Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Beyond the Pendulum: Creating Challenging and Caring Schools

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Beyond the Pendulum: Creating Challenging and Caring Schools

Article excerpt

In the history of American education, the pendulum has swung back and forth between concern with intellectual rigor and concern with student's social adjustment. If our country is to move beyond this pattern, these authors suggest, schools must attend simultaneously to children's intellectual, social, and ethical development.

For me, a turning point came at a science fair a few years back. We were videotaping the award winners as they were announced. Somehow I found myself watching the faces of the children who hadn't won awards. Kids aren't good at hiding their disappointment. They looked so sad and empty. The room was dead silent, as if a bomb had been dropped. We faculty members had knocked ourselves out working on the science fair, and yet we had turned off many of the kids.

An elementary teacher

Last year, the teachers at El Rio Elementary School redesigned their school science fair.(1) Traditionally, the science fair had been a time for upper-grade students to make projects and compete for schoolwide awards. This year's "family science festival" transformed the school, for one evening, into a hands-on science museum. Students and a record number of family members explored the mysteries of bubbles, magnets, and kitchen chemistry in a series of activities planned and hosted by each class.

As staff members at El Rio worked to redesign the science fair, three goals guided their efforts. First, these teachers wanted to meet in constructive ways children's needs for friendship, participation, and belonging and thereby to create a school that would be more appealing than the local gangs. Rather than pit children against one another, the new science fair would unite the children in a shared and meaningful pursuit: the planning and organization of an interesting, informative science festival. Every child could gain, academically and socially, from contributing to this effort. There would be no "losers."

Second, El Rio staff members had been seeking ways to make the families of their students feel more welcome at school - including the 50% of parents whose first language was one other than English. Because families play a critical role in children's development, the teachers were eager to provide an inviting and inclusive experience for as many family members as possible. The competitive science fair had sent a confusing message: When did family help become "cheating"? It had also created winners and losers and had painfully reminded some parents of their own failures in school. By contrast, the new format clearly welcomed families. As others have noted, "Nobody flunks museum."(2)

Finally, the staff at El Rio had become uncomfortable about the use Of awards to motivate science learning. Teachers had noticed that students were more interested in the awards than in the scientific content of their projects. Spurred on by research on the negative impact of rewards, the faculty chose to emphasize the inherent interest and challenge of designing hands-on science exhibits.

As El Rio's teachers redesigned the science fair, they carefully considered the students' bonds to one another and to the school, their science learning and motivation, and their relationships with family members. In other words, they considered the students' ethical, social, and intellectual development. Many school improvement efforts, by contrast, focus on a single outcome. Today, schools are being asked to promote everything from the prevention of drug abuse to the development of computer literacy, and it is tempting to choose a single, narrow goal for school improvement. Yet well-meaning efforts to boost academic achievement can actually damage children's social and ethical development, if they are not based on sound models of children's learning and development.(3) Schools cannot perform a surgical strike on children's intellects.

In the history of American education, the pendulum has swung back and forth between concern with intellectual rigor and concern with students' social adjustment. …

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