Wednesday, November 28, 2012

New Tech vision

As part of my work with the Collaborative for Teaching and Learning and the Buck Institute for Education I've recently had the opportunity to visit two radically innovative yet different schools. A few weeks ago I spent a day at ACE Leadership Academy, a charter school in Albuquerque, NM, and shared my thoughts in a post. Earlier this week I joined the CTL staff for an Executive Tour at Columbus Signature Academy, a New Tech Network public school in the heart of Indiana.
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?