A group of consultants and Social Learning Environments (SLE) staff were invited to Missoula Montana in late August to be introduced to the planned new addition of a Social Learning Environments school. The original SLE schools are Rancho Valmora in northern New Mexico and High Frontier in west Texas. Plans for Cramer Creek have been developing for years, and this will be the third school in their collection of schools. Planning to open early in 2008, the first steps in laying the foundation were just starting during our tour.
Plans are for Cramer Creek to be very similar to Rancho Valmora and High Frontier. These two schools have been steadily modified to emphasize their similarities, and when Cramer Creek is open, plans are for the similarities of all three schools to outweigh any differences.
SLE President Bill McKay gave the introductory talk at the gathering, followed by SLE Vice-President Jonathan McKay who will administer Cramer Creek, and marketing head Elizabeth McGee. Also present was Barry Blevins, also a Vice-President of SLE and the head of High Frontier.
In a discussion of the philosophy of SLE, I was struck by some of the implications of its philosophy. It was pointed out that adolescents of today are the result of not having a responsible role in society. Whereas in the past young people took on responsibilities as soon as they were able, in today's society young people are thrust into a kind of limbo of adolescence with few expectations and thus no role or responsibility to society. One result is all too often an attitude that it is not fashionable to act responsibly. The goal of SLE is to create a community of students where it is fashionable to participate and try new experiences, to see academics as fashionable, to have social interest in the classroom and to see adults as mentors rather than just someone to be obeyed.
Another way of explaining the philosophy is their observation that relationships have been dropped from formal education. The goal of SLE is to bring relationships back into the children's education, largely based on facilitating students in developing constructive relationships with their peers as well as with the adults. According to SLE, it is when the students develop social interest that they become committed to their education.
They also presented an interesting perspective on the various types of authority we all have to deal with, and how they fit their school philosophy. There is the authority to punish, which is the primary tool used by government. Another authority is to reward, which is the primary tool of corporate America. The SLE approach to authority is to influence beliefs through positive relationships between students and with staff. It seems to me it follows that the quality of group work done in a program can be determined by the results. If students act fearful or manipulative, the authority they have been subjected to is of the first two types. However, if the students become able to think for themselves and are confident of their abilities, then they have experienced the third which is what SLE intends to foster.
Working with a well thought out philosophy of Positive Peer Culture (PPC), in the presentation they made an observation of why group work all too often has negative results. The school asserts that good group work creates autonomous individuals, while bad group work creates group thinking. The difference is in viewing the students as humans rather than as objects.
They explained several other interesting concepts that were relevant to their philosophy:
- Their goal is to have the students practice what they will experience as adults.
- Moral development is learning to stop trying to control others.
- Students must learn how to differentiate between cognition and emotion, and
- The school approaches education by personalizing experience.
Cramer Creek is in a secluded valley close to Missoula, and if construction goes as expected it should be opening its doors for its first students in early 2008. Plans are to maintain the SLE culture by moving several students from Rancho Valmora and High Frontier to be the first students, who then can help orient those that are enrolled later as the school grows. This is the technique to ensure that the existing positive culture in High Frontier and Rancho Valmora is continued in Cramer Creek.