My twin 7 year-olds and I have been watching old episodes of The Magic School Bus on Netflix lately. It’s an animated PBS kids show from the mid-nineties (based on a book series). It follows a class of elementary students and their teacher as they head off on field trips that immerse the kids in experiential learning supported by a heavy dose of magical realism. The eponymous bus often transports the students and their teacher to places and sizes best suited to hands-on study of their chosen topic. A family favorite is the episode on decomposition where everyone shrinks to the size of an ant and explores a rotting log.
Whether they’re heading to outer space or to the frictionless baseball field in their physics textbook, Mrs. Frizzle (their fabulously eccentric teacher voiced by Lily Tomlin) always reminds them to “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!”
There’s little doubt among educators that experiencing and doing are essential aspects of deep learning. Thacher’s not new to this game. Learning to ride and take care of a horse, backpacking through the wilderness for five nights twice a year, giving a thirty minute presentation to the community on a year-long research project—our flagship programs are rooted in a tradition of experiential learning and healthy risk-taking that dates back to the School’s founding.
But as we bring that ethos to life in our core academic curriculum, we come up against a challenging reality: high achieving students are often loath to take risks in the classroom. The same student who’s spending her spring afternoons of Gymkhana season attempting to pick up a silver dollar off the ground while on the back of a galloping horse reacts with fear when her history teacher tells her she can choose to present her civil rights research in whatever form she thinks will best inform and educate her classmates.
“Whatever form I think will work best? How will I know if my form is the best? Can’t you just tell me what you want me to do?”
By the time a successful student gets to ninth grade, he’s very good at learning the answer, doing as the teacher asks, following directions. What he’s not so good at is taking chances, making mistakes, and getting messy.
So—short of procuring a magical bus that erases the realities of college admissions and every other internal and external factor telling teenagers they need to be perfect to succeed in life—how do we create a classroom environment where a student can’t help but throw herself into the messy, mistake-laden process of deep learning? How do we take the culture of our Horse Program and apply it to the classroom?
It’s questions like these that guide my essential work as Thacher’s Director of Studies: defining and creating a transformative academic experience for every Thacher student.
I hope you’ll join me here as I keep you posted on all things academic at Thacher.
Next up: If a magic school bus isn’t in the cards, how about a research-grade observatory?