One week ago today another tragic and violent act occurred, this time at Sandy Hook elementary in Newtown, CT. Not to minimize other recent public attacks but without a doubt the nature of the victims in this attack struck an unthinkable chord of horror. With a daughter in kindergarten I found myself struggling to choke out words when trying to explain to her just the basics of what happened. The night of Sandy Hook, in a discussion with friends, I struggled to answer why the recurrence of these tragedies seem to be increasing. I do believe we need to have an honest discussion on the availability of assault weapons as well as the accessibility of mental health treatment but as a former classroom teacher what I came to is the absence of engagement and compassion.
Good teachers will tell you engaged student are less likely to act out. In the classroom that means designing for authentic and meaningful work that should involve collaborating and communicating with others. If we can assume that the classroom is in many ways a microcosm of society we can extrapolate the bad behavior that often comes with a disengaged class to dangerous acts in the "real world". Engaged students not only take part in the learning but in the community of learners in which they are immersed. At the same time that community reciprocates engagement with each individual in a way that allows for formal and/or informal assessment of progress. In a highly functioning classroom a struggling student would never go unnoticed or unsupported by his/her peers I'd like to think the same in a highly functioning society but ours is a society of disengagement. Yes we're more connected via social media but is that true engagement with people? In a truly engaged society the story in Sandy Hook could have been incredibly different. Instead of a withdrawn and isolated Adam Lanza perhaps a community could have identified and strengthened his deficiencies early in his life. Acknowledging the reality of mental illness and the paradox of humanity that brings unpredictable and often uncontrollable behavior I wonder if the increasing inertia of a disengaged society isn't at least partly to blame for the uptick of public attacks.
Does engagement with a community need an ally?
If engagement is at least a part of the answer then it must start at an early age and it must be in a way that is not solely self-serving. If our children are taught (and assessed) to work with others in meaningful ways they learn habits of mind and societal norms that can reap massive benefits down the road. In my work with the Buck Institute for Education we often stress three C's of 21st Century Skills (collaboration, communication and critical thinking) but I'm wondering if it's time to add a fourth...compassion. Inspiring a sense of compassion and empathy in our children can serve as powerful sidekick to engagement. Work that is meaningful to others like Kiva microfinancing, Dots in Blue Water, and the Green Bronx Machine intertwines engagement and compassion by helping students identify instances of cognitive dissonance where they note a situation that needs to be improved or a problem that needs solved.
To be clear, tragedies like Sandy Hook are not the fault of schools or teachers. This is a complex and deep societal problem that unfortunately is not likely to disappear completely regardless of corrective measures. But our schools can be a valuable asset in the pursuit of that ideal. Schools were never meant to be parental surrogates and are certainly unable to solve all of the ills of our society but I'll ask what I think is a rhetorical question.
Why would we not design instruction in a way that engages students and helps them learn compassion?
Upon entering CSA the first thing you notice is the radically different physical space. This former auto parts warehouse has been redesigned by an architectural team that listened to the needs and wants of the leadership team. There are classrooms but they tend to be more open than the traditional pillboxes where most teachers ply their craft. That openness extends to the culture that has been created for and by staff and students using the basic tenets of project based learning.
Our tour started in a conference room with a generation of Knows and Need to Knows as well as a Driving Question all led by two female students who were very well spoken and confident in dealing with this small group of adults. The importance of that process became more evident as we walked the school and talked with various students and facilitators (the artists formerly known as teachers) about their learning. As students worked we observed these Need to Know lists being put to good use as a guide for the learning necessary to complete the project. For teachers and students these lists serve as a formative assessment and the meta-cognition is invaluable. Our group loved the "feel" of the school as we noted the sense of calm and purpose that students approached their work.
As a part of the New Tech Network technology certainly was an integral part of what goes on at CSA but surprisingly it doesn't really feel like a "tech first" school. Yes, it's a 1:1 environment where students have access to more tech tools than many traditional school students but it's an embedded, organic part of the process instead of a dog and pony show where tech was used for tech's sake.
Having visited other New Tech Network schools the similarities of authentic and purposeful student work and technology were evident but this school has placed an emphasis on culture and it shows. Schools engaged in PBL tend to have a positive culture but CSA intentionally teaches and assesses the building blocks of culture as school wide learning outcomes. I noticed some differences in their application of PBL from my ideal but they were not far from it and the embrace of systems and protocols like Critical Friends ensures that they will continue to make great progress in their teaching and learning.
I did wonder why New Tech Network suggests math be taught in more of a problem based learning context. I'm not a math expert but it seems math as a subject area fits with projects as well as any other. I also noticed some activities that did not seem as tightly connected to the actual Need to Knows of the projects and at least one project where the teacher was to be the audience. Knowing that this was a snapshot without extended information jumping to conclusions is not fair but in the design of schools and instruction learning is the top priority and I see those elements as key components in that learning. It could be argued that because of their innovation they are under more scrutiny and it's more important that students are getting what they need to be college and career ready otherwise they'll be easy targets for detractors. Designing for student engagement is of utmost importance to me so I did wonder about the level of voice and choice students at CSA had in their projects. They certainly were able to approach the projects from different angles but what if the project topic was not particularly interesting? PBL is inherently more engaging but on an intellectual level, I wonder how we might design and plan for the emotional attachment...how do we include student's passion in their work?
I came away from this visit energized and excited. I would love to see more schools embrace this type of vision, including the school my daughter attends, and I wonder how to make that happen. It's not enough to merely be innovative, which in itself is no small task, it's about a vision that includes a long term plan where any innovation is purposeful in addressing a need in that plan. While I might tweak a few things if I were designing a school, New Tech Network does a good job of helping schools with the planning and support for intentional innovation centered on meaningful and rewarding work for students and staff.
I'll end this post with a Driving Question of my own and invite you to suggest revisions:
How can we, as education leaders, move our education systems to better meet the needs of 21st Century students?
What are your Need to Knows?
Earlier this week, along with other National Faculty members of the Buck Institute for Education, I shared the opportunity to visit ACE Leadership High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Under considerable direction and guidance from fellow BIE NF Tim Kubik it's clear that ACE is changing lives and is perhaps a model for changing high school as most of us know it. With the understanding that this school is a work in progress, in it's infancy actually, ACE has it's faults, problems, and challenges but as Principal and Co-Founder Tony Monfiletto noted during our visit, lives are being saved here.
ACE (Architecture, Construction, and Engineering) is a charter school in a public-private partnership with AGC - New Mexico. Even those most critical of charter schools have to take notice of the successes here as a great example of how, when freed from some of the traditional constraints and parameters, schools can meet the needs of even the most challenging populations. And make no mistake about it, this school does indeed serve a challenging population. If I recall correctly there are currently 290 students (with plans to grow to over 400), mostly Latino, who think of school as unnecessary and irrelevant. Actually as I walked and talked during my visit I saw only one young lady with blonde hair, one African-American, and one young man who appeared to be white. The focus is on educating low income students of color and with the local industry clearly tied to a work force that is nearly 90% Latino, of which 50% are without a high school diploma, this connection makes sense for all parties involved.
The incentive for AGC's investment is access to a more skilled work force and ACE helps provide that by building capacity in students using effective project based learning. ACE emphasizes the three C's of Collaboration, Communication, and Client Driven. The latter is important in this context as their mission "is to prepare young people to have successful careers in the construction profession." To increase the relevancy and authenticity students do real work on real projects for real clients including a rubric used to teach and assess "Client Driven" work. This rubric includes three categories; deriving value, innovative solutions, and professionalism...all from the client perspective. Just as teachers and schools should be focused on student needs, the ACE students are pushed to understand their work is primarily about the client and it's in this context that they ask students, "what are you doing to build your reputation today?"
ACE Leardership Morning Meeting
The distinct difference in climate going on here was palpable. This is a chaotic environment. There were no "classes" for students to rotate through. There was very little of the "sit and get" traditional didactic teaching. Instead students and teachers started their day huddled together with general announcements from all parties involved, including students, and then transitioned to short advisory groups for direction from teachers/advisors for their morning projects. Then all hell broke loose and students began working. Some stayed in those small rooms while others retreated to corners and more comfortable work spaces throughout the building with teachers floating through to support that work. Were there some students off task? Of course, and the ideal of 100% engagement was just that, an ideal. But in thinking of how real adults work, is 100% engagement realistic? Instead this was a place where student behavior and thinking were being shaped by the culture to norms and expectations that would help make them successful in the present and future and sometimes that looks messy.
One concern I did come away with is how effectively they are teaching all areas of content. While math and science are natural fits helping students understand key historical content seems a bit more difficult. For instance, how does one shoehorn D-Day into a project about construction without it feeling contrived? It takes some creativity and a full embrace of the necessary paradigm shift but perhaps it makes sense when you start considering the rebuilding that takes place in the years after major wars. ACE is grappling with this problem in much the same way their students are struggling with their projects and while these kinds of issues are sure to be fodder for opponents of charters and non-traditional education my hope is that this will open the doors to questions we need to discuss to move forward. Is it time to question the content? Is it what you know or what you know how to do? As a former US History teacher I must confess that I almost never made it through the content that grows yearly and I know I'm not alone. Nearly any teacher will agree that depth is better than breadth and one has to wonder the impact of the trade-off of creating lifelong learners and contributors to society instead of repositories of facts that might excel on Jeopardy.
In the meantime I'd like to reflect on Tony Monfiletto's statement referenced earlier in a way that is important in the context of extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation. I'm not so sure that this school is saving the lives of these kids as much as I'm sure that this school is equipping these kids to save their own lives. As messy as that might look I'll take that every single day over a set of test scores.
This year marks the first year since 1996 that I haven’t had my own classroom in which to teach but I was gaining teaching experience before that. Sure, I come from a long line of teachers; my grandmother earned $960 in 1933-34 as a teacher and I helped grade my Mom’s schoolwork before I had her as a social studies teacher myself in high school. But the experience I’m talking about is something that should be a part of every teacher certification program, that of a substitute teacher.
In 1994 I entered the teacher certification program at Western Michigan University despite being sure for much of my life that I definitely didn't want to be a teacher. So what changed my mind? As a recent graduate of Michigan State University with a political-science degree I was floundering about in Houston, TX trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up. As I looked for a job and a career I started substitute teaching. With much of my energy focused on resumes and interviews I needed a job with flexibility and subbing provided just that. Think about it this way…how many employers will call you in the morning and ask if you want to come to work and will actually call you back the next day if you turn them down? So there I was, substitute teaching in a 1st grade classroom in Katy Independent SchoolDistrict. After getting over my initial shock I was hooked and before I knew it was back in Michigan and enrolled as a full time student again in a teacher preparation program. Not having the luxury of Mom and Dad paying the bills meant I needed an income so I returned to substitute teaching. Among other things the pay was decent, it was flexible enough to allow me to work on days I didn't have class, and most importantly I began learning to be a teacher by doing.
Teacher preparation programs are quite often set up to model the industrial model of teaching many of us grew up in and that’s a shame. These pre-service programs need to be at the forefront of pedagogy where teachers and students and schools work together like a laboratory to produce the best teaching and learning possible. Much too often pre-service teachers get very little experience as teachers in classrooms until the very end when they do their intern or student teaching. This leaves many unprepared, uninspired and quite often they turn away from the profession after all that “preparation” because of a negative experience.
Why not expect students in teacher preparation programs to substitute teach while they are working their way through the certification program? This could help solve the fairly common problem of districts not having enough quality subs while providing some income and networking possibilities for these future teachers. Most importantly it would inform their coursework because they would be learning by doing. Substitute teaching helped refine my classroom management and planning skills and when I brought those experiences into my college classrooms as a student it gave my learning context.
Recently while discussing this idea with friend and colleague, Tim Kubik, he pointed out that my thoughts on this are philosophically consistent with Project Based Learning and while that hadn’t struck me I couldn’t agree more. Why would we front load instruction for pre-service teachers and then put them in front of students? Good pedagogy embeds the instruction organically in the challenge where students identify what they need to know, seek that knowledge and understanding and practice their skills. Requiring future teachers to substitute teach allows for more opportunities to do just that while giving them experience that will help shape them as professionals.
Drew Perkins is an Educational Programs Specialist with the Collaborative for Teaching and Learning and member of the Buck Institute for Education National Faculty. For more information on project based learning visit www.bie.org.