Like many of us, I remember my childhood as one endless day of sitting in a classroom in my assigned seat, quietly listening to the teacher, following directions, regurgitating the information I had been fed to show that yes I now know what you want me to know and yes I can get along with others. What I lost in this process of education was a sense of what really mattered to me, and how to move in the world authentically and not just in response to what was expected of me. It took me years to learn how to discover my own interests, to find the courage to follow them, learn from many mistakes and seek out companions on a similar path.
I watch kids today labeled as having ADHD, as hyper, as unfocused, and wonder what contribution to humanity we are depriving ourselves of by forcing them to interact in the world in a predictable way. What if kids could learn from following their own interests and from interacting with one another? We created the Ethics Lab as an attempt to answer this question. The lab is essentially an experiment in self-directed learning. Unlike learning in a traditional classroom where adults decide what children need to know in order to function as future adults in the world, in the Ethics Lab children use technology and work in teams to explore how they feel, what they think and how they want to engage the world around a particular issue of their choice. Ideally, it is an incremental process where children can become independent learners who work collaboratively and cooperatively.
The Sunday School children and staff began the process by posting notes on a bulletin board of what they wanted to change in the world, community or the Ethical Culture Society. There answers were general and varied from “improve our school system” to “use games to connect to each other”. The staff and children formed working groups in accordance with their answers. For example, children that said “No littering”, “use more solar power”, and “create a cleaner world” became the Environmental group. There are five groups altogether including Poverty/Hunger, Human Relations, Politics and Systems, Peacekeepers, and as I already mentioned Environmentalist. Interestingly, what has happened is that kids started switching groups. So a kid who started in the Environmental group decided he wanted to move over to Poverty.
As a result of this moving around, where we started off with five issue groups we may end up with just two or three. It will be interesting to find out what caused the kids to switch groups and incorporate that information into the process. So we as adults are learning from the kids what really keeps them engaged. Is it the issue they are working on, or who they are working with, or the process itself. My guess is that we will find that it is some combination of these.
During lab adult facilitators encourage participants to move from one phase of the process to the next successfully. After weeks of reflecting and researching deeply into our topic we can then plan our action phase. We are using TeachUNICEF’s Global Citizenship program as a guide right now, but that can change after we evaluate the program this summer.
Because the Ethics Lab meets once a month children who cannot make our regular weekly program can still benefit from a character development education. I hope in the end that we help children develop a sense of responsibility for themselves, others, and the common good. And not just through free-thinking but by the children themselves being a little more free. For information on the Ethics contact Sabine Salandy at email@example.com.