If money was not a factor, what kind of education would parents choose for their children? A private, progressive or international school with world-class facilities, a low teacher to student ratio and teachers with sterling qualification, progressive-minded leadership that recognizes and celebrates the uniqueness of each individual and strikes a balance between disciplined and student-directed learning? While undertaking this research, I came across a few students from International Schools in Singapore, New York and Manila who make me wonder about the students who do thrive, excel and are happy in school with a tuition fee that’s prohibitive to most people. I wonder about the school’s methods which combine a structured approach with a degree of interest-led learning through the wider-than-normal-range of choices and opportunities they offer.
My friend, Mew Yee’s daughter, Ning goes to the United Nations International School in Manhattan and at age sixteen, she spearheaded a project to teach children how to make props and sets for theater productions. Ning wrote, “. . . . I am a total theater geek. But, I have never stepped on a stage to perform in my life. Ever since I was 11, I loved to create, sculpt, paint, polish and design props and sets for shows. When I thought about doing WIT for a business, I immediately thought about investing in my personal passion for theater. My business, Set the Scene, aims to do just that – set the scene for 4th and 7th grade elementary school kids to learn backstage theater skills.”
These are the notes Ning makes for her class:
Crazy, huh? Crazy, fun, free-to-be-me creative. Every parent wishes that sort of self-discovery and enjoyment when their kids go to school – not dragging their feet through the mud but finding and stretching their wings to fly on their own, deriving pleasure in the exercise.
Ning’s sister, fifteen-year old Hue is very talented as well. She did this and is into music and sports.
When I met up with my friend, Sofie in Singapore, she introduced me to a family whose three sons attended the United World College. I had seen the UWC website before and thought maybe, it’s just their online presence that’s impressive. After hearing two boys rave about their education (the third one was in football practice) and after visiting the UWC premises itself, I was convinced that it was more than a blurb and that they lived it — “We inspire our students to create a more peaceful and sustainable future through education.” The students visit third world countries and work on actual projects there to help improve people’s lives. There are no grades in the early years and there is much individual attention and value placed on the uniqueness of each student. Of course, the complete sports facilities and well-equipped workshops are quite enviable, too. The boys showed me lamps they made using laser.
I also personally know two young girls who attend the British School of Manila (BSM) who have never praised their school before they started going to BSM. They previously attended an ultra-strict Chinese school that burdened them with too much homework. BSM for them, freed them to have a more balanced academic and non-academic life plus learning has become fun rather than a chore and a bore. They were raving about the activities, projects, field trips, teachers and how learning was exciting.
My visits to schools and talks with parents and students are too brief, perhaps too superficial to even make conclusions but they do lead to even more questions like what is the function of economic prosperity in providing good options in education? To what extent does incorporating a degree of self-directed learning into traditional modes make it a more responsive and effective system? Are the students happier in these schools that combine the “best of both worlds” — traditional (with a curriculum) and progressive (more freedom and interest-led)? What can we gather from schools that incorporate varying degrees of self-directed learning that could possibly bridge gaps? (my notes for future study)
I initiated this independent research on education as a way of grappling with my own fears and apprehensions of being a mother of two boys. My husband and I tried homeschooling but I am not as convinced as him that this is the way to go because I personally see our sons as thriving more within a consistent and supportive community larger than the immediate family. I am also more inclined towards a structured way of learning during the earlier years to establish a firm foundation. This goes against the tenets of SDE (self-directed education) purists so I raised a question during the PLC (Princeton Learning Cooperative) forum of teens who have been shaping their own education path. What’s their opinion about having a more structured approach during the elementary years? The young panelists said that it depends on the individual. Some kids might work well within a structure and some might not. For them, it was important to be a part of a community and it helps to be motivated around friends.