Every child has the ability to excel when provided with the proper environment. Two methods – the ‘open-learning’ concept developed by Martin Wagenschein (who observed that highly educated students could not explain basic physical phenomena) and the constructionism theory of Seymour Papert (a protege of Jean Piaget, who created systems and tools to integrate disparate technologies and reorganize schools as learning organizations) are particularly useful in creating the proper learning environment. Immersing the student fully into the context of what they are studying and pushing them them out of their comfort zone allows them to build an authentic base of knowledge. As Seymour Papert notes in Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas this is how languages are learned -- full immersion into the language and culture -- and it is the type of environment educators should strive to build in the classroom.
Beyond that the collaborative process between the student and teacher is essential. Students and the teacher inquiring together in the classroom provides an experimental environment in which student scan collaboratively test ideas and concepts. This allows them to build a body of knowledge particular to the phenomena of the subject. Through this process the student practices skills that will help them thrive outside the classroom in the long term -- communication, presentation, collaboration, and accountability.
The Universal Design for Learning framework provides educators a procedure for building discrete units of study and assessments from a large area of knowledge. The individual units lead to a flexible learning environment that can accommodate many individual learning differences. Designing units using the Universal Design for Learning framework lead to individual lessons differentiating according to the principles of Carol Ann Tomlinson, which includes pre-assessing the students to learn about their prior knowledge, giving on-going assessments. Content can be differentiated using Bloom’s Taxonomy to move students from lower level thinking to higher levels, from comprehension to application. Process for engaging should be in multiple senses and modes and product should also be differentiated so that there are multiple ways to show mastery. This commitment to differentiation is a challenge but it created a learning environment that is accessible to a diverse population of student and it emphases skills over content.
Progressive independent schools are ideal places to develop these skills because they can create an atmosphere where every student is known and understood. Small class sizes and a focus on building relationships with teachers can support non-traditional values and build an understanding of the students as a three-dimensional individuals -- each with varied strengths and challenges. These long-term relationships can lead to a supportive environment where students can be pushed to be a life-long learners and citizens of the world.
As Paul Tough sums it well in his excellent book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden power of Character:
What matters most in a child's development, they say, is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years. What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence.