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How Collaborative Education Is Different By Design

Here’s a question: How can an Independent School with no standardized testing and no letter grades, produce graduates year after year that enter middle school at or above average, when compared to their public school peers?  

It’s a mystery. Or is it? 

At SYV Family School we like to say we are Different By Design, because nothing about our programs or curriculum is accidental. For five decades now, everything that happens on campus - from the day’s structure, to academic learning, to the all school hikes -  is put in place with careful consideration and purpose. 

As a “skills-based” program, we support our students on their individual journey of learning and discovery as they acquire not just academic skills but physical, social and emotional skills. By design, this creates an education that meets the development of all aspects of our students. 

What The Doctor Says

British education advocate, Dr. Ken Robinson, became best known for his Ted Talks titled, How To Escape The Death Valley of Education and Do Schools Kill Creativity, where he illustrates in both talks, with humor and piognancy, how our American school system is failing both teachers and students through what he calls conformity over creativity. 

Dr. Robinson explains that the format of public education is leaving behind the creative spirit of learning, while progressive education (especially in Europe) is bringing in the next generation of thought leaders and innovators through the practice of creative and collaborative programs. 

In more traditional school settings, the focus might be on preparing for a standardized test, or covering a set amount of curriculum before the term is over, but what this leaves behind is something fundamental in the development of young students. Instead of engaged learning that motivates students, traditional school programs are shown to demotivate and set students up for academic struggle. 

While progressive schools often get a bad reputation for being “soft” academically, what this “whole child” style of education is actually producing is a population of students that practice and refine essential academic and social-emotional skills through experience and personal investment in their educational journey. This includes an awareness of their own needs, those of their peers, and their place and stewardship of the natural world. 

What this progressive approach looks like on our SYV Family School campus is that teachers are given space to meet their students where they thrive best, by designing lessons that inspire the student rather than require them to engage in rote memorization. The role of the teacher then becomes the facilitator for the student’s  journey of learning, curiosity and innovation. 

As Dr. Robinson explains, conformity as we find it in public education goes against our human nature, which is naturally diverse and different. Therefore a system based on inspiration and fostering unique abilities will inevitably create a flourishing academic environment, by design. 

What About Testing?

As we recognize each individual student’s growth and meet them where they are, we are focused on how students learn, not just what students learn. This is why testing, while part of our curriculum, is not a focal point. 

We view testing as a snapshot of two things: 1) how the student understands a concept on that particular day, and 2) how effective a teacher has been in teaching the student. A test is less a determinant of the student’s ability to learn, or willingness to learn, and rather how the environment of the school is supporting the student’s learning. 

It is for this reason, we use testing less to indicate a student’s ability, and more to determine where our teachers need to shore up their curriculum and how the information is being presented to the students. 

This perspective on testing allows for students to relax (rather than stress) into their learning. Research shows that stress prevents us from learning or retaining information, and so a relaxed and enjoyable state of learning is the optimal environment to gain the most academic advancement. 

What About Letter Grades?

Similar to testing, letter grades are a snapshot of how effective the teacher is in communicating the curriculum. Letter grades are not an indication of ability or desire to learn, but rather an indication of where a student sits on a continuum of learning. 

We observe in the school setting that every student learns at a different pace with a different style and with different needs. It is for this reason that our “progress” report cards show that learning is happening and what still needs support. Not everyone will arrive at the same understanding at the same time, so progress report cards help to inspire students to see that they are making progress and learning at their own pace. 

Progress report cards are another way that the SYV Family School sees the students' learning journey as a whole, with progress noted and compared only to the child themselves. While communication about a student’s ability to meet grade level expectations is monitored and communicated with parents, it is with the intention of identifying strategies to further that student’s growth.  With this low-pressure, high-engagement type of learning, students become deeply invested in their progress, achievements, and ability to learn. This fosters self-confidence and community as the year unfolds in each classroom. 

Head of School, Julianne Tullis-Thompson commented, “Some skills are easy for a student to acquire as they are natural or intuitive; other skills need more time. This is the case when talking about decoding Phono-Graphix while learning to read, or least common denominator in math, and also when talking about students learning to advocate for their needs in a respectful way. We focus on progress over fixed markers of learning. In this way, we are meeting students where they need it most and helping move them along to the next phase of their learning.”

You can watch Dr. Ken Robinson’s full Ted Talk HERE

If you would like to learn more about The SYV Family School, please visit and follow along to see what’s happening around campus on our IG @syvfamilyschool.

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