I had the opportunity to attend the keynote address of the Wisconsin Science Festival. The address, given by Sir Ken Robinson, was entitled “Creativity, Truth and Beauty” and served the dual purpose of keynote address of the Science Festival and kickoff of the “year of innovation” at the UW-Madison campus.
Robinson is a noted speaker and thought leader on issues of creativity and education, and his work is recognized across the globe. He has given TED talks, worked on the issue of peace in Northern Ireland and the issue of educational reform in the US and the UK.
In his book, The Element, Robinson tells an amazing tale of creativity in early education that is truly beautiful in its simplicity. Its success in raising student performance in language and reading is almost unprecedented, and it DOES NOT involve increased classroom time, more teachers, or additional standardized test preparation. According to Robinson, 70% of the 5-year-olds coming out of this program are reading at a third-grade level or higher.
Let me retype that: 70% of the 5-year-olds coming out of this program are reading at a third-grade level or higher.
This innovative program involves two pre-K classrooms that are located in an institution outside of the normal elementary school building. The classrooms are essentially fishbowls—four glass walls. The walls stop a foot or so short of the building ceiling, and the sounds of the children reading, sorting, playing and singing filter out to the surrounding hall.
Anyone passing by can see and hear all of the activity and business of the young children and their teachers. These rooms are located in the middle of the main path to the cafeteria. Occasionally passersby will inquire of a teacher, “What are they doing?”
So where are these pre-K class rooms that generate so much interest? In the Grace Living Center, a retirement home, located across the street from an elementary school in the Jenks School District in Oklahoma. The glass-walled classrooms are located in the foyer of the retirement home, and the residents of the home must pass by them on their way to the cafeteria for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day.
So many of the residents expressed an interest in working with the children, the school set up a “Book Buddies” program pairing elderly residents with children in the classes. Sometimes the children read to the volunteers; sometimes the volunteers read to the children; sometimes they have conversations about what it was like growing up in Oklahoma 70, 80 or 90 years ago.
Clearly, the students are benefiting; students in this program are outperforming peers in other schools. But what are the other benefits? According to the staff at Grace Living Center, medication levels there have dropped significantly. Many residents who are working with these young people have reduced or stopped medication. When the residents are cutting and gluing with the children, they are maintaining the same small motor skills that the children are learning.
And, in addition to learning about history and improving their reading, the students are also learning something else. Sometimes they have to deal with the fact a book buddy passes away and won’t be coming again. The children are learning about natural cycles of life and death at a young age. They learn about seeing and valuing the whole person, even though that person cannot walk or may speak only through a mechanical voice box.
This program takes advantage of the natural relationship that so easily forms between the very young (who have so fresh a sense of wonder) and the very old (who through long lives have learned to appreciate wonder). With this program the school system has opened itself up to the community, and like any system that welcomes energy from an outside source, it grows and blossoms and is free to give energy back.
This is what true educational transformation looks like: it’s creative, true to the natural order of things, and beautiful in its concepts.
©2012 Michele Arduengo. All rights reserved.