Archive for Curriculum

Stanford+Connects Seattle

IMG_2572I 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.

Many thanks to the Stanford Alumni Association and Stanford Club of Washington for arranging a day of fun, learning, and contemporary topics.

Book Review: Making Learning Whole

Making Learning WholeIn 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.

The Smartest Kids In the World

Each summer, U Prep faculty members read a choice of three books to kick off the professional development theme for the following academic year. This year, our professional development theme is “Teaching for Understanding,” defined as curriculum design and teaching practices that lead students to acquire deep, enduring understanding of subject matter and skills. The first book, The Smartest Kids In the World, asks what the United States high school education system can learn from comparisons to three countries: Finland, South Korea, and Poland. Written by a journalist, the book meets our summer reading criteria of readability, thoughtfulness, and connection to our professional development theme for the year.

book-photo-smartestSome authors, it seems, try to write a book from material that would have done just as well as a magazine article. The Smartest Kids In the World is no such book. Impressive in scope, Amanda Ripley explores and connects several topics worthy of a full volume. Ripley begins by explaining the origin of the PISA test, the basis for recent comparisons of student performance among different countries. In several subsequent chapters, she tells the stories of three American high school students who each study abroad for a year. The three stories weave in and out through chapters organized connected to principles from education research. Making specific connections between research and practices supports Ripley as she explores the implications of the three students’ experiences. The appendices provide information useful to parents, such as Ripley’s take on things to look for when you observe a school and what PISA reveals about beneficial parenting habits.

Ripley repeats her primary message throughout the book: national education reform is possible, because here are three countries that have made massive changes over relatively short periods of time. Finland rocketed up the standings by overhauling its teacher selection, preparation, and induction programs. Poland committed to rigor and student accountability in order to emerge from the damage wreaked by political instability. South Korea is portrayed as two systems: formal schooling that students largely ignore, plus night tutoring centers that do the real job of teaching students. Ripley, the journalist, observes, summarizes, and then concludes, lending support to her recommendations.

Ripley sees several lessons that the U.S. should learn from these three educational systems. High expectations are critical for both teachers and students. Ripley’s students find themselves behind as a result of moving from the U.S. to these countries. National testing enforces high standards, leading to rigorous study habits and high quality instruction. Each of these countries has a high-stakes, national exam toward which students are constantly working. Unlike in the U.S., the national exam has direct career implications for students, so that they have high motivation to work hard and succeed. High standards for teachers make it possible to uphold high standards for students. Finland’s teacher education programs have high entry requirements. In South Korea, a second, the most effective night tutors profit directly from these business ventures. Poland provided teachers with curricular freedom while implementing more rigorous standards.

Common Core notwithstanding, the U.S. education system is primarily directed by individual states. Can these reforms, found in other countries, work in the U.S.? Ripley finds such a state in Minnesota. This completes her argument: if three U.S. students find more rigor abroad, and a U.S. state can similarly improve, then this must be the way to go. At the same time, Ripley pulls no punches in her criticisms of the dominant mindset in U.S. education. Ripley repeatedly cites examples of a failure to commit to high standards, hold students individually accountable for their performance, and select the best teaching candidates and prepare them thoroughly for teaching.

Ripley’s argument passes the “common sense” test. High standards, teacher preparation, and accountability certainly makes a good formula for improvement in education systems. The book also serves as a useful introduction to international comparisons. As a New York Times best seller, this message has broad reach. However, her book is less useful for the purpose of making actual education reform in the U.S., as Ripley’s argument skirts a number of important additional questions required to reform education systems.

Let’s start with PISA, the foundation for these international comparisons. Does PISA predict future economic success for individuals? The path to employment in the U.S. is very different from other countries. For some industries, high school math preparation may lead directly to professional success, particularly in those professions in which accurate completion of tasks is most important. However, new, information-based industries have fueled more recent growth in the U.S. economy. Procedural, and even conceptual, mastery of high school curricula may not build the thinking skills that individuals require to be economically successful adults. Ripley does not extend her thesis to adults and their professional success.

With all of the education scholars that Ripley cites, her omission of Yong Zhao is particularly notable. Zhao also compares education systems in other countries and finds that some, like China, are actually looking to reduce their emphasis on rigor, performance, and long hours of study and emulate the U.S.’s focus on education options and creativity. While the two approaches reflect different conclusions from international comparisons, Ripley could strengthen her position by addressing Zhao’s work.

While Ripley supports her main points well with evidence, some minor points read as pure opinion. Her argument that students in other countries have gained strong conceptual mastery and critical thinking skills is not well-supported. Any standardized test is limited in its capacity to measure higher-order thinking skills such as making connections among different ideas, inventing new ideas, and identifying themes within and among disciplines. While the PISA may do a better job of assessing higher-order thinking than other tests, the format has unavoidable limitations. Ripley also does not address the subject area strengths in the U.S., for example literary analysis and writing, which typically do not receive as much attention in other countries.

U.S. education systems emphasize choice and student direction. Diverse elective course offerings are a hallmark of U.S. schools, allowing students to personalize their own education based on their interests. The emphasis on choice continues into college. Is this part of the reason why the United States has succeeded in generating dominant, new industries over time? In most other countries, students commit to a specific professional track early and subsequently lack the flexibility to shift disciplines as they learn more about themselves and as national economic needs change. Finally, Ripley’s suggestion that teacher kindness towards students undermines teaching effectiveness is suspect. While the U.S. system places the burden of motivation on individual students, and does not serve all students equally, it also offers many avenues for achievement and excellence. Many examples exist of benefits to students who have strong relationships with their teachers.

With The Smartest Kids In the World, Amanda Ripley makes an welcome contribution to popular education literature. Now the opportunity exists for U.S. education systems to give teaching higher status and support in order to achieve higher standards and student success that most would like to see.

Supporting Student Choice in Course of Study Planning

During course of study planning, students have a golden opportunity to shape their secondary school experience. Yet, fully supporting student course choice requires well-aligned processes of course design, course requests, and staffing. Otherwise, obstacles can rise and disrupt students’ ability to guide their academic programs.

Like many schools, the U Prep course of study is fairly prescriptive in the early years and very flexible in the later years. The schedule has seven periods. Middle School students take six required classes, and Upper School students must satisfy graduation requirements: 4 years of English. 3.5 years of history, 3 years of math, science and languages, 2 years of fine arts, and 2 years of P.E. Elective flexibility increases from ninth to twelfth grades, by which point many students can take up to six elective classes.

Some graduation requirements are fixed, whereas others provide options. In the Middle School, sixth grade students choose between instrumental music and a fine arts rotation, as well as selecting among three languages. Seventh and eighth grade students have those choices as well as quite a few additional courses in the fine arts and general studies. Ninth grade students choose a language and two elective courses, and many students satisfy all but their English requirement by the end of junior year.

Here’s where things get interesting. The student who applies correct foresight can craft a course of study with a particular emphasis. Most choose a balanced program that demonstrates a high level of achievement in many subject areas. Others deviate in interesting ways:

  • Taking a free period each semester to allow for depth or slower pace of study, or to accommodate a busy extracurricular pursuit such as dance or club athletics.
  • Playing in symphony or jazz band every year, or working for the yearbook or newspaper, in order to attain a particularly high level of accomplishment in that area.
  • Take as many electives as possible in one subject area in order to satisfy a known disciplinary preference and nicely set up the start of college.
  • Preferring applied courses such as architecture, computer science, journalism, and biotechnology.

Students need specific kinds of support from the school in order to design and craft an intentional course of study. Without these supports, students will end up having to take other courses than their preferred selections, which will diffuse the consistence and intentionality of their program.

1. Build flexibility into graduation requirements

As described above, the academic program should include choices within subject area graduation requirements, as well as free choice beyond subject area requirements.

2. Give students their first choice as often as possible.

This is harder to do than it may first appear. Course scheduling is driven by constraints, such as available staff, classrooms, courses that must meet at the same time, teachers who much teach during certain periods, timing of lunch periods, and so on. In general, the more constraints, the more difficult it is to give students their first choices. Reducing constraints requires reducing accommodations for staff and facilities.

This year, we paid particular attention to the number of sections available to oversubscribed courses. In some cases, we were able to shift teachers accordingly. In other cases, we were not. In the end, here’s how we did. How does this compare to your schools?

Grade First Choice Scheduled
6 100%
7 92%
8 91%
9 82%
10 84%
11 92%
12 94%

3. Allow student preference to inform program change

This is a tricky one. We give very nearly all students their first choice when they are required to choose among few options. 100% of sixth grade students receive their first choice because we honor all requests for instrumental music, fine arts rotation, and choice of language. Sometimes, student preference causes significant changes in program, such as the number of supported languages, a wide range of sizes in musical performance groups, and varied class sizes in fine arts and general studies electives. Changes in program can cause changes in staffing (i.e., our colleagues’ jobs), yet a truly student-centered institution must allow for such changes over time.

For student choice to inform program adjustment in the short term, instructional leadership must be able to see course request data before finalizing the staffing arrangement. A high quality course requests system allows the systematic, rapid collection and analysis of student selections.

Students also collectively help inform the long-term direction of the overall school curriculum. Over years, consistent trends in student choice make plain the changes we should make to course offerings. Recent trends include: increasing interest in Mandarin Chinese; a trend toward applied disciplines, such as architecture, journalism, graphic design, and computer science; increasing requests for English elective courses. This helps the school curriculum stay contemporary and authentic, which in turn improves student motivation and quality of work.

4. Reduce obstacles to new course approval

Does your course proposal process encourage creative course design, or does it put up obstacles? Our Instructional Leadership Team approves new courses, yet we emphasize the constructive process when fulfilling this responsibility. The members of ILT are themselves department heads and are thus on both sides of the process. We check for the thoughtfulness and strategic consideration of course proposals, but overall we work to support the generative work of all subject areas in the school as they refine their course offerings. After ILT approves a course, then the larger, more broadly representative Academic Council considers it. Generally, AC supports the recommendation of ILT.

Course proposals are extremely well vetted within departments before appearing at ILT for consideration. Our courses belong to departments, not individuals, so that they fit within a subject area scope and sequence, are designed collaboratively by multiple teachers, and can be taught by more than one teacher, creating staffing flexibility. Thorough department consideration of new course design increases the chances of approval by ILT.

5. Provide high quality academic advising

Students need help to understand the design principles underlying the course planning process. Fulfilling graduation requirements early and thinking ahead about goals for one’s course of study are two simple recommendations. Tracking courses that are only offered some years, effective use of independent study, strategic selection of alternates, and making course requests in an appropriate order require further insight. Advisors need a lot of training to do this job well, and ideally the registrar and/or the scheduling team should review all student course selections in order to guide students away from course choices that they are unlikely to get for one reason or another.

6. Use a powerful scheduling system

The process of determining when, where, and by whom classes are taught is a multivariate process, requiring a team of people to track its many components. Quality training is required for how to gather student course requests and teacher preferences in structured formats that can easily be used later, and then schedule courses in a manner that creates the maximum flexibility for circumstances that are difficult to schedule. The use of scheduling software is practically a requirement, as it is unlikely that a manual process can adequately analyze the massive amount of data, select optimal options, and make visible issues that need to be resolved. However, avoid scheduling software that tries to do all of the scheduling for you, as the complexity of the full problem exceeds the capabilities of most software packages. (I do know one school that distributes a job to a 16-computer cluster, and runs the program for three days to produce its schedule.)

 

Library Commons In Higher Ed

I recently had the pleasure of attending a talk by Jim Mullins, Dean of Libraries at Purdue University. Jim described the process by which Purdue Libraries developed their new Active Learning Center, a concept and $70m building described as, “a learning commons for the 21st Century.” The following ideas from the talk stuck with me.

The library commons concept, a “noisy” library in which students study, work in groups, access resources, and relax has reached the university level. Purdue, with the support of the State Legislature, is transforming their main libraries to keep pace with how students now use information and technology.

Purdue feels that their concept is unique in that it more fully blends classrooms with libraries than they have seen at any other institution. At Purdue, pilot classes have their regularly scheduled meetings within these flexible library spaces. The library isn’t just a place to occasionally hold class. It’s the main space where class takes place.

The Active Learning Center project includes intensive support and mentoring of professors to make their instructional techniques more generative and collaborative for students. Each professor was provided with an instructional expert, technology expert, and librarian to support curriculum transformation. A number of teams work successively with a series of instructors, expanding the number of instructors and courses that feature active learning. The main examples shared in the presentation showed students working in small groups at tables, while instructors roamed the room listening in and providing suggestions.

Minimal user technology is provided by the school. Students predominantly use their own devices to access information repositories and audiovisual displays using their own devices. Basic needs are emphasized: food, coffee, comfortable seating, and power are thoughtfully incorporated into the physical design of the spaces.

An anthropologist provided key findings that played a large role in the design of the Active Learning Center. Hiring an anthropologist, or at least adopting an anthropologist’s mindset, is becoming more popular as a core method to inform design.

Having just finished our second year with a library commons, we at U Prep can heartily endorse this approach. The Purdue initiative to create new spaces, support teachers with instructional coaches, and fully consider student experience has the shape of a well-coordinated school initiative. At least one of our teachers has started to schedule classes in the library during ordinary weeks, not just research projects, in a manner similar to the Purdue Active Learning project.

 

Curriculum Changes at U Prep This Year

In Middle School English, a new public speaking elective will alternate with creative writing.

Introduction to Computer Science will be offered to 8th-12th graders, and is the first step in the development of greater curricular offerings in both divisions.

In the Upper School, the year-long Pre-calculus with Trigonometry course has been replaced with Introduction to Statistics in the fall and Pre-calculus with Trigonometry in the spring. The intent is to beef up students’ understanding of statistics so that students are properly prepared for data analysis in college and beyond.

A Civics course will be offered both fall and spring to meet the new Washington State requirement for graduation.

The senior thesis has been eliminated and will no longer be a separate graduation requirement. In its stead, students will write a comparative literature essay as a culminating project in twelfth grade English.

U Prep will launch its iPad and laptop programs. Teachers and students will increase their use of electronic textbooks and applications.

The Middle School continues to work towards its first “Middle School Link” trip to Santa Fe Prep in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Global Programs is launching its new Global Link Botswana program. Next spring, students will visit Maru-a-Pula School in Gaborone. A co-ed, independent day and boarding secondary school founded in 1972, it is now one of Africa’s premier academic institutions.

Summer Curriculum Development

Our teachers are hard at work this summer revising and developing curriculum for next year’s courses. Themes include interdisciplinary coordination, uses of technology, and team teaching. Here is a project list. Let no one imagine that teachers rest quietly during summer vacation!

Develop grades 6-7 English scope and sequence
Coordinate 7th grade course projects
Coordinate English 8/History 8 units
Coordinate US Musical and Stagecraft
Align French curriculum, develop French 6 curriculum, develop new uses of tech
Coordinate U.S. History Topics and Survey courses
Revise Art & Social Change course
Coordinate MS and US Chinese
Coordinate Calculus I instruction
Coordinate music theory instruction among music courses
Overhaul Algebra I
Revise Early World History curriculum
Set up Mastering Physics online activities
Share flipped classroom techniques
Develop new Intro to Statistics course
Coordinate grades 7-8 Integrated Science courses
Coordinate Physics and Quantitative Physics courses
Transfer knowledge of 6th grade math
Develop integrated 6th-7th math sequence
Revise Modern to Contemporary World History course
Develop tech methods for data collection, lab notebook, assignment submission, differentiated instruction
Revise MS and US Spanish curricula with new electronic texts
Coordinate 6th and 7th grades ecology and river systems instruction

Design Thinking in a U Prep Study Group

This is the third article in a series (1, 2) about using design thinking in practice in our school. This year, I convened a study group to examine what computer science course offerings we might include in our course of study. In the past, the school offered an elective programming class when student enrollment demanded it, and a part-time faculty member could be found to teach the single section course. The study group included teachers, parents, students, and administrators.

I decided to use the design thinking process to organize our study group’s work. Design thinking matched our question well, because previous approaches to teaching programming did not stick in the curriculum. A user-centric approach might reveal some of the system conditions that prevented success in the past. Student feelings about computer science would feature strongly in our process. The ideation phase would facilitate consideration of new approaches to teaching computer science.

Facilitating design thinking activities with a school committee has been very different from working with participants at a summer workshop! People who attend summer workshops are chiefly there to learn something new. People who join a committee, while open to learning something new, are primarily there to help make a school decision. Starting with active inquiry activities helped build support for the use of design thinking methods. We were quickly able to see productive results emerge from our early work. Also, while some participants came ready to propose solutions right from the beginning, I expressly acknowledged that we would need to exercise patience and wait to share ideas until after we had distilled user interviews into themes.

Design thinking workshops focus on a hypothetical scenario such as designing a better chair, wallet, or playground. Designing a computer science course focused on a real scenario that is also more abstract in nature. Interview questions were pretty similar. “Tell me about your experiences with programming?” The process for identifying themes in user interviews was also fairly similar. Ideation was very different, relying more on existing models in use at other schools than on original inventions and new ideas. Prototyping was also very different, since we crafted statements about educational themes rather than building models out of paper and blue tape. Testing our prototypes would have felt similar, as we assigned study group members to play the roles of fictitious user characters, embodying the top themes from user interviews.

External input had great value during the ideation phase. Not only did our study group members bring in their own experiences from beyond our school, but we also tapped into the power of independent school electronic networks. Coincidentally, the topic of teaching computer science was actively discussed on the ISED listserv, and we benefitted from a summary of the input of 70 schools that Chris Bigenho compiled. This document was invaluable in broadening our view and providing perspective on the range of conceptual approaches available to us.

As it so happened, we departed from the design thinking script during the prototyping and testing phases. However, the spirit of design thinking remained fully embedded in our work, even though we fell into whole-group discussion of a single proposal. Throughout, we kept a user-centric focus, considered idealistic possibilities, and tinkered with our proposal on the fly. The result was a clear consensus for a well-defined, innovative proposal for course changes to reintroduce computer science in the school curriculum.

Resources

Empathy map

Our empathy map after we practiced interviews on each other. We added three times as many stickies after conducting user interviews, and then arranged the stickies by similar content to identify themes.

I found the d.school mixtapes very helpful to use for talking points and slides when describing the design process to study group members.

UNDERSTAND mixtape: Discovering insights via human engagement
EXPERIMENT mixtape: Advancing your solution via prototyping
IDEATE mixtape: Generating unexpected ideas via reframing your challenge

(links from d.school website)

Teach Statistics Before Calculus

In this 2009 TED talk, mathematics professor and author Arthur Benjamin asks why schools give so much emphasis to calculus and so little to statistics, when arguably statistics is so essential to participation in society.