For five days this July, a cadre of 14 middle school students morphed into four teams of designers and inventors for the very first class ever taught at the Mastery School of Hawken. In “The Toyshop Workshop,” students had a chance to sample an educational model that can feel challenging, new and sometimes, not like school.

That’s the point, though.

The structure of traditional school places the teacher and the content at the center. It tends to prize compliance and conformity. It usually offers predetermined answers. It almost inevitably uses rewards and punishments to spur students to engage with what they’re supposedly learning.

That’s not how “The Toyshop Workshop” worked, though. While the title of the class may sound like camp, the educational design was terrifically serious. It used the challenge of designing toys for an authentic audience as an opportunity for students to learn a host of skills and content that traditional schools struggle to impart in a meaningful and lasting way. 

In a Mastery-Based school, the definition of “learning” is more robust and frankly harder to achieve than in the traditional model where learning is often fleeting, where it lives in the space between the preparation for the test, paper, presentation and the test, paper or presentation itself. 

In a Mastery-Based school, learning happens within the act of solving real-world problems for real human beings, and the result is that learning is deep, creative, individualized, and, perhaps most importantly, enduring.

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Paradigm Shifting

On the first day, the 14 pioneers walked into The Mastery School of Hawken with a mix of nerves, excitement and, truth be told, a tinge of resentment (on some of their parts!) that their parents signed them up for a three-hour a day class right in the heart of summer break. 

While I assisted when needed and took notes of what I observed, Dan O’Connor, a founding faculty member of the Mastery School of Hawken, designed and taught the class, using the Korda Method, an approach to teaching and learning that Hawken’s former Associate Head of School, Doris Korda, has honed over her career. 

At its essence, the method disrupts the traditional model by upending the locus of authority. The predetermined “content” of the course isn’t in charge; instead, the students’ growth is. And, importantly, that growth trajectory is individualized rather than standardized. One student might grow his public speaking skills while another might grow her collaborative abilities. One might work on becoming a better listener and another a more accomplished designer. School, then, becomes the space for growth in a variety of domains instead of a competition for who can learn the same things as everyone else — but only faster and, as measured on a memory-based exam, better somehow.

Which is not to say that the Toyshop Workshop was a buffet.  Each student had to work on specific tasks and skills as a member of  a team charged with creating a solution for a real-world problem for a real-world audience.

Julia Griffin, The Director of the Mastery School of Hawken, delivered the challenge at the end of Monday’s class:

Design a toy for kids that they’ll like and that encourages healthy play.

Four days later, the teams would present their design and their rationale to Julia and a group of their target audience — kids age 8-12.

The simplicity of this design conceals its power.  Even in the heart of July, the paradigm shift was profound, healthy, and explosively effective. The students cared. They sought information and resources on their own. Without prodding or grading like a spear between the shoulder blades, one young man went home one night and engineered a prototype of his team’s design on a 3-D printer. 

Mastery-based teaching gives education back to the people who instinctively want to learn, to create, to solve problems. It says to kids, “This is yours. We’re here to help. Go make something useful for those people over there.” And remarkably and without fail, they do.

When a Toy isn’t a Toy

On Tuesday, Dan split the class into four design teams that spent the next days moving through a series of exercises, which laddered up to the moment of truth on Friday when they had to present a narrative of their toy’s rationale as well as 2-D and 3-D models. 

They visited a community partner, The Cleveland Institute of Music, where they interviewed younger kids at CIM’s summer camp about toys, games, and play. They read articles about Nature Deficit Disorder and watched TED talks about game theory. They used ideation exercises and decision making techniques to hone in on their plans. 

As they did this work, they were learning quite a bit:

  • Principles of human-centered design
  • Tools for effective collaboration
  • The art of iterating, using feedback, and persisting
  • Communication skills
  • How to learn

Twice during the week the teams presented to Dan and me in “share outs,” which became moments of accountability where the stakes were precisely where they needed to be — high enough to matter and low enough to where the feedback could actually help. 

And then it was Friday. The teams finalized their presentations, and the real-live audience took their seats — Julia and two young kids who were charged with asking hard questions, giving honest feedback, and sharing their opinions on the toys the teams proposed.

The questions from the kids were great, and the teams presented with poise and energy. When it was over, there was a sense of relief and accomplishment. We cleaned up and then sat down to reflect on what just happened. 

We talked a bit about what we would have done had the course lasted two weeks longer. Dan mentioned that to truly design the toy they envisioned, we probably would have to explore key principles of physics and engineering. I mentioned that if we were to present to a toy manufacturer, we should probably explore Aristotelian persuasion. We also wondered if it would make sense to read more about child psychology.

That’s the paradigm shift in a nutshell. By designing a toy, we found spaces to deepen our learning about the world and about others. The learning in a Mastery-Based school is meaningful, relevant, and immediately applicable. 

Both in that circle and in a survey they filled out, students shared that the experience provoked them to think about what school could be. We asked them to describe the class in three words. A few responses:

    • Interesting and thought provoking. I chose this because it caused you to think.
    • Three words that best describe this experience are interesting, helpful, and engaging. The experience was interesting because I learned a lot about problem-solving, helpful because I felt like I improved on my collaboration skills, and engaging because I was never bored.
    • I choose amazing, difficult, and unique. I chose amazing because I learned so much and could take away so much from this experience. I chose difficult because what we learned was difficult, but it was a right kind of difficult. Finally, I chose unique because the program is one of a kind that I would want to look for in more schools.
    • Interesting, collaborative, new because the way the class works and is taught isn’t at any other schools.
    • Fun interactive and educational I chose fun because I enjoyed the general vibe of the class I chose interactive because we got to do a lot of things are selves I chose educational because I learned a lot here
    • The independence, the freedom, the snacks. I chose these words because I love that the school gives you a kind of freedom that most schools wouldn’t give.
    • Different, Mastery school is a different way to teach. Team-centered. Working on a team is important. Real world. Teaches real world experiences.
    • Much, much, better

For a first class at the Mastery School of Hawken, the Toyshop Workshop was a moment of truth and a proof point. We’re using this design year to refine our practices so we’re ready in twelve months to deliver the transformative education that we envision for the Mastery School of Hawken. We believe we’re designing a school that will be engaging, healthy, and profoundly effective, and we think students and families will agree. 

It was a small sample size, but so far, so good. 

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Terry Dubow

Terry Dubow

I agree with Kurt Vonnegut who once said that the act of teaching allowed him to “infect people with humanity.” That sounds about right. I teach English at Hawken, and I’m glad to be part of a team that’s reimagining how we might structure school to help students grow in enduring and humane ways.

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