Head of School Matthew Gould Reflects on the Benefits of Child-Centered Teaching and Whole-Child Education

Child-Centered Teaching
In a classroom of 20 children you have 20 different learning styles and 20 different personalities, 20 different ways of taking in information and giving information. Great teachers know this and know that one lesson plan, one mode of teaching, is never going to be good enough. Can that teacher create 20 different lesson plans? Of course not, but that great teacher knows that their students are on different levels and have different ways of processing information. So child-centered teaching and learning basically starts from the child inside-out rather than the curriculum outside-in. The starting point is looking at the child and what he or she needs and then building your curriculum outward from there.

The old-fashioned way of doing it would be a one-size-fits-all curriculum, and that curriculum would be delivered and children would be expected to adapt to it. Traditionally, curricula were developed to be targeted to the middle of the class. Therefore, kids at the top were bored, and the kids who were not at that point often struggled. Great teachers are able to differentiate based on a lot different factors: the skills development of the children, where kids are academically, and the personality of the child. Does that child need to be up and moving? Or can he or she be more passive? So, it’s really a question of the starting point. Where is your starting point? Is the starting point the child, or is the starting point the curriculum? Both are important. However, it’s really looking at the individual child and starting from there.

The Child-Centered Classroom
The main thing you see in a child-centered classroom are engaged students. When I walk into a classroom and I’m assessing a classroom situation, I’m actually not looking at the teacher; I’m looking at the children and I’m trying to assess if and how the students are engaged. Because when students are engaged, you know you’ve got it just about right. Although there’s a time and a place for lecture, and a time and a place for direct instruction, they only have a minor place in a child-centered classroom. An example of a child-centered classroom might look like four students discussing a particular question in a book, another group of four students working on a dramatic production, and another group of four students discussing a different aspect of the book. Finally, the whole group might come back together and share their work. In a child-centered classroom, there is movement, there is energy, and there is flexibility in terms of what’s happening in that classroom.

When I walk through the halls and classrooms at Norwood, I hear the work of children. It’s not loud and out of control, but it’s not like walking through a quiet library. I hear a steady hum and that’s what I want to hear. It’s actually remarkable walking through different schools because you can walk through a school and in five minutes experience the culture. Some schools are incredibly organized, traditional, and quiet. Children walk through the halls in steady rows and they are mostly in classrooms that are quiet and teacher-centered. You can walk into other schools where it is so progressive that it’s chaotic, where there is no structure to the day. At Norwood what you have is that happy blend of discipline and tradition and, at the same time, a buzz that is electric, the buzz of humans interacting:  teacher to student, student to teacher, student to students, and teacher to teacher. That hum is what I think is one of the most special qualities of our school.

Whole-Child Education
Child-centered instruction means using the child as the starting point for lesson plans and for developing curriculum. Within that is this notion of whole-child education, which means that we’re not just looking at children to fill up with academic information. We see children as whole human beings who have academic needs, social-emotional needs, physical needs, as well the need for the development of character.  As we build a child-centered, whole-child program, we’re trying to think about not just filling the mind, but filling the heart as well. That’s why music and art are so important and integrated throughout the curriculum at Norwood. That’s why daily P.E. is a huge part of the Norwood experience. That’s why character education is so critical and intertwined throughout the Norwood experience. The whole-child piece is really about giving children many opportunities to shine and develop.

Evolution of Teaching
The teacher has moved out of the center and, in my opinion, should continue to do so. At Norwood, children are at the center of everything. When I went to school, it really was teacher as leader and teacher, the single imparter of knowledge – the all-knowing philosopher. Today, we want to differentiate across developmental levels and help children to develop competencies for the 21st century, a love of learning, and a passion for intellectual pursuits.

In many real ways content has become less important in the modern age than skills. In the age of information – when you can find the capital of Nebraska in two clicks of your smart phone – we need to think about the world that our children moving into. It’s not going to be a world in which knowing specific content is as important as it used to be. There’s still a body of content that kids need to know, but equally as important are skills like communication, both written and oral, leadership, critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, and interacting within a diverse environment. As our world gets smaller, the ability to communicate and to interact with people different than ourselves has become more and more critical and, quite frankly, more and more of a marketable skill in the 21st century workplace. Those are the kinds of things we as teachers are thinking about today.

The Role of Nurture and Support in Education
My mantra for education and for Norwood, and you’ll hear me say it often, is finding the right balance between challenge and support. Challenge is really important in education. In my opinion, we should try to find a point of curricular delivery for each child that is just beyond his or her comfort level. That doesn’t mean I want stressed out kids. But I do believe that children should be challenged and should be striving and developing qualities of perseverance and pushing themselves. I believe that when kids accomplish tasks that are challenging, it’s good for their self-esteem.

The self-esteem movement basically said that we needed to compliment kids around the clock. There’s nothing wrong with complimenting kids. As parents and teachers, of course we’re going to say we love our children. However, a child knows the difference between something that was well done and was difficult and something that was not well done and was easy.  Where children really develop genuine self-esteem is when they’ve done something that was tough to accomplish. I want to give children authentic challenging experiences.

The other part of the equation is making sure that children are supported; that they know it’s okay to make mistakes, that it’s okay to fail from time to time. Our goal as educators should be to create a true safety net where children can strive and make mistakes, knowing that they are loved, that they are safe and that they are treasured.
Located in Bethesda, MD, Norwood School develops students in grades PK-8 into confident lifelong learners who have the academic, character, and leadership skills to succeed in high school and beyond. Recognizing that children are multi-faceted, Norwood provides many opportunities for safe risk-taking, exploration, discovery, and growth in a nurturing, supportive, and inclusive school community.