“We don’t know what we are supposed to be doing, but we are learning about math,” says Thea Burnett, 6, describing her, er, classroom to a New York Times reporter. The piece, “60 First Graders, 4 Teachers, One Loud New Way to Learn,” describes “an audacious public education experiment” in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
One should never judge from media reports, even from the New York Times, but it doesn’t sound like the audacious experiment is going very well.
“Across the room, a second teacher, Jennifer McSorley, successfully led the class’s weakest students in a counting rhyme. But when she leaned forward out of her chair to write a word on an easel, a 6-year-old boy moved it, and she fell when she tried to sit back down.”
“’Jahmeer, sit down,’” Ms. McSorley demanded, unharmed but flustered. “I could have hurt myself very badly.” Then another boy ran off to hide under an easel. Someone grabbed someone else’s pennies. The noise snowballed.”
The school is the brainchild of Shimon Waronker, who won lavish praise for his unconventional leadership in turning around a troubled Bronx middle school. “The school stresses student independence over teacher-led lessons, scientific inquiry over rote memorization and freedom and self-expression over strict structure and discipline,” the Times reports.
“But Mr. Waronker decided to try out the model in one of the nation’s toughest learning environments, a high poverty elementary school in which 20 percent of the children have been found to have emotional, physical or learning disabilities. The idea, he said, was to prove that his method could help any child, and should be widely used elsewhere. ‘I didn’t want to create an environment that wasn’t real for everyone else and then say, look at my success,’ he said.”
I appreciate the impulse to break the mold and innovate. But let me propose a litmus test for innovation, and the earnest desire to prove one’s methods: Bring your audacious experiments to the children in public schools of Greenwich, Grosse Point and Cupertino. See if you can sell it to their parents. If it won’t fly there, think carefully before inflicting it on other people’s children–especially those who already have the smallest margins for error in their education.