The biggest indictment of our schools is not their failure to raise test scores above some politically-determined line of ‘proficiency.’ It’s that – day in and day out – they routinely ignore the fact that our children are bored, disengaged, and disempowered. We’ve known this forever, but we have yet to really care about it in a way that would drive substantive changes in practice. The disenfranchisement of our youth continues to happen in the very institutions that are allegedly preparing them to be ‘life long learners.’
Why does everyone have to show their knowledge and skills in the same way?
Why does everyone have to be assessed in the same way?
I think it would be valuable for schools to use a 5 Whys approach to really dig into these latter four questions. Doing so would allow us to uncover existing belief systems and would reveal the widespread variability that exists across educators – even when we’re in the same building – in terms of both instructional ideologies and classroom practices. Too often we believe that we have shared understandings and commitments around learning and teaching that simply aren’t there. Making the effort to peel back our hidden layers of disagreement could have a transformative impact on the kinds of conversations that we’re able to have and the kinds of changes that might result in students’ learning experiences.
Dare to ask the 5 whys around the 4 negotiables. Let us know how it went!
The Van Meter Schools have long been an incubator for innovation. Van Meter was one of our earliest districts to implement a 1-to-1 student computing initiative and also was one of the first districts in Iowa to be named an Apple Distinguished School.
More recently, Van Meter has been diving deeply into project-based learning, standards-based grading, competency-based education, and flexible, modular schedules in which students can exercise some choice and determine how much time they need to spend on their various learning endeavors. Van Meter’s work in the area of student competencies is especially impressive. Eventually, the district hopes to identify a comprehensive, interdisciplinary set of standards that all high school students need – plus an additional 6 to 10 competencies or dispositions – and these will become the district’s graduation requirements. Students will be able to take multiple pathways to get there, including projects, traditional coursework, online classes, and anything else that feeds into the district’s profile of a graduate. The hope is that most students will be able to complete these by junior year and then will be able to spend their senior year taking college classes, getting professional certifications, diving deeper into areas of interest and passion, and engaging in internships and service learning projects.
Teachers are in on the action too and rarely participate in whole-school learning contexts. Instead, classroom educators take a competency-based approach to their own professional learning and, through identification of the skills that they have and need, are able to personalize their professional growth. A badging system to track teachers’ professional learning is in the works.
What I like about Van Meter is that, in the words of Superintendent Deron Durflinger, they “often have a willingness to take risks and try things that other districts wait for. If folks out there are doing cool stuff, we’re not going to hold back on trying it out.” This orientation toward risk-taking allows Van Meter to live at the cutting edge of leading educational innovation movements and to iterate quickly toward new opportunities. Initiatives that many other districts consider to be organizational stretches are thought of by Van Meter as just part of how it does business.
Van Meter also has framed its work appropriately. Instead of each initiative being a stand-alone, disconnected program within a traditional school setup, everything that Van Meter does is woven together and oriented toward the ultimate goal of personalizing student learning. For instance, when asked what they are most excited about, administrators will say that at the top of their list are the types of questions that teachers are asking about how to better help individual students and their educators’ willingness to reexamine and alter current practices as needed.
The district is in the process of building a new school that will create different and varied kinds of learning spaces for students. I am sure that this new building will be amazing. But the district’s long-term impacts on students will be a result of its ongoing willingness to reorient its instructional practices and its organizational support systems that facilitate more robust forms of learning and teaching.
Clear Lake Middle School (CLMS) knew where it wanted to go. It just needed to put some new structures in place to get there…
Teacher learning. Many organizations have ‘20 percent time’ initiatives, which give employees time and permission to learn and work on new topics of their choosing as long as they have potential benefit to the organization. CLMS took that idea and ran with it, substituting ‘teacher genius hour’ for some of its traditional professional development. Today teachers are investigating a variety of interest-based professional learning topics, including essential questions in the classroom, rethinking grading in math class, flipped classrooms, screencasting, and gamification. All of these filter back into educators’ classrooms and improve student learning experiences.
Student learning. Last year CLMS began implementing P3BL blocks, which emphasize passion, projects, and problems. Every day the 6th graders get a 42-minute block and the 7th and 8th graders get an 84-minute block. Sometimes teachers create the projects, sometimes students do. Example student projects include ‘upcycling’ and repurposing of old furniture, working with media and marketing companies to create an advertising campaign that sells Clear Lake to outsiders and airs on television stations and billboards, and a ‘Shark Tank’ initiative in which students pitch innovative product ideas that improve people’s lives and their community. Students also are involved in a number of projects with the local fire service, including an awareness campaign that teaches local citizens about fire and carbon monoxide safety, creating maps of rural water sources in the county that can be used to refill fire trucks, and mapping local business building layouts that then get uploaded to the fire department’s Active 911 app.
Makerspace. This year CLMS also has implemented a makerspace called the Sandbox. Different challenges are set up for the students, who have 10 days to complete them. Hours are flexible, supervision is minimal (as are discipline issues). Students work on projects when they can, often logging time as early as 6:45am and as late as 5:30pm. Nearly a third of the school signed up for Round 3 of the challenges. The school’s Sandy Awards in May will honor the best designs of the year. And in early February the school’s Sandbox specialists (students, of course) will be hosting visually- and hearing-impaired peers to introduce them to some making/tinkering projects.
As teachers and students drive more of their own learning, the impacts on CLMS have been substantial. Energy and enthusiasm are high. Students who previously struggled with the traditional school model are finding their niches of expertise and success. A school that used to work for a few students now gives all of its students a chance to shine and have a voice.
How could you shake up your school day to create time for student (and staff) inquiry?
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?
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?