Bennett Day School’s Hands-On Approach to Learning

Cameron Smith wanted to send his two sons to a school where they could learn by doing — a place that didn’t limit students to sitting at their desks listening to a teacher lecture throughout the day. So, he founded Bennett Day School, a Chicago-based private, progressive school for children in preschool through 12th grade.

“Bennett is the kind of school I at first dreamed of for my children, but it didn’t exist,” Smith says. “It’s a school that’s dedicated to creativity and innovation, and really kids learning by doing, so the students and the teachers construct learning together. They build and experience learning together.”

From writing lines of script for the Osmo Kaleidoscope app to building bike rack prototypes to designing an effective water filtering system, students are given ample opportunity to develop skills, problem solve and work together. This approach to learning is known as project-based learning, and it boasts big benefits to a child’s development and preparation for the future.

“Numerous studies and research will show us time and again that purely memorizing something and having to repeat it back without context or applying it, you will retain less than 20% of it,” Smith says. “But if you experience learning and apply your learning, you can retain and apply upwards of three-quarters of it.”

By applying the Reggio Emilia approach to learning, which is a student-centered approach that allows children to explore in an environment that fosters collaboration and communication, the school offers its students a unique opportunity to learn more about the world around them.

But that’s not the only unique thing about this Chicago school. Read on for more about Bennett Day School‘s approach to learning.

Assessing progress

If you ask Smith, the current grading system that most K-12 schools use is outdated.

“The system we have now is born out of over 150 years of, ‘you sit and listen, I’m the expert. I teach, you listen. Repeat back to me and forget in five days and move on to something else,'” he says.

Times have changed, though, and Smith says the grading system should evolve with it. There are two other grading systems to consider: standards-based, which tells you if you’re reaching or have gone beyond proficiency in a given area based upon a set of grade-level expectations, and competency-based grading, which involves detailed responses to work and a feedback loop. Bennett Day School harnesses this approach with competency-based assessments. Competency-based assessments identify specific skills that are most meaningful to the world and asks students to demonstrate those skills, compiling and cross-referencing them across disciplines, so that a student leaves high school having been certified to possess relevant, important skills necessary for the world beyond.

“It’s much more relevant to the learning experience to start from competencies and then say whether you’ve mastered a particular area or not and that can equate to a grade,” he says.

This sort of assessment is ideal for students to understand and apply concepts through real-life experiences. In general, Bennett Day School believes that test scores are an inadequate means of understanding a student’s value or capability. And while standardized test scores tend to impact a student’s entry into their college of choice, students now have the option to submit transcripts that forgo letter grades. These non-traditional transcripts can be accepted at colleges and universities across the country, including Harvard University, Stanford University, The University of Pennsylvania, and Northwestern University, Smith notes.

As early as PreK, Bennett Day starts a Digital Portfolio for students that features examples of their work. These works — which can include videos, pictures and artifacts — support students’ assessments in linguistic, cognitive, social-emotional and physical development areas.

The goal? To allow students to grow all while reflecting upon their love of learning.

About Bennett Day School


Bennett Day School is currently accepting applications for the 2021-22 school year. Visit their website to register for a Virtual Open House, schedule a call with admissions, or take a Virtual Tour. To learn more about Bennett Live, engaging at-home media and educational programming for ages 3-18, like and follow Bennett Live on Facebook.


For more information, visit bennettday.org




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