Our Faith as the Why of Learning

If you are a parent, you have experienced the endless why questions that all children seem to have. We as humans have an innate curiosity about the world and how it works, and it is delightfully abundant in children.

As a teacher, a common why question I’ve heard is, “Why do I need to learn this?” To be honest, in a public school I sometimes struggled to answer that question because the reason to learn things always comes back to God.

There are 4 big truths that we want to convey to our students.
1. God uniquely created me.
2. God loves me.
3. God is my friend.
4. God calls me to love and serve others like Jesus.

When we embrace these truths, we are able to answer many of the why questions, because the answers always point back to God, His love for us, and His calling on our lives.

One of my favorite Bible verses is Mark 10:45 where Jesus says, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” These words highlight what people are to do: serve. And yes, children most certainly can begin learning this. It can be uncomfortable, challenging, heartbreaking, and inconvenient, but loving and serving others is so, so worth it.

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Mundane tasks teach us perseverance. Hard concepts teach us determination. Refining our character teaches us how to best “live a life worthy of our calling” (Ephesians 4:1). Math teaches us how to steward our blessings. Literature helps us learn from others. Writing provides many ways to communicate to others and share our thoughts. A student-centered environment illuminates the skills and gifts of each child. Learning in community teaches us that life can be simultaneously beautiful and messy. Every skill that we acquire can be used both now and in the future to love our neighbors and serve our God.

And that is why we learn.

A Multi-Generational Community

One of the biggest advantages of a micro school is the opportunity to live and learn in multi-generational community. There are children, parents, learning guides, mentors, and community members all pouring into each other. Students have the benefit of learning from the wisdom of older generations, the passions of the young adults, and the creativity of their peers. They grow up confident, compassionate, and curious. How powerful is that?

I grew up in a small town on the East Coast. My mom was a first grade teacher at the local elementary school, my whole family volunteered in our church, and we were active in our community. Every time I went to the grocery store, I ran into multiple people I knew. I had a 10-year long teaching apprenticeship growing up, first organically with my mom, and later with other teachers at the school. There were mentors at school and church that guided and encouraged me, laughed and cried with me. They came to my wedding and baby shower. When my mom unexpectedly passed away last year, this same community surrounded our family in love, prayers, and casseroles.

I share this because community is beautiful. When we learn and live life together, we overcome conflict, flourish from camaraderie, strengthen through sorrow, and rejoice in God’s miracles. When our daughter was born, my husband (Nick) and I made the hard decision to move from DC and across the country – away from jobs and nearby family – in search of community and a slower pace of life. Nick has many college friends that live here, and promised this would be an amazing place to raise our daughter. He was right. Our friends here are like family, and we are blessed to have amazing friends (and their amazing kiddos) in our lives.

What do these anecdotes have to do with starting a micro school? Last year we started thinking…what if we could combine my passion for student-centered education, Nick’s love of entrepreneurship, and our mutual love of creating community? What if this learning community welcomed people of all ages to love on and mentor our students? What if students, in turn, learned to love their community and find ways to make it better in the name of Jesus? What are these kids capable of if they have the freedom to pursue passions, the support to grow in their learning, and the impact of a community that loves them and believes in them?

This micro school has been an idea for over a year. As our ideas grew and developed and we prayerfully considered launching it, there were two factors that remained constants: empowering students and embracing community.

If you are looking for a community for your children and family, consider if we may be the right fit for you. I can’t promise it won’t be hard and there won’t be challenges, but I do promise it will be beautiful.

Great Minds Do Not All Think Alike

Great minds do not all think alike. This resonates with me because that is one of the big ideas for our school. Kids have great minds, but they are all so different. Each person was made by our infinitely creative God, and we shouldn’t want each child to think, learn, explore, or create the same. Our communities and world need the uniqueness of each person.

I have had various experiences as a public school classroom teacher, gifted intervention specialist, enrichment teacher, co-op leader, music director, children’s ministry, etc. What I have noticed in each of these settings is that children are all so different in how they learn, move, socialize, accomplish, create, innovate, and empathize. And time and time again these young children prove that all of these differences are a really good thing.

An emotionally sensitive child can identify friends that are sad and comfort them. An introverted, observant child can find solutions and make connections that others may miss. An active child has the energy to conquer a really difficult task. An intense child perseveres when others are inclined to give up. A talkative child explores big ideas with others in order to build understanding in themselves and others. A creative child observes and creates beauty in the world. An insightful child identifies problems and works to find solutions. And the list could go on and on…

Children can be any of these, all of them, or other things entirely. A micro school environment provides the time and resources to allow each child’s individual gifts to bloom. At Ascend Micro School, we want our learners to be different. We desire diversity. We cherish the uniqueness of every student that walks through our doors. They are all capable of making a difference in their community.

They have great minds and do not all think alike, and that is definitely a good thing.

A Mastery-based Approach

Mastery-based learning, also sometimes referred to as competency-based learning, is an alternative approach to typical grades. Whereas a normal grading system assigns a score based on work completed, mastery-based learning allows students to work on a concept until they’ve mastered it. Therefore, every student should get an “A” in every concept because they keep working at it until they master it. They do not move on until they demonstrate proficiency, especially in subject areas where content builds upon itself.

I believe this is an excellent approach for several reasons. First, it eliminates gaps in students’ learning. As a classroom teacher in a public school system, we had a certain amount of time to teach each concept, and then we had to move on. The students that did not master the skills received a poor grade, landed in a remedial group, and/or struggled with more complex concepts due to the lack of mastery of the previous one(s). When every child works on something until they master it, learning gaps are eliminated. Students have the time and resources to work on something until they truly learn it and can apply it in multiple ways. In other words, practice makes perfect.

Another reason to implement a mastery-based assessment system is that it frees children to work on what they need when they need it. Let’s look at math as an example. Student A may fly through third and fourth grade math in one semester and then spend the rest of the year on fifth grade math doing in-depth projects and applying new knowledge in real-world ways. Student B may spend a semester working on just third grade multiplication and division because it happens to be difficult for him. But, once he “gets” it, he moves on quickly through other concepts, such as fractions, with a secure mastery of the building blocks that ensure success. In mastery-based learning, each student is able to progress at the rate that works for them. Less time is wasted on skills that students have already mastered and more time is spent on skills that prove to be more of challenge.

Finally, this approach respects the student and what they are capable of doing. Rather than comparing progress student-to-student, mastery-based learning compares the student to their own potential. It gives them the freedom to fail and try again and the skills to determine their own educational needs and advocate for them. When students are aware of their progress and have control over their learning, they are more engaged, motivated, and confident.

Mastery-based learning is a shift in thinking and can be tricky to implement. But research shows that it is an effective way of showing progress while meeting the needs of each individual learner. The highly personalized approach of micro schools in general combined with our philosophy of building student agency and self-advocacy make it a fantastic approach for planning and assessment.

Learner-Driven Education: An Overview

At its core, learner-driven education takes the power from the adults and gives it to the students. It believes in students’ abilities to take responsibility for their learning, advocate for themselves when they need help, and pursue passions and excellence. Every child is motivated and wants to succeed. By giving them the tools and freedom to guide their own learning process we set them up for lifelong success. More importantly, as a result they believe in themselves and know they can accomplish hard things.

There are many reasons to pursue a learner-driven education for our children. Here are a few:

We all learn in different ways. My husband loves to read and discuss. He fondly recalls his secondary education at a classical school where Socratic discussions were the focus of many courses. I learn best through doing. I love simulations, creative projects, and tinkering with things. Our daughter is an observer. She loves to watch others – kids, teachers, characters in books, etc. – and then contemplate their actions. We are convinced that she taught herself to read through watching Rachel (from Signing Time) fingerspell words. In What School Could Be by Ted Dintersmith, he writes that,

“Everything changes if school is about projects, big ideas, and curiosity. Students get good at making things, coming up with creative ideas, asking thoughtful questions. Accomplishment is reflected by what is produced. No one cares how long it takes a student to read material or if they learn from a YouTube video or a classmate…We all learn in different ways.”

We all learn at different speeds. Maybe your child learns mathematics rapidly but the conventions of writing are slow-going. Maybe your child can create an intricate, moving story in a day but takes several weeks to create a science project. Salman Khan writes in his book The One-World Schoolhouse,What should be fixed is a high level of comprehension and what should be variable is the amount of time students have to understand a concept.Why do we force very different children to learn the same things at the same speed, and then get discouraged when only a third of them actually master the concepts?

We all learn to different extents. Each individual has a different passion and gift. We are created uniquely, with the strengths and interests the Lord gave us. I am not a high-level mathematician. In fact, I struggled with math growing up because formulas and theoretical problems just didn’t speak to me. But as an improvisational quilter, I regularly use fractions, measurement, graphing, and geometry to create beautiful and useful things out of scraps of fabric. And there are times that I get it wrong and choose to persevere through my frustrations to learn from my mistakes. Of course foundational skills are important – I couldn’t manipulate fractions if no one taught me number sense as a young child. I am thankful, however, that my parents did not force me to take advanced science and math courses in high school because those weren’t my strengths. Instead, I focused on what I was good at and what would help me in my future career: literature, language, history, and creative arts. Why do we expect children to be “jacks of all trades” instead of giving them the foundational skills they need and then helping them zoom in on the strengths they have that they could master?

Learner-driven education is not a free-for-all where kids get to do whatever they want. It is giving students voice and choice in all aspects of their work, collaborating with them as they set goals for their learning, and following their lead. We have to place trust in our children so they can build their confidence and experience small failures from a young age. In a learner-driven environment, teachers are learning guides that partner with students to help them reach success. They follow the child, not the curriculum. Learning guides do not have to have all the answers, but are lifelong learners themselves and are eager to connect students with experts that can help. This is an area where technology can be harnessed for good by utilizing the interconnectedness it provides to bring the best resources and people to learners.

At Ascend Micro School, this philosophy extends beyond students getting to pick the project they want to do or deciding what level they want to reach in math for a particular semester. We also place the governance of the day-to-day school environment in their hands through a democratic process of establishing norms, expectations, and procedures. By giving students control of their learning environment, they are more motivated to contribute to its success. We also choose community partnerships by connecting student passions with local needs. This helps students become aware of problems in their local community and provides the opportunity to actually do something about it with their team.

If you think about what makes any organization run smoothly and effectively, it will typically come down to motivated individuals who feel respected and respect others while overall enjoying the work they do. Why can’t we seek to create this environment in a school setting? As the world changes and technology progresses, the kids we are raising and educating today will have to be more innovative, creative, and collaborative in order to thrive and make a difference. Learner-driven education helps foster those skills and, I believe, sets them up for a successful and fulfilling future.

Next week we will discuss what “mastery-based” means and why it is a beneficial approach.