Teaching & Learning Blog

Learn more about PS1's academic program, philosophy, and curriculum through the lens of Nancy Harding, our Assistant Head for Teaching & Learning. The Teaching & Learning Blog features posts published several times throughout the year. See the latest posts below.

Collaborative Learning

In the real world, working well with others is critical. Rarely is there a job, project, or task that doesn't have a better result when the minds of multiple people come together rather than going at it alone. Interviews for jobs and schools often include the question, "Tell me about how you function on a team." 

The term "collaborative learning" refers to an instruction method in which students at various performance levels work together in small groups toward a common goal. Collaborative learning is a relationship among learners that fosters positive interdependence, individual accountability, and interpersonal skills, and critical thinking (Gokhale, 2012). 

Collaborative group work at PS1 is a core tenet of our philosophy around how we teach and learn. Our students collaborate daily. Our teachers collaborate with their partners and in their Clusters. Our administrators collaborate with each other, with parents, teachers, and students. Collaboration is at the heart of what keeps PS1 a vibrant learning community. 

Purely in terms of academic learning, we know that collaborative learning increases student academic knowledge acquisition and retention of higher-level cognitive activity and creative problem-solving. Research suggests that collaborative learning positively impacts verbal and mathematical tasks, procedural tasks, and unsurprisingly, students' self-esteem and positive attitudes about learning (Kuh et al., 2007; Johnson, Johnson, 2006, https://www.wabisabilearning.com/blog/how-collaborative-learning-activities-build-more-powerful-student-brains).

At PS1 collaborative groups are crafted thoughtfully, depending on the teachers' desired learning outcomes for the students. Students may be grouped with a social purpose in mind or an academic purpose or both. Teachers think about the academic and social elements that will promote the best possible outcomes for students in a group. 

PS1 students in all clusters learn that they have individual accountability to the group and understand that they are accountable for contributing their share of the work to facilitate the group's success. 

Our approach to collaborative learning is influenced by brain research. Research has proven that the modern human brain's primary environment is our matrix of social relationships. A human brain thrives on close relationships that provide learning.

Social benefits of collaboration:

  • Helps to develop a social support system for learners;
  • Leads to building diversity and understanding among students and staff; 
  • Establishes a positive atmosphere for modeling and practicing cooperation;

Psychological benefits of collaboration: 

  • Student-centered instruction increases students' self-esteem; 
  • Cooperation reduces anxiety, and;
  • Collaboration develops positive attitudes towards teachers; 

Academic benefits:

  • Promotes critical thinking skills; 
  • Involves students actively in the learning process; 
  • Classroom results are improved;
  • Models appropriate student problem-solving techniques

There are measurable responses that occur in the brain when working with others in a supportive and cooperative group. A release of dopamine happens during these activities. This neurotransmitter increases the feeling of pleasure, helping a child persevere and overcome challenges. The amygdala also activates. This area is part of the emotional-monitoring limbic system. It determines if stimulation goes to the prefrontal cortex, the seat of the higher cognitive brain, or the involuntary, reactive brain. Brain scans have shown that information learned among peers in an emotionally-supportive situation will be sent to the cognitive brain. (https://www.wabisabilearning.com/blog/how-collaborative-learning-activities-build-more-powerful-student-brains).

Through our approach to collaborative learning, PS1 students learn how to teach, help, support, applaud, and encourage one another to reach the group's goals. They learn how to challenge reasoning and conclusions constructively. Students develop and practice trust-building, leadership, decision-making, communication, and conflict management skills. 

The Importance of Sleep

The start of school is an exciting time for students, teachers, and parents. We buy school supplies, and maybe new shoes! It is also a big transition from lazy summer hours and late nights to a routine that will maximize student learning. This first blog of the year is about the connection between a good night’s sleep and learning. Our grandparents and probably their grandparents would say that this is a given. Children need a good night’s sleep in order to have a good day. As in many areas of education, neuroscience is now supporting what we at PS1 already knew.

Healthy sleep appears to be a pre‐condition for learning and in turn, consolidates and enhances memories, helping to integrate them into existing neural networks. A growing body of knowledge shows that sleep enhances memory processing and, conversely, that sleep disruption can result in learning deficits. (Sigman, Pena, Golding, Ribeiro, 2014)

What is vastly different between our grandparents' lives and those of our children is that increasingly, sleep is vulnerable to disruption from features of our environment that would not have concerned them, such as 24-hour lights, sound stimuli, and the pervasiveness of screens (Hill, Hogan, Karmiloff-Smith,2007).  Children's bedrooms may be inadequate sleep environments, stocked with capability for 24-hour stimulation and communication, in the form of music systems, mobile phones, and the internet.

In particular, screen time close to bedtime has been associated with bedtime resistance, difficulty falling asleep, anxiety around sleep and sleeping fewer hours  

Poor or inadequate sleep can lead to mood swings, behavioral problems such and cognitive problems that impact on their ability to learn in school (Dewald, Meijer, Oort, Kerkhof, Bogels, 2010).

Establishing a consistent bedtime routine is important. The routine should ideally start at the same time every night. As soon as the sun goes down, start to “wind down” the household.

·        Dim the lights

·        Stop use of electronics/screens at least an hour before bed

·        Limit caffeine

·        Take a warm bath

·        Do a quiet family activity such as reading a short book

·        If your child wakes up during the night, walk them back to their room with as little commotion as possible

·        Set a wake-up time for when the child is allowed to leave his or her room. The child can play quietly until that time if desired.



The WHY Behind Multi-Age Groupings

Most of us grew up in age-segregated classes, as did our parents and perhaps, our grandparents. This history makes it easy to assume that such a school structure is both natural and universal. The age-stratified culture in which we educate our children is actually a product of the 20th century.

Early in the history of the US, schools were one-room schoolhouses with age diversity. In the dedicated one-room school building that emerged in the eighteenth century, a full-time teacher would use individual and tutorial methods to instruct a group of 10 to 30 pupils ranging in age from 6 to 14 years.

This one-room classroom practice started to end in 1843 when Horace Mann, the Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, visited Prussia and saw schools in which children were “divided according to ages and attainments." This type of segregation seemed to him an excellent model for preparing a populace for the growing factory economy. By 1852, classrooms in the US were more narrowly segregated by age than ever before. Ability grouping, which is so much a part of how we envision classrooms, gained popularity after about 1920. This further reduced the variety present in classrooms.

In 1963, Goodlad and Anderson looked at the current research in child development and proposed that the rigid age/grade system was not designed to accommodate the realities of child development, including children's abilities to develop skills at different rates and at different levels. The graded system does not take into account differences in children's achievement patterns. Goodlad understood that learning is not linear and children typically progress at different rates in different areas of study and at different times in their development. A traditionally graded school assumes that all children will progress through each area of study at the same pace. In this system, a child has no freedom or flexibility to develop at the pace that is optimal for their needs. 

In a non-graded school like PS1, there is a longitudinal concept of curriculum and planned flexibility in grouping. We describe a student’s trajectory at PS1 as one seven-year experience. The curriculum includes continual and sequential learning, with behavior and content running vertically through the curriculum. Grouping is flexible and changes to meet student needs. Groups are organized around interest groups or work-study groups or achievement, or a combination of the three with some groupings being heterogeneous (mixed levels) in skills and other groups being homogeneous (similar levels) in skill levels. Teachers adjust their lessons to ensure that students grasp concepts, skills, and content through their entire educational journey.

Multi-age groupings are (and always have been) an integral part of the structure of the PS1 learning experience. Just as the research suggests, we see how our multi-age groups enhance learning on a daily basis. Year after year, and now generation after generation, parents come back and tell us that a two-year age range was the most important piece that made their children the well-rounded, well-spoken, confident, comfortable, agile people they have become.

Source: Author (2002). Title. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available:  http://fcis.oise.utoronto.ca/~daniel_schugurensky/assignment1/  (date accessed).


A Virtual Toast to PS1 Teachers

Summer days are long, but summer still speeds by.

Enjoy your time with your children. They are wonderful.

For this last blog of the 2018-19 school year, I want to present a virtual toast to the teachers at PS1 Pluralistic School.

Along with the comprehensive progress reports teachers just finished writing about the development of each child, teachers also write detailed self-reflections about their teaching each year at this time. They are long, about eight pages, and cover a wide variety of aspects of teaching and learning. It is my privilege to meet with individual teachers and talk about their work and these reflections. Every teacher acknowledges their strengths and examines their areas for growth. They are introspective and think about how they are going to study over the summer. Growing and learning are integral to who they are as professionals.

Many of the classrooms have created special mini-units for these last few weeks to keep students engaged and focused as they get summeritis. Walking into classrooms, I see students who are engaged and focused.

When the students leave for the summer, the teachers will attend professional development, clean-up their classrooms, and start to brainstorm curriculum ideas and themes for next year.

It is an honor to work with the teachers at PS1. Please join me in a virtual toast to them.


Studio Stewardship

Social Emotional Learning at PS1 (SEL) begins a soon as our students enter the school in Youngers. The program is ingrained at each cluster level, with teachers supporting students’ SEL in numerous ways. In the Olders cluster, the Studio Stewardship program supports a culmination of this learning for our students. The Studio Stewardship aspect of the SEL program is guided by Genevieve Mow, our Child Development Specialist and Chris Kuzina, The Studio director. This blog, written by Genevieve and Chris, provides an overview of the program.

Studio Stewardship has two main components. One component of the program is for Olders students to practice their leadership skills in an experiential setting with Chris. The other component, led by Genevieve and one of the classroom teachers, is designed to enhance students’ attitudes and beliefs about themselves, their relationships with others, and their education. The sixth-grade equivalent students participate in Studio Stewardship from September through Spring Break. After Spring Break, the fifth-grade equivalent students begin the program.

Chris: I mentor the Olders students, helping them work in the Youngers and Bridge classrooms as well as in The Studio. This year, Olders worked directly with Youngers on their various writing, reading and math centers. They also worked with the Bridge classes to help them with their Studio science lessons related to physics. This leadership gives Olders the opportunity to learn alongside and give guidance to their younger peers on a variety of different projects and learning goals. We are very proud of the relationships that are forming between age groups and the service that is being performed around campus. This not only helps our Olders students begin to value the power of generosity, but it also allows us to see where and in what capacities these students feel inspired in growing their leadership abilities and at the same time experiencing self and social awareness.

Genevieve: I meet with students together with one classroom teacher from each class to provide a structured forum and space for students to process their thoughts and feelings as they transition to adolescence. The groups are small to provide a space for honest and thoughtful conversation. There is a clear roadmap for discussion including managing stress, digital citizenship, values, and the upcoming transition to middle school. Students can also bring up other topics of interest as they arise.

In the class, the teacher and I sit in a circle with the students. Each class begins with an initial “check-in” to provide an opportunity for anyone to ask a question or bring up a subject to discuss. The conversation will always reference the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (www.casel.org), five core competencies, which are:

1.    Self-Awareness:

2.    Self-Management

3.    Social Awareness

4.    Relationship Skills

5.    Responsible Decision Making

Through discussion and role-play, art and games students learn about themselves, develop in their understanding and management of emotions to show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships with peers, and explore how to make responsible decisions. We hope that providing this learning environment for students to discover and discuss their feelings provides each of them the foundational skills that they will take with them to middle school.


Additional Posts:

PS1 and Thematic Curriculum:


Structure in a Progressive Classroom: