A group of middle school students in full beekeeping gear examines one of the hives their school keeps in the woods nearby. “Ooh, there’s honey!” says one excitedly. “I see nectar!” says another.
These eager fifth and sixth graders from Birmingham Covington, a public magnet school in suburban Michigan focused on science and technology, are empowered to become self-directed learners through hands-on experiences in and outside their classroom.
Birmingham Covington’s student-centered philosophy is embedded throughout the curriculum, from third- and fourth-grade classes focused on teaching individual resourcefulness to an almost wholly independent capstone class in seventh and eighth grade called Thinkering Studio. Teachers at the school often say they’re “teaching kids to teach themselves” and rarely answer questions directly; instead they ask students to consider other sources of information first. Even the classrooms, with their spacious communal tables and movable walls, emphasize fluid group and peer-to-peer dynamics over teacher-led instruction.
The 650-student school offers grades 3 through 8 only and pairs grades together, following research that shows that mixing age groups accelerates learning. For more than a decade, Birmingham Covington’s students have ranked at or above the 95th percentile in overall performance for all Michigan elementary and middle schools.
By relentlessly focusing the classwork on student interest and independence, the educators at Birmingham Covington hope to transform students into active learners who will be successful throughout their lifetimes.
“When you get kids collaborating together, they become more resourceful and they see themselves as experts,” said Mark Morawski, who’s been the principal since 2013. "All of a sudden you’ve opened the ceiling to what kids are able to do, and they surprise you sometimes."
Solving Real-World Problems: The Bee Project
Birmingham Covington’s unique bee project, like much of the coursework prioritized at the school, was driven by student interest. After reading an article about the extinction of honeybees in their science literacy class, fifth- and sixth-grade students said they wanted to do something to help.
In the class, which combines inquiry-based science and English language arts (ELA), students build their research, literacy, and collaboration skills through small group projects aimed at effecting lasting change around real-world problems. Working on a range of activities—from building a website to managing a real beehive—students become more active and engaged learners, teachers say.
“Science literacy is teaching our kids to be curious about the world around them, with the problems they identify,” said ELA teacher Pauline Roberts, who co-teaches the class. “Even as students, they are learning how to become effective agents of change. It’s bigger than the science content—it’s about helping to develop the citizens that we hope our children become.”
Throughout Birmingham Covington, both coursework and instruction push students to learn lifelong skills like independence and resourcefulness, which teachers encourage early on in the primary grades.
Third- and fourth-grade teacher Jessie Heckman says she empowers her students to become more resourceful by solving common problems with the support of their classmates. Instead of raising their hands when they have a question or encounter a hurdle, for example, Heckman’s students clip clothespins to their computers and fellow students circulate around to troubleshoot—a system she calls the help desk.
“Kids need to learn teamwork-based skills because every other class in any other subject that they have—third through eighth grade—requires them to work in different sized groups accomplishing different tasks,” Heckman explains.
Modeling Collaboration: Teacher Labs
Students aren’t the only ones at Birmingham Covington improving their collaboration skills—teachers also identify as a “community of learners” who use planned, peer-to-peer feedback to help each other raise student outcomes throughout the school.
The school’s voluntary Teacher Labs—facilitated by an instructional coach and organized around a clear, written protocol—enable teachers to reflect on their craft with support from their peers. Through the labs, small groups of teachers observe each other’s classes and then offer constructive feedback around a stated objective.
“We’re really asking teachers to step outside of their comfort zones,” said Roberts, who serves as the lead facilitator in the labs. “We are creatures who live behind closed doors. To experience being in someone else’s classroom is really powerful.”
Increasing Independence for Older Learners
As they near the end of their time at the school, Birmingham Covington seventh- and eighth-grade students are accustomed to self-reliance and problem-solving. They put these skills to use in Thinkering Studio, an elective class where they design their own independent learning projects, and Engage, a class focused on design thinking—a system of solving problems that follows the steps of inquiry, ideation, prototyping, and testing.
In Engage, teachers Roy McCloud and Mathew Brown guide students to work on various self-directed, team-oriented projects like designing a new sport for third graders or building a roller coaster. Their support and feedback direct students toward the right resources while encouraging them to dig deeper: Did students ask the right questions? Did they get the right information? Did they go to other groups for feedback?
In these culminating classes, as in the curriculum more generally, teachers act as guides rather than instructors, directing students toward helpful resources but ultimately insisting they solve their own problems.
This innovative, student-centered approach to learning—the bedrock of the school’s vision—takes the long view, helping students develop skills and interests they can continue to draw on after they leave the school. The school believes that this model better prepares students for real-world challenges, since modern workplaces are increasingly collaborative and involve complex, interdisciplinary problem solving.
“The ultimate questions we’re going to be asked by future employers is ‘Can this person work well in a team? Does this person have the ability to problem solve and critically think?’” said Morawski. "Because our students are more resourceful, they have more intrinsic motivation in the learning process and ultimately, are learning to be learners.”