'We use real-world examples': Cottage school owner shares the benefits of interest-based learning

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"Learning just to pass a test or exam, tends to develop stress-related mental problems." Photo: Getty Images.
"Learning just to pass a test or exam, tends to develop stress-related mental problems." Photo: Getty Images.

Local mom Nicky Downing started the Smartt Cottage School after her daughter was extremely unhappy in mainstream schooling.

Her daughter felt compromised and held back, lacking the approach she needed to enjoy her education.

She felt like attending school was just another daily chore she needed to do, and it showed in her poor academic performance. 

Downing knew just how intelligent her daughter was, and realised that the problem was that she couldn't express her self-determined view in the mainstream schooling system. 

Downing then decided to create an environment that would nurture her child's critical thinking, problem-solving and leadership skills by starting her cottage school. 

Read: 'One-size-fits-all approach': The current education system does not help graduates with employability.

Why a cottage or micro-school?

Downing says she thought of a cottage or micro-school because she felt "mainstream schooling demands a one size fits all approach, and many children, no matter the culture, race or family background, struggle to fit into the box".

"With the growing robotic automation and artificial intelligence age taking over, many repeatable tasks and more commonplace work activities, job functions are being taken away from the next generation," says Downing.

According to her, this means that emotional intelligence (EQ) will become an important skill our kids need to learn. 

"Our children have to develop a much higher EQ level, which relates to the development of critical thinking, problem-solving, leadership, analytical skills and insights analysis skills. This is the primary reason I started the school."

How is your school different?

Since its start with just Downing's daughter, a teacher acting as a facilitator and herself as the school owner, the Smartt Cottage School has grown over the years. It now has 8 pupils registered with the Department of Basic Education.

Because it is required that all cottage schools need to be registered, Downing is considering formalising her cottage school through the Pestalozzi Trust Foundation.

At her school, Downing ensures that children learn both EQ and academic excellence, and their entire approach focuses on interest-based learning.

Also read: 'An unskilled tutor could do more harm than good': The pro's and pitfalls of tutoring

Creating a safe space

Downing explains that they use this approach as they believe that it creates a safe and nurturing environment where children can regain a love of learning and love for their school. 

Cottage schools allow children the freedom to work on subjects they find difficult, get all the support they need, and move ahead in topics they have a high interest in, Downing says. 

Cottage schools also remove the restrictions in the learning approach which leads to improvement, the mom highlights. 

"We engage the children in developing self-determined governance, where they define their school code of conduct and then define how breaches of the code will be addressed".

Must read: Homeschooled teen admitted to Stanford talks financial aid and Ivy League acceptance

The curriculum at these schools

Unlike mainstream schooling, Downing says that their cottage school uses a supportive learning academic platform which is applied from the registration process. 

This is to ensure that both the parent's needs and those of the children are met. 

Downing believes that learning to pass a test or exam tends to develop stress-related mental problems, which in the worst cases lead to child depression and even suicide.

"We focus on helping the child understand the subject, so they know how to apply the subject in the real world. We use a lot of real-world examples and material and tools to help them retain the knowledge and consistently apply it. This means we do not need to test or examine the child consistently," she says.

Also see: 'I became paralysed with fear': Former bullying victim's guide for parents

Benefits of cottage schools?

Downing says that cottage schools do not limit the children to working in fixed and structured age groups, but children of 10 will work with and interact with children of 15.

"This teaches and develops leadership skills in older children and grows a supportive attitude toward others around them. It creates a maturity in attitude that supports improved EQ as they develop into the higher grades for the younger children," says Downing.

There is a growing interest

Downing says the growing trend toward micro and cottage schools is due to some of the abovementioned elements. She also thinks that bullying which many children suffer from in mainstream schools is why parents consider taking their children to cottage schools.

She also believes that many parents see improvement in their children with this form of learning, similar to the one-on-one focus they received during the hard lockdown. 

However, unlike homeschooling which is difficult for working parents, Downing says that their approach is very favourable, as the children still get to have that "home" feel and one-on-one attention, but at the same time, have friends to associate with and interact with each day.


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