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A Sense of Wonder: Creating and Maintaining Interest in Education

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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.

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Brad Lakritz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Tony Bencivenga's "challenge to teachers" leaves out my 7 year old daughter. For the first five weeks of school this year she was dreaming of, begging for, and even made up her own homework. At Mary E. Silveira Elementary School in San Rafael, CA the 2nd grade doesn't get homework right away. "It felt like a whole semester" she said.

If the goal "is to make their instructional programs reality based, project based, constructivist, and interconnected," then homework is one important method to engage Mia in learning. Sure the programs and activities at Mary Silveira "provide opportunities for students to develop their ability to see patterns, make connections, and create their own meaning." The Ecostar program is interactive, they are completing their own books for the young auther's fair, there is a good amount of time working on computers, and the school wide jobs help teach responsibilities and provide leadership opportunities.

All that make school interesting, but for Mia, a set of math problems, spelling words, or even a short book report three times a week is just plain fun!

Thomas Francis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a father of a 3rd grader and a member of corporate america. The vision and destination of "learning environment in which to design and implement meaningful, project-based, reality-based opportunities" is one I would love to have confidence in at my daughters school and in my workplace for that matter.

I look forward to learning from the processes, challenges and sucesses your team of administrators, teachers and parents work through. The struggle with dramatic change is in making the connection with the hearts and minds of the leaders rather than the vision itself.

Jamie Caputo Getrajdman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dear Anthony,

Speaking not only as an educator, but also a parent, I applaud your ongoing dedication to our children! Education SHOULD be about preparing children for life, not for a series of tests. The process of learning is life long, and if a passion for it develops early enough, it can become an individual's greatest asset. We must not, however, forget that learning not only includes gathering and retaining information, but also includes building relationships with others, investigating and solving problems, and being self-reflective and critical. In my opinion, it makes perfect sense to create classrooms where children can do all of this and more.

Constructivist instructional strategy that includes reality-based and project-based learning activities is often confused with unstructured or independent style study. The latter is only true, however, if little effort goes into planning units of study. While constructivists strive to create student-centered learning, that learning is never unguided. Many teachers are frightened of constructivism, because they fear losing control in their classroom, but in fact, just the opposite is true. The true constructivist teacher acts as a facilitator and guide of lessons that are based on meaningful, and thoughtful concepts and objectives. Although many of the learning activities in a constructivist classroom are often reality-based and project-based, an effective teacher will offer his or her students a variety of lessons and activities within the unit that are designed to meet the different learning styles or preferences of each student.

Parents and teachers must realize that learning does not revolve around memorizing and regurgitating factual information, but rather around creating meaning from gathering information, building on previous knowledge, performing purposeful tasks and experiences. By allowing students to delve into a project or problem by researching that problem, asking their own questions, formulating their own answers, and presenting their findings, we give them the tools that they need to succeed in life. Aren't these the types of tasks that we, as adults, do almost daily? I doubt there are many adults that remember all of the facts that they were taught or memorized as children in school, but I bet there are many adults that remember meaningful childhood, school-related experiences.

When I was a pre-service teacher, someone gave me a great piece of advice. He said, "Remember, it's not about you, it's about them."

With great respect and admiration,
Jamie Caputo Getrajdman
Sixth Grade World Cultures Teacher
Eisenhower Middle School
Wyckoff, New Jersey

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