A Hillhouse High student challenged a national conference of adults to change the way students learn.
We’re on it, one of the adults replied.
The exchange took place Thursday at the Omni Hotel on the opening night of the Yale School of Management Education Leadership Conference. The annual conference kicked off with “stories from the field” from Connecticut educators, including New Haven schools Superintendent Garth Harries, state early childhood point-person Myra Jones-Taylor, Achievement First CEO Dacia Toll, Maria Zambrano of Excel Bridgeport, and Karen Lott, the former New Haven principal who’s now leading a turnaround charter school in Hartford.
The panel focused on various efforts at school reform.
In a question and answer period, James Hillhouse High School senior Tyler Blatche hustled to the microphone to ask the first question.
“Will having peer teachers help students more, rather than having adults teach students?” he asked.
Toll, who leads a network of charter schools based in New Haven, replied that she’s working on that.
Achievement First (AF) recently hired a high-powered design firm called IDEO, which invented Apple’s computer mouse, to help the charter network invent a new model for K-8 education. IDEO has been working with AF for the past four weeks to rethink common assumptions about how learning happens, and to begin to design a new school model. Toll said she just met with IDEO and brainstormed a few ideas.
“One of our apparently not-so-breakthrough ideas,” Toll said, was to do just what Tyler had suggested.
Toll said AF is considering having students take a more formal role in helping each other learn.
“We learn by doing and getting feedback,” doing and getting feedback, doing and getting feedback, Toll said. The feedback is a crucial part of learning.
“Right now, we’re relying on a teacher to do that for 25 kids” in a class, she noted.
Toll said AF is tossing around the idea of having students serve as “running partners” to each other. Each student could be assigned one or more “running partners,” who would give each other feedback on their academic progress.
Toll later elaborated on the nascent idea. She said technology is one tool that can offer students individualized feedback in real-time. “But so can peers.”
“We are not rigorously training kids to give feedback,” she noted.
She said the idea felt like somewhat of a breakthrough in the brainstorming process. But “apparently he’s already thought of it,” she said of her Hillhouse questioner.
Tyler was one of nine students who attended the conference through a program called Pathways to College at Hillhouse High. They were among the only public-school students in the audience, which included board members of charter schools, representatives from the ed tech industry, and few on-the-ground educators.
Tyler said that students will listen to each other more than they will to adults. He recounted how he learned that through his own life.
“My mother died of breast cancer when I was 2,” he said. His father raised him and his siblings.
Tyler said he didn’t use to pay much attention to the adults in school. He got into trouble and spent some time in an alternative high school in Maryland before moving to New Haven and joining Hillhouse his sophomore year.
He noted that he is an example of a statistic Superintendent Harries mentioned that night: 5 percent of New Haven’s public school students, or about 1,000 kids, join the district as mid-year transfers, after Oct. 1, each year. Tyler attended three different schools in the first two years of high school. He always switched schools mid-year.
Tyler said he didn’t feel invested in learning until he got a scare one day: “I was supposed to be the father of a baby.”
That news jolted him. He said he determined to become a role model for the next generation.
“That made me see the light,” he said. He became an insatiable learner: “I want to know everything there is to know.”
An aspiring entrepreneur, he is hoping to go to Hampshire College next year.
“Knowledge is power,” he said. “You have to want success as much as you want to breathe.”
Tyler said he recently said something to that effect to some friends he was hanging out with. That message, he said, is more powerful coming from a fellow student than from an adult.
“[John] Dewey, the father of education, said the purpose of school isn’t to teach—it’s to make students socialize with each other,” to work together for common goals, Tyler said.
He suggested that schools become more student-centered, beyond just letting peers teach each other.
“Schools should conform to the students—not the students conform to the curriculum,” he said.
He was asked what he thought of Toll’s reply to his question.
“They thought it was a whole breakthrough?” he responded. “All you have to do is ask kids.”
“Children are the future,” he said, quoting Whitney Houston. “Let them lead the way.”
“Let kids tell you how to teach them.”