The past couple of years have been banner years for teachers, parents, and schools interested in how students learn — brain science. Specifically and colloquially, how to practice and make it stick.
On your private school campus tour and interview, almost every school will look great, and your tour guide will take great care of you during your time on campus.
Your tour and interview will almost certainly be a positive experience — as they should be.
However, I was recently chatting with a colleague about how students learn, and I realized that examining a school’s academic practices needs to be a stronger piece of almost every family’s private school admission tour and interview.
We need to think of the campus visit — tour and interview — as a working trip. Looking at how each school’s classes and academic program function must be a priority.
If there’s a piece of your private school admission tour that sometimes falls by the wayside, it’s carefully examining how the academic experience works.
I know when my parents and I visited schools, we didn’t spend a whole lot of time looking at how students were learning and being asked to learn.
Sure, we liked the small classes and direct interaction with faculty. But, we didn’t pay attention to some of the details about how students were expected to learn the material. We should have. Luckily, I had some learning experiences that I still fall back on deep into adulthood.
If I took one our kids on a school tour and interview today, sure I’d be interested in school feel; structure; dorms; athletics and extracurriculars; are the students and faculty warm and inviting? Is the school a great, safe place to go to school?
Armed with a bit of current knowledge, I’d have some fairly specific questions about how academics and, specifically, how students practice learning material at each school to which they might apply.
I’ve written about several works that, I think, should inform every family’s private school tour and interview today. Here’s each, and a link to my previous post on each, along with a fundamental question, or two, that each family might use from each:
The Brain and How Students Learn
Charles Duhigg. The Power of Habit. Does the school help students establish healthy habits — schedules, daily routines, ways of approaching work and practice — on which the student can rely, build from, and fall back on?
Do the school’s classes and academic program break learning into pieces and teach students how to practice — mix up practice times; mix up kinds of practice; mix up where to practice?
“The rapid gains produced by massed practice are often evident, but the rapid forgetting that follows is not. Practice that’s spaced out, interleaved with other learning, and varied produces better mastery, longer retention, and more versatility. But these benefits come at a price: when practice is spaced, interleaved, and varied, it requires more effort. You feel the increased effort but not the benefits the effort produces…Even in in studies where the participants have shown superior results from spaced learning, they don’t perceive the improvement…
What you don’t sense in the moment is that this added effort is making the learning stronger…”
Does the school have an overall learning experience that’s spaced out, interleaved, and varied?
Does the school understand its students’ brains developmentally? What can, and cannot, be expected of the teenage brain? And, most importantly, does the school work with the teenage brain and help its students grow effectively?
Computer and Tablet-Based Learning
I’ll confess my bias here; I tend toward doing things by hand. These two articles (below) cover the developmental benefits note taking and doing school work by hand. Hand work seems to benefit brain development.
The question these should prompt on your school visit is: does the school ask students to do some work by hand — knowing that it benefits their understanding and control of the processes that they’re learning. The West Point study, below, finds that taking class notes by hand benefits even the strongest students in a class.
More than just having the forms and saying they do many of these things, I would look to make sure that each school instills as many of these approaches as possible.
I wouldn’t look for a complete commitment to everything; I would look for conscious, consistent commitment to strategies that work for each school’s student population. Not every approach works for every school.
In visiting a school with a student today, I would want to see evidence that each school deliberately guides its students through habits, practice, working by hand, and developing as a human being.
Not every student will need the full press of every approach. Some schools will place more emphasis on different pieces of habit, learning, etc. It’s all about school fit. Matching the approach of the school to what your child needs to grow and learn most effectively.
I’ll try to follow up this piece with a look at thinking about emotional intelligence as part of your school visit.
Need more help navigating school visits and the entire private school search process? Make sure to take my course, Get Accepted to the Perfect Private School. It breaks down the 12 most critical phases of the admission process and teaches you what you need to know to find the perfect school.