Peek into the elementary classroom and you will see a small group of children listening to a lesson on early Mesopotamian people, one child using a hot plate to melt wax from a solid to a liquid, one child building numbers into the thousands with golden beads, one child looking at slides under a microscope, a few children reading in cozy nooks throughout the classroom, one child drawing in a journal, and a few children working with a teacher use a computer to reserve library books for research projects.
The classroom feels busy but not rushed. The children look focused and energized. The teachers check in with other children or groups every once in awhile to see if they need help. This is independent learning in the elementary classroom. At just a glance, it may look like the children are doing whatever they want, but their is a respectful structure to the work the children choose.
Each child has a work plan they develop with the teacher. The teacher helps the child select work for the day or week based on the skills that they have mastered or still need work on. For one first grader, that might mean working on place value. Another may be ready for large number multiplication. The child sets goals with the teacher for when the work needs to be done, and the teacher checks in with each child each week to see how the work is coming.
Children are also invited to lessons throughout the day so they can explore new information. Lessons cover everything from phonics to build reading skills, the history of how writing developed, a study of fractions, a chemistry experiment, or the dissection of a flower.
Above all, lessons in the elementary classroom focus on providing the child with knowledge as a jumping off point to do their own work or research. Our children have written and performed plays about types of angles, have built models of the solar system, and have researched different animals. All of these opportunities to really dive into topics that interest them keep the children plugged into learning.
As the children work independently or in small groups, social conflicts are definitely going to arise, and working through those conflicts and challenges are a part of the learning. There is time and space to problem solve, check in with each child’s emotions, and find solutions. And as the children practice working through conflict, they are better equipped the next time they face different opinions.
Our hope for the classroom is that the children build their own society where each child’s uniqueness is valued and there is space for self-development, while respecting other opinions and needs as well. When children learn to move in such a way in their classroom, they are better prepared move in such a way in the larger world.
Wexler, Natalie. “Elementary Education Has Gone Terribly Wrong.” The Atlantic.
Gordon, Julia Weber. My Country School Diary.