The ABCs of SPLERT

Photo of the Shady Hill sea mural by Sandi Tang

There’s a best-selling book by Robert Fulghum titled “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” a thoughtful reflection on everyday life and how to live it. It points out that many valuable life skills — small things, like sneezing into your sleeve; big things, like sharing, treating others with kindness and looking at the world with wonder — are learned when you are very young, and stay relevant throughout your life.

I am a biology professor, and my wife is a kindergarten teacher. Over and over, I am struck by how much her work can inform what I do at Brandeis.

For instance, her students do a lot of projects. Project-based learning is becoming commonplace at universities like Brandeis, too. Last year, students built a savanna to learn about ecosystems. This year, they mixed paint to match their skin color as a way of thinking about the limitations of the labels “white” and “black.”

Guess where these activities happened? In my wife’s kindergarten, not my college classroom.

Her kindergartners make observations and do experiments. On a recent visit to Shady Hill School, in Cambridge, Mass., where she teaches, I watched as her students made predictions and then discovered, surprisingly, that grapefruits float and grapes sink (consider that one for a moment).

Once a year, Shady Hill observes Flex Week. Students and teachers step away from their usual activities and do something different. Typically, they focus deeply on a topic. Last year, they studied the ocean: They made a sea mural covering an entire wall; they wrote a song about sea creatures; they visited the New England Aquarium.

Flex Week can be just as compelling in a college setting. Brandeis has semester- or summer-long versions of this kind of immersion, known as Justice Brandeis Semesters. Students in small groups, under the guidance of a professor or two, pursue a topic in depth. Recent explorations have included social media for social movements, and biology-inspired design.

To kick off last year’s Flex Week at Shady Hill, the kindergartners, as a group, listed things they knew about the ocean (“fish tails go sideways; whale tails go up and down”) followed by things they wanted to learn (“what’s at the bottom of the ocean”). Imagine a college class that, instead of starting with a set syllabus, began by compiling a list of things the students know (or think they know) and things they would like to learn. This approach could be used in a range of disciplines, as a way for students to take ownership of their learning.

The core education values embraced by Shady Hill’s kindergarten and lower school are described in a mission statement that can be summarized by the acronym SPLERT.

S is “struggle.” Learning demands some frustration, even failure at times. Children have to know how to overcome obstacles, tackle problems and pick themselves up when they fall. A childhood free from struggle doesn’t allow them to truly grow.

P is “play.” Free, imaginative play teaches children to work together, take turns, discover new things and make connections. Free play is vanishing in our over-scheduled, adult-centered world, yet it is essential.

L and E stand for “limits” and “expectations.” Learning works only if students feel safe. While freedom and exploration are encouraged, there have to be rules (not everything is OK) and boundaries (certain behaviors are not appropriate).

Everyone also has to show R, “respect,” by listening, being sensitive and caring for one another. This applies to how children treat one another, and how teachers and students interact.

Finally, there’s T. Learning takes “time.” In today’s fast-paced world, that’s often overlooked. For deep learning, we need to delve into a topic, explore it, make mistakes, leave and come back to our inquiry.

All these values apply to college as well. Take struggle. What cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork calls a “desirable difficulty” is akin to the Goldilocks challenge. If learning comes too easily, students get bored. If studies are too hard, students get discouraged or overwhelmed. The trick is finding the level that is just right for them.

Play is often overlooked at the college level, but it is just as important as it is in kindergarten. When there are too many constraints, we miss opportunities to learn. In my project laboratory class, students have the opportunity to do genuine research — experiments relevant to the field, which they don’t know the end points of — giving them ample room for play, exploration and discovery.

Limits, expectations and respect are critical, too. In a large classroom, respect begins when a professor learns everyone’s name, listens to and considers everyone’s responses, and treats every student as a serious learner.

Time is as overlooked in college as it is elsewhere. We communicate to students that doing more is better — more classes, more majors, more extracurricular activities, more leadership positions. Yet what students gain in breadth they lose in depth. Working in a lab over many semesters, composing a piece of music, tackling a difficult math problem — these are all spaces that require time, focus and concentrated attention.

Not long ago, I asked my wife’s students what science is. Here are three of their responses:

“I think science is finding out mysteries. … Science can be interesting, and it usually includes being patient. And sometimes you can do little tiny science experiments.”

“It’s experiments. Like, you are learning about something, and you want to learn more about it sometimes.”

“Science is when you ask a question and figure it out, or something.”

These answers really go to the heart of what science is. With schools’ current emphasis on testing and memorization, my hope is that these students remember their answers, and indeed all of kindergarten’s lessons, by the time they reach college.

James Morris is an associate professor of biology and lead author of the introductory college textbook “Biology: How Life Works.” He blogs at blogs.brandeis.edu/sciencewhys.

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