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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A Sense of Wonder: Creating and Maintaining Interest in Education

Children love to play, dream, imagine, explore, wonder, and discover. At home, at a friend's house, at the park, in the city lot, or in their backyard, they become a baseball player, the new American Idol, a rock star, their favorite actor, a bridge builder, or an architect. In their hearts and minds, they are not involved in a simulation; they simply are. It's the fun of being a child.

But that's who they are outside of school. Once in the classroom, their sense of wonder, awe, and reality is very often left at the door. There isn't very much joy in a standardized test, a pop quiz, a fill-in-the-blank worksheet, or a lecture. Though these experiences have a place in schooling, they need not take the place of what children love to do. Imagine if children could show their out-of-school spirit to the classroom and actually find joy in learning in school.

At Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Ridgewood, New Jersey, where I spent thirty-eight years as a teacher and principal, teachers work under the pressure of high-stakes assessment and accountability all teachers face. This is the reality of schools today. Still, we want our students to be eager, happy, engaged, and motivated. We don't want a classroom filled with children who stare into space, seem disinterested in their work, hold their head in their hands, or slump in their seat.

There need not be a dichotomy between imagination and academic success. Why not argue that they are, in fact, interconnected? Let's pause for a moment: I'm not suggesting a random, chaotic, unfocused, do-whatever-you-want-to-do environment. The challenge is to create a child-centered learning environment in which to design and implement meaningful, project-based, reality-based opportunities for children. As a result, they would develop intellectual skills and acquire content knowledge while seeing real meaning in what they do. Can we have standardized testing and wonder? Yes, we can!

The challenge to administrators and teachers is to create a school culture that promotes the natural instincts for children to explore, discover, and create their own meaning, and fundamental to creating such a culture is nurturing a supportive, sharing, and caring social/emotional learning environment in which children feel safe and loved. When they feel secure in that setting, they are happier and are more willing to take intellectual risks.

Creating that school community requires visionary leadership, a shared vision, and the support of all stakeholders. What guided us at Benjamin Franklin? We recognized several fundamental principles:

  • There is synergistic power of a vision of infusing social/emotional and character-education concepts, principles, and strategies throughout the instructional program and helping everyone understand the relationship between social/emotional well-being and academic success.
  • Education involves preparing students for the tests of life, and not a life of tests.
  • Teachers, parents, administrators, and the community at large are partners in raising children.
  • The challenge to teachers is to make their instructional programs reality based, project based, constructivist, and interconnected.
  • School programs and activities must provide opportunities for students to develop their ability to see patterns, make connections, and create their own meaning.
  • Mutual respect and shared responsibility are fundamental concepts in the culture of a school community.

Over the next couple months, I'll share some specific stories of our successes and bumps in the road at Benjamin Franklin (and other schools where administrators and teachers nurture children's eagerness to learn) and try to dissect what we did and why we did it. Perhaps you'll want to relate your attempts to establish a climate of wonder and academic success to what we and others have tried. If you have questions, send them in. I'll try to answer them as best as I can.

Comments (14)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Nicholas Hagemann's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Tony and the other respondants, It is great to find an avenue for this discourse. Many of the themes in the opening post and the responses relate to the project that I am currently working on. I work through Northern Arizona University running the NAU Challenge Course (a high and low ropes course running one day programs for many schools). I am working on bringing the adventure-based program that we run into the classroom setting. One of my main arguements for this transference is the creation of a vibrant classroom culture. I have isolated four keys elements of a classroom that all students desire and need to create a positive learning environment. Active Engagement- One of the biggest challenges to teaching is keeping the students actively engaged in relevant activities. Your task is not to keep the students busy but rather provide opportunities that draw the students in, create an atmosphere of play and serve a purpose. Safe Environment- Your students need to feel that they are in a safe environment both physically and emotionally. The environment that is created in your classroom needs to structured so that every student takes responsibility for the safety of themselves and the safety of the others in the group. Power of Choice- Students want the ability to decide if an activity is not appropriate for their goals. Experiential education is rooted in an idea that students need to make a choice to participate (be internally motivated) rather than be coerced or told to participate. (be extrinsically motivated) Although it may be difficult to establish the students' ability to make intrinsically driven choices, once they have taken on this responsibility, they will possess a tool that is very valuable. Clear Guidelines- Although they may complain and argue about "rules," children need guidelines that will determine if an action is appropriate or not. A lack of structure will lead to a lack of learning. Now comes the part where I need your opinions and help. Are these key elements relevant, useful and clear? How do we quanitify the value of classroom culture? Thanks for your time and your thoughts. Nicholas Hagemann NAU Challenge Course Flagstaff, AZ
Dave Scozzaro's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Currently going through my graduate work, this is what I hope to achieve not as my educational philosophy, since it already is, but how to practically implement this into the classroom. I previously worked ina school that would have little to do with this. Lecture was the way to go. The only way to go. After only two years it was really eating away at my teaching experience and style and I'm hoping through my graduate experience, I can merge what I had planned in my head as an undergrad with what I can actually accomplish after attaining my masters. Thanks for the inspiration.
James Manco's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I applaud Mr. Bencivenga for his belief that we need to meet the social/emotional needs of all our students in a caring and nurturing learning environment. I am also a big supporter on reality-based and project based learning activities. His belief that "education involves preparing students for the tests of life, and not a life of tests" is so true. We hear all too often the comment "I need to teach to the test". As educators we can find ways to prepare our students for these standardized tests through reality based and project based activities. As a future administrator, I am excited to read more on his thoughts on creating a learning environment where children are supported, cared for, and their social/emotional well being are being met. Incorporating parents and the community at large into the social and emotional learning environment is also an aspect where I feel is important and would like to learn more about.
Jessica Martini's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
As a former student of Tony, I have to say that I am incredibly excited to see where his series of blogs leads. In class, Tony instilled in me and my fellow graduate students the inspiration to strive to be enriching, engaging, exciting teachers. In a political-educational climate that tends to work against the ideals that Tony champions, it is refreshing and motivating to know that some educators resist the urge to give in and push to change this climate, one class at a time. I look forward to reading his suggestions and my future students will be the luckier for it.
Tony Bencivenga's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Brad, There is certainly a place for homework for Mia in the school community of which I speak. I would hope that teachers would recognize Mia's passion for math problems, spelling words, and a book report. HER joy must be respected and valued. It would be wonderful to capture her interest and continue to engage her. As I said, there is no dichotomy between imagination and academic success. Both take many forms, all of which have a place in the school community. Tony Bencivenga
Tony Bencivenga's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Nicholas, Your high and low ropes course sounds exciting and meaningful. Your concepts of engagement, safety, choice, and structure are absolutely relevant, clear, and useful. All of them are essential to nurturing a child-centered school community. My sense is that your program gives children a role in their learning. There is no doubt that quantifying "the value of classroom culture" is difficult; but, we can find hard data in the academic success of students and in their ability to solve problems both individually and cooperatively. As I've suggested, children who are given meaningful, reality-based tasks (similar to those you present in your course) "own" their work and are more likely to translate content knowledge and skills to all subject areas. The transference you seek will happen. In addition, children who are engaged, explore, and thrive on a range of challenging opportunities will have lots of anecdotal data to support your efforts. I applaud your vision of bringing the adventure-based program into the classroom setting. It's another way to enhance the school community that seeks to integrate imagination and academic success. Tony Bencivenga
David Zavracky's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Being neither a parent nor a teacher, my viewpoint resides solely in the realm of experiences as a student. I have no motivations for what I expect for my child and I don't hold personal desires as to how I would prefer my teaching job to be. I just have thoughts on what might have been. We all sat in front of teachers for twelve years. We had good ones and we had not so good ones. When we reflect on the experience, we know who they were. Over the years, a teacher should gain a perspective on what works and what does not work for different types of learners. Maybe some do and some don't and that's the difference between the good and not so good teacher. Maybe to some extent, the failure of the student is the failure of the teacher. The act of letting kids be kids and at the same time nurturing a learning environment can not be an easy one and I salute those of you attempting to make the change. If the effort towards good schools becomes focused on how to reach different learners by providing a positive learning experience, as Tony Bencivenga suggests and also instituted in his school, then I think you may be on the way to improving schools. David Zavracky Rockaway, NJ
Hannah MacLaren's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Adding to the commentary, I want to add some thoughts, based on years of being a k-8 school principal: we did not have 'homework' per se, but rather expectations that students, once they read with a modicum of comprehension (roughly age 8), that they would read at home for 30 minutes to an hour each day from a book of their choice. Homework was 'work that went home', meaning if they were revising a paper or prepping for a math quiz, or preparing a presentation (science, social studies, etc.) there were usually not enough hours in the time at school to complete the work, and thus it went home (homework). We also worked with families to have their children take increasing (and appropriate) amounts of responsibility at home: for one instance, there was an expectation that when kids were 10 years old, they would prepare (from scratch) a meal each week for their family (and their responsibility included clean-up). We did a lot of cooking (note the maths/science/social studies possibilies) at the school. The point is that there are numerous ways to create seamless authentic connections in the lives of engaged students between school and home/community. Our problem was not stimulating curiosity; rather responding to it. A new kind of teacher exhaustion.
Cathy Arfuso's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I agree with you on the topic of learning and children. In order for children to learn they need to be active participants in the learning process. For this to happen, the teacher needs to engage the children and connect meaning to their everyday lives. Only when learning is meaningful do children really understand and grow, not only in their academic life but also in their personal life. I always heard about constructivist learning but never really thought long and hard about it until this semester. Being in a classroom has shown me that students need a teacher who will give them the proper tools in order to succeed in life. Anyone can read from a textbook and memorize but it takes more than that to really understand. A little effort from an effective teacher can really take a child a long way.
Mike Coon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Tony,
I teach at a school in small rural town in Montana. I am fortunate to be part of a team that shares and encourages the type of educational experience you are talking about. I'm interested in reading more about your experiences. It's definitely a struggle to balance and "implement meaningful, project-based, reality-based opportunities for children," while making sure all students are becoming good test takers and succeed at standardized test. I'm looking forward to hear what you do in your district to find that balance.
Mike

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