Archive for School change

Developing Our Best Ideas

Originally published in the Leadership+Design Monthly Recharge.

“How do we provide students with the most powerful, lasting learning opportunities? Where do we do this well? Where might we do more?” A learning organization is always asking these questions. Today at University Prep, fully half of our faculty and staff voluntarily serve on research and design teams that produce our best new ideas for enhancing the students’ educational experience. How did we get here?

To develop our new strategic plan, we asked the school community to answer these questions and thereby set our course for the upcoming years. We held focus group discussions, conducted internal research and design workshops, administered community surveys, and consulted with national experts. Along the way, we found that the seeds for UPrep’s future had already been laid. We just needed to create the conditions to help them flourish.

This is one example of what Ito and Howe term “emergence” in their book Whiplash. They write, “emergent systems presume that every individual within that system possesses unique intelligence that would benefit the group.” Doesn’t that perfectly suit a school? One of our teachers commented, “I have had ideas for student learning for years. Now, I feel invited to share them, because they actually get adopted!”

The ideas collected during this listening phase coalesced around five themes. We may have predicted some of these in advance, but others were unanticipated. In emergent systems, Ito and Howe write, “decisions aren’t made so much as they emerge from large groups of employees or stakeholders.” As an added benefit, each project started with the advantage of existing community support, because the community had generated the ideas.

Next Generation Learning at University Prep

New Models of Time

Social and Emotional Learning

Social Justice and Educational Equity

Interdisciplinary Learning

U Lab: Student-Directed Learning Connected to Community

We then invited leaders from outside the administrative team to facilitate each team. Ten teacher leaders and program directors stepped into this leadership role. John Kotter describes this as “a dual operating system” in his book XLR8 (Accelerate). The first operating system, hierarchy, is expert at efficiently managing ongoing operations but also tends to maintain the status quo. The second, network operating system, is creative, divergent, and connects ideas across disciplines and departments. In the organization with only the hierarchical operating system, decisions are made at the top and handed down to uninspired employees. With a dual operating system, both the hierarchy and network play to their respective strengths.

Ubox, a product of the student-led Social Entrepreneurship class

By inviting many voices and broadly distributing leadership, we created a dynamic innovation engine that continues to create great ideas, promote involvement, and cultivate its own support. Within the first year, we designed and adopted a new school schedule, added social and emotional learning activities to advisory, ran our first Senior LaunchPad (an enhanced senior project), launched the first two entirely student-led courses (no teacher needed), and committed to design intensives (single courses that run full-time for a three-week term, borrowed from Hawken School). We have also joined other national networks that uphold emergence, such as Independent Curriculum Group, Mastery Transcript Consortium, and Global Online Academy.

How does UPrep prepare students for a world that values emergence over authority? It’s easy when we value the ideas of every individual. Students serve on research and design teams, propose new courses and independent study projects, take risks when designing their Senior LaunchPads. Valuing emergence means supporting student voice, choice, and leadership in the classroom and school life. Community partnerships create opportunities for students to pursue their passions through online study, internships, social activism, and entrepreneurship. The principles that have made Next Generation Learning a successful strategic initiative have also made the school more responsive and celebratory of student needs, wishes, and dreams.

UPrep’s New School Schedule

This Wednesday, we will launch the new structure for the school day, designed through a comprehensive process last school year.

Schedule Goals

Support greater focus and depth of study
Compared to the previous combination of 45 and 65-minute periods, consistent 70-minute periods allow students to enter, explore, and consolidate a topic each class meeting.

Moderate the pace of the day
During the schedule study last year, we learned that running seven periods in one day and starting classes at 8:00am contributed to feelings of scatterdness and stress.

Support collaboration and social emotional learning
The schedule includes consistent time for faculty to collaborate, students to work on group projects and study teams, and advisors to organize social and emotional learning activities.

Provide enhanced student support
Students have more time to seek out teachers for academic support, build relationships with community members, and receive feedback on their work.

Design Features

A later daily start with a before-class period that allows access to teachers, particularly for students who cannot control what time they arrive to and leave school.

Longer periods that meet less frequently and rotate on a predictable, weekly basis. The periods in the new schedule start and end at the same time every day.

Fewer transitions between academic classes. It takes quite a bit of mental energy and time to change modes from one subject and class environment to another. The new schedule reduces the number of times each day that this happens.

A daily advisory check-in and one longer weekly advisory that strengthens the student-advisor relationship and supports our social and emotional learning activities.

A daily, 60-minute community time block for assemblies, long advisory, clubs, meetings, special events, study skills workshops, and Community Conversations (Upper School).

A lunch period reserved exclusively for lunch. Students and staff members will be able to slow down, get their lunch in plenty of time, and sit down to eat it with others instead of rushing off to a meeting or event.

Practical Considerations

How many classes may students take?
Seven classes per semester, the same as last year. In a fully rotating schedule, periods 1, 2, 3, and 4 meet on the first day, 5, 6, 7 and 1 on the second day, and so on.

When are students expected to arrive to school?
Middle School students are required to attend advisory check-in at 8:15. Upper School students must be present for A block at 8:25.

What will students who arrive early do?
Students choose how to spend this time, and the school makes many educational and social opportunities available starting at 7:45 AM. These include Open Gym, Library and Makerspace activities, seeking academic support from a teacher, or developing math and writing skills in department offices.

Will conflicts occur between B block and Community Time?
Yes, those who teach or study in cross-divisional (Middle and Upper School) classes will sometimes experience schedule conflicts from 9:50 – 11:45. They will receive information from teachers or advisors about which activities take priority during these times.

How have teachers prepared to design 70-minute lessons?
These new time blocks are similar to the 65-minute periods in our old schedule, so our teachers have much experience designing a high quality, 70-minute lesson. Since all class periods are now 70 minutes in length, teachers have adjusted the plan for the semester to reduce the total number of learning objectives and study them at greater depth. Teachers have also practiced developing 70-minute lesson plans that follow an arc from introduction to immersion, practice, assessment, and reflection.

Conclusion

Schedule change is a bit like moving furniture. It takes a while to get used to, you make adjustments here and then, and soon it begins to feel like home. If you have further questions, please post them to the comments field below, and I will answer them. Thank you to everyone who was involved in the schedule design process last year, including committee chairs, department heads, families, and students.

Tradition or Innovation?

Tradition and innovation are commonly portrayed as opposites. Tradition is said to inhibit innovation, and innovation replaces traditions. Is this always the case? Here is one school that embraces both tradition and innovation. What do you think of this?

The incredible value of school visits

Our host approach us as we passed the school entrance. “Would you like to come in and put your things down?” “Actually we would very much like to watch students arrive to school,” we replied. Our host gazed at us with a puzzled look. “Why?” she asked. “Some in our community are concerned that students won’t use time before the start of school productively.” “You’re welcome to look around, but all you’ll see is students working, chatting, or having a snack.” Sure enough, students and teachers milled about with little concern.

Visiting other schools is a powerful way to encourage flexible thinking about change. It is human nature to stick with the status quo, as the known feels safer than the unknown. The perfect antidote is seeing a new idea working perfectly well in another school. If they can do it, why can’t we? Staff at other schools have put in the time, thought, and energy to design and implement change. We can benefit from each others’ good work.

Travel is expensive. How may a school fund such visits? One key is to frame them as a form of professional development. A school visit is like a conference minus the registration fee! Schools that demonstrate a commitment to professional learning often have success raising PD funds.

Travel is energizing. One of the benefits of being an education professional is the lifelong pursuit of one’s own learning. Visiting another institution is a rich source of new ideas, perspectives, and feedback. One can gain new contacts and expand one’s professional network.

The institutional value of school visits is tremendous. Schools that conduct visits learn from their hosts successes and mistakes and can implement new programs faster and smarter.

Engineering project at another school

 

Science project at another school

Student Directed Learning

Credit: Max Pixel

What is student-directed learning? Academic leaders use the term freely. Do we agree on its meaning? A group of us gathered at the Academic Leaders Retreat to discuss this question. The group included University Prep, Urban School, Christchurch School, York School, Lake Washington Girls Middle School, Evergreen School, Synapse School, One Schoolhouse, and The Berkeley School.

A common principle underlies our interest in this concept. Why does some of the best learning take place in student clubs? Students show greater engagement, work harder, and learn more when they control aspects of their learning environment. Daniel Pink wrote that autonomy, mastery, and purpose fuel motivation. Some students need more control than in the typical teacher-led classroom to feel “drive.” Making learning decisions is a critical skill in our fast-moving world.

Where have schools witnessed students design their own learning? We shared the purest examples from our school. UPrep has two student-led courses, Social Entrepreneurship and Feminism: Effects of Sexism and Advocacy. For each, students propose, design, execute, and evaluate the courses, in consultation with a faculty advisor but with no full-time teacher. When class meets, the students independently decide whether to focus on long-term goals, immediate tasks, or reflections.

The UPrep Community Service program encourages students to become “service captains.” They share the inspiration for a new community service activity, and then faculty and staff then step in to identify a community partner, arrange dates, and acquire materials. In the Student Produced Works course, students direct a play, create a painting, compose music, design a dance, and more. In the LaunchPad program, all seniors design an independent, community-based project around a personal interest to end the final year in the school.

During our discussion, academic leaders from other schools shared similar examples such as intensive clubs, internships, independent research, and very project-based courses.

Must students direct all aspects of the learning experience in order to gain the engagement benefits? Not at all! As Larry Rosenstock has said about the school he founded, we do not need more High Tech Highs. We need more different kinds of schools. Only the very rare school is ready to organize entirely around student-directed learning. Many schools want students to lead some aspects of the educational program. Most schools want students to make choices within their educational program.

Students benefit from opportunities to express “choice and voice.” Even a choice between two options is better than no choice at all. Teachers and schools that genuinely listen to student voice and adjust program in response support student engagement. Students may make decisions in discrete parts of the learning process, such as setting learning objectives, designing lesson activities, defining assessment methods, or connecting concepts learned to contemporary topics. Students may have choice at some times and not others. They may share the inspiration for new programs or activities that adults then carry out.

Our schools do not all have to become High Tech High in order to support student-directed learning. Better to start small, learn from experience, respond to local context, and then scale up. Schools are providing different opportunities for students to direct their own learning, creating schools that better inspire and prepare students for the future.

The Metreon’s Lessons for Innovators

San Francisco MetreonOriginally published on the NAIS Annual Conference Online Community.

I experienced an inspirational story of innovation at the NAIS Annual Conference last week that filled me with optimism about the future of educational change in our schools. Doris Korda and Scott Looney (Hawken School) described an alternative high school program built around entrepreneurship and then unveiled an ambitious new project to reinvent the high school transcript and convince colleges to learn how to use it. I left feeling that we are indeed experiencing a moment of significant transition in independent schools that will help more students fully realize their potential. Then, I walked across the street to the Metreon.

Moscone Center’s giant, floor-to-ceiling east windows face the Metreon. You are forgiven if you think that it is just a Target, but the giant company only recently arrived. In 1999, Sony opened the Metreon in order to reinvent the urban mall as an entertainment/education center. It was a bold, unique pilot project. Original tenants included the first Sony Store, the first Microsoft store, an educational exhibit titled “The Way Things Work,” and a theme park-esque food court and play area based on the Sendak book, Where the Wild Things Are. The architecture was modern, and technology was everywhere. Kids danced on an interactive game projected on the floor, and kiosks sold the latest tech gadgets.

Despite much fanfare, the project stumbled out of the gate. Within a year, some stores left and were replaced. In 2006, Sony sold the building to Westfield, and in 2012, the mall company remodeled the space into a more recognizable form. An upscale, international food court and the aforementioned Target swallowed up the spaces formerly devoted to technology showcase stores, and the Wild Things gave way to a plainer, rentable, event space. Only the multiplex movie theater on the top floor and two of the food court options survived to this day. The building exterior now features red bulls-eyes, marking Target’s current experiment in downtown retail spaces.

Where did the Metreon go wrong, and what lessons can schools take away for their own innovative projects? Though my expertise lies in schools, not urban retail, I can see likely reasons. Sony invested huge dollars, $85 million according to SFGate, in the high stakes gamble. This must have led to massive pressure for the project to bear financial results right away. Successful innovations start small, with low-cost, low-risk pilots, to protect the innovation in its early stages and allow it to flounder, improve, and mature.

The financial model was apparently flawed from the start. In 1999, showcase stores did not make money (at least not until Apple Stores broke through). The added entertainment value of educational exhibits and storybook restaurants work in venues that charge admission, such as theme parks and museums. While design for innovation must welcome creative ideas, it’s equally important to confront practical realities later in the process and have a viable business model.

Sony attempted to change deeply embedded cultural habits of people wholesale and quickly. Even if Sony had protected the innovation longer, and the project was based on a better financial model, people’s shopping and entertainment habits still would not have changed in a short time. Successful innovations take a more personal, and longer-term approach to cultural change.

Will Hawken’s entrepreneurship program last? Will the mastery transcript consortium redefine the college application? We have learned a lot about innovation in education in recent years. I suspect that they have a better chance than that mall across the street.

Sources

Metreon’s shattered dreams (SFGate)

San Francisco Metreon 2.0: ‘Mall Of The Future’ Gets A Face Lift (Huffington Post)

“What happened to the “Where the Wild Things Are” interactive play space that used to be in the Sony Metreon in San Francisco?” (Quora)

A Handbook for Independent School Change

When I learned that Denise Pope had published a new book (with Maureen Brown and Sarah Miles), I immediately thought that it would continue the story of Doing School, exposing the personal trials of high performing students in high performing schools. To my surprise, Overloaded and Underprepared reads more like a handbook for leading change to improve student well-being in high performing schools. It has immediately become an indispensable resource for schools that are engaged in change processes.

Pope, Brown and Miles stand with one foot in the world of education research and the other in practice, a welcome but uncommon place to be. Education research tends to be inaccessible or impractical to teachers, and teachers lack the time and structural imperative to stay abreast of education research. As a result, much school change happens without the benefit, or in opposition to, education research. Work that actively connects research to practice is therefore invaluable.

As Pope so clearly identified in Doing School, student compliance with school programming may mask severe stress and disengagement. When students meet school expectations, leaders and teachers may feel a general sense of satisfaction with the design of the school program. However, schools are complex organizations that rarely function at their potential in all areas!  High performing schools may unknowingly leave much student potential on the table. Pope et al help schools ask what they can do to keep improving. As the world never stops changing, schools that do not keep pace rapidly fall out of step with the needs of their students.

Overloaded and Underprepared focuses on the pressing issues facing high-performing independent and public schools: the process of school change, schedule, homework, engagement, assessment, Advanced Placement, social and emotional learning, communication, and professional development. Each chapter summarizes education research on that issue, describes school case studies from the authors’ consulting practice, and lists research references. A school practitioner may read a chapter, learn about schools making intentional changes, and find many references for further study. The book therefore serves a vital role in helping school leaders understand the issues that other schools are addressing and the research base that informs the accompanying changes.

While the opportunity gap facing urban and rural public schools has great national importance, dozens of research studies and books address that problem. Pope et al therefore fill a literature gap for independent schools. At the same time, independent and high performing public schools still face issues of social justice and educational equity, and Overloaded and Underprepared does little to address them. Do students of color receive an equally high quality experience as their white counterparts? What stresses do students of color and sexual minorities face every day? How does a school address issues of differential inclusion between majority and minority cultures within its walls? Does the school curriculum reflect mostly dominant culture perspectives, or do teachers teach multicultural and critical content across all subject areas? Pope et al miss an opportunity to address these questions in the book.

What other books inform the individuals and teams seeking to lead change in independent and high performing public schools? We regularly refer to the following.

Future Wise and Playing the Whole Game, two books by David Perkins

#EdJourney, by Grant Lichtman

Raising Race Questions, by Ali Michael

Loving Learning, by Tom Little and Katherine Ellison

What resources have you found most useful in your strategic planning work, particularly when designing new forms and supports for learning?

Senior Spring and Student Time

3376949154_13eb28eaf8_zAs the pressure of college admissions disappears, those senior who were primarily externally motivated may suddenly find themselves without purpose. It’s understandable! Students who have pursued a demanding schedule of college prep classes for for college admission may lose their will to work with passion. At the same time, educators may be discouraged to see seniors slide out of high school rather than finishing on a high note.

Happily, we also see counterexamples, students who have developed strong internal motivation and see senior spring as an opportunity for exploration and experimentation. By senior year, many students have figured out which topics excite them the most and are interested in designing independent study in these areas.

What obstacles do such students encounter? The typical high school schedule is not so friendly to independent study. In most schools, seniors still attend classes from 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM. It is difficult to immerse oneself in a meaningful project within 45 to 80 minute pockets of time. If travel time or the setup of complex equipment is required, then it is pretty near impossible.

Some schools run a senior project term, in which students design and pursue independent projects for the last few weeks of the school year. The school excuses these students from regular classes so that they may do this. However, the scope of these projects is limited to that short timeframe. The longer the senior project period, the more such students may accomplish.

One of our students has developed a creative way to create more flexible time within a typical school schedule. He deliberately chose three classes that have flexible time structures: an online class, an independent study, and a projects class. The online class is offered through Global Online Academy, a consortium of independent schools to which we belong. The independent study is on the Great Lakes region of east Africa. Advanced Topics in Math, while a regular course, is built around individual, student-designed projects. On some days, this student may have large blocks of flexible time in order to study topics in depth and work with adult mentors both inside and outside the school.

As we continue our strategic planning work, we are considering what type of school schedule could offer larger chunks of flexible time by design, in order to reduce obstacles to independent, project-based, or off-campus study. How much flexible time is best? What support would students need to make the best use of such time? Can we give classes the option of meeting more or less frequently without overly fragmenting the flexible time available to students? We plan to ask these and other questions about time, research what other schools are doing, and propose changes for the school schedule.

Photo credit: “Broken Clock” by cacophonyx on Flickr

Beyond Good vs. Bad

Scissors

Most education debates reduce the question of teaching methods to a good/bad argument. Are lectures good or bad? Technology? Homework? While a common rhetorical tool when attempting to win an argument, overemphasis of a simplified position undermines productive discourse and program development. Educators must move into the space between extremes, into nuances and complexity, in order to have constructive conversations that advance teaching practice. A constructive perspective eschews good/bad arguments and embraces relativism.

Of course, a good lecture can provide students with a terrific cognitive experience. However, the vast majority of direct instruction is not high quality lecture but rather a comparatively low-level summary of facts and conclusions. Emphasizing active learning opportunities for students creates more chances for students to engage in productive modes of thinking during class time. Most schools do not call for a ban on teacher talk but rather include high quality teacher presentation as one teaching method among a handful that should be used in classes. As always, effective teacher coaching depends on individual circumstances, which is why teacher observation and feedback is associated with improvement in teaching practice. With one teacher, we encourage less teacher talk and more student leadership in class. With another teacher, we endorse teacher talk, because it’s high quality and just one part of the learning environment.

The same can be said for other polarizing topics such as technology use, homework, class seating arrangements, and curriculum standards. For each, the practice is neither pariah nor panacea. Visit many schools, and one will see both good and bad educational practice along the spectrum of each topic. It is easy to find both effective and disastrous implementations of educational technology, productive and counterproductive homework practices, and thoughtful and thoughtless implementation of state content standards.

Several factors determine the effectiveness of a particular instructional practice in a particular context. The teacher should understand the key qualities of the instructional technique, what makes it effective in the best circumstances, and how it might exist within and interact with the existing learning environment. The school’s mission and values are critically important. The teacher should know how the instructional technique relates to institutional values or could be shaped to better complement them. Teachers should always be attentive to the student experience with teaching practice, through subtle methods such as accurately reading student engagement and depth of thinking during the activity, as well as more formal methods such as soliciting student feedback and examining student class work and assessments.

Ongoing professional conversations about teaching practices, institutional values, and student experience lead to the development of a recognizable culture of instruction in a school. Collaboration, professional development, and examination of qualitative and quantitative data bolster school identity and practice.

While good/bad arguments make for good headlines, nuanced, complex work leads to better instruction.

(Image by Natesh Ramasamy on Flickr)

Challenge Through Inquiry in Physics

“I have always been drawn to the idea of challenge for students.” Physics teacher Moses Rifkin has known for a long time how to assign difficult test questions. At the same time, he has increasingly come to feel that different challenges are needed to support all high school physics students in learning. Rifkin has begun to develop experiential learning challenges built around student inquiry.

Over a span of two years, Rifkin has noted which topics could be taught in an inquiry manner. This year, he dramatically reorganized the physics curriculum, inverting conventional unit structure. Instead of learning a concept and then applying it to a project, students first explore through observation, identify what they need to know, and then learn the relevant concepts. Students exhibit greater motivation to learn physics concepts that are situated within an applied context rather than the dry, hypothetical scenarios typical of textbook learning.

Early this fall, physics students completed three inquiry learning projects. In the first, students were challenged to design virtual robots that could stand up and move about, using the simulator SodaPlay. Students quickly learn that staying upright and walking involve complex, constantly changing forces! Through trial, error, and reflection, students develop creativity, thoughtfulness, and resiliency.

In the second project, students were asked to think about the traffic signal in front of the school. “Where can you be when the light turns yellow and stop in time? Where can you be when the light turns yellow and make it through before it turns red?” Through experimentation, student groups worked to identify the relevant variables and equations, calculated responses to the questions, and then created a presentation to explain it all.

The third project flipped the classic “egg drop” activity. Students were presented with only the basic parameters of the egg drop: “you will be raised 25 feet up in a crane lift. I will walk by below, unaware. You will determine when to drop an egg in order to hit me squarely in the head.” Students worked to identify helpful physics principles and apply them to answer the question, and (only) then did they attempt to drop the egg and hit their target!

Students had the option to present their work on a poster or through a video. One student has connected the study of physics to his passion for filmmaking and animation, producing professional quality videos for his groups’ projects.

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What is next for U Prep physics? Rifkin comments that these projects are more “open-roaded” than open-ended. Students learn how to apply conceptual study to real-world situations, but in reality these problems have a limited number of possible solutions. Rifkin would like to explore how to support students in to ask thoughtful questions and then design inquiry methods to study them, while still mastering foundational physics principles. This could make these projects truly open-ended, with a variety of possible outcomes.