By: Dr. Debbie Rhea, 2013
Many different strategies have been tried at different levels of U.S. schools over the past 20 years trying to increase children’s ability to learn. Some of these strategies employed have been increasing the number of hours students go to school each day, increasing the number of hours the students sit in a desk to take in more content, decrease the number of minutes in a day the students are participating in physical activity or unstructured break times, increase the amount of homework students have to do each night, and increase the emphasis on teaching to the standardized tests per grade level. These strategies are not working.
The LIINK Project (Let’s inspire innovation ‘N kids) is the development and implementation of a four part intervention inspired by the Finnish education system and some bright spots in U.S. programs to improve academic achievement and the school/classroom environment which are very different than the above strategies. One evolving U.S. strategy, recognized for quite a few years now in state legislations, that needs more attention and a different way of putting it into action is character development. 48 out of 50 state legislations have either mandated or encouraged character development since as early as 1995. Each of the states has varied the instructions given to schools from implementing bullying curriculum to implementing no less than 10 minutes of instruction focused on character qualities to emphasizing principles of morality, truth, justice, & true comprehension of American citizenship. None of these mandates or emphasis has explained how to make this happen so many schools use more of a philosophical emphasis in the schools rather than a curriculum driven emphasis. Finland, on the other hand, has mandated religion or ethics as an independent course in the curriculum for at least an hour a week per week of the school year per school year from the time they enter school at 7 years of age until the time they leave middle school at around 15 years of age over the past 20 plus years.
Some think, including me, in order for the school environment to be more conducive to learning, a structured character development curriculum as a designated content piece needs to be implemented from the time students begin school at 5-6 years of age through at least middle school. High school should continue to build on character development as well, but I feel that our high schools need to be overhauled and this would be a standard content piece to consider when the restructuring begins. Therefore, one of the four parts of the Liink Project intervention is to add character development as a content area to the curriculum every year. A second part of the intervention is to add multiple recess periods throughout the day at 15 minutes per session. The third and fourth parts will be implemented as school districts are ready to move to those next two steps. The third part is to change from standardized testing to developmental assessments through 5th grade. The fourth part is to restructure the school day so the young children experience more play and creativity than academic content in the early years and develop more academic content as they mature in later elementary years through middle school.
Liink Project has launched as a pilot program in two Fort Worth area schools this Fall. Trinity Valley School, a private K-12 school and Starpoint School, a grades 1-6 lab school have collaborated with TCU to train and implement character development as a content area and add a designated number of unstructured, outdoor recesses daily. This first year will be used to figure out the different pieces such as training of teachers, scheduling of character development in the classroom and extra recesses throughout the day, as well as make sure the schools have smooth transitions from what they have done previously to this new format. Then next year we will launch this model in at least one public school district and try to add at least one of the last two parts of the intervention to the schools we are working with this year. This year and in future years, we will begin with the youngest children and add a grade level each year until all students are involved in the intervention from the pilot schools. We will be assessing several psychological and physical areas of development in children. I’ll keep you updated on how the pilot is moving along.