In our world knowledge expands at an exponential rate. As teachers we can't hope to teach children every fact they will need to know—those facts have not yet even come into existence. Instead we must teach children how to question and how to find answers. We must develop how they think and how they approach challenges. This must be the central focus of our work as educators.
We talk about learning explicitly and directly at Prairie Creek. Children know how they learn and they know that for learning to be “just right” they must struggle a bit. The gold stars of traditional education lead children to seek the easiest route, the one that ensures success. Our children learn the intrinsic rewards of working to conquer a challenge. By the time our students are fourth and fifth graders, they understand Lev Vygotsky’s concept of the Zone of Proximal Development. They may not call it that (although a few do) but they know that they learn best when work is neither too easy nor too far beyond them. They can assess their own understanding and comfort with new concepts and seek greater challenge and more support as necessary. They know themselves as learners.
To help students understand themselves as thinkers, teachers at Prairie Creek use the Habits of Mind framework. From kindergarten on, students learn to “persist,” to “respond with wonder,” to “communicate clearly,” to “manage impulsivity,” and to “question and pose problems.” These are among the 16 traits that break down what it means to be a good problem-solver. Once they leave us, these skills stay with our students. Middle and high school teachers report that Prairie Creek alumni reliably ask probing questions, seek help when they need it, and are genuinely curious about their learning. They are 21st century thinkers.