Building a Bridge to Knowledge for Every Child: How It Could Work

The authors walk us through an idyllic — though imaginary — school.

July 1, 1997

When visitors walk through King School, they are often surprised. It is very different from the schools they attended and from others they have seen. Instead of children sitting quietly in rows facing the teacher at the front of the room, they find youngsters returning from a field study with jars and basins full of pond specimens.

They see students working in cooperative groups, creating visual aids for a day of student-led workshops on environmental issues for the entire school community. Another group is rehearsing a musical about South Africa, called Sarafina, on the stage in the performing arts center. Children of all ages are updating their digital portfolios at computer stations throughout the school to prepare for student-teacher-parent conferences.

Instead of a class working its way through a textbook, our visitors notice students conducting their own research using a wide variety of resources. Some are analyzing data on water pollution. Other students are discussing their interviews with community members about last week's local elections. Another group is in the media center locating books, articles, videos, and films related to the history of South Africa.

Rather than worksheets and short-answer tests, our visitors find students reading each other's stories and giving feedback on strong and weak points. One teacher and student review a portfolio, which contains all the planning, interviewing, drafting, and editing that went into a news report on a local incident. In the art studio, a student is presenting a series of her paintings to an audience of classmates, discussing what she has learned from each one and how her work has evolved.

At first our visitors are somewhat perplexed, because King clashes so much with their own experience of school. But they notice how inviting and alive the school feels, how engaged students and teachers seem to be, how interesting and sophisticated the children's work looks. They are curious to know more about what makes it different.

Unfortunately, King School exists only in our imagination. It represents a dramatically different approach to learning than American education has traditionally embraced. Most of the ideas that King illustrates can be found here and there in innovative schools, but this idealized institution is meant to show what a school could look like when all the best ideas are brought together in one place.

Toward a Deeper Understanding

Through conversations with various people, our visitors learn that King School is an integral part of its community, a mid-size town whose population has become increasingly diverse. School-related decisions are made with input from a variety of groups, including school staff, family members, students, the town council, and the business community. In this racially and economically diverse setting, decision makers strive to make a match between the school and the needs, values, and interests of the larger community.

Our visitors hear repeatedly that the school's intent is to foster understanding, which it defines as the ability to apply knowledge to new situations. Students are involved in activities that have clear value in a particular field in order to develop deep and important understandings. For example, a group of young historians discusses the connections and the differences between Brown v. the Board of Education and the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa. This discussion is based on their analysis of newspaper articles, films, and interviews.

At a nearby pond, young scientists collect samples of pond life and bring them back to the lab to study under microscopes. They keep written records and make drawings of their observations. They show our visitors how to test the pond water for pollutants, and log on to the computer network to compare their findings with those of students in other communities.

In the video studio, young newscasters prepare for an interactive news program in which they relay and comment on important local, national, and international events, respond to questions, and facilitate discussion. Students do the writing and the production work for the program.

King's community knows that in order to leave school with real understanding in various fields, students need to have time to investigate a limited number of topics in depth. In a conversation with teachers, visitors learn more about how children come to school with their own previous knowledge, experiences, and ideas about the world in which they live, some of which are attuned to school learning, and others of which may be at odds with the messages of school. Teachers explain how they tap into this prior knowledge and help students make connections between old and new information.

Teachers also help students relate what they are learning to other topics they've studied and to their personal lives and community. For example, before studying the issue of racial segregation, students give examples of segregation and discrimination from their own lives and write journal entries on their experiences. Then they are better able to relate to the issue of segregation from a personal perspective.

In-depth exploration also serves the purpose of confronting misconceptions, stereotypes, and other naive theories that children develop before they even come to school. In the pond study, young children discuss their initial thoughts about the differences between living and nonliving, or between plants and animals. Only after many observations and discussions regarding biological characteristics, growth and change, production of energy, and reproduction of a species do students begin to understand these categories in a way consistent with systematic thinkers, such as biologists and ecologists.

Questions and Themes

The King School community has confronted the challenge of deciding what students need to learn as a consequence of considerable research, dialogue, and planning in committees made up of teachers, administrators, parents, community members, and students. They agree that student learning should be driven by provocative, overarching questions that are revisited throughout the primary and secondary curriculum.

These questions bring coherence and integration to learning within and across domains. Students' investigations increase in complexity and sophistication as they get older. Questions may include the following: Who am I, and how do I fit into my community? How do I know what is true? How do people solve problems? What is the nature of the physical environment?

To investigate these universal questions, students study topics and themes that are relevant and rich in possibilities. Because committee members agree that they must choose a few strategic areas to probe in depth -- rather than cover many topics superficially -- the question of which topics and themes to pursue becomes a matter of critical importance.

The committee decides to use topics and themes at the heart of real-world issues, such as power and conflict, preservation of the natural environment, and the struggle for equality. Some topics and themes are central to a discipline, such as life cycles in biology, civil rights in social studies, and statistics in mathematics. Others cut across disciplines, such as diversity and commonality, the nature of argument and evidence, or patterns.

Much of the curriculum at King is interdisciplinary. Students explore real-world issues through different lenses, while using disciplinary knowledge as needed. For example, to investigate apartheid in South Africa, students conduct research on the history, politics, and economics of the country. They read the literature and listen to the music of South Africans. They come to understand how one discipline informs another, and why many real-world problems require an interdisciplinary team to address them.

This kind of learning helps students make connections and generalizations across disciplines, while they identify differences among them as well. They learn that the way in which historical facts and explanations are arrived at differs from the determination of scientific facts and models.

King's teachers are aware that, in order for students to do interdisciplinary work of good quality, they must have solid grounding in the academic disciplines. Interdisciplinary studies also provide students opportunities to pursue areas of individual interest and strength. They engage in work that combines ways of knowing and can be so seamless that it is difficult to say where art begins, history ends, or science takes off.

Working on Projects

A major part of the curriculum is project based. Students get involved in work that revolves around a central topic or theme, is sustained over a long period of time, and culminates in a final product or performance. Through projects, students apply their knowledge and skills to create a whole and meaningful exhibit or performance that they share with an audience.

Although certain requirements exist, there is room for choice; students have some control over the content of their work and the activities they will perform. Students become engaged in the creative process, which they document in portfolios that record all the work and thinking that goes into these projects. And they participate in critiquing and evaluating their own and others' projects.

Students who are studying samples of pond life become so interested in what they are discovering that they decide to investigate the pond's entire ecosystem. One line of inquiry leads to another, and they learn about the life cycle of the pond as well as the impact of human beings on this ecosystem.

Students chat online with a biologist from a nearby college and interview a parent who is a naturalist. They also poll members of the school community on their awareness and use of the pond. Students break into small groups to carry out research on an area of particular interest and share their findings with the rest of the large group.

In order to convince people about the importance of preserving and appreciating the value of the pond, the students decide to make a presentation to the broader community. Students consult with a friend of the school who designs exhibits at a science museum. They display what they've learned about the pond's ecosystem by creating an interactive multimedia exhibit with their own drawings, dioramas, photos, videos, databases, maps, and reports on pond life. The students collect signatures on a petition to protect the pond from unrestricted fishing and pollution and send it to a local environmental-policy group.

Learning Together

Students at King frequently work in cooperative, multiage groups of mixed abilities. These cooperative groups are based on the idea that learning takes place through social interaction and dialogue; indeed, students teach each other by working together to solve problems or create products.

Children make unique contributions to the group based on their strengths and support each others' weaknesses. Those with greater understanding in certain areas increase it by explaining ideas to others, whereas those with less developed understanding can reach for the level their peers model. Through group work, students learn important skills such as collaboration and role-taking, thus developing their interpersonal intelligence. In such social contexts, students feel motivated to participate and show what they can do.

Along with cooperative groups, technology is a critical element in students' learning and is drawn on naturally and seamlessly. Students are aided by the computer as they engage in all kinds of simulations and problem solving, from learning to fly airplanes to constructing an ideal town. They research projects on electronic databases that contain vast amounts of human knowledge.

Students collaborate with peers and access experts worldwide through computer networks. They develop multimedia portfolios to document their work. During conferences, parents can click on a computer screen and hear their child describing the architectural design they are seeing or watch a video clip of a dance performance and read the child's reflection on how it conveys the theme of interdependence.

Measuring Progress

How can we be sure that students at King are developing an understanding of the concepts and topics identified as important, as well as the skills to build and express these understandings? Assessment of student learning occurs continually in many ways and is inseparable from the process of teaching and learning.

As has long been the case in the arts and athletics, assessment is centered on students' performances. A master pianist coaches a young musician on her execution of a piece according to certain criteria, such as accuracy of the notes and rhythm as well as appropriate interpretation and expression in phrasing and dynamics. So, too, a teacher coaches a student on her debate in terms of the accuracy of information, use of evidence to make an argument, and persuasive delivery. Much of the assessment takes place in the course of rehearsal.

Students are totally involved in the assessment process as they reflect on their own work and use their reflections and feedback from teachers and peers to revise their performances. Parents and other community members also become involved in reviewing portfolios, questioning students about their learning, and helping evaluate major projects and performances.

One of the striking features of King School is the number of opportunities to learn in different ways. The community has put a lot of thought into one of the toughest challenges for educators: how to reach all students. Community members believe that it is crucial to pay attention to individual differences.

Teachers approach their work with students in ways that affirm and tap into the range of intelligences shared by all people: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. (Linguistic intelligence and logical-mathematical intelligence have been emphasized in schools -- they concern words and numbers. But the other intelligences can be equally important to learning.)

A student who has a high level of spatial intelligence, for example, will likely be more engaged when working with physical shapes and models; a student who excels in bodily-kinesthetic intelligence engages more when working in the context of physical activities, such as dance or sports.) Recognizing that children, as well as adults, have different areas of strengths and interests, King's teachers provide a variety of ways for students to engage with a new topic.

Instead of students showing what they know by taking a written test or some other prescribed format that may target an area of weakness instead of a strength, to some extent they choose how they will demonstrate their understanding. In this way, assessment supports students' learning. Among the group of students studying the food web in the pond, for example, one writes an explanation, while another draws a diagram.

Translating Research into Practice

King School is an example of a school that builds a bridge between educational research and teaching; theory and practice inform one another. The school's practices are coherent and sound because they are based on ideas that are mutually reinforcing and that revolve around education for deep understanding. These ideas are discussed by teachers and shared with the larger community so that important decisions about curriculum and instruction can be made by representatives of different groups and understood by all stakeholders. In this context, everyone in the school community becomes a learner.

In summary, at King School, learning is driven by students' questions about themselves, their communities, and the world. Teachers target central concepts and issues in their work with students. Students explore these questions, concepts, and issues through a variety of activities.

Learning is integrated across disciplines so that students are working on real-world problems, making connections across disciplines, and becoming complex thinkers. Students and teachers take time to investigate a few important areas in depth using a wide range of school and community-based resources. Students create projects in which they apply knowledge and demonstrate understanding in multiple ways.

Learning is a collaborative and inclusive activity in which individuals -- students, teachers, parents, and others -- bring different strengths that contribute to the whole. The entire community supports and benefits from the educational process.

Judith L. Pace is an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of San Francisco. Howard Gardner is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor in Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He also holds positions as adjunct professor of psychology at Harvard University, adjunct professor of neurology at the Boston University School of Medicine, and chairman of the Steering Committee of Harvard Project Zero.

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