Do you know about Iowa BIG? Co-located with a corporate startup accelerator at a former brownfield site of Iowa Steel, Iowa BIG is a project-based learning option for Cedar Rapids area high school students. Students spend half of their day at their traditional, ‘mother ship’ high school and the other half at Iowa BIG. Local businesses, nonprofits, and city agencies pitch proposed projects to the students, hoping that talented youth will take up their challenges. Students pick from the project pool and then work with school and community mentors to accomplish the work, achieving curricular standards and other learning outcomes – like 21st century skills and Iowa’s Universal Constructs – along the way.
The work done by Iowa BIG students is quite impressive. Example student projects include transforming the Bever Park Zoo into an interactive and educational urban farm, co-researching the evolution of grapes with the University of Northern Iowa, creating a one-handed keyboard for amputees, and redesigning a local elementary into a STEAM magnet school. Other examples include development of a waterborne drone that measures plastic waste in oceans, designing arthritis-friendly utensils, creating a documentary of Linn County’s first medical examiner, designing and testing an aquaponics system in North Africa, developing a recycling bin that tweets to the Internet what gets recycled, and initiating a young women’s entrepreneurship community and conference.
Iowa BIG is up to nearly 100 high school students this year and its approach is expanding to other schools in the Cedar Rapids area. Recent data confirm what we would imagine: students are much more engaged in their learning and seem to be doing better academically than comparable peers. When students are voluntarily working on their projects over the summer and talking about coming back to the city to ‘keep doing this kind of work after we graduate from college,’ you know something is going right.
Are you underestimating the work that your students could do?
Many schools in Iowa are trying to find small chunks of time that allow students to engage in some inquiry- or project-based learning. These might be class-level projects, teacher-led exploratories, or student-led ‘genius hours.’ Several districts in Northwest Iowa are going beyond these smaller experiments, however. They’re carving out a couple of weeks for a ‘J Term’ in January after winter break, or a May Term at the end of the year, or even a mid-semester ‘MidMester Academy.’ These initiatives typically offer students an immersive, project-based experience of 30 to 50 hours, capped with a public exhibition / defense to the community.
Student projects are quite varied and create student learning opportunities that may not occur in schools’ typical core curricula. For example, at Spirit Lake High School, students learn about Yamazumi charts, Kaizen events, elemental spaghetti diagrams, and other lean engineering techniques with Polaris, the local snowmobile manufacturer. They gain real-world web development experience by designing a new website for their community. They explore law enforcement issues such as crime labs, use of force, drug policing, SWAT, and polygraphs with the local police department. They discover how to weld by creating a new sculpture for the community. They learn about the beauty industry and the local theatre through field trips and hands-on disciplinary work.
Down the road at Okoboji Middle School, students learn about coding, robotics, computer-aided drafting, and 3D design in their Designing for the Future and Robots: Let the Races Begin projects. They identify a business or charity, create promotional materials, organize fundraisers, and compete against other teams as part of their Pioneer Apprentice project. They make atlatls, duck boxes, and goose nesting structures – and learn how to process wild game – in their Outdoors in Iowa project. Other projects allow students to explore Native American history, investigate risk-taking through the lens of immigration, study and create American folktales, use their geography skills to survive a fictional viral outbreak, and participate in an ‘Amazing Race’ focused on the provinces and territories of Canada.
Over at Southeast Valley High School, students learn the strategies of medieval warfare and compete against each other with self-designed catapults. They study the Holocaust and its relevance to today. They examine the history of rock and roll and write their own rock anthems. They design their own video games, learn about project planning and the hospitality business, are introduced to landscape design, and go deep with Rube Goldberg machines. And in Newell-Fonda High School, students learn outdoor survival skills, create ‘life hacks,’ explore the financial and marketing aspects of running a sports franchise, and investigate the science behind real world objects through their own, local ‘How Stuff Works’ spinoff.
Where’s the technology in all of these projects? As Chris Lehmann would say, it’s ‘ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible.’ Digital learning tools are present in all of these activities, they’re necessary to accomplish the work, but they’re invisible in the sense that they’re just a means to an end, not the end itself. And that’s how they should be.
What could your students do in a 1- or 2-week immersive inquiry- or project-based learning experience?
In 2009, the Blue Valley Schools in Kansas launched their Center for Advanced Professional Studies. Unlike traditional trade or vocational schools that historically have prepared students for ‘blue collar’ jobs, the CAPS model immerses students in ‘white collar’ professional settings. Looking for ways to provide high school students with authentic professional experiences, districts in other states soon joined Blue Valley’s CAPS network, including Waukee APEX here in Iowa.
The APEX model is powerful because students do genuine interdisciplinary work within real institutions. Their hosts – and clients – are corporations, nonprofits, government agencies, and other community organizations such as hospitals and small businesses. Instead of engaging in contrived simulations in classrooms, students immediately make authentic contributions to their local communities and gain both valuable professional experience and college credit while still in high school.
Waukee APEX has several strands, thus allowing students to tap into different interests or skill sets. For example, in the Business, Technology, and Communications strand, students have developed marketing, copywriting, photography, videography, and graphic design skills by working on advertising and informational campaigns and planning special events for Des Moines businesses and government agencies. In the BioScience and Value-Added Agriculture strand, students have learned about global agriculture, life science systems, and food policy while working with the Blank Park Zoo and the World Food Prize. In the Engineering strand, students have partnered with On With Life, a nonprofit that specializes in brain damage rehabilitation, and Iowa State University to create a ‘sensory garden’ for patients and worked with Hy-Vee to redesign its corporate headquarters and store parking lots and to make its stores more energy efficient.
Students in other APEX strands are learning different workplace skills. In the Finance and Insurance strand, students have worked with industry professionals to index and analyze key metrics for ranking nursing home facilities, raised money for and marketed a school district’s slip-trip-fall risk mitigation project, and developed analytical models that help consumers know when to buy indexed or term life insurance. In the Information Management Design strand, students have set up servers, built databases, and designed apps for strength and conditioning coaches and athletic departments. And in the Exploration of Health Sciences and Medicine strand, students have designed lab protocols to mimic various types of pulmonary pathologies for Drake University pharmacy students, created a recruitment video for the Mercy College of Health Sciences surgical technology program, worked with a Veterans Affairs psychologist to design memory books that assist veterans with traumatic brain injuries, researched high school students’ understandings of the dangers of tanning, and conducted an observational analysis to help increase the task efficiency of UnityPoint Health nurse navigators.
In all of these settings, APEX students are expected to act like working professionals, not teenagers. They’re expected to take on real tasks and assume adult workplace responsibility. In the process they stretch and grow and gain new skills that can’t be learned in traditional classrooms. The CAPS model illustrates the tremendous untapped potential of our own communities.
What could your school do to tap into the expertise, mentorship, and authenticity of the professionals around you?
In Mumbai, India, many workers prefer a hot, home-cooked meal instead of eating at a food stand or restaurant. So each workday 5,000 dabbawalas (“those who carry a box”) deliver 200,000 lunches from workers’ homes to their offices. Collecting dabbawalas, who are typically on bicycles, pick up individual lunch boxes from each home and bring them to a sorting location. Sorting dabbawalas then mark the lunch boxes with symbols and colors to mark their route and destination and put them on local trains. At each railway station, local dabbawalas collect the appropriate lunch boxes and deliver them to workers via foot, bicycle, and pushcart. The entire system works in reverse to get the lunch boxes back home again. All of this is quite complex but the entire 125-year-old system is organized organically by the dabbawalas themselves, not the government or a corporation. It is estimated that a mistake is made about once in every 8 million deliveries, which is particularly impressive given that many of the dabbawalas are illiterate. The dabbawalas have been profiled by the New York Times and NBC News, among many others, and there is even a Harvard Business School case study about them.
In Mexico, what started as an experiment to improve 8 poor, rural public schools has now exploded into a national network of over 9,000 low-achieving elementary and middle schools. In these schools, student-centered tutorial networks rely on the knowledge and skills of youth to help scale up student learning at levels that would be impossible if done by adults alone. On any given day in one of these schools, a teacher might be tutoring a student, a student might be tutoring another student, or a student might even be tutoring an adult parent, community member, or educator. In this manner, new pedagogical practices can be disseminated nationwide through tutoring and social networks rather than just top-down professional development and educator training mechanisms. In these tutorial networks, everyone is a learner and everyone is a teacher.
When they have developed mastery in a given area, students play the role of tutor to other students who are undertaking inquiry in the same area. Students learn both the content they study and the practice of tutorials. Over time, the learning of the students and tutors, coupled with the training that tutors receive in the broader network, becomes a fund of knowledge available to tutors and students in other schools in the network. Learning is disciplined throughout by norms of mastery. Students and adults work together to build a fund of common knowledge that is available to all.
No one has told these students that they cannot control their own learning. No one has ‘schooled’ the adult tutors, who are largely recruited from the rural communities they serve, that they are ‘unqualified’ to teach or to serve as leaders of learning in their communities. The students and tutors share an understanding that, if there are things that they need to know in order to teach others, they will learn them through the teaching of others. The students and adults form a powerful social movement, with a common identity around access to learning. Most of all, students are given the gift of adult trust that by engaging in learning, by choosing what to learn, and by giving the gift of learning to others, they will discover their power as leaders of learning in their communities.
What is unique and innovative about the tutorial networks is that they put the learner and the process of learning at the center of the education endeavor, and focus on tutorial relationships as a driver for democratic, equitable learning environment, absent of traditional, grade-level, standardized, rigid structures that often disengage students. Taking agency for instructional delivery and ownership of learning is empowering and motivating for both the tutors and the tutees. There is a great sense of pride that comes from receiving personalized learning, mastering content and sharing that knowledge with peers. An added advantage of such a strategy has been the excitement that spreads beyond the school walls and spills out into the community, where families again begin to see schools as centers for learning and development. This is particularly evident where tutorial networks have been able to positively transform rural, high-poverty, low-performing schools.
Nationwide community-driven tutorial networks that put students at the center. Complex, Six Sigma-quality delivery systems run by marginally-literate workers. Incredible, right? I can’t help but wonder… What could we do if we tapped into the power of our people and tried to actualize new possibilities instead of mere historical inertia? What could we do if our school organizations elevated the questions, “why not?” and “how can we?” over the reflexive “yes, but?”
As school leaders, we know that the naysayers will start chiming in as soon as anything new or different is proposed. Instead of allowing the change-adverse to dominate, maybe we could say, “Look at what’s happening out there. Given our greater resources and our incredible talent, there’s virtually no limit to what we could do. Let’s get started and do some things that are amazing!”
“The magnitude of all of this change… it’s too overwhelming.”
Fair enough. I, too, often feel overwhelmed by it all. But are we going to hunker down and ignore it or lean into it and try to figure out how to adapt? Which one better serves the needs of our children?
Thought I’d share some quick numbers regarding the Digital Leadership Daily service that I launched back in February. Nine months later, we have 146 subscribers getting a daily text message through Remind, 97 people on the Facebook page, and 650 followers on the Twitter channel. If you or someone you know would benefit from one carefully-selected technology leadership resource per day, feel free to sign up!
Whenever any sort of change or innovation is discussed, the ‘Yes, but…’ objections are inevitable. However, instead of allowing those resistance points to dominate and defeat promising ideas, teachers and administrators can reframe opposition into possibility by asking the questions ‘Why not?’ and ‘How can we?’ Effective educators focus on adaptation, forward progress, and collective effort and efficacy. The ‘yes, buts’ don’t do anything except keep us stuck. Too often we get mired in negativity and defeatism instead of recognizing that – both individually and collectively – we usually have the ability to do and be so much more than our current reality reflects. This keynote focuses on transformative leadership mindsets and features exemplary schools from around the world that are ignoring the ‘yes, buts’ to make amazing things happen for children and youth.
Check it out and get some great ideas for changes you might make in your school. Be sure to see all of the other wonderful presentations too. The four conference strands this year are Maker Ed, Stories of Connection, Overcoming Obstacles, and Beyond The Core: Art and More. Did I mention the conference is FREE?!
Two years ago I had the incredible opportunity to work with the entire leadership team of District 59 in Arlington Heights, Illinois for SEVEN days. Yes, seven entire days with every central office administrator, every building administrator, and many of their teacher leaders. There were about 40 of us. We met approximately once per month from September to May. They also met for a couple of hours each month in between my visits. They labeled it their ‘21st Century Leadership Academy.’
What did seven-plus days do for us? They allowed us to go both broad and deep, to chart a progression over time that would build leadership understanding and capacity. Here’s what we discussed…
Day 1: The Big Picture: Start With the Why – How is the innovation decade going to change learning of, by, and for young people? (thank you Pam Moran for this question!) – Establishing our rules of play and group norms – Quick reactions to my TEDxDesMoines talk about extracurricular learning v. curricular learning – Because of digital technologies, our world today is more… – What are the implications and design considerations of what we just identified for learning, teaching, and schooling? (both positive and negative) – Organizational self-assessment – Getting set up with our new Google+ community
Day 2: Connecting and Collaborating – Review of last session’s evaluations and our rules of play – How connections foster innovation (Chris Anderson, Steven Johnson, and The Power of Pull) – Individual connection maps: How are we personally and professionally connected to ideas, individuals, groups, and organizations? (both analog and digital) – 5 stages of instructional evolution – Communities of interest v. communities of geography – Connected learning gallery walk – Interrogating our instruction: Are these connected lessons any good? How could we make them better? – Getting set up with Twitter and our new hashtag
Day 3: Problem- and Inquiry-Based Learning – Review of last session’s evaluations and our rules of play – Crowdsourcing – Understanding how Wikipedia really works – Crowdsourcing ideas for students and teachers – Essential elements of project-based learning – PBL v. traditional classroom ‘projects’ (how is PBL different from what we normally do in our classes?) – Interrogating our instruction: Are these elementary and middle school projects any good? How could we make them better? – Going deeper with the components of high-quality PBL – A PBL case study – Making sense of PBL in our own context – Getting set up with Feedly and some awesome school leadership blogs
Day 4: Critical Thinking and Technology Integration – Review of last session’s evaluations and our rules of play – A deep dive into The Road Not Taken and Thinking About a Lack of Thinking – When memorization gets in the way of learning – Characteristics of a thinking classroom – Interrogating our instruction: Utilizing the trudacot discussion protocol to foster richer technology integration – Challenge: Design a cognitively complex, technology-infused project
Day 5: The Affordances of Digital – Review of last session’s evaluations and our rules of play – Digital v. analog: Examples of the affordances of multimedia storytelling – How is writing changing because of digital and online? – Transmedia – Blended learning models – Personalization v. individualization – Interrogating our instruction: An elementary school scenario
Day 6: Visioning and Challenge Identification (aka Action Planning, Part 1) – Review of last session’s evaluations, our rules of play, and the past 5 sessions – Revisiting our responses to Because of digital technologies, our world today is more… (keywords and convergence) – Whereas… Therefore activity – Challenge identification: XPLANE cards – Analyzing our group narratives using Bolman & Deal and an effort-impact matrix – What are our biggest anchors that are slowing us down?
Day 7: Enabling Our Vision (aka Action Planning, Part 2) – Review of last session’s evaluations, our rules of play, and the past 6 sessions – What does it take to be a great leader? – Driving forces – Revisiting our responses in the Whereas… Therefore activity – Start-Stop-Continue – XPLANE cards and group narratives: Overcoming our primary obstacles – Interrogating our instruction: Using screencasting apps to address English/Language Arts, Math, or Science standards – Final thoughts on technology-infused learning
Our evaluation results reflected our awesome work together. I freely admit that, as an entirety, this was probably the best professional learning experience that I have ever facilitated. To be able to sustain this level of quality across seven days was phenomenal…
Here are some of my favorite comments from the session evaluations:
I like the vast amount of resources that can be shared with staff
The active engagement and modeling was very nonthreatening [but] challenged my thinking
It wasn’t just a sit and get. We used different tools without them being ‘taught’ to us.
Loved the entire discussion about ‘connectedness’
The chance to discuss and ask hard questions about where we are at was great.
Having time to work DEEPLY with colleagues – the time to really start to wrap our minds around what all of this actually needs to look like within the classroom setting
It was great to look at some sample units and critically evaluate them
The Whereas… Therefore exercise was difficult for me until the very end. Hearing the thoughts of all of my colleagues was powerful when it all came together.
Taking the time to dig through some difficult conversations
All the interaction and discussion with my table group. Lots of laughter and rich discussion.
My favorite part was the focus on ‘What exactly are kids learning as a result of this process?’ v. ‘Look! A project!’
Teachers keep asking us what 21st century learning looks like and we now have many examples to share with them
Scott was a model for how to teach
Challenging our thinking and beliefs is a wonderful experience
Looking at a teacher’s lesson and coming up with appropriate talking points to help the teacher think about how to improve it
[We have had] LOTS of opportunity to do the hard work – these are not easy conversations
Is there a number higher than 5? Great information on creating and evaluating PBL projects
So powerful to work collaboratively with table mates to plan a unit of study. Really helped with my level of understanding of how we want our staff to plan.
Working with apps to demonstrate and apply our understanding of what we know and have learned
Very concrete in terms of identifying the specific problems and potential solutions and then writing that narrative to describe that landscape
You made a very complex topic much more palatable. It was a challenging topic with many pieces, but due to your careful planning, the flow seemed more natural.
The continuing a-ha!
Thank you. I am really enjoying these times to learn and grow.
Thank you for yet another enlightening day. They are always exhausting but I learn so much.
I have learned a lot during this time together but, more important, I have learned a lot about the other leaders in the district
It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come as a group since September. Our progress is faster and more significant every time we’re together.
We are more cohesive and in alignment with our thinking than we were at the beginning of the year. We also had fun as we learned.
Best PD ever – applicable, engaging, empowering, collegial, just AWESOME!
It goes without saying that for many, finding the time to do their own PD is a real problem. No great answer to this is apparent other than a cultural reframing, one that is already underway. And that means schools should consider a reframing of their own learning time. For example, last year the Community Consolidated School District 59 in Arlington Heights, Illinois, was able to create sixty-three hours of professional development for administrators around modern learning contexts in an effort to begin real culture change. . . . We in schools need to make the time to understand these shifts for ourselves.
Two years later District 59 is in a significantly different place than before. They have continued learning, talking, and implementing. They are ROCKING OUT.
This is absolutely, positively, without a doubt my favorite kind of work. When we engage in sustained, extended discussions over the course of multiple months or years, we can see shifts in thinking and capacity occurring over time. We can see folks getting excited about the possibilities. We can build shared understandings and commitments. And we can build on all of that to start implementing new instructional and leadership paradigms in schools and classrooms.
Not every district is fortunate enough to have an amazing superintendent like Art Fessler, who recently was named as one of the National School Boards Association’s ’20 to Watch.’ Not every district is fortunate enough to have an amazing assistant superintendent like Ben Grey, who planned and co-facilitated the seven-plus days with me. But, like District 59, every school system can make a sustained, strategic commitment to investing in its leaders’ ability to learn and grow so that they are able to better create and support school environments that foster deeper learning, greater student agency, authentic work, and richer technology integration.
This year I get to work with two different districts – one in Iowa and one in Minnesota – to do this again. Each is doing a 5-day Innovation Academy with their district, building, and teacher leaders. Like in District 59, I’m guessing that it’s going to be awesome because the districts have made a significant commitment to learn and grow together and to build their leadership capacity in this area. I can’t wait…
What is your school system doing to build its leadership capacity to foster 21st century learning environments?
In the past decade, most everyone with access has experienced what it’s like to learn from anyone, anywhere at any time. In everyday life, this is no longer an event to behold but the way we learn. Any policy maker or leader who doesn’t understand and live this needs to find other employment.
more businesses are moving away from improving old models to responding to the changing needs of consumers (and employees) within the context of a rapidly changing world. In addition, real time data has helped to create a whole new paradigm for doing things differently, thinking creatively and responding immediately.
On the flip side, education is still wedded to the improvement model; looking for enhanced solutions to old problems. We operate on the assumption that we can control the variables, link performance to accountability measures and tighten up processes. Where are the innovative solutions?
Improvement is no longer the challenge so let’s use educational conferences and colloquiums to focus on how we change the system not how we fix it. As Sir Ken Robinson says the challenge is not to reform but to transform.