With the assistance of the Great Basin Institute, University of Nevada, Reno professor Stephen Lafer is working on a new school.
You’re starting a school. What kind of school?
A school where the teachers have considerable power to make decisions and who—having the power to make decisions—understand the thought processes that go into that and model for students how to make decisions on their own, using the information that they arrive at through the school’s program.
What age level are we talking about?
How is this different from any other high schools?
The teachers will manage the school. The school will be concentrating on student thinking ability. Everything will be taught through involvement in projects where disciplinary knowledge and skills can be applied so students know the value of the discipline in solving real world problems.
Why is this needed?
Because currently, schools are primarily about information that students don’t really think they need because there’s no immediate need for the information they receive. And they’re asked to believe that eventually the information they’re being handed will somehow be of value to them. We do have high dropout rates and having worked at the university for many, many years, I know that students come to the university with very little sense of what the value of scholarship is. School is simply to get through and get diplomas. This school will help students understand that the best reason for going to school is to get smarter and that the smarter you are the more able you are to do things that you want to get done.
You’ve been a university instructor for a long time. How did what you’re describing manifest itself in your classroom?
I always taught in the way that I’m talking about now. My classes have always been driven by questions that the students are somehow asked to conjure in their minds through my tutelage, I guess you could say, and then the work of the class is to answer those questions by studying material that is pertinent to answers—good answers—to the questions that I’ve helped them understand are powerful and meaningful questions that deserve to be answered.
No, I meant that the students that are coming out of public high schools and enter your classroom—what is it that you’re getting from them that suggests to you that a school like you’re trying to form is needed?
Oh, well, it’s very simple. They come in feeling, for instance—a good example is that they’re very reluctant to speak up in class, and my habit has been to ask them why that is so. And a good number of them say that they don’t feel they have much to say or that they feel intimidated to speak up because they don’t want to be wrong. That, in my mind, means that what their conceptualization of their role in a proper classroom is, is to be quiet and listen and if they are asked a question, to find the answer in what the teacher has said rather than through their own thinking process.