Learning By Doing

Learning By Doing

I was seven, when my parents rented out our home in Charlotte, North Carolina, loaded our 1948 maroon Ford to the gills, and drove my little sister and me to our temporary home in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. We were going there for my dad to complete his year of residency for his doctorate in religious education. He was taking the required education courses at Columbia University and the theology and biblical studies courses from Union Seminary, which was located adjacent to Columbia. My father’s status as a tutor assistant qualified me to be enrolled as a second grader at Agnes Russell, the lab school of Columbia Teachers’ College.
The school had been greatly influenced by John Dewey, the renowned  educational reformer, philosopher, and psychologist, who was a member of the philosophy department at Columbia and taught at Columbia Teachers’ College as well. Dewey changed fundamentally the way we think about teaching and learning through his progressive educational philosophy, which called for student engagement in learning as opposed to the old authoritarian approach which required rote memorization. www.pbs.org/onlyateacher/john.html . Although John Dewey had long retired from teaching (He did, in fact die that year at the age of 92, at his home on Fifth Avenue), his philosophy was still alive and well at Agnes Russell.
I had just finished first grade at Myers Park Elementary School, where we sat in straight rows, raised our hands to be recognized, and were sorted by reading ability in descending order into the Bluebirds, Redbirds, and Sparrows. I was a Sparrow.
I got off to a rocky start with my teacher, Miss Thompson, when she asked who could spell the word cat. Thus far, the only thing I had been taught to spell was my name, but I was pretty sure I could handle that word because it was my mother’s nickname. The nickname was short for Katherine, which is unfortunately spelled with a K. After waving my arm frantically to be recognized (which clearly annoyed Miss Thompson), I blurted out proudly and with a great sense of ownership, K-A-T.
“Wrong,” said Miss Thompson. “Is there anyone else who can spell cat correctly?” That was only the beginning of a long and painful year, which left me with a hatred for school and left my parents wondering if maybe I should have been “held back,” a euphemism for failing your grade.
The morning writing drills went on forever, with lines and lines of lower case b’s and d’s to practice until my hands cramped. “How many times do I have to tell you not to make a circle and stick when you are forming your lower case b’s,” warned Miss Thompson. “You are making a lazy loop on the left side of the letter. Yes, I can see the smudge on your paper where you tried to erase it instead of forming it correctly.”
Surely Miss Thompson does not realize how long we have been at this,  I wondered. I did not know how to tell time by the large clock on the wall, and so I raised my hand and asked if it wasn’t nearly time to go to lunch. “Put your hand down. I’ll tell you when it’s time,” said Miss Thompson, as she passed out the math worksheets. I learned not to ask that question again.


I was filled with dread when my mother walked me to my classroom at Agnes Russell the first day of second grade. To my surprise, we were greeted by a beautiful, doe-eyed woman named Miss Grace, a doctoral student from Mississippi, who welcomed me in with a smile and a hug, and asked me to choose my favorite learning center to explore until the rest of the students arrived and we would gather on the carpet for our daily sharing time.
Miss Grace was assisted by two student interns who were completing their masters in teaching, and were on hand to help and encourage us. The classroom was bright and spacious, with a large central gathering area equipped with chairs and tables for teachers and students to work and collaborate.Various interest centers were arranged on the outer walls and corners of the room–a science center, a library, an art center, and a geography center. Nobody raised hands. Instead, we were encouraged to speak one at a time and listen attentively to whomever was talking. Our class of twenty-eight children took on a decidedly international flavor as it was composed of students from around the globe.
Things got even better and better. Each lesson was geared to student interest and grounded in real world activities. Math lessons involved learning to add and subtract for the purpose of figuring out how much money we would need for subway fare, for lunch, and to purchase a ticket for our trip to the Bronx Zoo. We were going to see the Duckbill Platypus, which we had learned from reading our Weekly Reader newspapers, was almost extinct. We practiced telling time so that we could estimate walking distance to the subway stop, duration of the route, and to figure out how much time would be left to visit the animals before returning to school.
After Miss Grace read us the story of the Little Red Lighthouse, we took an outing down to the Hudson River by the George Washington Bridge, and picnicked in view of the very same lighthouse about which the book was written. The Disney movie of Peter Pan premiered at a movie theater on Broadway, and our class boarded a city bus to attend a matinee showing. New York City became our extended classroom.
The facilities of Columbia Teachers’ College were also at our disposal, with two gymnasiums, a swimming pool, and a whole room full of baby grand pianos for exploring our musical talents. When we wanted to create with with clay, we were taken to the pottery studio where art education students showed us how to operate a potter’s wheel.
School became a place for exploring and learning about the big, wide, wonderful world in which we lived. Not once did I ever think to ask anyone if it was nearly time for lunch. Besides, I had learned to tell time for myself and would not have needed to.
Years later, in my teacher education courses at Furman, I studied John Dewey’s philosophy and the methods and practices he espoused: child-centered classrooms, hands on learning, authentic tasks, interdisciplinary teaching, and addressing the needs of the whole child. As a doctoral student at UNC-G, I adopted John Dewey as my patron saint of education after reading Democracy and Education (Dewey, 1916) and Experience and Education (Dewey, 1938). But long before any of that, I became a lifelong convert of Learning by Doing the year I attended Agnes Russell School in New York City.
In a previous blog, I mentioned the AltSchool and the exciting ways they are bringing twenty-first century learning to students at three pilot sites in San Francisco, Palo Alto, and Brooklyn. I expressed my vision of hope that all of our kids would be afforded an education of that quality. https://www.altschool.com
The school’s approach resonates with Dewey-an philosophy as it advertises Personalized Learning, Real-World Application, Community Connection, and Whole-Child Development. And, judging by the happy, eager faces of the children whose pictures are posted on the website, the school must be delivering on its promises. I recognize those faces. Their expressions are identical to mine during that year I attended Agnes Russell.
Sadly, schools like AltSchool are similar to Agnes Russell in that they can only be accessed by a handful of children. Alas, equity in education, a democratic ideal espoused by John Dewey, has not yet been realized.
However, it is exciting to think that the solution may lie in twenty-first century technology, which gives educators at pilot sites the capacity to organize and manage vast amounts of information and data on best educational practices, which can be shared and replicated school by school for a greater and greater number of students.
Technology may very well prove to be the tool that democratizes public schooling and makes it possible to establish classrooms where learning by doing is the norm and not the exception.

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