work more independently and collaborate with less intervention from our Guides. Dunbar’s Number is a theory that has shown groups of people that grow over about 150 members start to lose their sense of community. Most public schools are in the hundreds and thousands of students, and they can be very lonely places! As a small community, Greenfields Griffins have richer social lives with a handful of adults and peers who know them well and respect them for who they are.


Another problem this solves is that large school systems need three to four years to make decisions, test and implement new changes. Our world is changing faster than that. In a micro-school, we can try new programs and processes for six weeks and know if they are working or not. For instance, we sent out a “School at Home” survey to quickly find out how we could best serve our community early in the pandemic. And then we made a plan and carried it out.


We are now accepting a limited number of students for Fall 2021! If you’re asking yourself these questions and looking outside the “box” of public education for better answers, apply today.


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