Fearless Learning: The Independent Day School

By Caryn B. Davis

Fearless Learning. That is the credo of the Independent Day School (IDS) in Middlefield, Connecticut, and it encompasses all that they do. At this school mistakes are encouraged, and failure is viewed as a natural evolution for success. Individuality is as important as being a good citizen and productive member of a community. This is a progressive institution that recognizes how children learn today with the Internet, computers, and iPads at their disposal, while at the same time understanding the skill sets that are being lost as a result of having easy and immediate access to all this information that needs to be re-taught and relearned.

“When we live in a world with Internet resources, it looks like everything has already been made or done. If you need a photograph of a paraglider, you don’t have to wait for one to appear in a newspaper and then cut it out. You can go online and have 40,000 images in six seconds. But there is real value in assembling a model of a paraglider. You get a sense of how it actually works,” says Andrew Watt, Latin and Digital Arts and Sciences Teacher at IDS.

Because of his aptitude to absorb new coursework swiftly, Andrew Watt has been chosen to teach both students and educators at IDS and teachers from other independent schools around the state, a brave new way of learning called Design Thinking. It is a program similar to how masters have trained apprentices for thousands of years, by teaching them skills first hand, that can be passed on to others.

While this concept may seem rudimentary, as a society we have gotten further away from this type of exchange. Design Thinking is bringing students back to these roots and teaching them a visual language that helps them to better understand our world. Instead of just talking about the mechanics of how a puppet is constructed for example, or studying a drawing of it someone else has rendered, or viewing the completed piece in a store or museum, children at IDS are actually building them from scratch.

“Our drama teacher, Shelly Sprague decided our spring musical is “The Wizard of Oz.” We don’t have enough kids to play all the roles. So how do we make up for all these fantastical monsters? By building puppets. She is building flying monkeys out of stuffed cloth bags on the ends of sticks. I am building Winkies, the soldiers of the wicked witch. They are built from hinged wooden parts so they clatter like soldiers would when marching down the street,” says Watt who is also Director of the Design Lab and the Design Thinking Coordinator.

In both cases prototypes were made and then measured, using various devices and tools, so the children could calculate what size each part of the puppet needed to be in order to recreate it.

“They are engaged in real world skills and at the same time are thinking of questions of abstraction. What is the angle on this piece of wood that has to attach to this other piece of wood? Where does the hole have to go in order for it to fit together properly? When you teach concrete skills related to working with real world materials, you are also teaching the abstract layers that become important in higher learning,” says Watt.

While constructing these puppets, or anything else they have built, like a magnet tower to grasp how magnets work while becoming aware of physical forces that aren’t always directly seen, the students are learning to think through the problems they encounter during the process to find solutions. Design Thinking is not a solo activity like surfing the Internet. The students work in unison to get the desired results, which means bouncing ideas off one another, or teaching someone who may not know how to use a hand drill how to do it safely, or simply helping by holding a piece a wood in place while someone else cuts it.

“Design Thinking is an opportunity to problem solve with empathy by understanding where the problem comes from and gearing the work to solving it together,” says Jessi Christiansen, Head of School. “We know they have the Internet in their pocket, so it changes the way we have to think about education. We are trying to develop the people skills alongside the academic skills and teach them to work collaboratively and creatively. That is what project based education does.”

The Independent Day School was founded in 1961. It is a private pre-school, elementary, and middle school located on 33 acres that includes nature trails, woodlands, two playgrounds, a garden, fields for recess and team sports, a performing arts center, two science labs, a library, an art studio, and a gymnasium. Children from 23 communities and from diverse racial, religious, and social backgrounds make up the 146 attending students. The student / teacher ratio is six to one and kept intentionally low.

“When children come to a school like this, they are known. They know their teachers and their teachers know them as well as their families,” says Robin Nichols, Director of Admissions. “Our classrooms do not have desks in rows and are not quiet. There is a productive hum, and kids are working together. We spend a lot of time building community. We believe our academic curriculum is equal to our social and emotional curriculum. They need to be kind to one anther, help each other, and celebrate each other.”

IDS believes that “of all things that can hinder a child from succeeding in school and later in life, fear may be the greatest of all. Fear of failing, fear of success. Fear of trying something new. Fear of being left out. Fear of standing out. Fear of being oneself.” So by creating this type of community, IDS is in fact, creating a safe environment where “Fearless Learning” can thrive.

“We want them to make mistakes because that is authentic and when they are really learning. We also want them to try new things so they can find out where their strengths are which they might not know unless they do,” says Jackie Pisani, Associate Director of Marketing and Assistant to Head of School.

IDS also promotes “academic choice,” which enables the students to better connect with the subject matter being taught and further facilitates active participation in their own education.

“The third grade is going to Plimoth Plantation. They are each studying a different family that came over on the Mayflower. They are going to try and learn everything they can about that family and then share it with the class. Some may come back and want to build a replica of the Mayflower. Others might want to talk about the clothing they wore or food they ate. It’s still within the area they are studying, but they have some choice in it,” says Nichols.

All of this works hand in hand with Design Thinking. As the students become increasingly more confident and comfortable with thinking outside the box, they are more apt to pursue new projects and new ideas.

“Thomas Edison drew a light bulb seven years before he actually had a working one. Leonardo da Vinci drew a working design for a parachute 500 years before there were airplanes from which to jump. Charles Darwin drew the tree of  life 25 years before he wrote a book explaining what he meant by evolution. They had the visual mindset about how things work,” says Watt. “Drawing is the third way of seeing the world alongside mathematics and reading / writing. If you don’t teach yourself to draw, there is an entire way of seeing the world that you don’t understand. When you are able to draw, you are able to act on the world differently.”

Design Thinking has changed the way in which Watt as an educator imparts knowledge to his students. Everyday he puts a simple drawing lesson on the board because he firmly believes if you can’t draw what you see, you can’t begin to create it. He also writes on the board in different colored markers to keep his students thinking about color theory. He insists his students become proficient using tools; and if they cut themselves, they know not only where the first aid kit is kept, but they also know how to use it. Self reliance is key because if you can teach yourself, you can teach others.

In teaching Design Thinking, Watts has discovered it takes a long time to learn how to be a builder and a maker and to think two and three dimensionally, but it’s worth it. “We are a culture that greatly respects art and good design, and yet we don’t particularly respect the designers and the artists. It has taken me a while to get over that mental hurdle and be a designer myself. It’s like swallowing the blue pill in the matrix. It changes your entire world view about what’s important and how to think about the world,” says Watts.

For more information, log onto www.independentdayschool.org