learn and develop

Original thinkers at Bank Street College of Education divulge how people learn and develop

Link to original article can be found here.

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Experimental schools may be trendy now, but they are not new: alternative ways of teaching and learning have been developing for decades. Bank Street College of Education is one of those; founded in 1916, it distinguishes itself by its long history of research and its commitment to reinvent education in order to build a better society.

Mr. Shael Polakow-SuranskyPresident of Bank Street College of Education and former second-in-command at the New York City Department of Education, accepted to meet with me and discuss some of the main principles and values of Bank Street.

“Education is never neutral”

Bank Street is first and foremost committed to educating future generations in a way that makes society a better place. It translates into teaching students certain skills, in particular “critical thinking, risk taking and creativity, for Polakow-Suransky the only way to end up with creative and questioning adults. But how exactly can we achieve that?

A balance between individualization and interaction

Bank Street is both a school and a graduate school: it educates at the same time children and future teachers and school leaders. Through years of observing how children and adults learn, “original thinkers at Bank Street found about how people learn and develop,” observations now confirmed by emerging neuroscience research.

With this solid experience, Bank Street laid down methods of teaching that endow students with these critical skills, developing what they call the “development-interaction approach.”

It starts with having both a general understanding of human developmentand getting to know every student. Polakow-Suransky explains that “compared to more traditional public options, we put more of an emphasis on knowing the child deeply.” “You have to really see the child and really listen to them carefully and understand who they are”

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This knowledge then “permits adjustments and individualization” in the application of the principles of human development. Compared to other models that also emphasize children’s development needs, Bank Street stands out with this ability to adapt.

“Where in the Montessori model you would see very prescriptive use of materials in terms of certain types of materials at certain stages of development, we definitely have ideas about what materials are fruitful but they’re much more adaptive, based on the children’s interests” 

Individualization, however, does not mean isolating students from one another – quite the opposite. Teachers should not pay attention only to the students’ cognitive development, but should also take into account “their social, emotional development,” in which human interaction is key.

Here too, Bank Street stands through its emphasis on “small group interaction” and “learning together with peers,” distancing itself from the Montessori model in which children “tend to be working more autonomously and individually,” reducing the role of interactions in children’s development.

Democracy in the classroom

To foster critical thinking and creativity among its students, Bank Street’s method fosters another element: democracy. It can sound a bit extravagant, but it relies in fact on a very simple principles – good planning and organization

First, the educator’s role needs to be “less direct instruction and more facilitator and coach, observer and planner.”

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For Polakow-Suransky, it’s less about being an expert in a subject matter than about being interested in and comfortable with it and having good observation and organization skills that they can use to arouse student interest, ask and encourage them to ask questions and foster their creativity.

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A democratic approach to teaching and learning thus builds on the teachers’ and the instructors’ abilities to “do the right planning and create a structure that is robust but not authoritarian in the classroom.” Polakow-Suransky explains that “authoritarian approaches are very effective” in schools, but they tend to “teach compliance as a primary value.”

“If the value is based on compliance as opposed to creativity or asking good questions, then you get less creative, less questioning thinkers”

On the other hand, a more democratic way of doing things is “often louder and bumpier, and teachers take longer to master that,” but by creating a democratic structure you end up having students that learn way more efficiently because they feel more trusted and are more empowered.

And instead of spending time disciplining children, educators develop “engaging activities that solve the logistical problem” that otherwise would have required them to restrain children in their learning process.

Sometimes these activities can be extremely simple. For example, Polakow-Suransky explains how transitions are a challenge for educators working with young children.

“I was observing in one of our classrooms as they brought the kids in from the playground back into the classroom. One of the challenges was if everyone came into the classroom at once, it would create a traffic jam and kids would get into arguments while they were waiting.”

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“So they created a process where they did a science experiment outside measuring rain water in cylinders positioned in a bed of rocks. At the end of recess, they brought all the kids together to look and check how much rain water had accumulated that day and they dumped the rocks on the ground.

Each kid had to pick up a rock and put it back into the container before they went back inside. That process staggered their reentry into the classroom and meant that the teacher had time to make sure everyone washed their hands and got settled without there being difficult things.”

In that way, through good planning and organization, you don’t need to discipline students while they are waiting: this extremely simple feature already makes the transition fluid and calm by design.

Fostering ways of learning how to be creative, questioning and risk-taking is thus not completely straightforward: it takes time, good observation, good knowledge of human development and good planning, in order to guarantee intellectual curiosity, flexibility and, in this way, democracy – in short the credo of Bank Street.