Changing the Landscape of Education Through Side-by-Side Learning with Children

By Julie Mountcastle, Head of School
March 11, 2019

At Slate School, we have dedicated ourselves to creating and advancing educational programs that increase the wonder and imagination of children. For example, at Slate School, we do not simply answer children’s questions. Instead, our children wonder and imagine about their questions, which enables them to continue wondering again and again until an answer that is reasonable, and oftentimes beautiful and insightful beyond their years, emerges. During their afternoon project time each day throughout the year, we encourage our children to study whatever interests them, and we support our children by teaching them all disciplines through their interests. We also limit technology, and utilize thoughtful books as well as conversations with experts for each child’s research and study. 

As we have created a school where child-centered education is palpable in its truest form, we similarly have developed a model at Slate School for side-by-side learning with experts. The goal is simple: create situations where children witness and learn from experts at work. For example, it is more powerful to see a musician rehearse than to see them in performance. It is better to see an architect tackle a design challenge than to listen to a talk about the principles of design. It is powerful to see a wood whittler create a beautiful wooden spoon from a log. 

We developed our side-by-side model of learning in response to the knowledge that children learn more, and they learn more deeply, by witnessing the work of others. The learning is evident from the instant that the experience begins. Children’s voices quiet at the sight of a person authentically working. They are immediately drawn closer by the invitation to wonder. They quietly observe. And then the questions begin. However, instead of general questions imagined in brainstorming sessions preceding traditional visits, these questions are specific. “What are you doing?” “Why do you do it like that?” “What is that tool and how does it work?” “Why is that important?” “How did you learn to do this work and who taught you?” “What is the next step and the next?” These are the questions of actual curiosity, as the children are stepping into the world of the work that they witness.

The arrangement of seating is oftentimes key for side-by-side learning. When indoors, for example, the expert visitor’s space should be in the center of the observing students. The children stand all around the expert, which creates an opportunity for a “work in the round” scenario. The children are offered the opportunity to watch amazing things being created, problems being solved, errors being rehearsed away, thinking from different angles, and on and on and on.

In advance of our expert visitors, we highlight the importance of this model of educational humility and side-by-side learning. We work to avoid having our experts visit through the more familiar model of an adult standing at the front of the room. In contrast to side-by-side learning, when visitors migrate to the front of the room and talk to the children, the children’s attention invariably wanes, and the questions start to come from one or two children instead of shared around the whole group. Side conversations frequently erupt at the edges of the group, and teacher voices begin to be heard controlling the exchanges. However, when the expert is brave enough to trust side-by-side learning, they are rewarded abundantly, and so are the children. It is first and foremost the beginning of a relationship. There is sharing of information, but there is also quickly the discussion of solutions and suggestions. There is trial and error, and trying again. This is not just progress. It is exponentially greater than that.  This type of modeling authentically illustrates the path for any seminal discovery, and can be applied endlessly by the students.