There is no shortage of creative and entrepreneurial lessons at Brooklyn New School (BNS), an Ashoka Changemaker School. For social studies, just as archaeologists excavate Mayan ruins, BNS students investigate the contents of classroom trash bins because, as the project’s core understanding states, “we know people from what they leave behind.” Language arts lessons center around how characters in stories create win-win situations, a skill students will take with them into their careers. With regard to science standards, from engineering a wigwam in Prospect Park to designing a rainwater catchment system to conserve water and protect the nearby canal habitat, students at BNS are learning crucial entrepreneurial skills that enable them to be leaders now as well as in the future. It’s a cross-curricular approach to education that looks drastically different from our traditional associations of a typical elementary school.
What is the key difference? According to Principal Anna Allanbrook, an important distinction between BNS and other schools is a de-emphasis on testing.
“The tests keep changing, but the students and learning don’t. We haven’t yet figured out how to create a standardized exam that truly shows us what children understand and can do,” she says.
Allanbrook’s goal is to prove that real academic learning is best developed and evaluated not by drilling facts and filling out bubble sheets but through a process of inquiry and creating a space whereby students can apply that knowledge to solving problems they see around them.
For example, fourth grade students designed and implemented an award-winning composting system, which went on to earn recognition from the Bloomberg administration. In addition to developing creative problem-solving and leadership skills, the students acquired extensive content knowledge in topics ranging from science to math and social studies.
This work is not without challenges. Project-based learning is more expensive than lecturing, and with tight school budgets and no breakthroughs yet in financing experiential education, BNS teachers and parents devote a significant amount of time to fundraising.
Yet in spite of these challenges, BNS and other schools of varying type and make-up from across the country, from Inspired Teaching School in Washington, DC, to North Glendale Elementary School in Kirkwood, MO, toProspect Sierra School in El Cerrito, CA, prove that rigorous academic learning need not—and indeed, should not—happen only from behind desks. Each is proof that we need not choose between deepening academic achievement and equipping kids with the skills they’ll need long after they leave the classroom.
As Principal Allanbrook is quick to point out, parents can play an equally significant role in cultivating those skills as their children’s teachers. While education debates tend to focus on what happens during the school day, researchers have shown that parenting is every bit as important to student achievement as schools are.
Fortunately, any parent or teacher can take steps to turn their own backyard or classroom into a learning laboratory and to ensure that learning environments like that at BNS are made commonplace for children of all income and geographic backgrounds.
“Talk about what is going on in the world, and think together with your children about what they can do to help,” suggests Allanbrook. “When encouraged, children will naturally develop projects, which demonstrate their commitment to others. We need to listen to them so that they can follow through on their big ideas. This means helping to get the materials they need and giving children the time and place to let their imagination create and design whatever comes to their minds. Children have lots of ideas. They just need support making them happen!”
Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Forbes.