Lower School Director

This month’s 1791 entry features perspectives on student-led learning. While typically an important component of Berwick’s elementary-level programming, this essential pedagogical approach has received further support over the last several years due to Berwick’s Curriculum 2020 focus. In fact, one of the five 2020 pillars reads as follows: Berwick’s pedagogy should emphasize student-directed learning (emphasizing student choice and ownership) with a focus on knowing through doing. Whenever possible, our teaching should emphasize applying acquired skills to real-world problems and situations.

Within professional literature and through educator insight, there is great support for students being actively engaged in making decisions through the learning process. Whether choosing the topic for one’s writing project, following one’s passion with an innovative endeavor, or creating a game to play at recess, student-led learning supports connections, meaning-making, and empowerment as students gain the opportunity to lead various aspects of the learning cycle.

Personally passionate in this area of teaching-learning, I greatly enjoy hearing others speak on the topic. A recent example occurred in mid-January, when Dr. Kimberly Nesbitt of UNH’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies led a joint Berwick Academy/UNH effort at the Portsmouth Public Library. Introduced by the Lower School’s Jenn Hedges and Sarah Gurry, Dr. Nesbitt spoke on the topic of Helping Families Recognize High-Quality Early Learning Experiences to interested community members. Dr. Nesbitt suggested that high-quality learning experiences include:
  • A safe, healthy and child-friendly environment
  • Attentive and engaged teachers and staff
  • Stimulating activities and appropriate routines

In further defining her third bullet point, Dr. Nesbitt suggested that children need unstructured free play and playful learning under the guidance of adults. From there, she described how play provides opportunity for experimentation and perspective taking. Finally, Dr. Nesbitt maintained that learning takes place best when children are engaged and can construct understanding.  

As I walk the Lower School hallways and enter various classrooms, I enjoy observing Dr. Nesbitt’s varied descriptors in action. I especially appreciate seeing students actively constructing knowledge across the curriculum. Student-led learning plays out in many ways as children direct their experiences and/or take part in learning experiences developed by their peers. I was recently amazed at our pre-kindergarten students’ engagement at a Lower School community meeting as fourth graders showcased their miniature tree house projects. The students’ creativity was obvious but so too was their creative passion for the projects that they had designed and completed by themselves. In turn, I marveled at the manner in which our three- and four-year olds watched with fascination (and appreciation) as the fourth graders passionately described their self-designed projects.

Speaking of our pre-kindergarten group, they most certainly are the obvious choice for a group that is well versed in student-led learning. Recently, during the Faculty/Staff Appreciation Day (led by the BPC), Lower School faculty/staff were given goody bags from the BPC and students. One of my cherished gifts was a bookmark made by the pre-kindergarten students with the help of parent volunteers.  The bookmark read:

Teachers Love (as told by Pre-K): The Playground, Hearts, Children, Flowers, Mud, Ninja Turtles, Dogs, Cats, Clean Classrooms, Beautiful Paintings, Rescue Bots, Disney World, Princesses, Kind Friends, Nature.

I suppose that the students are equally the ones who love the items listed on the bookmark (and they believe the teachers love the listed items partly due to the teachers’ interest in their youthful passions). Thus, the varied projects, discussions, and games created by the pre-kindergarten students and supported by the faculty, whether during an art project, at recess play, or in the block area, typically lead to numerous and meaningful student-led learning moments.  

Student-led learning is an essential component of elementary-level growth. I am grateful that this powerful process takes flight in the Lower School years and is propelled forward throughout Berwick’s divisions on a yearly basis.

-Joel Hawes
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Berwick Academy, situated on an 80-acre campus just over one hour north of Boston, serves 600 students, Pre-Kindergarten through grade 12, from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. Deeply committed to its mission of promoting virtue and useful knowledge, Berwick Academy empowers students to be creative and bold. Berwick strives to graduate alumni who shape their own learning, take risks, ask thoughtful questions, and come to understand and celebrate their authentic selves.  Founded in 1791 and rooted in a tradition of college preparation, our culture of innovation prepares students for a complex and dynamic world.