Lab Schools Lead the Way
in Educational Practice
Laboratory, or lab, schools generally associated with colleges or universities are prime sources of research, experimentation, curriculum development, clinical training, and staff development at the cutting edge of education. This year’s annual conference of the National Association of Laboratory Schools, hosted in New York City by the Bank Street College School for Children and The School at Columbia University, presented four days rich in provocative workshops, presentations, school visits, keynote speakers, and sharing of ideas and practices. Similar to recommended classroom approaches, much of the activity was hands-on and interactive. Sessions were wide-ranging and included such topics as “Transforming Math Education with Music and Technology,” “Addressing Issues of Sexual Orientation in a 4th Grade Classroom,” “Doing the Right Thing with High Stakes Testing,” “Social Emotional Learning in School,” and “Stop-Motion Animation and Digital Video Editing.” A keynote speaker, Howard Gardner, professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a highly respected and influential developer of the concept of multiple intelligence, has inspired two lab schools to operate under his name. One, in Scranton, Pennsylvania (coincidentally, Gardner’s home town), The Howard Gardner School for Discovery, (K-8), presented a lively workshop at the conference that focused on curriculum development based on his theories.
The Gardner school has developed an apprenticeship model that utilizes adult mentors from the “real world” and a system of peer tutoring. Experiences and assessments reflect real world expectations. Workshop participants were introduced to the concept of The Howard Gardner Store where 3rd and 4th graders, working three to a shift, sell items ranging from school supplies to gifts to nutritious snacks to the entire school community. Interest is maintained with special promotions such as cookie-grams for Valentines Day and “Birthday Blasts.” A local advertising agency mentors. Math, reading, social, and work skills are developed. New vocabulary would include “marketing,” “discount,” “supply,” “demand,” “profit,” “inventory,” and “display.” The students take their work very seriously and each receives a $50 savings bond from profits at year’s end. Another real life experience is an on-line stock market competition between ten schools in the area. Teams are given a hypothetical $100,000 to invest. They learn about companies, choose investments, and graph activity; winners are rewarded with a pizza party. Following the apprenticeship model, stock players at Gardner are mentored by 88 year old Howard Sprung, a stock market maven who shares his knowledge and advice with the students during weekly visits to the school. The school literary magazine and newspaper are put together using professional processes with outside mentors, student workers, and the incorporation of diverse skills. Each grade has responsibilities, peer tutoring, and interaction with adult volunteers from the community. Referencing the multiple intelligence model, teacher Jeri Hubbard explains, “Kids are all over the place doing all kinds of things. They drift toward what they are good at, build confidence, and then go on to other things. In many of these activities they don’t even realize they are doing math or writing.”
“We don’t do anything that can’t be done in a public school,” advises director (or principal) Frank Rizzo. “As a lab school, we can inform instruction for other educators.” Class size does not matter, he explains, because students learn in small groups. The school does not “teach to the test,” a big issue. “We truly trust our program,” says Rizzo. “We trust the process and trust our students.”
Many laboratory schools are being divested by their university backers. The University of Scranton severed its ties to the Gardner School which then incorporated as an independent school in 2005. To continue their missions of research and experimentation, many lab schools are collaborating as groups with local institutions of higher education. Director Rizzo reports that so far 24 institutions in the Scranton area have joined together in a regional public/private/higher education collaborative that benefits all participants. Schools and universities decide together about filling slots for student teachers and field experiences. Staff development is pursued with a regional vision. A respected regional program can market itself to community partners as producer of teachers and students at the cutting edge of educational practice. Speaking to the importance and potential of the collaborations, Rizzo explains, “Real reform begins with preparing teachers. If we don’t change teacher prep programs, it will be taken from us and others will tell us what to do, like No Child Left Behind.”#