Tag Archive for learning

Beyond Measure Film Explores Next Generation Learning

Originally published on University Prep

On February 18, University Prep hosted a public screening of the film “Beyond Measure,” which was attended by about 80 U Prep families and members of the public. The film visits several schools across the country to tell the stories of students who are disengaged from conventional forms of schooling, in which standardization, testing, and content coverage feature prominently. The students speak eloquently of the difficulties of staying motivated and working hard in such programs, as their teachers and principals grapple with how to fully realize the potential of their students.

These school leaders, as well as one enterprising student, find examples in innovative schools such as High Tech High in San Diego and the New York Performance Standards Consortium. Throughout the film, experts such as Sir Ken Robinson, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Yong Zhao share their thoughts on the best ways to teach for intellectual courage and global citizenship. Individualized learning, student-designed projects, and alternative programs are highlighted, and the students featured in the film find both inspiration and academic success.

After the film, Head of School Matt Levinson, senior Matan Arad-Neeman, English Department Head Christina Serkowski, and Science Department Head Brent Slattengren fielded questions from the audience. The discussion explored the ways in which University Prep has been upholding some of the film’s recommended practices, including teaching for depth over breadth, assessing students on a performance rubric, encouraging student presentation, designing interdisciplinary projects on contemporary topics, and fully supporting teachers to collaborate and innovate.

The panelists also explored University Prep’s ongoing efforts to develop further changes to the schedule and calendar, interdisciplinary learning, social and emotional learning, online learning, and student-designed projects. The school’s newly adopted strategic plan features Next Generation Learning as one of its three key components, and several faculty-student working groups continue to research and design options and opportunities for program innovation at University Prep.

Co-curricular Innovation Council

We have launched a “Co-curricular Innovation Council” so that co-curricular program leaders can more easily consult with each other, work together on common projects, and build stronger partnerships with classroom teachers. The committee includes directors of the global education, urban studies, outdoor education, teaching and learning, athletics, robotics, community service, Knight Scholars, and instructional technology programs. These program directors have historically directed their programs mostly by themselves or in partnership with one or two other people. This committee creates a systematic way for program leaders to request feedback from each other and launch projects together.

As co-curricular programs have evolved from mere “activities” to fully-fledged experiential learning environments, it has become more important to coordinate these programs and build stronger connections between co-curricular programs and classroom teaching. Students often refer to outdoor trips, robotics projects, or urban planning presentations as their most memorable learning experiences. Why should they experience dramatically different teaching styles between classrooms with and without four walls?

Organizing program directors together allows us to strengthen what we have in common: a focus on 21st century content domains (global citizenship, environmental stewardship, technology, etc.) and skills (communication, collaboration, creativity, etc.). Facilitating ways from program directors to work more closely with classroom teachers creates potential for more experiential learning opportunities within classroom instruction. Our classroom teachers have been creating terrific experiential learning opportunities for years. Now they get more potential partners and conceptual support for their project work.

So Long, Learning Profiles?

NPR reports this morning:

Think You’re An Auditory Or Visual Learner? Scientists Say It’s Unlikely
Psychologist Dan Willingham at the University of Virginia, who studies how our brains learn, says teachers should not tailor instruction to different kinds of learners. He says we’re on more equal footing than we may think when it comes to how our brains learn. And it’s a mistake to assume students will respond and remember information better depending on how it’s presented.

I was trained in the early 2000’s in the All Kinds of Minds approach and taught at a school that specialized in mainstreaming students with specifically identified learning differences. The learning center was a focal point in this school, all students identified learning their own strengths and weaknesses, and teachers individualized instruction to cater to the strengths and accommodate the weaknesses.

I am open to new studies that refute old techniques. If it is the case that learning profiles do not much help students learn, then I am happy to no longer individualize instruction for these strengths and weaknesses. We all learn, evolve, and improve our teaching over time.

However, the danger exists that educators will take this study as justification to teach in a traditional format dominated by oral presentation in class and reading and writing for homework. At Gateway High School, we did not just individualize instruction. We also varied instruction for heterogeneous groups. That is, we presented material in different ways in the class, orally, visually, through hands-on exercises, simulations, role plays, student presentations, problem solving, long-term projects, community-based activities, and so on.

In fact, the study cited supports this heterogeneous approach: that studying material in varied ways promotes learning. You will have to listen to the audio version of the NPR story to hear this part, as it did not make the printed synopsis. In a positive way, the study supports the efforts of educators to vary instruction. At Gateway, many students who performed at an average level at previous schools excelled within our multi-modal, heterogeneous model.

Let us use this study to move forward, not back.

Botswana Trip Curricular Goals

Source: cordelia_persen on Flickr

We leave for Botswana in two weeks. What curricular goals have we realized so far, and what remains to accomplish?

Collaborations with discipline-based classes
We (the two trip leaders) proposed to invite teachers to include the topic of HIV/AIDS in Botswana in their classes. Our method was simple: we raised the opportunity with teachers by email and impromptu, in-person conversations. To our pleasure, a half-dozen teachers responded with interest.

Pathogens and Parasites students wrote a guide to malaria and HIV/AIDS in Botswana for trip families. I presented some basic facts about the country and then organized the students into groups to co-write this document.

Statistics students analyzed data on AIDS prevalence in Botswana.

Second grade students wrote introductory letters (w/photos) to primary students in Gumare, in support of the yearlong theme of global awareness.

Media Arts students created short films from poems that Maru-a-Pula students wrote.

Advanced Biology students studied the intricacies of the immune system, or viruses and on the specifics of the HIV virus and it’s effect on infected humans.

Collaborations with co-curricular programs
We hold an annual diversity conference, planned and led by students. One trip participant shared excerpts from a book on HIV and AIDS in Botswana and shared clips from a film then facilitated a discussion of both.

Two teachers work with students in the Global Citizens Club to offer a series of film viewings throughout the year. The Viewfinder Global Film Series included the film Miss HIV, introduced and facilitated by two trip participants.

Non-collaborative activities with curricular links
While the curriculum of trip preparation remains firmly embedded in the school’s co-curricular program, some conversations demonstrated links with the school’s curricular program.

Trip participants spoke with various HIV/AIDS experts about Botswana.

Cascade AIDS Project
Botswana-Harvard AIDS Partnership
Médecins Sans Frontières
Providence Health
Botswana-Baylor Pediatric AIDS Initiative.

The trip group organized and delivered a presentation at Upper School assembly, including dramatic role play.

Trip participants organized on-campus fundraising events to benefit support organizations in Botswana.

Trip group read and discussed Saturday Is for Funerals.

School Change Through Experiential Programs

Independent schools have increasingly created specialized positions to lead or facilitate new, experiential learning opportunities for their students. Do you have these positions at your school?

Director of service learning
Director of global programs
Educational technology specialist
Urban studies program director
Director of student life
Outdoor programs coordinator
Director of diversity

These programs feature a common thread: experiential learning. Students engage in hands-on activities grounded in an authentic context such as service, the outdoors, global travel, or multiculturalism.

Where do experiential programs live within the school? How do students access them?

One model: students experience two separate courses of study, a “core” of discipline-based study plus a “peripheral” set of experiential programs.

This structure implies an “influencer” model of school change. The school creates new positions for experiential program leaders. Students participate in these special programs outside of the regular class schedule. Most teachers observe from a distance. If the experiential programs are exciting and the program specialists effective at outreach, then teachers may increasingly partner with the programs to introduce more experiential elements into subject-based instruction. Experiential programs only affect the core as much as they influence from a distance.

The contrast of teaching methods may send students unintended messages. Discipline-based classes may use more recognizable forms of teaching: holding classes, facilitating class discussion, assigning readings, and assessing student mastery through papers, presentations, and tests. Experiential programs may take place in the woods, on Skype, or through a blog. They may emphasize student construction of the learning environment, partnerships with local organizations, special events, and interdisciplinary study. Experiential programs may gain a reputation for being optional or less rigorous.

Another model: students experience a “core” program that incorporates experiential components.

This structure adopts a rapid, comprehensive model of school change. The school makes a decision early on to broadly adopt specific experiential learning themes. All teachers are involved, and all courses integrate experiential learning in some manner. If the school creates special program director positions at all, then these individuals are few in number and partner closely with teachers to create student learning experiences. They do not offer separate programs to students. The weekly timetable is organized to facilitate experiential learning opportunities. Students experience a relatively consistent learning experience across the school program.

How may an existing school integrate experiential programs without completely reorganizing itself?

1. Assign experiential program responsibilities to core teachers. Partly discipline-based teachers, partly program specialists, they are more likely to influence their colleagues to try something new.

2. Mandate special, schoolwide initiatives to introduce more experiential learning, supported by program specialists.

3. Facilitate democratic, teacher decision-making processes to introduce specific types of experiential learning into the school program, facilitated by program specialists.

4. Provide program specialists greater access to school change vehicles, such as administrative leadership and curriculum review committees.

Case studies: schools trying different experiential programs

I would like to list these schools now and write short case studies in the future. What other independent schools would you add to this list?

Urban School: Innovative Teaching

Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences

Lick-Wilmerding School: Public purpose

“Leading from the Middle”

A summer institute offered by the Santa Fe Leadership Center

Undergrads and IT

My principal challenge in schools is to encourage thoughtful, useful adoption of technology to strategically support teaching and learning. Along the way, I encounter varying attitudes regarding technology in schools. We have early adopters, heavy users, techno-skeptics, occasional users, and more. I often wonder what is the best way to reach different types of technology users so that each makes the most effective use of technology for his/her educational context.

This October 2009 Educause study of undergraduate students and information technology provides some useful information that helps inform my efforts and may help temper fears that our IT department wants everyone to use IT as much as possible.

80% of students were using a learning management system (e.g., Moodle) during the quarter or semester of the survey.

63% found the experience of using a learning management system “positive” or “very positive.”

45% of students indicated that most or almost all of their instructors use IT effectively in their courses.

70% found that IT made working in their courses “more convenient.”

49% felt that using IT improved their learning.

60% prefer moderate use of IT in their courses. Only 4% preferred exclusive use of IT, and 2% no IT. Students appreciate the face-to-face learning experience.

This provides some useful language for explaining our current approach to IT integration to support teaching and learning. We would like for all teachers to explore using IT. A learning management system may smooth class operations, leaving more time to focus on learning. Face-to-face learning is still most highly valued.

Extending the learning community

Publication of student work on the website extends the learning community beyond the classroom to the entire school community. Key to this effort is a school website that includes a community publishing platform. Students and teachers choose whether to make the work viewable to the school community only (students, staff, parents, alumni) or the public, depending on the pedagogical goal of the work. Learning becomes a community endeavor rather than only a classroom pursuit, increasing authenticity and mutual understanding of the work that happens at school.

Click on each title to view the content at Catlin Gabel.

Urban Studies blog

Students tackle topics of sustainable development in Portland, “The City That Works.” During the school year, we offer a semester elective. The summer brings an intensive program with students from different schools.

Science Projects blog

Students report on their independent research plans, progress, and results. The teacher provides feedback in the form of comments. Only one of the students has made her blog public, so you won’t see the work of the others on this page.

The Catlin Coverslip

The science department invites all Catlin Gabel community members to contribute items of interest to this blog.

Nepal 2010 blog

Blogging about global trips increases the sense of community experience. The 15 lucky students who go on the trip become ambassadors for the rest of the school, no longer the sole beneficiaries of the experience.

Spanish V Honors blog

Students get out into the community to research the hispanic presence in Oregon. Through the blog, they report their findings back to the community and help educate us all. This project includes a lot of primary audio and video footage from Portland.

Honors Arts Projects portfolios

Students attach photo galleries to their blog posts to create a portfolio, in this case to support their  college applications.

Fifth grade Fractured Fairytales

Students create “alternate” versions of classic fairytales, then we publish them so that parents and others students may read them as well.

Sixth grade Language Arts Poetry Box

Students write poetry, but then the teacher publishes both the text and an audio version for parents and the rest of the community to enjoy.

Senior Project blogs

We have now collected two years’ worth of blog posts from seniors reporting and reflecting on their spring projects. Up until now, all of the posts have been for the Catlin Gabel community only. This year, students will make the public/community-only decision for each post. Watch this page in May 2010 to follow their progress.

Experience and Education

We read Dewey’s Experience and Education first in our graduate program. I recently had two experiences that reminded me of the necessity to make authentic student experience central in the design of a educational environments.

We introduced fourth grade students to web research with a simple activity. Ask them to find ten discrete facts on the web using Google Search. We modeled good search techniques in class and provided two paper resources. One listed the ten facts to find, and the other described a cyclical method for refining search terms in order to improve results. We talked about authority of websites and how to scan a web page for content. This introductory lesson went really well. Students learned the protocol, proceeded through the activity, and found the facts.

More recently, students applied this knowledge in a plant research project. Each assigned one plant they had seen in the Oregon woods, the students searched for the taxonomic name for the plant, its ideal growing environment, nutritional value, average height, and other facts. Students took much longer to find this information. Many got stuck partway through and needed help.”I can’t find the scientific name!” “Where can I find ‘food value’?”

Why the difference? The second activity was more authentic and experiential. Students were engaging with real information about plants they had found and held and searching for them on the “real” web. These searches had not been tested in advance to compile a worksheet. Rather, students had to understand what a taxonomic name actually is, rather than look for the term “scientific name.” They had to be flexible and understand that “nutritional value” or comments on why an animal might eat these plants made up the “food value” they were seeking. Charting their own course through an authentic environment produced far more useful learning than completing a structured, finite activity.

The Haiti earthquake and resulting humanitarian disaster are very present in our minds these weeks. We are exposed to frequent reports from news sources and support our students’ efforts to raise money and awareness for Haiti. However, all of this does not compare when one’s colleague relates her stories of past trips to Haiti, nervous attempts to contact friends post-quake, and informs the school community that her doctor husband has just left for Haiti with a medical team.

She writes:

It is with those computers that were donated by CG and the Rotary, [my son’s] help, albeit small, in setting them up that has allowed some of the connections and relationships with others around the world. The people of Matenwa are still able to communicate and receive email/news, which is amazing. It is so important to them to know others care and are trying to help.

In the long-term, these experiences are without a doubt more “educational,” but they are messy, difficult to manage, and complicated to assess. We should show the confidence to accommodate the short-term disorder and uncertainty that accompany kids’ struggles with authentic content in order to foment powerful learning.

All Kinds Of Minds in action

You may know the whole-brain teaching philosophy called All Kinds of Minds. A majority of our teachers attend professional development days to learn this brain-based approach to teaching students, one part of our approach to progressive education. Teachers learn to construct learning activities that work for different types of learners. Students learn to identify their own learning strengths and weaknesses and appreciate the unique set of qualities that each person possesses. Such an approach gives students responsibility for their own learning. In the following video, second grade students share what they have learned about their own skills and brains.

The video also serves as a fine example of teacher use of technology to share student learning with the school community. This second grade teacher collected media, produced this video, and presented it to parents without requesting any assistance from our IT department. Well done!

Reflections on Building Learning Communities 2008


I made a full week of the Building Learning Communities conference this year. I started with EduBloggerCon East, an informal gathering of local educators and technologists to discuss tech issues on our mind. I spent Tuesday at The Met, the “unschool,” in which students learn through internships and independent study. The formal conference ran from Wednesday through Friday and included one keynote and several breakout sessions per day.

EduBloggerCon was a success. I am a big fan of participant-led events, which bring a level of authenticity and spontaneity often lacking from more carefully planned professional development. I took the group through a workshop to explicitly connect technology-rich activities with underpinning learning theories. I participated in a discussion of extending special education technologies to the entire school and a review of people’s favorite new tools (mine was NanoGong). I was disappointed by what I saw as overemphasis on tools and relatively weak discussion of pedagogy. Does this mean that educational technologists need to develop stronger dialogue around pedagogy? Yes. Can I better structure my workshops on this topic? Definitely. It may be time for me to narrow the discussion to constructivist teaching with technology rather than trying to cast a wide net over a number of pedagogical constructs.

I had a tremendous time at The Met. I had heard and read about their model for internship-based education — a school without classes or courses! However, this was my first direct experience speaking with teachers and students about the model and reviewing their planning and explanatory materials. Running for over a decade now, The Met staff has continued to deepen its understanding of what works and enrich the details of their program. I kept a series of notes on the a-ha moments of the day and hope to refer to them often in the future.

I am pleased that the Big Picture Company now boasts a network of 50 schools nationwide (and a few abroad) that have adopted their principles and model and participate in their network for professional development and planning materials. Given all of the talk about authentic learning environments, student interest in learning, and 21st century skills, this seems like one obvious direction to explore when considering new models for effective education. One of their schools is located in my backyard. I hope to pay a visit to expand my local professional network in Portland and see how the Big Picture model translates to one of their newer schools.

To tell you the truth, the first two BLC keynote addresses were disappointing. Ewan McIntosh and John Davitt focused too much on currently existing technology applications and their effects on social dynamics and power. The dominant educational technology discourse has been enamored with these possibilities for a few years now. We are ready for a more detailed exploration of the intersection of new technologies with specific pedagogical strategies. Give us lots of specific examples from schools — by now, they should exist, right? Explore both successes and failures. Teachers and school technologists have already bought into the vision. Now give us the tools and wisdom to implement well.

The third keynote exemplified a great address to 1,000 people. Ironically, Pedro Noguera did not talk at all about technology! His classic talk on the case and problem of school reform resonated well with much of the audience both at the conceptual and practical levels. Full of detailed examples and specific cases, Noguera interwove the conceptual and moral imperative for school change with many different views of each concept, data from research studies, and individual schools implementing specific strategies, to great success.

Interestingly, McIntosh scored a hit with me during his breakout session titled “We’re Adopting: One Year On.” I had read about his introduction of a large professional learning environment in East Lothian last year and was excited to get an update on the progress of the network one year along. Not only did McIntosh deliver the promised update, but he also revisited some of the concepts from the keynote in much more detail and to far greater effect. I found the second presentation much more compelling and useful than the first. Most effective was his step-by-step analysis of a FlashMob performance at New York’s Central Station. The idea was creative and original, but it was also planned to a very fine level of detail, and many individuals departed from the script in ways that made the experience even more high-quality.

Ewan also delivered several nuggets to remember as we facilitate school change. Emerging technologies have impact because many people share awareness of the tool at the same time. Small, passionate groups make things happen. And I remember one of Ewan’s nuggets from last year: forget the pilot. Come up with a great idea and launch it well. This year, that idea surfaced with the selection of a unique, memorable name for the initiative. In East Lothian’s case, it was “EduBuzz.” Let evangelists evangelize, but then turn them into trainers. People need training, not evangelism (I could stand to remember this sometimes.) Support bottom-up and emergent behaviors through informal structures — meetups, gatherings at bars. Don’t think. Try.

‘Students teaching students’ was a recurrent theme. Over and over again, speakers highlighted the value of exposing students to content, providing time for analysis and reflection, and then having students present content back to the group. Darren Kuropatwa described his everyday practice of students creating Smart Board presentations and then posting them to the class blog, demonstrating their mastery of topics in mathematics and building the ‘textbook’ for the course. Darren also makes great use of imagery and metaphor to get students excited and build real-world relevance. Note that this is a far cry from the applied education of The Met, but it has a far better chance of reaching all learners than direct instruction. Watch video of Darren’s presentation.

Bob Sprankle enlighted us with his use of blogging and podcasting over the years. Again, the dominant message was the high educational value of students producing content, demonstrating their understanding, sharing their knowledge with family members, and even receiving comments from people around the world. I have not yet had the opportunity to gain public visibility and interaction around student work, but we come closer every year. I would probably get a lot more Sprankle in my life if I listened to his podcasts, but I prefer to read.

Clarence Fisher delivered a presentation on international collaboration as the norm, essentially the story of his classroom. Given Clarence’s recent reminder to U.S. edubloggers to refocus on teaching and learning, I knew I would enjoy this session. Clarence opened the door to teachers everywhere to navigate blogs around the world and get their students more globally connected. He also made direct links to the pedagogical usefulness of such an approach — authentic audience, writing the “textbook”, and seeking experts outside of one’s organization. Clarence’s nuggets: design a logo for your classroom, subscribe to Global Voices Online to find the latest international content (he found AfriGadget this way. The most important job as a teacher is to hook up individual students with information tailored to their interests and learning goals. Clarence built his global network by Googling for “grade 8 teacher,” finding teachers with blogs around the world, and then sending dozens of emails seeking collaboration. Clarence does not allow his students to link from their school blog to their personal Facebook pages and such. Clarence’s sites: Thin Walls (collaboration with Los Angeles school) and Studying Societies (class wiki).

The New Technology Foundation promotes many of the same ideas through its national network of “new tech” schools. Starting with New Tech High at Sir Francis Drake in Napa, Bob Pearlman described their emphases on group work, collaboration, and generative work. Again, many of the same ideas, facilitated with technology, starting to form a blueprint for a vision of school reform. They also have a school in Portland.

I learned of several online professional development/school management environments. Check out EduBuzz from Scotland, where 1500 school administrators and teachers reflect online about their practice; PeBL, the online portfolio and learning application from the New Technology Foundation; and Big Picture Online, the online sharing/working/school leadership portal for the Met schools.

For a change, I attended a session that was more about content than pedagogy. The National Archives promotes learning through the critical examination of source documents. The presenter brought several examples, including a military register showing John Glenn and Ted Williams serving in the same unit and a letter that 12 year-old Fidel Castro wrote to President Roosevelt introducing himself and asking for a $10 bill! If you search their Archival Research Catalog (ARC), be sure to click the full Search button search and then click the Digital Copies tab 20080718-Picture 1.png in order to most directly access the source documents themselves instead of just the descriptions! My only complaint about this session was that the presenter focused exclusively on analysis of the source documents. Any real lesson would combine this with other pedagogical techniques. My curiosity was piqued by the military document, I Googled for Ted Williams’ military service and found a wonderful summary that enlightened me about several other fascinating aspects of his military experience that one could not infer from the primary source material. Heck, a colleague at Catlin Gabel informs me that every time he wants to view a speech from any possible historical figure, he finds it on YouTube.

I even presented my own session at this conference, titled “A Window Into Gaza.” I was delighted to present to a full room and elicit three individuals particularly interested in either starting a club at their school or helping put the program in touch with more possible funding sources. See my presentation handout and blog posts right after the event for more information or to get involved.

I can highly recommend this conference for educational technologists focused on teaching and learning. As I hope I have demonstrated above, all of the presenters I saw had a strong grasp of the connections between pedagogy and technology and could provide both wisdom and examples with their presentations. The conference design was superb. Following on the heels of NECC, the contrast is clear. Building Learning Communities keeps the scope of corporate sponsors, vendors, and salespeople to an appropriate place. The vendor “floor” was tiny, and company representatives were genuinely helpful and interested in teachers’ questions and issues. For me, it was easy to steer clear of the vendors and not feel accosted. EduBloggerCon retained the grassroots feel and spontaneous organization that so dramatically failed at NECC. I was able to attend (even sit) at every session I entered, and they even served a sit-down lunch two of the three days! Kudos to the November Learning team for superb organization. I only suggest that they get the proposal submission process and logistics submissions online next year. I was surprised at the number of times I was asked to respond to a question by email instead of an online form. That could not have been easy to collect and organize! I also appreciated ubiquitous wireless access but found it variable in quality. I know it’s very difficult to accomodate the hundreds of laptops that participants brought to the session, but it was a bit hard to lose connectivity periodically, once while presenting! Next year, the conference will be at the Park Plaza hotel in downtown Boston instead of suburban Newton, so pencil in July 27-31 right now!