The General Curriculum (or how we learn to think well)

For the most part, our educational goals are embedded in a wide range of activities. Often one project or endeavor helps a child develop along several different paths: for instance, a child who is working in the science lab with a scientist-in-residence, may have designed a study to examine the reaction of various organisms living in the local pond water to specific toxins. In doing this research the student learns how to think and work as a scientist, how to develop testable questions about the natural world, how to collect and measure data, and how to form conclusions about their data. But he or she may also learn to use (and convert) several systems of measurement, how to write clearly about her findings, how to do library research in order to write a knowledgeable
introduction to her empirical report, and how to make an elegant visual presentation of those findings.
    Though to the parent and even the child, these separate skills may not be salient, the teachers are often keenly aware of the specific intellectual processes involved in a given activity. For instance, one group of children recently read The Romance of Tristan and Iseult. They not only discussed the meaning of the story, and the way it was told, but researched the meaning and etymology of words from the novel and illuminated each of those words. Such a project helps children not only become deeper and more careful readers: they learned how to discuss a complex novel and share ideas about its construction, they learned to do library research as they look up the origins of the words, they learned  to think about the aesthetics of presentation, and the history of illumination.  In another room a group of children were constructing sequels to The Little Prince and exploring ideas about alternative societies. The notion that real intellectual development proceeds within neatly bounded channels (“subjects” such as Social Studies, English, Math) has no basis in real life.
    On the other hand, there are times when it is both exciting and useful for students to learn how to use the tools and methods of a specific discipline - for instance, children learn, in the studio, how the artist approaches visual materials and works with them. Children learn to evaluate their work using aesthetic criteria (is this beautiful, does it express what I intended, does it use the materials to their fullest capacity?). But those criteria are likely to be different, for instance, from how the scientist evaluates empirical work.
    The same child who is making fetishes in the art studio and deciding, with the artist, what makes the fetish beautiful and how to judge whether it is “finished”, may at the same time be working in the lab testing the hypothesis that acid will prevent plants from growing. Figuring out how to articulate a testable question, gather the right kind of data, and interpret those data, requires different methods and ways of thinking than making a fetish. Evidence is essential to the work of scientists, and methods must be replicable. A good piece of art and a good study are achieved and evaluated using different methods and criteria. So the child is learning, in these two projects, about fetishes and plants, but more importantly, how to work as a scientist and an artist.
    Such skills form the foundation of further intellectual and artistic work- and are valued not just at Hayground, but anywhere where intelligence and education are necessary. The difference at Hayground is that rather than learn about these skills through pale imitations of the processes (as can so easily happen in more traditional schools), children are, from the beginning, actually testing their hypotheses, creating and evaluating art, answering questions abut the past with real artifacts and documents- in other words, working as scholars. Rather than postpone authentic work until college, in order to practice more isolated components of such skills, our students do the kinds of work that demand the methods (and offer the authentic rewards) of these disciplines right from the start. This is what is meant by learning by doing. Of course, the way an 8 year-old will approach the fetish making or research may differ from the way a 12 year-old would tackle those same tasks. The teachers give a lot of time and energy to guiding each child through such work so that each can gain the most ground intellectually. This is what is meant by developmentally appropriate learning.