Six-year-old Sophia Salamon and her nine-year-old sister Anna are being watched.
The Salamon sisters, in Grade 1 and Grade 4, respectively, are part of a bigger learning experience. Their school is the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study Laboratory School, at the University of Toronto, where educators study how children learn by using the school's classes as living models.
"When we looked up the school, we thought it sounded fantastic," says Tracy Pryce, Anna and Sophia's mother and a student at the University of Toronto.
"It's in line with our educational philosophy. I compare it with my own experience when I went to school. Seeing my kids and what they're getting from what they're learning is such a difference from what I feel I had as a child."
At a laboratory, or lab school, there are almost always visitors in the classroom, says Jackman's principal Richard Messina. He laughs at the idea of his school's 200 students being the educational equivalent of lab rats.
"It does conjure up images of mazes and exercise wheels," he admits, "but our children become quite desensitized to having adults in the room."
In September, for example, the school, which runs classes from nursery to Grade 6, was visited by a delegation of 24 educators from Kobe, Japan. "We have had 700 and 1,000 visitors per year," says Principal Messina. "The children just continue with whatever they are working on and they're used to speaking with adults about learning."
The concept of a lab school comes from the work of educator and philosopher John Dewey, who set up the first lab school in Chicago in 1896. Prof. Dewey believed that the best way to train teachers was to have them teach and to accumulate new research and knowledge directly from the classroom.
The Jackman lab school, a few blocks from the U of T's main downtown campus, is one of only a handful of schools of this type in North America.
The best-known lab schools in the United States are at Columbia University in New York and the original at the University of Chicago.
"Just as the physics department or the chemistry department have labs, the education department has a lab," Mr. Messina says.
Being a lab school fulfills three functions, he adds. It produces research that can be applied to public education, it's a forum for teachers to further their knowledge, and "we provide exemplary education to the children we are fortunate to have with us."
"I feel very fortunate that we're there," Ms. Pryce says. There are 22 children in each class – half boys, half girls – and the school is committed to diversity.
To help ensure diversity in its enrolment, 13 per cent of the students receive tuition support, Mr. Messina says.
In addition to its teachers, each classroom has two Masters of Education students who are pursuing two years of graduate work while teaching.
"Almost all teachers in the school are involved in research that's going on in their classroom," says Julia Murray, a Grade 5-6 teacher at the school who is now on maternity leave and did her Masters at the Institute several years ago.
"The research going on is often cutting edge, and it's about best practices in education," she adds.
For example, Mr. Messina says scholars are researching the emerging concept of brain plasticity: "Think of the brain as a muscle that can be developed, metaphorically, so that errors should not be considered embarrassing but a natural and necessary part of learning."
The Jackman lab school was also one of the major providers of research for developing play-based kindergarten programs and full-day kindergarten, he adds.
Ms. Pryce says she likes the school's inquiry-based learning approach – encouraging her children's natural inquisitiveness while maintaining classroom structure.
"There's a strong philosophy of teaching children to ask questions, not for children to get information but to develop their own theories," she says.
"It's a secure environment socially, mentally, intellectually so they develop the confidence to speak out.
"The benefits for my children have really been clear."
The school has a waiting list that parents sign up for when their children are born, he says. "We seem to draw applications through word of mouth. Many people seem to know about us even though we don't advertise," Mr. Messina says. Jackman evaluates its programs to make sure that students are being well educated and finds that they do well as they move toward higher education.
"We hear that our children seamlessly move on to Grade 7 and beyond, that they're very comfortable with the inquiry process, stating opinions and knowing that these may change," Mr. Messina says.
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