During a recent outing to Mason District Park, Village School heroes found their way to the creek. They stopped to play for a while by the shallow, meandering water. It was too cold for bare feet, but they scrambled across the stream—or lava as they called it—by balancing on log bridges or hopping from rock to rock. When they finally found a good spot, they set about stirring potions in the water.
After a while, one of the heroes turned to look at the five-foot bank on the opposite side. It was too steep to climb with his bare hands, but he found that if he grabbed an exposed root hanging down from the top he could use it as a sort of climbing rope to hoist himself up. When he reached the top, he called down, “Hey guys, look at this!” and offered to teach the other heroes how to follow him. They quickly abandoned the potions experiment to join him.
For the next 20 minutes, the heroes made it their mission to climb that ledge. It took some effort for them to find the right foot placement, keep their balance, and use their arms to heave their bodies up. But with advice and guidance from the first learner and a little perseverance, they all finally reached the top. “I did it!” they each shouted in turn, before they ran down the adjoining slope to the creek so they could try again. “You OK over there?” “You can do it!” they called to one another as they worked.
The learners climbed that ledge over and over. When the root broke, they found another that would help them up. Then they discovered a U-shaped one sturdy enough to hold them upside-down. With their newfound skills, they tried climbing other ledges, honing their climbing technique along the way.
It was a striking example of our learning process at The Village School. Both inside the studio and out on the playground, heroes are surrounded by intriguing challenges. They have space to wonder and follow their curiosity in order to find their own passions and set their own goals, which is essential if we want them to pursue their goals with interest and determination. They learn from each other and work together to solve problems. They struggle and sometimes fail, which develops resilience. There is little adult intervention, but plenty of help from peers. It’s with a genuine desire to help that they teach each other, and fervent joy and satisfaction that they celebrate victories.
Let’s go back to the creek for a moment and consider what might have happened under different circumstances. Would the heroes have been as eager to scale that ledge if their guide made it a goal? Probably not. Would they have figured out different ways to climb it if an adult had shown them the ‘right’ way to do it? Doubtful. Would they have taught, encouraged, and celebrated with one another if they were focused on earning points, or trying to get a prize for being first to the top? Not a chance.
Certainly there is a time and place for contests, rewards, and guidance from adults (especially when it comes to safety). But that’s not the primary way we pursue knowledge at The Village School. One of our main goals is to foster an intrinsic love of learning that will translate into a lifelong hunger for knowledge. We also create a culture that values confidence, independence, leadership, and collaborative skills. Reading, writing, math—all these things matter, but they come as a result of developing those invaluable character traits. It’s all part of creating a learner-driven environment.
Heroes went home that day asking when they could go back to the park again. I wonder what challenges they will seek out next time?