Making Mistakes

I think in some cases in life and in education it is very important to be precise and in other cases perfection is an ideal that can be approached but never achieved. In practicing choral music in choirs in my free time we always go through iterations until the piece starts to pull together. In the case of my church choir we normally encounter the music one hour before the service, go through the harmonic lines and the map, and put it together in time for the service. This can be nerve wracking but serves the purpose. In the same way some educational projects are actually enhanced by a spirit of experimentation. A project in which there is one goal but different implementations can result in examples that may be successful for different reasons. If a second round is gone through after a group discussion all the better. This is light years from teaching to a multiple choice test. The expose on Tedtalks by Diana Laufenberg also follows this line of reasoning. See her at

Somewhere in the public school system, in trying to be accountable to taxpayers we have become obsessed with a method of accountability, namely multiple choice tests, that do not measure many valuable attributes. In order to gather this inadequate information much time is given to “teaching to the test”.

In the private school setting at Open Fields School we do not teach to the test and there is plenty of time for projects and “making mistakes”. I tend to think of it as a chance to polish diamonds that are in the rough. In my choir if I had to take a multiple choice test before singing, and stop singing after making a mistake, no music would happen. The assessment of the music is by the audience. I hope that the audience of the Open Fields School community appreciates the “music” that we make.

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Connecting with K’Nex

The students spend part of their day in a facilitated play environment. They are encouraged to play with children of differing ages in one of three rooms with different types of activities and levels of action and noise in each area. In the most active room are different building sets such as Lego, Brio train sets, and wooden blocks. The students spend time creating, experimenting, and collaborating with the different sets.

It is fascinating as a teacher to observe what the students discover. In this case a group is playing with Kid K’Nex, a set with “organic” components such as wings and feet. I suppose the intent of the set designers was that younger children would find it fun to use the pieces to make creatures. What this group of kids did was to take the “eyeballs” and use them to create a game of spinning tops. The eyeballs spin nicely both right side up and upside down. There are connecting places on the side where the students experimented with adding different lengths of sticks. This had the effect of slowing and stabilizing the spin of the tops, and added excitement because the sticks could more easily knock the other tops off of the table, which is the goal of the game.

The game that the children created relates more to physics than biology. It is a very satisfying game that they will play over and over again.


Fun with the Kid K'Nex building set.

OFS students play a spinning tops game of their own creation.

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Joyful Creation at Recess

At recess recently Open Fields students spontaneously created this sculpture out of stuff they found in the back yard. It came together very quickly with very little adult supervision. The group worked together to design and build the sculpture and took it apart at the end of recess. This and other types of creative collaborative effort occur here frequently.

Collaborative Sculpture at Open Fields School

Kids Create Ephemeral Sculpture

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A Multiple Intelligences Ecosystem

Open Fields School is a haven for the expression of Multiple Intelligences. Howard Gardner, in his book Multiple Intelligences, The Theory in Practice, makes a case that qualities of  human mind differ in ways that can be roughly categorized as verbal, kineaesthetic, musical, mathematical, etc, but in infinite combination. Schooling, by contrast, often assumes a developmental continuum but gives short shrift to individual differences. In an industrial model of education there is a product in mind, and the educational production system streams students through according to age and a chosen curriculum that may or may not engage their interests. The formation of children into grades is unnatural from a family or tribal point of view. It leads to artificial forms of competition, boredom in some, terror or indifference in others. Special Education adds insult to injury by removing the “special students” from the group for “treatment”.

In order to speak to individual differences, to engage the differing hearts and minds of students as they naturally are, it is necessary to create an educational environment that operates more as an ecosystem than a factory. An enriched free choice environment with children of different ages, outlooks, and abilities mixed together allows learning to happen on multiple, interconnected levels. It is like listening to a symphony as opposed to having to listen to a single, very tiring melody. This type of environment is one of the important components of Open Fields School and occurs in combination and alternation with classes that feature direct instruction in basic academic skills.

It is this combination of alternating formal instruction with the freewheeling, complex interactions of the multiaged group that I believe is the true genius of Open Fields School. Over the past 40 years hundreds of children have benefited from the vision of our Director, Jean Aull, who developed this curriculum in 1971.

It seems like common sense to Jean, but it is uncanny to read the research of  one such as Howard Gardner, and to see how the Open Fields School curriculum is designed to not only meet the needs of students with diverse intelligences, but to help them thrive!

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