A group of 6 visitors walked in on a group of 20 people with mustaches and uniforms sitting arguing around a large table, and the proceedings continued without pause. These representatives of Austria-Hungary, Russia, Germany, England, and the United States were negotiating the peace treaty at the end of World War I. They were intent, strident, and clever, but even when they were speaking another language, the visitors could tell that Austria-Hungary’s representative was bending the truth when he claimed he was just protecting his land from invasion, and that the German representative’s whining about being left out of the Great European Colonial Carve-Up didn’t hold up in the light of his peers’ scrutiny.
Other than the fact that the mustaches were pasted onto young, fresh faces, there was nothing in the behavior of the participants that differentiated them from the participants of the real Treaty of Versailles negotiations. The students carrying out this role-play knew their country’s history, motivations, and history, and were well versed in the current affairs, loyalties, and vulnerabilities of each of the other countries at the table. They juggled complex relationships of past and future as they called each other out on their missteps and defended their countries’ interests.
As I sat in this history class in a Stockholm high school, I was aware of the privilege of being together with people in moments of concentration – and struck by how well this concentration can be sustained in favorable conditions. It’s one of the huge benefits of a life in schools, to be in places of concentrated concentration. I experienced it in other moments at schools in Russia, Finland, and Sweden that I have visited in the last few weeks. I experience it with students at my own school and other Chicago schools. There’s a kind of communion that can happen in the classroom that is akin to the energy and synergy experienced in by theatre ensembles, entrepreneurial teams, and other groups that are fueled by collective creativity.
These are mysterious moments, they don’t exist all the time or for very long. The role-play we happened to watch for one class period in this one school in Stockholm was the culmination of months of research, writing, and practicing. All that preparation contributed to the intensity of this moment. The students were able to sustain their engagement for more than a few moments because they were given space and time. They didn’t have to cut it short for the next standardized test or disciplinary challenge.
VRG schools (see more on these schools in the next post) are project-based, so like schools in the U.S. that they have taken as models, teachers orient learning around deep collective engagement. Such alignment requires a shift from numbers and standards to climate and person-to-person relationships. In schools where teachers have the professional freedom to set the conditions by which students will learn, and step back, students thrive.