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!”
I read about the founders. I read that they’re trying to make the curriculum relevant for students (awesome!). I read the claims that Silicon Valley High School will provide a ‘five star education.’ Okay so far. Then I get to the following:
With the help of a core team of 12 developers and 20 subject matter experts, Teves and Smith have developed a platform and process to deliver ‘best-available’ content to students at a fraction of the cost of similar curricula.
The courses are highly linear and feature well-produced videos starring engaging and highly relevant teachers chosen by the high school’s panel of experts.
And there we have it. ‘Highly linear,’ self-paced, one-size-fits-all courses; videos made by experts; and an online platform to ‘deliver’ them, including quizzes. I’m pretty sure that this is not the first time this has been suggested or tried (MOOCs, anyone? Khan Academy? K12 and Connections Academy? TED-Ed?). And – good intentions aside – I’m pretty sure that these models are essentially replicating online the traditional face-to-face model of sit-and-get, transmission-oriented education that’s dominated for centuries. But, hey, students can proceed at their own pace and do this anywhere…
More than 700 studies have confirmed that lectures are less effective than a wide range of methods for achieving almost every educational goal you can think of. Even for the straightforward objective of transmitting factual information, they are no better than a host of alternatives, including private reading. Moreover, lectures inspire students less than other methods, and lead to less study afterwards.
When will we be willing to confront the need to change the day-to-day learning experiences of students rather than simply trying to repackage traditional methods in different wrappers?
High school student Jeff Bliss famously said in 2013, “If you would just get up and teach them instead of handing them a freakin’ packet, yo. It’s kids in here that don’t learn like that. They need to learn face to face.” Unfortunately, too many alternative high schools are just about worksheet packets and self-paced online courses. East Campus in Muscatine, Iowa takes a different approach, one that is paying enormous dividends in terms of student engagement, academic success, and high school completion.
East Campus has a strong emphasis on hands-on academic activity. For example, students learn about metal absorption, evolution of plant species, and trait adaptation in science by engaging in real-world hydroponics and phytoremediation projects. They partner with the University of Iowa and Muscatine Power & Water to do this work, learning about cell biology, ions, and molecular polarity along the way. Similarly, they’re learning about urban renewal and the environmental impacts of human behaviors through the lens of bicycling, applying their English / Language Arts skills as they evaluate resources, write grant proposals, utilize social media, and engage in marketing techniques to advocate for more bicycle-friendly areas in their community.
Students also are investigating molecular structures by testing sugar substitutes and seeing which configurations taste better; the end goal is to create a book or video that places a culinary lens on the subject of chemistry. They’re working with a nonprofit that makes hand-powered bicycles for people who have lost the use of their legs, analyzing different countries and cultures to determine where the need for such transportation is greatest. Most students are learning to code, and nearly all of them are incredibly active in their community’s Blue Zones initiative, helping the food insecure grow healthy vegetables and making commercials that promote healthy behaviors. They work with Monsanto to understand the seed production process. They make documentaries with local survivors of heart disease for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign. They’re using scrum boards and other project management techniques. Their video production work is so fantastic that they participate in national media conferences and get asked by out-of-state businesses to make videos and commercials. And so on…
The work that East Campus students do isn’t sitting at a desk regurgitating facts from a textbook. They’re not just answering a few short essay questions based on a teacher lecture days before. Instead, they’re engaged in challenging, real world work. Their assessment is in the quality of what they do, not just recalling minutiae that can be found in five seconds with a smartphone voice command. Are your high school students doing this kind of complex, authentic work on a regular basis? Are your local youth making a positive, meaningful impact on their community and the world around them?
In his most recent TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson notes that our best alternative education programs are “very personalized” and often “involve students outside school as well as inside school. And all the evidence from around the world is – if we all did that – there’d be no need for the alternative.” East Campus proves that every day, reclaiming students’ brilliance that too often gets lost in our more traditional systems.
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.
I’m sitting in a workshop today about early literacy supports. The presenters are personable, the resources aren’t horrible, the intent is good, and there are 45+ well-meaning educators in the room learning, talking, and thinking about early literacy success for students.
But all of our conversations are around systems and processes that reify and strengthen our traditional emphases on low-level learning. For instance, we’re discussing laws and policies (that emphasize standardized data), screening instruments (based on standardized data), ‘evidence-based interventions’ (based on standardized data), progress monitoring (based on standardized data), and data-based decision-making (based on standardized data).