Dear Ann

Dear Ann,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me about “timing”. That old saying, “Timing is everything”, certainly holds sway when it comes to education. Over the many years of observing my now seventeen year old, I have come to believe that individual development plays one of the larger roles in determining the right “timing” for a student to be able to learn.

One glitch in our education system is that most schools group students by grade levels, and within those grade levels the ages are within a fairly close range. The child who develops at a different cognitive or social pace than the bulk of the other students of the same age will have a more difficult time “learning” at what would be considered the standard pace. In the four schools at which I have taught, only one ever addressed this issue. St. Ann’s, in Brooklyn Heights, organizes its lower school by the amount of time a student needs to be there. There are no lower school grades; a student simply passes through the various classes at a pace that works best for that student. When the student is ready, he or she progresses to the first grade in middle school, which I recollect as being fifth grade.

One benefit of the St. Ann’s style is that since the lower school does not have grade levels, there is little – if any – stigma associated with being in the lower school for any given number of years. Students do not seem aware of how long they are there, and they benefit by being able to learn at the developmental pace that works best for them.

Am not in complete agreement with Montessori, as I believe it is possible to learn even if you are beyond what you mention him calling the “critical periods”. Again, this is based on observation of how my seventeen year old learned to read. If “critical periods” occur at specific times in an individual’s development, what about those individuals who are unable to take advantage of those periods due to learning difficulties, such as that which occurred with my son? With an assortment of supports – learning specialist, occupational therapist – and the determination and desire that come with developmental maturation, it is possible to learn to read past the “critical period” and despite the wiring of the brain.

Ah, when you mentioned pacing in class length and starting time, you touched on topics near and dear to my heart. Research supports both your and my conviction that teenagers would benefit by later school start times. In fact, it is typically around ten in the morning that their systems start to engage. And young children in the kindergarten and early lower school years are often up and about, raring to go, bright and early in the morning. Furthermore, research shows that adolescents would benefit from having several longer blocks during the day even if this means fewer class periods, thus providing adequate time to absorb, reflect, and consolidate the information from one class to the next.

If we could but slow down the pace of the day, I suspect everyone – both students and faculty – would benefit!

Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me, and for introducing me to some of the educational thinkers of the past. I have read only two educational philosophers: John Dewey’s Experience and Education, and the somewhat more recent author Maxine Greene, Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change. Based on Dewey’s theories, I would add to the issue of timing the equally important thought that relevancy to the student is also a huge piece of the learning process.



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