UPrep has a strong tradition of new course development. Each year, teachers consider what could enhance students’ experiences in the academic program. What needs exist, and what concepts and skills have emerged as important? After peer feedback and revision, course proposals are presented to our Academic Council for approval and inclusion in the Course of Study for the following academic year. Here are our the new courses that we will offer in 2017-2018.
Archive for Curriculum
In many independent schools, most students are ready for college-level work by the time they reach junior year. Why, then, do we make them conform to the same time and curriculum structures as our younger students?
Students who study away during junior year know this well. Popular study away programs develop curricula connected to their place in the world, set students to real-world challenges, have more flexibility in their daily schedules, and ask students to present their work to experts in the field. When they return to school for senior year, students often find a conventional schedule confining and learning goals abstract (at best).
Two such students have visited me several times this year, to the point that I have invited them onto one of our strategic planning committees. Their requests: place-based education, interdisciplinary learning, and real world projects. They would like studies to connect to the city of Seattle, draw upon multiple academic disciplines, and to work toward meaningful outcomes.
Junior and senior year are ideal times to develop and test new models of curriculum and instruction. Students take many elective courses during this time, having completed most graduation requirements. Many design a course of study that allows them to more deeply investigate the subjects that interest them most. Junior and senior curricula already have quite a lot of flexibility.
As students prepare for the next step in their educations, they could follow a weekly schedule that supported independence and flexibility. Each class could meet just twice per week, reserving substantial time for individual and collaborative work on open-ended projects, including travel into the city.
Such a schedule would also create space for innovative programs in education. Internships, independent research, senior projects, service learning, and online learning are all promising new forms of study, but they cannot ultimately be effective if constrained by the fragmented time chunks of a conventional high school schedule.
A program centered on student designed learning experiences deserves equally innovative school architecture. Such a school would include spaces to work independently, meet with a mentor, collaborate with a small team of students, build and leave long-term projects, prototype and iterate, and identify resources and partners. This part of campus would support hybrid thinking, housing both disciplinary experts and specialists in community engagement.
Could such a program also benefit students and younger grades? Of course! This center would be available for innovative learning in all grades. The center would field test a model for active learning that could subsequently be adapted for all grades.
Photo by nicolastathers
Curriculum is the main dish in a school, the substance of what students are attempting to learn. Why, then, do most professional development programs focus on pedagogy, assessment, and classroom climate? Without addressing course content, attempts to improve engagement and learning will fall flat. Students are highly attuned to the objectives of their learning activities.
The Independent Curriculum Group is one of the only organizations through which independent schools directly address school curriculum focus. Originally founded to support schools seeking to drop Advanced Placement tests, ICG now attracts schools that are thinking creatively about the content and learning objectives of the instructional program. At this event, we met a school that has formed an academic department for topics in human development, another that offers eight world languages (see p. 36), a third that schedules athletics in the morning, and a fourth that provides students with “20% time” for independent projects. Nothing provides confidence in program change better than meeting the schools that have already done it!
The Academic Leaders Retreat West was the second of two personalized, interactive conferences. The location, Ghost Ranch in Abiquiú, New Mexico, encouraged participants to engage with each other, reflect about what’s important in schools, and imagine innovative potential school programs.
Peter Gow and Jonathan Martin facilitated the group sessions. Among the highlights: Martin guided us through a systems approach to school change, elegantly blending theory with practice. In one activity, we used fishbone diagrams to identify the key institutional factors underlying the student outcomes we wish to change. For example, our group looked at student reluctance to take risks and identified factors such as teacher-defined learning objectives, grading practices, program fragmentation, and high student workload as key systems factors that inhibit student risk-taking.
ICG knows how to empower conference participants to personalize and maximize their experience. The retreat included three “unconference” sessions, in which we all proposed topics and led discussions. This allowed us to hone in on questions that were particularly on our minds and learn more about practices in other schools.
The evening events were just as significant as those in the daytime. The first evening, we watched Beyond Measure, the follow-up to Race to Nowhere. The film profiles a handful of schools, and specific students within them, who have succeeded in creating instructional program with meaning and purpose. I was struck by the stories of students who were dutifully attempting to meet their school’s expectations, but without passion. Their learning really took off when their schools launched new learning environments that featured student-defined learning objectives and authentic purpose. The second evening, Gow led a storytelling conversation about schools that have succeeded in shifting faculty culture toward program innovation.
Team professional development typically leads to program change much more than individual experiences. Three U Prep department heads joined me at this retreat, allowing us all directly feel inspired by the conference, meet all of the other participants, and then huddle with each other to discuss implications for our school. The momentum continued after the retreat, as we plugged lessons learned from the retreat directly into our ongoing strategic planning work on next generation learning.
Read the #ALRWest15 Twitter feed for more detail about the work of our three days.
Over the last 22 years, I have worked in six schools, consulted with over a dozen, and visited many more. Yet, I continue to think a lot about my own secondary school experiences. My old school serves as a powerful reference point for my ongoing work.
With my son about to enter high school, and amidst University Prep’s ongoing strategic planning work, I recently became curious about the accuracy of my school memories. Did I correctly remember those experiences? In what ways was my high school similar to and different from contemporary practice? I requested a copy of my transcript to find out.
The results: some of my memories were accurate, others wildly off-base. Brain research suggests that memories are encoded within patterns of neural activity, which are reshaped every time that they are activated. Therefore, memories change and become less accurate as a result.
Number of Courses
I took only five classes most semesters. A few times, I took six. Today’s students regularly take six to seven classes per term. While they get to study more subjects, depth has been sacrificed as a result. In high school, I studied AP biology, chemistry, physics, and calculus without prior coursework. Today’s, AP science and math classes often have prerequisites, as teachers express that they can’t possibly cover the specified content in one school year.
Some subject requirements were minimal – one trimester of art during grades seven through nine? One semester of science in grades eight and nine? One semester of history in the ninth grade? World language study was required through high school. Science was not! These subject requirements seem unthinkable today.
The “A” next to course names designates “advanced.” Tracking was a standard feature of the curriculum, and I took all of the advanced courses that I could. I vividly remember my upset at being placed in the lower math class in my first year. Through test performance and lobbying, I worked my way into the advanced track, where I remained and excelled. I felt the pernicious effects of track, a practice that has a common sense appeal and yet denigrates children and denies their potential.
I earned mostly B’s and only a few A’s. How did I get into Harvard? For one, grade distributions were wider then. An A reflected “unusual excellence” and was difficult to earn. My school defined B as “an honor grade,” which sounds a lot like today’s A. The A is now the most common grade in many secondary schools and colleges. I remember always scrapping to prepare for assessments and improve my performance. Perhaps that’s because there was always a higher level to aim for.
Ethics class? SAT prep? A capella group? Senior woodcarving panel? These were all required and took place during class periods, and yet only the full courses are reflected in the transcript. Today’s transcript captures every academic experience.
In today’s “coding for everyone” climate, it’s ironic to remember that such courses were widely available in the 80’s. The computer had just become “personal” and coding was synonymous with computing. I took two semester computing classes, one in BASIC and the second in PASCAL. My school offered a sequence of four programming courses! In the 90’s and 00’s, technology skills instruction displaced programming, and only now is coding making a spirited comeback.
Electives and Student Choice
It is currently popular in education circles to bemoan content coverage and uphold student agency and choice. Well, it appears that at least one fairly conventional, independent school offered more course choices in the 80’s than most schools provide today. The small core curriculum left plenty of free space in student schedules for elective studies, and the faculty filled the catalog with a wide range of interesting offerings. Today, a long list of distribution requirements forces a certain diversity in student course selections but prevents them from fully pursuing their interests. In 1986-1987, my high school offered the following electives to juniors and seniors.
English: Shakespeare, English Writers, American Writers, Great Poets and Poems, The Hero as Rebel-Victim, Novel and Film, The Short Story, Modern American Literature, Creative Writing, English Composition, Writing—Expository, Narrative, Descriptive, Introduction to Philosophy, Classics in Translation, Readings In John Milton’s Paradise Lost
History: America At War, Constitutional Law, Civil Liberties, Russia and the Soviet Union, Africa: Colonialism to Independence, Hitler’s Germany, The Vietnam War
Arts: Art History, Ceramics, Drawing, Furniture Making, Mechanical Drawing, Media, Music, Photography, Printmaking, Acting, Advanced Ceramics, Advanced Photography, Architectural History, Graphics, Sculpture
Other electives: Anthropology, Geology, BASIC Computer Programming, PASCAL Computer Programming, Advanced Computer Programming, APL Computer Programming, Astronomy, Business, Advanced French, Latin, and Spanish courses, German, Probability and Statistics, Psychology, Topics in Mathematics, Biology, Calculus, Chemistry, Math Analysis, Physics
Diversity and Social Justice
Neither the student body nor the faculty was particularly diverse, and yet some courses had a strong diversity and social justice angle. Invisible Man, African Independence, Civil Liberties, and other courses suggested a politically liberal, progressive tilt among at least some faculty members.
What courses did you take as a teenager? How does that course of study compare to your school today? Education literature suggests that U.S. schools have evolved little over the decades. While the current school reform agenda attempts to counter this trend, it is worth taking a look back to check the accuracy of our memories.
Analyzing student and faculty data has added a critical new dimension to discussions of specific dynamics in our school. Teacher observations, administrator experience, and student anecdotes are all essential for the continual improvement of our school program. In addition, the trends, correlations, and distributions within our data have made our decision-making conversations more specific and helped resolve conflicts among competing, anecdotal points of view.
We have recently had success analyzing student and faculty data to better understand specific dynamics in our school. Many of these analyses become more clear through data visualization. Key questions include:
How often do we grant students’ top course requests?
Will our course offerings continue to accommodate a growing student body?
Are the foundational skills of our students changing over time?
Do standardized test scores predict academic performance?
What elective courses should we offer next year?
Do electronic textbooks save families money?
Our analyses of standardized test scores were the most rigorous. We created longitudinal charts of score means and medians, examined subscore trends as well, and calculated correlations among different scores. To confirm validity, three different groups performed the tests: myself, our statistics students, and a psychometrician from ERB. The fascinating, consistent result? The gut feelings of our community members have consistently had some truth to them, but anecdotal opinion has a tendency to exaggerate and oversimplify. Our data studies have both validated and identified the limits of anecdotal opinion. They have clarified the multiple facets of issues that people have reduced to simple statements.
Here are some examples of our data visualizations. Most are created in Excel using countif() and sumif() functions and chart tools. I apologize for obscuring much of the content for the sake of privacy. Instead of publishing it all publicly, I am presenting the full studies to the appropriate constituencies in our school community.
35 years of standardized test and GPA means
Students’ initial thoughts about new elective courses
Correlations among different standardized tests and GPA
Longitudinal subscore analysis
Print vs. Electronic Textbooks: Total Cost per Student
I relived a little piece of the Stanford experience and met interesting people at the Stanford+Connects event this past Saturday at the Washington Convention Center. These alumni events travel the country, featuring talks by the university’s president, several distinguished professors, and two students. I don’t ever make it to reunion events, and while I attend similarly timely and stimulating University of Washington or independent school talks from time to time, I don’t ever attend my college reunion events. I also got to learn about topics that I typically only read about or listen to through TED talks and NPR pieces. Some highlights for me: President Hennessy spoke to the many building and program development projects at Stanford, a number of which have emerged from the a recent comprehensive study of the undergraduate program. Among these: ten new joint majors that combine computer science with subjects in the humanities.
The five mini-lectures were most welcome, because of course I wanted to hear all of the speakers. These included two students: Westin Gaylord on a project that he and his friends started to write creatively every day, and Derek Ouyang on an energy neutral, pre-fab house core design competition for which he led a team. Three professors also presented mini lectures, Carla Shatz on restarting synapse generation in old age, S.V. Mahadevan on bringing emergency medicine to developing nations, and Robert Sutton on improving organizations by eliminating the bad. Dan Klein (with a nod to Patricia Ryan Madson) added an improv demonstration and three activities that got us out of our seats and meeting neighbors!
With a nod to our grad school memories, my wife and I attended David Kennedy’s historical review of water management in the U.S. west. Many alums fondly remembered Kennedy’s lectures, though this was my first! Kennedy shared a wealth of historical facts that laid the groundwork for contemporary federal water management practices, including many challenges. Did you know that the federal government owns fully 45% of the last west of the 100th meridian? This is in contrast to the east, in which the federal government sold nearly all of its holdings in the past. He painted a rather bleak picture for the future of the combined effects of rising global temperature, drought, and consumption increases.
Margot Gerritsen presented a detailed view into “unconventional” oil and gas, including tar sands and fracking. Her perspective, backed up with copious data, is that unconventional energy has already arrived, and we would be best served minimizing its negative effects than trying to “prevent” it from “emerging.” Gerritsen also demystified newspaper headlines, looking at the data to suggest that injection of chemicals into deposits during fracking is unlikely to contaminate groundwater, but water injection is in fact responsible for up to magnitude five earthquakes!
With a rare opportunity to learn outside of my field, I did not attend the one education session. However, I did take a moment to skim a paper by Candace Thille, who presented a session on big data and transformations in education. Thille is an expert on MOOCs and co-founded the Open Learning Initiative (OLI), first at Carnegie Mellon and now at Stanford. She echoes the distinction that others have noted between the original cMOOCs that adopt a connectivist pedagogy and the newer xMOOCs (Coursera, EdX) that have fueled popular interest. Thille then makes a further distinction between xMOOCs that simply put the university lecture hall experience online and those that make student data analytics available to instructors to further instruction.
In Making Learning Whole, David Perkins provides a highly accessible, comprehensive summary of curriculum design principles that encourage thinking, engagement, and mastery. Perkins frames the discussion within a sports metaphor, comparing the way that young people play a “junior version” of professional sports to how students might master the fundamental concepts and skills of an academic discipline such as English or science. The concepts themselves are commonly expressed in the technical language of education theorists — zone of proximal development, experiential learning, and so on. Perkins wraps these ideas within an overarching framework of accessible, common language that is friendly and approachable. It helps if you have heard these terms before, but Perkins helpfully summarizes each concept in case you have not.
Perkins addresses one of the most significant but not well-publicized core problems with education in the United States today: the epidemic of student disengagement with school learning. American schooling has become a chore that the great majority of students suffer through. Content is dry, disconnected from real life, and overly procedural. Although many students learn to play the game of school and find success, most leave so much engagement and learning potential on the table, and an alarming number fail outright. Some find their passion for learning outside of the core school program, either in co-curricular activities or through personal hobbies. Schools, not students, are the problem. Perkins would like to see teachers “make the game worth playing.”
Unlike some education books, Perkins does not limit the text to one education concept. Each of the seven principles of “making learning whole” includes within it several curriculum design principles gleaned from education research. For example, “work on the hard parts” encompasses practice activities, formative assessment, peer- and self-assessment, isolation/reintegration, six forms of knowledge, and instructive exercises. This makes the text a rich resource for learning the practice of curriculum design, whether one is relatively new to the field or a seasoned educator.
Perkins takes the sensible route between competing ideologies. While firmly constructivist, Perkins acknowledges the importance of basic skills acquisition and other hallmarks of traditional education. He thus avoids the pitfalls of binary education debates and emphasizes a holistic view of education. For example, when exploring “playing the whole game,” Perkins includes “project-based learning, problem-based learning, case-based learning, community action initiatives, role-playing scenarios, formal debate, and studio learning.” Each of these learning forms has its books and proponents. Perkins skillfully emphasizes principles shared among these while acknowledging differences, an approach friendly to education practitioners.
The chapter on “the hidden game” is particularly powerful, as it treats fundamental flaws in thinking processes that pervade student (and teacher) work. Deficits in self-management, causal thinking, depth of explanation, and complexification affect not only learning but full participation in society. Perkins badly wants students to become logical, critical thinkers who achieve a depth of understanding that prepares them to more fully understand big, sometimes contentious ideas of our time: evolution, climate change, global conflict.
In contrast to some education experts, Perkins believes that quality curriculum is more important than quality pedagogy. Noting that students forget most of what they learn in school, one might think that the process of learning wad more important. Perkins is unwilling to throw in the towel on content, rather suggesting that reorganized content has a chance to stick.
The education profession badly needs more books like Making Learning Whole, which presents a wide range of teaching practices within a highly accessible, overarching frame. All too often, problems in education are reduced to simple forms that writers purport to solve with simple solutions. Perkins embraces complexity but also provides an opening for the everyday teacher, parent, or student to understand it. Perkins’ contribution may help the general public understand that education is a complex profession in which well-trained professionals should be supported and empowered to deepen their practice and give all kids the quality education that they deserve.