(Image sourced from: Kinma School Facebook Page)
Yesterday, I had the privilege of spending a day at Kinma School on observation. Kinma is a self-termed “independent, progressive” school in education for children up to 13 years of age, and it was such an eye-opening experience as over the course of the day I was exposed to an entirely different education philosophy in practice.
The first lesson I observed at the start of the day was a group 2 class, with children aged from between 7-9, while they were doing their morning reading activity. For 30 minutes, I sat with a young girl no more than 7 or 8 who read to me about gemstones from an encyclopedia. What struck me was that she not only had an astounding ability—as well as admirable confidence—in sounding out difficult words that even I would’ve struggled to pronounce, she genuinely comprehended what she was reading and would constantly pause in her reading to point out to me the similarities and differences she’d noticed between the gemstones. Next to us, another young girl was completely engrossed in a magazine about Minecraft that looked like it was targeted for high school students, while on the other side of the room, one of my coursemates was having Shakespeare read out to and interpreted for her. Other children were quietly reading story books, and at one point, as a boy walked past me to go outside, I heard him say to another of my coursemates, “I’m going to go outside because I like to recite out loud—I mean, really loudly—but I don’t want to disturb my friends.”
And those 30 minutes, watching every single one of the 20 or so children on task and enjoying what they were doing, so beautifully illustrated the way that genuine and authentic learning takes place when students are given freedom within structure. There was definite structure: children had to read by themselves for the first 15 minutes, and then they were given the option of continuing to read by themselves, or to read in groups for the next 15 minutes. They had to make sure that they weren’t disturbing the learning of anyone else around them. Yet there was freedom to choose what they wanted to read and how they wanted to read—some were sprawled on the carpet, some sat in corners of the classroom, some were at their desks, and some read outside. Truly, a little student autonomy goes such a long way in helping them to engage with their learning!
Later in the morning, I observed a group 1 class of students between 6-8, as they sat down together for a class meeting. They were discussing suggestions and strategies to keep their construction loft clean and tidy for the next term (something that they had struggled to do this previous term). To say that I was impressed by their thoughtfulness and the way the children so respectfully conversed with one another would be to put it lightly. No one was talking over another person, and students patiently waited their turns to have a say as they raised their hands. They graciously listened to their friends who were speaking, and respected the authority of their teacher when he gently suggested the unfeasibility of some of their ideas. Overall, it was just so eye-opening to see that regardless of age, students are able to articulate their views with clarity and insight; they can have a genuine voice in the decision of classroom rules and routines.
Finally, in the afternoon I observed a group 3 class of students from 9-13, as they were working through a maths activity on time, and it was my observations of this class that left the most lasting impression on me. What they were working on wasn’t particularly innovative: I was sitting with a group of girls who were working through a set of problems involving time conversions e.g. How many hours are there in a week? Yet what struck me was the way that they worked together collaboratively so well—at the table, they were constantly asking each other questions, prompting each other: “What’s a decade again?” “100? No wait, that’s a century!” “A decade’s 10 years!” “How do I work out how many minutes there are in 3 days?” “Well, how many hours are there in 3 days?” “I worked that out already, there’s 72!” “So how many minutes are there in an hour?” “60. … Oh ok, so like, 72 lots of 60?” With tables arranged in hexagonal shapes, and different learning spaces for students to group around, it was a learning environment that fostered collaboration, instead of competition, and all the students benefited from it.
Then there was the intriguing conversation I overheard between 2 girls who seemed to be around 10 or 11, as one girl was still working on the problems and another girl had finished and was moving on to the next task (using a TV programme from the newspaper to plan out 3 hours of “TV watching time” by constructing a table, converting 12-hour format start and end times to 24-hour times, calculating the duration of programs, and finding programs that would add up exactly to 3 hours. Also, interesting side-note: as she walked to the table with the new materials she’d just been given, she exclaimed with complete sincerity to her friend, “This looks like it’s going to be so much fun!”) But back to the conversation. This girl who was clearly struggling with some of the harder problems asked her friend, “V, can I please have a look at your maths book?” V replied, “No, I won’t show it to you, because it’s important for you to do your own work. My maths book has my work, and your maths book should have your own work too.” The girl protested, “I just wanted to look at the answer you got.” V insisted, ”If you get a different answer that’s alright. If you want though, I can explain to you what I did and you can try it for yourself.”
And so, under the tutelage of her friend, the girl applied herself again to her work with renewed vigour. She didn’t give up. Interestingly, I never once heard her say anything to the effect of complaining that it was too hard. Rather, she took it upon herself to complete the task, determined to accomplish what had so far evaded her. Watching her, it hit me that when fear of failure or incompetence is absent, students are so much more inclined to work hard—even with enjoyment—at what they struggle with. And the reality is, she could’ve easily gotten up and chosen to do something else, or to simply start doodling in her book. Throughout the whole 45 minutes that we were there, there was very little teacher “supervision”, but rather their teacher went around to the different groups only when they came across a question they were collectively finding difficult to solve. She trusted them to take responsibility for their own learning, and they did. The whole experience suggested to me that students don’t have to be made to learn; given the appropriate scaffolding, they are able to self-regulate and self-motivate beyond our expectations.
Standing in contrast to all that I observed at Kinma, is what Juli—the education co-ordinator at the school—said about education in the public school system: "Public education worldwide is built on the two pillars of obedience and competition. It’s indoctrination of compliance and hierarchy." As someone who came through the public education system, and who greatly benefited from the public education system, hearing such a thing said about it was jarring. Undoubtedly, it is a blanket statement, but the more I reflect on it, the more I am disquieted by the truth that is there. It’s been difficult to come to terms with: acknowledging that there are real issues with the public education system necessarily involves some uncomfortable soul-searching on how that reflects on me as an individual who thrived in that very system.
Yet the turning point was realising through yesterday’s observation at Kinma that teaching and learning can indeed be so different from—and dare I say, better than—everything that I had ever experienced and known. And while the pedagogical practices at Kinma aren’t the magic bullet to solve all problems with education—they work in a very particular context, with a very particular group of students—their philosophies and practices do provide so much food for thought and inspiration. I don’t imagine that I will be able to immediately revolutionalise teaching and learning in my classroom, but I do hope that I will one day be a teacher who above all else values the individual learners, and strives to improve their learning experiences that take place in my classroom. Even so modest a goal currently seems impossible, but then again, what’s worth doing well is very rarely easy, convenient or simple.