In elementary school, my county had a gifted program called FUTURA. Once a week, about forty fourth and fifth graders would be bussed over to a nearby school and do some slightly more challenging projects and activities. Much of what we did depended on which teacher we had (there were two), but the activities ranged from running a pretend think-tank company to doing various building challenges with household items to having a full-fledged, fully planned debate. We made body systems presentations using a shoebox and various household items as visuals, built bridges out of newspaper that could hold the weight equivalent of a bowling ball, and ran empires that had the goal of conquering the other empires in the class. I’ve never had an educational experience even close to as fulfilling as FUTURA, as unlike normal school, we solidified our concepts in physics and engineering by actually engineering a structure. My personal favorite time of the day, was what we called Centers. Centers was the one and a half to two hours built into the day where students could pursue learning whatever interested them, within certain parameters.
Essentially, in each class were a set of plastic crates lining a wall. In each crate were a series of file folders. You would choose a “center” that interested you, like maybe, Knights and Castles. Then, during the Centers block during the day, you go through the file folders in the plastic crates until all the activities for a certain level of a certain center. In the folders you would find every single instruction sheet and worksheet that you would need for a certain activity, and once they were all completed, you could either move on to the next level, or try a different center. Generally, there were two to three levels in each center, and once a center was fully completed, there was even an option for a “Create-Your-Own-Center” center. While there were a limited number of centers to pick from, the range of topics was huge. One might be able to pick Puzzler, a riddles, logic, and critical thinking center, WWII, a center on 1940’s battle strategy, technological advancements, and outcomes of different battles, or about twenty other choices.
Even though it was on a very small scale, I think this style of learning has many different advantages to it. First is the obvious one: choice. Students had the opportunity to choose what they wanted to learn based on what interested them, and/or possible future careers. A child that thought castles were obsolete and boring (like me) didn’t have to get beat over the head with endless serfs and throne rooms that had no practical application in being an aspiring physician. Instead, I could learn physics and the science behind rollercoasters or even make my own doctor center (which I did) since there wasn’t one available. At the Academy of Science in Loudoun County there is a saying: “do a few things greatly.” A centers style classroom would allow students to focus more on, and therefore become more proficient at the topics that interest them and be of the most use to them in the future.
The second advantage is pace. One would only move on to the next activity once proficiency in the current activity was reached, whether it took fifteen minutes or two classes. All the centers were self-paced and not dependent on the speed that your neighbor was completing it. Perfection cannot be rushed and one cannot achieve past perfection, so as soon as it is achieved is the optimal time to move forward, not sooner and not later. Also, a huge factor in this was levels. You would only be able to move up a difficulty if you could show that you could complete and understand the difficulty underneath, and of course, you would get there at your own pace. This is also great because the diagnostic is literally whether or not you were able to complete the previous course. This requires no testing and very little subjectiveness. Simply, was the previous level completed, was proficiency reached, and did you enjoy it?.
The last major advantage that will be covered is the fact that you had the option to create your own center. It’s pretty widely known that being able to teach a subject effectively is the greatest indicator that you understand it. Building your own center required extensive researching and spotless planning. Worksheets had to be very in depth while still allowing future students to be able to figure things out for themselves and activities had to be interesting, but purposeful. Often times, the necessity of being able to teach a subject well pushed me to learn it in more depth than I would have if I were to simply learn it from a center. It also gave me a lot more flexibility with exactly what I wanted to teach (and therefore learn). Yes, the learning was a lot less structured and less standardized, but I was learning what I felt like I needed to know, not something someone else decided I did.
FUTURA was a almost perfect environment for individual intellectual growth, with Centers being the capstone. It’s easy to picture how the centers could potentially work their way into regular school. What if classes weren’t separated by year or by semester, but levels that could be completed at the pace in which one can prove proficiency. A creative writer may take a little longer to get through Algebra 1 than a future theoretical physicist, but the physicist may not do as well in business. If you don’t understand an assignment, you keep pushing until you do, instead of failing a class and being pushed back an entire year before getting your next chance to prove that you do. And if someone can complete Chemistry in half of a school year, so be it, they can move on to AP Chem or Physics right away, instead of following a path that moves half as fast as would be best. This would be the ultimate individualization of learning and a great way to be able to allow students to move at their own pace without being tested to death. This would be a great way to untie the rope around our students’ ankles to allow them to run the race how they want to and not be limited or overkilled by the pace of their peers. This is similar to the method of teaching grammar used by Jeff Anderson in Mechanically Inclined. If a grammar rule came up consistently in students’ writings, it would then be addressed and worked on until it no longer appeared in their daily writing workshops. Generalizing students is what turns them into machines, when what we really need is people, and all the individual strengths of each.