Redesigning for student-centered learning


Brendan Campbell teaches at Southeastern High School in Detroit, which is under the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan, a statewide recovery district for schools consistently in the bottom five percent according to test scores. In other words, it’s a failing school in a violent, poor, bankrupt city. But this fall, Campbell and his collaborators have used meager resources to construct a new approach to truly student-centered learning that is drawing interest and acclaim from educators and reformers all over the country: The Preparatory Academy at Southeastern, or PASE.

PASE students spend five hours of their school day in a big open space that’s been designed to feel like a college library, with quiet spaces for individual work, and places to meet with teachers or in groups. This time is theirs to prioritize and allocate over their core courses and up to two electives. The curriculum, based on the Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards and Michigan state standards, has been broken into manageable chunks–a set of learning targets in each subject, written in student-friendly “I Can” statements. Students move at their own pace towards mastery of each target through a sequence of  “learn, practice, apply, assess.”

On a given day, students could choose to attend a “scheduled learning opportunity,” such as a lecture or a science demonstration; watch a video of a previously recorded lecture by their teacher or a curated resource from elsewhere on the web; work on a group research project; or review peers’ work with reference to a rubric. At the “assess” stage of each target, they take a 3 to 10 question formative assessment. They must score at least 75% to get their “exit ticket” and move on to the next target; otherwise, they’ll conference with a teacher on what went wrong, and go back to pursue mastery.  Over the course of each unit, the students also work in groups to complete interdisciplinary performance assessments. In this first semester, students researched the science, ecological, health, and community benefits of planting a garden on campus and presented the case to the administration.

The planning process for teachers within PASE is novel. “When I used to make lesson plans it was focused on: I have 50 minutes to fill, if an activity takes 40 minutes, what happens for the last 10? That can mean a lot of busywork or wasted time,” says Campbell. “Now we’re only concerned about what is necessary in order to truly learn and master the content. Really, that’s a more productive use of student and teacher time.” Each student will be getting a different combination of direct instruction, reading, video, and more, so all the resources, and assessments, must be carefully curated to ensure that each student has access to what they need.

Each student has a laptop, and the program uses an online learning management system to help everyone keep track of students’ progress, but online is not the main focus. “We wanted it to be truly blended so there would be online and in-person components,” says Brendan Campbell. “Students always have a choice.” Students have the choice of up to two online electives during their PASE time, and have chosen from dozens from Psychology to Art History.

PASE isn’t designed for the strongest students in the school. Many must use their elective time to retake failed classes online–the average incoming reading level at the school is 4th or 5th grade. Students were asked to apply, and teachers were also asked to help identify those who they thought could benefit from the flexibility of the program and the chance to take ownership over their learning.

“One thing we’re struggling with is, do we hold all students to the same pace even thought they’re at different ability levels?” says Campbell. “Right now we’re at uniform pacing, and we want to create individual pacing for each student.”

I think what intrigues me most about this model is the sense of autonomy, respect and trust. Urban public schools like this one, majority minority and poor, have been criticized for forming a “school-to-prison pipeline.”  When someone’s experience of an institution is primarily about being forced to sit in a certain seat, to quietly listen to authorities speaking, to move from place to place at the sound of a bell, to be labeled as a discipline case if you don’t do it, and you’re never asked what you’re interested in or what you want to do, it’s hard not to see how that could interfere with motivation and learning at one’s best.

“We’re trying to build students’ understanding of how they learn, and what they need in order to be effective learners,” says Campbell. “We talk to them all the time about, ‘in college there’s not going to be a teacher telling you to be quiet.’ I’ve been blown away with how students have reacted to the level of trust and respect. They give it back to you almost all the time.” He says that students wear their PASE lanyards with pride, and are particularly proud of the many national and state visitors that the brand-new program has hosted.

On the other hand, it must be recognized that the PASE model is taking place within a grim economic and political context. They started this September with 70 students in grades 10 through 12, and ten weeks into the semester, because of staff cuts, they had to nearly double the size to 115 students. That’s with just four teachers presiding. If this model succeeds, it is possible that it might be used as an blueprint to lower student-teacher ratios in the name of hyper-efficient blended learning, which would certainly be an unintended consequence. In either case, the nation has a lot to learn from PASE’s first year.

Three student successes with iPads

 

The last time I wrote about iPads in the classroom, it was about a school district doing almost everything wrong. Today I talked to a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools who has a 180 degree view.

When the iPad first came out in 2010,  Jennie Magiera made fun of her friends for buying them: “Nice job–you got a giant iPhone that can’t make phone calls!!”  But when a grant bought iPads for her fourth and fifth grade class, the teacher quickly found a path to transforming her teaching and learning practice. While tests are only one measurement of success, she went from having just one student out of 15 “exceed” on state tests in fourth grade, to having 10 “exceed” the next year.

Just three years later she has gone from the classroom to helping other teachers implement one-to-one iPad programs, as the digital learning coordinator of the Academy of Urban School Leadership, a network of 29 public (non-charter) schools that are 90% free and reduced lunch. Her focus is on using technology to make good teachers better, and to let students be the best they can be.

“I could seriously sit here till we both passed out telling stories of powerful things that happen every day,” Magiera says. Here are three of those stories.

1) The second grade experts. 

The students in Magiera’s network are not “digital natives.” Most of them don’t have access to devices at home because of family income. Nevertheless, they are engaged by and excited about using computers, and because the teachers are learning to use them along with the students, there’s sometimes a role reversal in the learning process.

“We had three girls who came in during recess because it was cold and wanted to help us provision the tablets,” says Magiera, meaning setting them up to run certain kinds of apps. “Right away they started problem-solving: ‘She already hit that button…’ ‘Why don’t you try the green box in the upper left hand corner, since you already did the blue one in the lower right?'” They learned the term “microUSB” and created an organizing system to see which iPads were charged.  In this mundane technical activity, Magiera saw the students take on a real problem and work alongside adults in a way that seven-year-olds don’t always get a chance to do.

2) The shy one speaks.

Magiera had one very intelligent student who was afraid to speak up in class–she tried writing questions down on notecards, and warning him that she was going to call on him, but he would still freeze up. With the iPads she implemented a classroom “backchannel,” allowing students to participate in a text-based chat as part of the class discussion. In that forum, the boy blossomed. “I was not only able to see who was participating but the quantity and quality of their participation,” she says. “And what I found was this young man not only was the most vocal kid, he was the best in the conversation. He was hitting all the markers, responding to other students, coming up with novel ideas, supporting peers in a positive manner, and really thriving and flourishing in a community of thought when he didn’t want to speak up [before].”  

3) The troublemaker revealed.

Yet another student, she says, was constantly disruptive. His test scores and other math grades were poor. One day, she started using a technique called “screencasting,” a program where students can draw or write using a stylus and narrate at the same time, producing a video in a similar format to a Khan Academy video.

“The answer was 15 cents and he wrote $16. I would have thought he wasn’t paying attention or didn’t try. But when I go into his screencast video, it was 60 seconds of the best math I’ve ever seen as a math teacher.” The student had arrived at the wrong answer because of a tiny mistake, but he had devised his own original path through the problem, using his knowledge of fractions to create a system of proportions, a concept he wouldn’t be introduced to for another year or two. “He solved it completely on his own, narrated it beautifully, had the most amazing thought process.”  From watching this one minute of video, Magiera got insights into this student’s math skills that she hadn’t learned from having him in the classroom for over a year.

But the insights didn’t end there. Magiera then had the student rewatch his own video. She saw his reactions go from defiance (“lady, I already did it for you once, you want me to watch it now?”) to pride (“yeah! I got that!”) to dismay (“Oh my god, I messed that up! I can’t believe it! I was so close,”). And finally he asked her, “Can I do it again?” 

“I just about died,” Magiera says. “I was ready to burst into tears. This was a kid you could not get to do homework. Classwork was a struggle. Now he just heard his own thinking, which is really hard for a nine year old to do, and he wanted to improve authentically out of his own motivation. That was a feedback loop we did consistently from then on.”

 

What technology can (and can’t) do for education

As I reflect on the excitement of South By Southwest Education conference last week, a fundamental question keeps coming up: What proportion of the challenges facing the education system can actually be addressed with technology and innovation?

Let’s quickly stipulate the issues here. Stop me if you’ve heard this all before.

  1. Many schools face serious resource constraints. But America already spends quite a bit of money on education and large increases in funding are not likely over the next generation.
  2. We have disappointing results given the money we’re spending, both in college attainment and in performance on international tests.
  3. We have an achievement gap for minority and low-income students, meaning the path to raising our educational status requires raising up the students who have been the most challenging to reach thus far.
  4. Our schools are not preparing kids for the workforce and society of tomorrow, whether that means STEM disciplines in particular or the always-on, mobile, connected, collaborative, cross-disciplinary society that we are all a part of. This is a catch-all concern, with many different definitions of the problem and paths to solutions.

Now, of those top four concerns, what exactly can technology do to help? #4 is the strongest argument for “wiring” our classrooms, and ironically, it’s a qualitative, not quantitative, argument. I spoke with Diane Tavenner, CEO of the Summit Public Schools charter chain, who argued “My computer is part of who I am. It’s an imperative tool in my life.” Professionals in this day and age work using always-on laptops and mobile devices, managing their own workflow with the help of various applications and productivity tools, and collaborating as needed.  Students need to practice doing more or less the same thing. Her high schools are phasing in one-to-one laptop programs.

#2 and #3 are arguments for the use of multimedia teaching aids, particularly adaptive learning and tutoring programs. One review of the literature shows positive results for these programs in raising performance, although of differing levels of significance, particularly by giving underperforming students the extra help they need to succeed. But as the technology is constantly evolving it is very difficult to design rigorous studies that keep up with the state of the art. Every startup out there has its own “independent” studies showing increases in test performance. Then there is the question of the quality of the tests themselves and the relationship they bear to what kids are actually learning.

#1 is the diciest. In order to save money in education–or dramatically improve performance with stagnant budgets, which amounts to the same thing–you have to cut labor costs. This means fewer teachers and administrators, or less generous benefits packages, or both.  The pitch here is that integrated uses of data, combined with personalized learning and tutoring programs, will somehow make teachers so much more effective that they can improve results even with larger classes. But it will be tough to prove this, and even tougher to get teachers on board en masse with “innovations” designed to eliminate their positions.

In his speech last Thursday Bill Gates pointed out that currently, only 1 percent of private R&D investment goes into education innovation. He argued that it should be much more, given the importance of our education system to our future economic competitiveness. But in the absence of a more fruitful and honest dialogue about the goals and outcomes of such investment, as outlined above, and careful documentation of what works, a more likely outcome is another turn of the hype cycle that leaves schools more or less unchanged.