Posts filed under ‘Design Concepts’
Collaboration and teamwork are such great concepts. So why do educators feel the need to put them in strait jackets? Broad-based pedagogical awareness and ongoing support of diverse learning styles are essential in any classroom. The rewards are great…as long as educators take their feedback from the children rather than each other. Otherwise, we risk getting caught up in group think and regulating one another instead of relaxing constraints to get more flexible classroom dynamics.
Collaboration in education has become synonymous with all members of a team using the same short list of strategies in parallel while sharing an abridged vocabulary to create context for the students. It is the stuff of lowered expectations for teachers and students. Yet anyone who deviates from the plan is challenged for not being a team player. The rallying cry is that if the students hear the same thing from all of us…they will have to get it. We fail again and again but think that we only have to try harder.
A team is a collection of players with divergent skills brought together to solve a series of problems based on their complementary talents. Individual achievement and excellence get each member a place on the team; their ability to recognize one another’s strengths and weaknesses and choose to lead or to follow in any given situation makes the team function. Collaboration means handing the ball off to another player no matter how hard one feels he or she needs the score personally. Natural rivalries create demand for a coach.
Okay, so team teaching is not a run and gun sport…even if we move really fast there will not be time for each of us to be the star, nor will there be a likely win under such circumstances. The good news? Whether working sequentially or in parallel, anyone matching the right strategy to a child’s learning style can become a vital part of the winning solution.
We already seem to agree with the goal that each child achieve competence in essential skills and demonstrate critical thinking and problem solving across a large range of applied challenges. The trouble is that how we achieve these results cannot be set in stone in advance. And, in an industry that values classroom management, control freaks (and I use that term with endearment) tend to rule.
Of course, there are benefits to shared classroom practices that create structure and reinforce effective organizational strategies. However, these form the matrix for the learning milieu, not instruction itself. And teachers must plan every session to define the short-term goals and lay out the group’s common lesson, along with the flexible options for students as they engage in self-directed exploration or practice style. Then the kids get to take over.
Beyond the traditional classroom, learning labs can include online instruction or digital problem-solving opportunities as well as low-tech hands-on models. The key is to break down processes to a level at which the component parts can be mastered, then to facilitate learning opportunities that can be either synthetic or deductive. Frequent feedback is particularly helpful in the early stages of learning, but intrinsic ways to validate one’s own result should be built into each student’s expectations.
This may seem like a confusing a blend of competency-based instruction, multiple-intelligence-based design, and quiet chaos in the classroom. Hopefully the teachers are down with MIT’s kindergarten for grown-ups and the students have internalized Maria Montessori’s habit of putting things away after play. Sounds half-baked? We better collaborate to see who does what well.
Let’s begin at the top. A Grade 7-12 exam school for students who excel in linguistics would be a great way to meld cultures and celebrate language arts. The service gap to Latino students has persisted through a number of school transformations across the public schools in the City of Boston. Instead of searching for universal exemplars in English Language Learning, perhaps students would be better served by delving deeper into their strengths in World Languages.
The Boston Public Schools have been challenged to do a better job teaching Latino students. Law suits have led to a series of citations for poor service delivery with English Language Learners. The problem has persisted despite a number of initiatives to improve equity in education. A vision for under-served students has focused on pulling them up from the bottom in academic achievement, which by definition places a problematical label on Latino students. And it overlooks the strength they could bring to a multicultural world.
A few years ago I wrote about Charter Americas, a community-based idea for students transitioning to English language schools. A cornerstone of the plan was to reverse English Language Arts (ELA) and Foreign Language courses to reflect each student’s strongest native dialect. Essentially, English would be taught as a foreign language. Meanwhile, our ELA standards would be applied to the student’s own language with rigorous grade-level instruction in reading, writing, and speaking with depth in grammar and vocabulary development as well as genre studies. A broader humanities perspective would pull in elements of history, culture, and the arts.
This earlier program was conceived as a community center for multicultural activities that would transcend the primary goal of assimilating students into the Boston Public Schools. It would be a place for lifelong learning for non-native speakers of English to which students and their families could return to celebrate their heritage, for example, in the arts, oratory, or other cultural interests. To take the idea to the next level, however, would require bilingual rigor across a college-preparatory curriculum, essentially a multilingual exam school.
English language learners often have faced an ironic blend of excessive challenge with immersion courses while being bored by content that was necessarily superficial. Diverse learners have been frustrated with a standard program that seemed not to fit anyone. And there has been nowhere for advanced students from other cultures to achieve continuity in their studies in the US. Further, the bottom-up approach to newcomers has cost them their identities as high achievers.
Existing ELL programs would benefit from a program that identified students with the highest academic potential and channeled them into appropriate pathways for advanced studies. A multilingual exam school would stratify students initially, an undemocratic approach in the short term. However, it would inject high expectations and empowerment into a system that is struggling to realize equity in education. And it would create an incubator for an under-served population to teach educators how better to serve the larger population of English Language Learners.
Bridge International Academies in Africa and Asia are making a big splash among philanthropists and digital educators as a result of their brilliant success. Now the venture investments have begun to pour in. The bare bones schools have grown rapidly with a good combination of local market penetration and geographic expansion due to their low-cost, scalable model. Kudos to Bridge…but please don’t try to translate a good plan into profiteering, privatized schooling elsewhere. Especially not in the US.
I love the Bridge International Academies for what they are doing for the children of Africa and Asia who were not being educated. It is fabulous that they have the technology to leapfrog traditional textbooks to use tablets for content knowledge. And their pricing allows families to educate their children for pennies a day in a place where any more than that would be cost prohibitive. The founders are doing the right thing, and they are doing it with private money.
Despite the many reasons to celebrate Bridge…the model is not ready for prime time in the US, nor is the business ready to start delivering on profits. The schools are fledgling enterprises that have added a grade, sometimes two, each year since inception. They go through 7th grade now, and they have been adding schools at a break-neck pace on two continents. Challenges lie ahead as they fully assimilate their service mix at each location and achieve managerial effectiveness at the top. Growing beyond the middle school level may be stymied as teenagers are needed by their families for work or childcare. From a corporate perspective, quality assurance and entrepreneurship make odd partners as the business achieves a critical mass of customers.
Bridge International Academies offer a modest modular product, one size fitting all, and its services for diverse learners will need to evolve. Bridge Academies have great new tablet computers, but many of their tools date back to the abacus. For instance, younger children use slates and learn base 10 math using bottle caps and egg cartons trimmed to 10 wells, but that should not remain the state of the art. The worst news for Bridge would be profit-taking instead of continuing development of educational standards, services, and access.
Back in the US, conservative politicians and policy wonks are citing Bridge to bolster privatization strategies, but they are not equivalent concepts. Education reformers find the option of throwing out our entire system and starting over to be alluring, but we are not ready to go back to primitive games with a ball and stick. We would be devolving backwards to little more than the one-room schoolhouse. The Bridge plan would not clear the markets in the US. They are winning in Africa and Asia where there is no public education to compete with. They are not comparable to US schools, and the cause of educational equity would not be advanced by stripping even the lowest performing rural or urban schools down to the Bridge basics.
Bridge International Academies blend the old and the new in a unique success story. It is a great work in progress…and a cause for reflection to benefit its own development. In the meantime, save the plan to import it to the US for the day when the children in Africa and Asia are given the educational opportunity of the best schools in the US suburbs. But by then I hope we are doing the same in our formerly troubled schools here.
March 16, 2014
The Honorable Setti D. Warren, Mayor of the City of Newton
Dr. David A. Fleishman, Superintendent of Newton Public Schools
Mr. Steven Seigel, Newton School Committee Member
This is in response to the school capacity issues driven by rapid growth in school enrollment and addressed by school renovation plans in the Newton Public Schools. I am a Newton resident and an education reform analyst through SchoolsRetooled.com. I wish to change the conversation.
For reasons discussed below, I believe that the children of Newton would be better served in a model that created a new and improved split between Early Elementary grades PreK-3 and Middle School grades 4-8. This solution would allow existing schools to accommodate more children in a smaller number of grade levels. Also, it would allow for the assessment of buildings such that grade levels could be matched to building design, and the cluster of students who were less well-served by existing structures could then define the needs to be addressed in any new architecture.
A couple of years ago, when asked what I would do if given the chance to change one thing in education, I wrote the following:
I would reorganize elementary schools into a PreK-3 school and an adjacent school for grades 4-8. The mission of teaching children in a way that reflects their social, emotional, and intellectual development would be better served with this grouping. In addition, the crucial benchmarks for literacy and numeracy would coincide with graduation from a phase of education.
With the younger children, the whole team would work together to ensure every child [by grade 3] could read for comprehension, tell a story through writing, reason numerically, and be familiar with patterns and geometric shapes. They would be able to work interdependently with other children and resolve minor conflicts. In addition, they would show independence in managing their own resources for school and have personalized strategies to start solving a problem while waiting for assistance.
A new intermediate school defined as Grades 4-8 would create a safe harbor for kids in puberty that avoids the disruptive grade six transition and still clusters the kids with alignment for intellectual development. Schools need to be adjacent to allow for important mentoring and connectedness across age groups. In addition, facilities could be shared, such as library, cafeteria, PE, and playground.
I continue to believe strongly in this innovative design solution. Separate PreK-3 and 4-8 learning communities are better aligned to mission, as defined by 3rd and 8th grade academic benchmarks. The children would be more appropriately clustered for physical and psychosocial development. And, where possible, building proximity would support inter-age connections and underwrite shared facilities for libraries, cafeterias, and physical education.
In particular, this plan would eliminate the troublesome grade 6 transition, which has been shown to be the more disruptive to academic performance than even that of the grade 9 transition to high school. A school for grades 4-8 would recognize the movement from basic skill building to applied learning that is most significant in grade four. In addition, it would shift the change in schools to an age that is less complicated physically and emotionally. Children could solidify their identities in the context of emerging intellectual strengths prior to tackling the upheavals inherent in the onset of puberty. By grade six, their introspection and social development could occur in a safer and more familiar place.
Early intervention programs have already begun to expand the elementary school mission on the front end. This trend should only increase with growing advocacy of universal prekindergarten. And Newton’s concern for aging school buildings has not addressed issues at the middle school level yet. I feel my approach makes good sense for pedagogy, matches structures to mission, and proactively draws the middle school issues into the current conversation.
I appreciate your consideration of my suggestion and would be happy to open a dialogue with members of the Newton school community.
Kathleen T. Wright, SchoolsRetooled.com
Yesterday we honored our nation’s democracy as voters in state and local elections across the country. As we congratulate new or returning mayors, why not set aside politics and offer a few guidelines for education leadership?
1. Align schools to mission and benchmarks…
- PreK through 3rd grade
- Grades 4 through 8
- Grades 9 through 12
2. Manage education for balance between supply and demand…
- Students organized around equitable access to education and bridges to their communities
- Academics organized around student needs and instructional effectiveness
3. Streamline business functions around the mission of education…
- Student-centered funding and resource allocation – school as locus of control
- Information systems that integrate finance, teacher effectiveness, and student outcomes
- Matching of support services to student needs
4. Develop results-oriented approach to services for outliers in the system…
- Accelerated progress toward grade-level proficiency in Special Education
- Two-pronged approach to ELL with growth in literacy in 1st language translating into more rapid assimilation into English language content
- Level playing field in academics for students at risk
5. Reward leadership that…
- Achieves successful student outcomes
- Values continuous growth for professional staff
- Attracts voluntary enrollment
- Is responsive to all community constituencies
- Monitors key indicators of student satisfaction, service delivery, culture, and safety to anticipate disequilibrium and address it proactively
- Allocates resources effectively and efficiently
6. Seek alignment with evolving standards of information and technology to…
- Get the best data on student outcomes, teacher effectiveness, financial management
- Transcend the evolution from traditional media to digital tools for learning, communicating, and managing educational efforts
- Create a vision for achievement that relegates regulatory compliance to the lowest common denominator among educators
With achievement of each of these strategies, mayors could spend more time creating a legacy in education and far less time dealing with NCLB failures, Parent Trigger campaigns, union battles, or random disruptions to the business of running their cities or towns.
Future scientists, engineers, and mathematicians should be found among our fifth graders at the latest to realize their greatest potential. Only then will we be able to nurture their abstract thinking, the seeds of which should already be apparent, during middle school. To finish the job, all of our high schools must be ready to deliver them the rigor and the freedom to explore new frontiers in STEM.
Last night, President Obama introduced a competition that will challenge educators to develop advanced STEM programs within our nation’s high schools. At first blush, I shook my head. High school is too late. We should be talking middle school. But then I realized…why get these young people all smarted up with nowhere to go?
To be truly ready to join the ranks of scientists and mathematicians in liberal arts or engineering disciplines, students need to have their natural talents for abstract thinking recognized and developed early. College prep should begin in middle school for them. However, too few of our high schools are genuinely ready to offer students the springboard needed for access to the nation’s top university STEM programs.
STEM readiness will mean an exciting combination of academic development within high schools, mentoring from the field, and partnerships with universities for extracurricular enrichment opportunities. And who knows what else? Let the games begin…
Never watch the State of the Union speech in your cranky pants – not just good advice for John Boehner. As an urban educator, I thought I was looking forward to the President’s address with a positive attitude. But I kept going negative…Universal pre-kindergarten? Wasteful and wrong. STEM competition in high school? Too little too late. Then I realized there was a missing link. Child Find will be the key to success with either initiative.
My preferred approach to pre-kindergarten is to dedicate free public access to children who are at-risk. I truly believe that universal access will dilute the child-find efforts of the program, and that the most-needy children will continue to fall through the cracks. That’s where they live and where their parents are trying to eke out a life for them. Comfortable families already preparing their children for school will get a free ride, less fortunate children will continue to be left behind, and deficit spending will result in a net loss to the system.
That said, the child-find clause in any PreK legislation must have some real teeth in it. Our vulnerable populations must be served first.
Similarly, I worried about the President’s competition for high school STEM programs because so many talented children in troubled schools would have lost their way long before then. Efforts to set up springboards for STEM education in high school would be hamstrung with the need for re-engagement and remediation programs before accelerated STEM instruction could begin.
However, there are many emerging STEM programs that target older elementary and middle school children. In a better world, many more of these children will be found as they enter adolescence. Their interests and abilities will be nurtured through opportunities for exploration and placement in programs that offer appropriate stimulation and challenge. But where, in this new world order, would there be enough seats for all of them in high school? More on that in my next post…