“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” — John Dewey

Several progressive educators, such as Francis Parker and John Dewey, along with “whole child” pioneers Rudolf Steiner and Maria Montessori, were instrumental in the holistic movement. Their ideals and schools have endured and evolved over time to meet 21st-century demands.

Francis Parker envisioned a child-centered educational atmosphere coupled with an integrated curriculum, thereby enhancing meaning for the child. John Dewey desired a school to be a cooperative community: “Students learned best while engaged in activities that involved creative problem-solving and responsibilities to fellow students. In such a community, each member had roles, performed tasks, and learned what it meant to be productive citizens. Learning, in other words, was not too different from life.”

These principles withstood the test of time. The ideals have been repackaged, but the essence remains the same. Today’s educational jargon emphasizes necessary 21st-century skills. These learning skills of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity are vital to prepare our students for the jobs and problems of tomorrow that do not even exist today. To be successful educators, we must provide a curriculum that moves beyond a mere acquisition of facts to one of integrated learning, analytical thinking, and authentic problem-solving.

This type of experiential learning is evident at Morgan Park Academy throughout the elementary grades.

In second grade, a field trip to Brookfield Zoo was a culminating activity to cross-curricular units in science and language arts. Following a science unit on Habitats and the Let’s Explore reading unit focusing on different types of camouflage, second graders discovered firsthand the wonders of our world! In this experiential learning opportunity, our young zoologists observed animals in their natural surroundings and identified necessary components for survival.

Third grade students read the book Marty Maguire Digs Worms. The book tells a story about a girl who helps the environment by introducing the school to a composting bin, filled with composting worms. At the beginning of our school year, a vermicomposting unit in science introduces the students to a composting bin with worms, just like the one in the story. Students learn the anatomy and life cycle of the worms to better understand how they are able to turn organic material into rich, fertile soil. Students continue to analyze and maintain the worm bin through monthly observations throughout the year. Each observation has a specific learning objective: using our senses, using scientific tools such as a microscope, measuring temperature, etc. In the spring, students will use the compost in the school garden and watch their efforts grow into abundant produce.

In fourth grade, drilling with problem sheets was replaced by application in a great problem-solving activity that involved critical thinking and cooperative learning. Upon completion of their multiplication unit, students were given the task of “earning” $500 for a music fundraiser. Students had a choice of selling T-shirts, CDs, posters, etc. In order to figure out how to make $500, students needed to figure out the profit margin for each item, using subtraction. Once they calculated the profit for each one, they had to multiply to find out how many of each item was needed to be sold in order to make $500. It was definitely challenging, but it helped the students see how multiplication, subtraction, and addition are used in many aspects of life, not just in math class. Applying these skills with the goal of a “profit” was a definite motivator for the class.

Participating in the Social Studies Fair was another great way for students to feed their curiosity and share what they learned with others. All third- and fourth-grade students were invited to participate. In this child-centered learning activity, students chose topics that inspired and interested them, such as The Seven Wonders of the World, Egyptian Makeup and Hieroglyphics, and Brides of India. Although the fair spotlighted topics related to social studies, many of the themes were integrated with science. Also, language arts skills were incorporated both in presenting the projects to their peers and in written peer comments. The classroom became a cooperative community as students learned from one another and each peer filled out a feedback form stating what they discovered and enjoyed about their friend’s presentation.

As students experience the learning, they own the learning. This deeper understanding is a result of our teachers crafting the learning for desired outcomes. Providing developmentally and age appropriate, cross-curricular units through avenues of guided discovery ensures students interact with the lesson in meaningful ways. It is ironic that the progressive educators of the past can be considered innovators of 21st century learning.

By Liz Raser

Mrs. Raser teaches first grade and is our Assistant Lower School Principal and the Curriculum Leader for the Elementary Team.