I’m co-teaching a pilot program at Hawken that is a little slice of the Mastery School, and one of the questions I get from concerned parents from time to time is, “Will they learn the same things in this class that students are learning in the other classes?”

It’s a perfectly valid question; parents worry that their child who participates in a pilot program runs the risk of missing out on something essential or something that they might need for future classes.  I usually send a long explanation of the goals of the class and the skills we’ll be working on, but I’m always tempted to respond with an email that just says, “No.”

Nope – they won’t learn the same stuff.  It’ll be different stuff. Maybe better stuff, maybe similar stuff, but definitely different stuff.  And that’s good! That’s not bad. Different kids need to learn different stuff at different times, and sometimes it’s okay for one student to know certain stuff that the other kids don’t know.

The truth is that it already happens all the time.

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Lessons from a Ghost Ship

There’s this myth, I think, that if a teacher teaches a room full of students the same thing that the students then know that thing and be able to do that thing and they’ll see the value in a thing.  If I teach it, and they put in an effort to understand and practice it, then they will learn it and use it. But I’m not so sure about that.

Take this one student I had one time.  I was covering a 9th grade Humanities class for my colleague, and they were studying India, so I decided to teach them this thought experiment called Theseus’s Ship.  The scenario you’re supposed to imagine is that there’s a ship, and this Greek king named Theseus owns the ship. It’s his ship. And then over time, one of the pieces – a plank in the deck, say – gets a little rotten, so it gets replaced.

The question is, “Is this the same ship?”

Most people would say, “Yes, it’s the same ship with a small repair.”  So then you extend that thinking; okay, what if you replaced a few boards over the years.  Is it still the same? “Sure.” OK, what if you replaced half the boards. Still the same ship?  Now the students get a little apprehensive. “Maybe…” Some students disagree. What if you replace every board, but it’s slowly, like over twenty years?  Is it the same ship? Some people double down and insist it is. Anyone who says it isn’t needs to point to the moment it became a new ship, which is difficult.

If they think it’s the same ship after all these years, you pose a new twist – what if someone had been keeping all the rotten boards in storage, and then put all those pieces together to make a ship.  Is that the original ship? A new ship? Or – and this is a sneaky twist – what if Theseus’s ship was in a museum, and a thief were taking it apart plank by plank to smuggle out, replacing each board with a duplicate board, and eventually reconstructed the whole thing from the original boards in his garage and sold it.  Did he sell the original ship? A replica?

You can see how this idea of identity can get problematic, and every answer just reveals new problems.  So once they grappled with this idea, then we started talking about our own identities, and how our cells reproduce, and if we have an identity from year to year, or even moment to moment.

Anyway, there was this one girl in the room who found this discussion absolutely fascinating, and she came up to me after class to tell me so.  She would mention it every once in a while to me in the hallway over the next couple of years that she was still thinking about it. This year she’s a senior, and she’s taking a philosophy class with my colleague, and when he asked why they were interested in taking the class she told him about that time she discussed Theseus’s ship as a freshman, and how she wants to have more moments like that.  She liked having her world turned upside down, and she liked puzzling through the logic of big existential questions.

So here’s the thing that’s interesting to me about that class: there were thirteen other kids in that room on that day when we discussed Theseus’s ship.  Some of them thought it was interesting, but certainly didn’t have this one girl’s reaction. Some of them thought it was okay, and some of them thought it was a waste of time.  What did they care about whether some guy’s ship is the same ship? Most of them probably forgot it pretty quickly after that class was over.

But I taught all of them the same thing!

If it were true that teaching a thing equates to apt, intelligent, attentive students learning a thing, then all fourteen of those kids should have all been blown away by that discussion!  They should all be taking Dr. Ialacci’s philosophy class and stopping me in the hallways to tell me how I blew their freakin’ minds.

They didn’t, though.  And it’s not a huge shock that they didn’t.  Different kids are different. They value different discussions, they like different projects, and they are fascinated by different topics.

And sometimes when you think a student has learned something really well, it turns out the learning was temporary. Fleeting. Poof. Gone.

I remember once that I took my group of ninth graders to the Writing Center so they could get support from some older students on their Gilgamesh papers. One of my former students was there, and I was psyched because this student had loved Gilgamesh the previous year. I said something like, “You can totally help with this, because it’s about Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and I know you really got into that part of this book.”  This older student’s face went blank. She didn’t remember it at all.

I had fallen for that myth that learning a thing in the moment is the same as valuing a thing over time.

What They’ll Actually Learn

The thing about the Mastery School that’s different from traditional school, I think, is that we give students more control over their own educational decisions, so that when one student is blown away by a discussion of Theseus’s ship, she can run with that interest for as long as it carries her.  We have a system that is set up to help a student capture those moments where everything comes together for them, where a new idea is like getting hit by lightning. It happens for different people at different times, and it’ll be about different things.

In a traditional school setting, there might be three days dedicated to Greek philosophy in the Greece unit, and then we’re on to the Peloponnesian War.  If you were interested in Theseus’s ship, that’s wonderful, and you should take the philosophy elective when you’re a junior or senior.

But if we change our system – not just replacing a plank or two, but overhauling the whole thing – I think that we have an opportunity to partner with students in a powerful way to co-create their education with them.  We can show them new ideas, and then give them genuine choices about what to learn next and how to focus themselves.  And then we use those experiences to show them even more new ideas.

At the Mastery School, I think I’ll revise my answer, actually.  If someone asks me, “Will they be learning the same thing as the kids in the other classes?”  Yes. They’ll all be learning how to figure out what they love to learn, how to do that really well, and to then learn how that connects to everything else.

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Dan O’Connor

Dan O’Connor

I graduated from the College of Wooster in 2002, and went on to get a Masters in the Teaching of English from Columbia University, Teachers College. I teach Humanities here at Hawken. One of the big reasons I went into teaching high school is that I had a crummy time as a high school student myself, so I want to redesign a learning environment that is enjoyable and enriching at the same time. School works best, I think, when students choose to learn, so I like to give my students meaningful choices in the classroom that they can make every day.