Learning Approach

Learning Approach

Classes and seminar lessons at Peace Valley School will be primarily inquiry– and project-based.  Each lesson is based on an over-arching cultural universal and individual learning paths are directed toward that universal as well as personal interest. We begin by finding out where each student is, then determine where they want and need to go, and finally set up support and guidance to get there. (We have just divulged to you the ancient mystery of effective teaching and learning.)

The concept of a cultural universal as it is used in sociology and cultural anthropology is that there is a commonality among all human cultures; that there are some phenomena that all people experience and respond to. Birth, illness, death, food, water, and shelter are the most common, but there are some lists compiled by anthropologists which go way beyond these general concepts. Using cultural universals to guide our learning does a couple of things: It helps us see where we are in the global community and compare the wants and needs of those who live in our little corner of the world with the immense variety that exists elsewhere. It also helps us to see the common ground upon which all humanity works and lives. Finally, helps us organize the chaos of inquiry-based learning by narrowing our focus for the sake of practicing thinking skills.

The cultural universals we will be organizing our projects around throughout the first year will be:

FoodWe’ve all got to eat. Students will study food and how food becomes food. One summative assessment for this universal will be the big farm-to-fork fundraiser we have every summer where students who have been partnered with a local chef will grow, harvest, develop recipes, prepare, and present a farm-to-fork meal. This includes raising livestock, gardening, field management and nutrition, water budgets, food preparation classes and food handlers permit acquisition among all of the other complexities that go into food. Every student at Peace Valley will understand will food comes from.
Human DevelopmentChange across the lifespan is a foundation for many cultural structures. It is also a fundamental understanding to participating in the global community. The physiological and psychological changes that happen to a person, when understood, can become another chance for compassion, healthy communication, and perpetual learning. Students will understand child development milestones, the process of aging, the elements of puberty and adolescence and how brain development, body development, and cultural interaction all play a part in our culture and others.
InterconnectednessFrom ecosystems to economic externalities, the interconnectedness of elements on Earth are something most cultures recognize. Part of the integration of the traditional classes into one learning path is to look at relationships and the way that things work together. An element of MYP and Peace Valley curriculum is to synthesize disciplinary knowledge to demonstrate interdisciplinary understanding.
WaterWater, like food, is in crisis. At Peace Valley we study water in terms of its use, water rights, the needs of developing nations, the preservation of water sources, desertification, and all of the other water-related issues on our planet today. Looking at drought resistant plants, making an irrigation plan, and designing and implementing a water catchment system are all local and real ways to learn about water. Other project ideas include designing a sedge garden or implementing a grey water system for the school.
Shelter/HabitatThis is a great way to learn about other cultures, the impact of geography, and engineering all at the same time. See How it Works Together for more on our build project. We will start with model homes, but would love to build a tiny house. This is a great chance to work with our local Habitat for Humanity organizations to help with builds as well. Safe and affordable housing is another global crisis to think critically about and act on.
HealthcareThere is much to learn about the human body. Many people in our society don’t understand the basics of how the human body functions, much less how other cultures maintain health within their community. We will study how the healthcare system operates in our own culture, and look at the wide variety of approaches to healthcare taken throughout our culture and around the world. This is a way to grow local herbs and learn their medicinal properties, learn basic first aid, get first-aid and CPR certified, think critically about whether healthcare is a right or privilege and what role government should play, and just learn more about our bodies and how to take care of them.
Stories/ArtsSometimes called cultural artifacts, one way that all cultures respond to life on this planet is to present it in story or other artistic form. It is how we speak from one generation to the next, it is how we celebrate and mourn the ups and downs of existence. Many would argue that the stories we tell and the art we create is just as much a part of our cultural identity as the language we speak or the food we eat. The story behind any phenomena is important to know. Context is extremely important to understanding. This is a cultural universal that overlaps with all others and will be a part of our learning paths throughout the year, but stories (in writing, in dance, in paint, in sculpture, in clothes) need their own time to shine and we will give them that.
FamilyFamilies may be different across cultures, but the concept of family is universal. An important part of our mission is helping foster healthy communication and relationships. The family is where we begin to model those behaviors, and the family relationship as a child, a young adult, a parent, an aunt is fundamental to personal identity. So looking at family dynamics over time and across cultures can help us understand the connection that has to our global health, and what we can do to break cycles, hold up and support our brothers and sisters, and understand what action might be needed to keep families strong and healthy and have a strong and healthy family of our own someday.
Interaction/Status differentiationThe criteria upon which status is differentiated may change based on the culture, but the hierarchical division of humanity remains. Race and gender are primary examples of this across many cultures. Economic status, religion, age, country of origin, and height are also prevalent. It is important to understand the origins and outcomes of status differentiation in order to combat injustice as a global community. Part of valuing responsibility over entitlement is to understand where our responsibility and privilege lies in our community and in the world.
JusticeWhat is right and what is wrong? Every culture has a set of rules for this, whether they are couched in a religion, a constitution, or some other delivery method. Looking at Justice across culture and within our own is a great way to learn about governments, global conflicts, civil rights movements, and individual moral dilemmas. At a school which focuses so much on social justice issues, this cultural universal will come up often throughout the year; but like art, a sense of justice underlies many of our individual and group decisions. Justice, as a concept, needs its own time for us to critically think about and discuss. Ways this is an interdisciplinary subject and not just a philosophical or political subject is in terms of demographics, statistics, economic distribution, understanding biological and physiological factors, and the plethora of amazing literature and film focused on stories of justice or injustice.

  1. Where do we begin?
  2. Finding and mapping the learning path
  3. Are there standards?
  4. Outline of how it all works
  5. What we can do together
  6. Sample project: Build a house
  7. So, the kids do all the work?


Where do we begin?

The first few weeks of school will be spent on a big question or problem to solve.  During that time the teacher will assess through observation in different tasks, and conversations with parents and the students, where each student is socially, emotionally, and academically. From this observation period, learning goals will be set for the school year.  The learning goals will be a list of content knowledge, skills, and practices (also known as standards) which will be the beginning of the student’s learning path and will be based on the student and not on the student’s age or any other physical attribute unless there is a physical gift that needs to be nourished in some way. top^

Finding and mapping the learning path:

This will allow the teacher both the flexibility to change learning paths based on the student’s interest and progress and also allow for the time and space to assess (without testing) basic skills and abilities to on which to build.  After co-authoring the learning goals with student and parents, the teacher will differentiate for each student based on each individual’s academic needs and personal interests.  We dislike the term level and from here on out will describe everything in terms of each students learning path. top^

Are there standards?

Yes.  The scope and sequence of the curricula (what the students learn, when and in what order) are largely inspired by International Baccalaureate MYP standards as well as other more appropriate or specific standards based on the achievement goals of the student after Peace Valley.  However, all curricula will really depend on the student and his/her place in the planet of knowledge and individual academic, social, and emotional needs.  The resources are hand picked by a highly qualified educator, and will take many forms (graphic organizers, paper publications, interactive etexts, an app on a tablet, audio books, YouTube videos, Ted Talks, interviews, good old worksheets, interactive workbooks, etc.)  The big questions and themes will draw on real-life needs (cultural universals) and the world around us (the current political atmosphere, events in the news, birth, death, farms, cities, Oregon, people of note, religious holidays, community conflict, this day in history, etc.) See Student Feedback for more on how outcomes are measured within this model. top^

Outline of How it all Works:

Cultural Universal: Housing

school_house side 

Big picture: How to build a house–this can take several weeks and go a lot of different directions.  It is a practical knowledge set, and puts students in touch with a lot of social justice issues involving race, class, urban/rural life, and geographic resources.

Inquiry–What is a house?

Here’s how we can integrate and differentiate with this question, depending on interest and previous knowledge a student could…

  • Study different types of dwellings across cultures,
  • Look at the impact geography has on housing
  • Discuss housing materials, their sources and reasons for use.
  • Look at architecture throughout history,
  • Discuss the social, economic, and cultural impacts on the changes in architecture over time and around the world.
  • Take a field trip to look at urban vs. rural architecture.
  • Do a case study of Filippo Brunelleschi and the Duomo
  • Study sod houses in the pioneer days and newer uses of the same materials
  • Contrast ancient with modern architecture
  • Look at the Alhambra and the impact of religion, monarchy on architecture
  • Explore dwellings in art and practice discussing art and photography
  • Look at engineering as a career over time, look at women and minorities in engineering
  • Discuss the importance of architecture or any art in society
  • Read learning path-appropriate fiction and non-fiction of interest
  • Write a narrative, short story, play, poem… about the perfect house
  • Host a Socratic seminar about the importance of affordable housing and the responsibility of the Government
  • Look at land-use laws and eminent domain and its impact on affordable housing
  • Discuss pollution from fracking and industry and look at its impact on human dwellings around the world.
  • Talk about “house” vs “home” and look at displacement and Diaspora throughout history
  • Take a sociological look at the use of space in different communities


…and so much more!  The real beauty behind inquiry based learning is that the student can think up a question and go down his/her own learning path, and our job is simply to put together tasks and assignments which practice the skills and content knowledge laid out in the student’s learning goals. top^

What we can do together:

1st:  A huge part of our teaching philosophy is that people learn best by teaching others.  All students of mixed age and level of mastery will be paired up to teach each other.  The end result will be a presentation by the learner and questions for both teacher and learner from the class.


2nd: Group projects (Please note we are talking about realistic group projects, which use the skills necessary in today’s workforce, not a 45-minute poster-making exercise where the one with the “good handwriting” does all the work!) are essential to practicing communication skills and for use in the real world.  Life in community is interaction- and group-based, not isolated artificial practice involving multiple-choice exams.  Also, one must practice public creativity to do it well.  To that end, each big picture will have a big project. Note: Students will learn all skills necessary to reach academic goals, including how to succeed at multiple-choice exams such as the AP Exams and SATs. For more on that see: After Peace Valley. top^

Sample Project: Build a model house

Here, students of different learning paths can work together using basic math and more advanced geometry and algebra, choosing materials, design, and build a model house using the information they are studying on their individual learning paths.  Using weights and measures they can write up a lab report testing the strength of the walls and how much lode the house should be able to bear once it is in place or put the house up to a stress test with fans and water…fun stuff that involves goggles. Looking at the costs of materials, working within a budget, deciding on aesthetics, and presenting the completed project including reflection on interpersonal relationships among the team members during the project are all key skills practiced in this process.

For another sample project, aligned to standards with a grading rubric included, please see: Sample Project. top^

So, the kids do all the work?

Yes. The role of the teacher in this school is to design the task with input from the students and set boundaries (like a budget or deadline).  The teacher will also monitor and provide feedback on all aspects of the task to all members of the team, teach communication skills in the moment, guide discussions, provide resources to help answer questions which come up during the process.  The teacher will discuss the validity of resources and design the individual background curricula (algebra explanations and practice problems, engineering and architectural resources, how to create, write and present a scientific inquiry, ideas to think about when designing space…etc.)


During this process all students will be getting consistent and frequent feedback in many forms, both formal and informal. See Student Feedback for a little more insight into that process for Peace Valley. top^