Rethinking High School: Badging, Competency-Based and Real-World Work

“We want students to be ready for the workforce.”
“We want students to do projects and collect evidence and artifacts of their learning.”
“We want students to have real-world opportunities.”
Sounds familiar, right?
Many schools are rethinking high school and working toward these laudable goals. From XQ Super School winners across the country to El Paso High School in Texas, there are really amazing examples of educators that are making high school more student-centered and focused on helping to prepare students for work and life in our rapidly changing economy. One school in particular stands out to me, as they are well on their way to accomplishing these goals and then some.

Setting the Scene

Del Lago Academylocated in Escondido, California, is a public high school of about 800 students. Principal Keith Nuthall shared that students can enter a lottery system to attend Del Lago and that the intent is that the school population is representative of the immediate community. The school is focused on Applied Sciences, but while science is very much a core part of the teaching and learning – there is just as much focus on students doing rich interdisciplinary projects.
Students at Del Lago work to across disciplines to problem-solve, think creatively and create their own meaningful solutions. Educators at Del Lago, like Alec Barron (one of the founding teachers), really want students not only to have desirable skills and knowledge for potential employers but to be doing meaningful work in school that feels relevant and connects to their lives now.
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A Look Inside

On the outside, yes, incredibly scenic. However, I’d argue that the teaching and learning that goes on inside the buildings on this campus is an even more beautiful sight.
Authentic Audiences and Real-World Work. Projects are designed for local audiences and often driven by a question that a partner determined for Del Lago students. Currently, students in Dr. Barron’s class are answering a question that came from a local third-grade class: Where do seashells come from and what are they made of?
The third-grade class will come visit Del Lago and be able to give feedback and ask questions. The final products from the investigation will live in the San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum. In the picture below, you can see students data collection from their investigation of the molecular composition of sea shells.

Students also intern at local companies (many of them being biotech companies) and hospitals (one of the hospitals is less than a half-mile away). Their projects often relate to work that they are doing in their internships. Mentors and partners at the internships often inform students and Del Lago educators what students need to know and what would be helpful for them to be learning while in high school.

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A student project displayed in the hallway

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From NGLC blog post and Competency X blog post

Happy Students and Staff. Students and staff were notably happy. The enthusiastic staff met for a meeting before the start of the day to share announcements and ideas. Students were warm and welcoming. Everyone seemed happy at Del Lago. This may seem trivial to include, but from the second I arrived until the moment I left I had a smile on my face.
The learning was focused, but there wasn’t a sense of high stress or intensity. Alec told me that staff help to design projects for students, but that the learning often takes different paths and that if overall students are enjoying their learning and working on meaningful tasks, all is well.
Serious Science. The Next Generation Science Standards underpin much of teaching and learning at Del Lago. The science and engineering practices permeate classrooms, and students are fluidly planning and carrying out investigations. In fact, one student was doing a second trial and readying a slide with bacteria on it to check for errors in her process. Students own their learning and often identify information for themselves when they are working towards understanding a science concept.

Dr. Barron talking with students who were comparing sickle cells vs normal blood cells

Use of Space. The space is used as a platform FOR teaching and learning. Aside from the open classrooms with large wall-to-wall windows, most surfaces can be used to write on or post to. Almost every classroom I went into had an entire wall that was a whiteboard and many spaces were covered with chalkboard paint so that students could draw on them. Student artwork and voices radiate throughout the halls.

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District Spotlight  – Santa Ana Unified School District

Speaking of space, another idea I really like for rethinking high school learning spaces comes from a team in the Santa Ana Unified School District. Similar to Del Lago, they want students to be a part of the local community and learn from others. They suggest that having several spaces students go to class (business offices, coworking spaces, community buildings, etc.) and to learn each week is better than one centralized classroom for the entire year. They know students can learn from, in and with people in different spaces in Santa Ana.

Daniel Allen, Executive Director of School Renewal in Santa Ana, said, “I think a lot of times we take our ‘access’ to spaces for granted. Students aren’t always sure where they are welcome to learn. The idea is to give students ongoing and broad access to spaces, and the other adults in them, related to learning objectives they are interested in pursuing. We want to reinforce their sense that they have a right to the learning spaces and that their experience is not limited to the people and programs within their school.”

Rethinking space in Santa Ana is just one of the many redesign efforts the district team is working on. They also are implementing a number of other student-centered practices, such as hybrid, self-paced and competency-based learning and highlighting the work of educators within and outside of their district through video interviews.

Competency-Based and Badging. The team at Del Lago realized that they needed a way to assess what students were doing throughout the scientific process and not just the final projects, which is what gave birth to this idea that they call Competency X. They created a badging system (see an overview below and an example tenth grade student badge evidence on Spectrophotometry) and have been piloting it with a group of students. Students work to demonstrate competencies throughout their projects.
As they work, they upload evidence of their work to a digital portfolio towards earning a digital badge. These badges are used to show intern partners or future employers what they know, believe and are able to do. While students can upload photos and videos to demonstrate their science competencies, as part of this process they are also required to write about and reflect on their learning.
 

From the Del Lago Learning Progressions blog post                                                                

My initial interest in Del Lago was due to their focus on competency-based education and the digital badging system. But I was pleasantly surprised to find so many other ways that they are rethinking high school to be more meaningful for students.
How is your staff rethinking high school? Share in the comments below or on Twitter and tag me @EmilyLiebtag.
For more, see:


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Personalized Learning in Boston For Youth That Need it Most

Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA) is an alternative public charter high school that serves over-aged and under-credited youth. Just south of downtown in Roxbury, BDEA serves about 400 students just two blocks from the district office.
BDEA is a student-centered, competency based school that doesn’t rely on grades or grade levels to communicate progress. Proficiency-based pathways allow students to progress based on demonstrated mastery rather than seat time.
As noted in a Carnegie report, graduation from BDEA can occur in September, December, March, or June depending on when students demonstrate 317 required competencies (72 in science, 107 in math, 119 in the humanities, and 19 in technology) and complete an interdisciplinary capstone project.
All BDEA students live in or near poverty and about 10 percent are parents. Launched with two shifts to accommodate different obligations, BDEA is moving toward even greater flexibility by allowing students to attend classes or work online anytime between 9:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m.
Students benefit from wraparound services, digital tools that help create a personalized approach, and a school open 12 hours a day. This is truly self-paced alt ed meets adventure-based leadership training meets blended learning. Carnegie lauded the round-the-clock course offerings, ample remediation opportunities, intensive post-secondary advising, and counseling for its homeless and other high-risk students.
Nicholas Donohue, CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, recommends visiting BDEA and points to the “flexible use of time and self-pacing—supported by the use of digital tools to create a personalized approach to help all learners succeed.”
The BDEA experience begins with an intensive orientation including post-secondary planning. In groups of about 18, students spend time every day with an advisor. The day I visited, staff members that serve as advisors were learning how they could improve their post-secondary advice (as pictured in feature image).
Each year classes stop for two weeks for students and teachers to engage in experiential work. Competency guru Chris Sturgis said, “Symposium is fun and meaningful for teachers and students because it dedicates time to learn competencies in an extremely creative and collaborative environment.”

BDEA garden

Math and science teachers I met were planning an integrated Symposium unit, a sign of the creative, collaborative, and teacher-empowering culture at BDEA.
Students progress in skill cohorts. The BDEA team tracks a lot of data in a Salesforce CRM but most of the curriculum is hand crafted by teachers. BDEA teachers and students have pretty good access to devices but the focus is on relationship-enhanced learning rather than technology-enhanced learning.
Over the last 18 years BDEA has developed processes, materials, and infrastructure for supporting proficiency-based pathways. They share tools and lessons in a summer institute.

Personalized Learning in Boston

Boston Public Schools was the best urban district in the country when superintendent Tom Payzant crossed the Charles River to join the Harvard faculty a decade ago. Despite becoming an EdTech hotspot in the last few years, innovation was not a priority after Payzant’s departure. That’s starting to change.
Tommy Chang was appointed superintendent in Boston a year and a half ago. The former charter school principal and deputy in LA has recruited a talented team including Sujata Bhatt, founder of the innovative Incubator School in LA.
“It is the role of school system leaders to foster innovation and create environments where teaching and learning can truly be transformed,” announces the BPS website. “To create such an environment, there must be genuine empathy and authentic collaboration where relationships can be formed and best practices can be shared.”
The district is moving toward 1:1 access using Chromebooks as a primary access device. The leadership team is considering ways to expand access to personalize learning building on a few local successes like Tech Boston and BDEA.
For more see:

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Prepping a Learning Space to Grow into a Makerspace

Many schools, museums, hospitals and all sorts of other institutions are beginning their “maker” programs on carts, in the corners of existing classrooms or in other temporary spaces.
As they see the enormous benefits of “maker” learning experiences for learners, more institutions are preparing to dedicate more permanent space to these programs–preparing to craft a dedicated makerspace.
While it’s beneficial to grow a program gradually and to add equipment and materials gradually, you can’t build a whole new space gradually. As everyone realizes at some point–perhaps after a home remodel–you can’t just build for where you are right now. You have to build for where you’re going.
After visiting dozens of makerspaces in preparation for our design, and now a year into our newly-built makerspace, I can offer the following recommendations to those beginning design for new builds. Not just the equipment and materials, but the architectural design. Some elements that we fought for turned out hugely important, and we found that there were some elements we missed.
Location. If the vision is to have a space that will bring STEM concepts *across* the school – tinkering-to-learn in social studies, world languages, everywhere – then the space needs to be both dedicated and not sequestered in a “STEM” part of the building. This is a great aspect of integrating makerspaces with libraries… libraries are already known as all-school spaces. Our space is situated in full view of the central school courtyard, in an area accessed by all classes for world languages and art, too.
Clear Line-of-Sight. In our original drawings, the back “woodworking room” was going to be a completely closed space, with only a pair of solid double doors between the main space and that room. This would have prevented me from seeing what was happening in that room at all! We convinced our architects to add a large window between the two spaces, so now, when I hear the miter saw come to life, I only need to glance over, confirm that it’s a trained adult and not a wandering adolescent, and go back to what I was doing.
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Storage. Unlimited and highly efficient storage is a universal request for learning spaces, but an additional recommendation for makerspace: no cabinetry. Cabinets hide materials, so kids don’t know what’s available. Open, non-industrial shelving allows all available materials and tools to be visible. Additionally, there needs to be separate storage for construction materials and for students’ in-progress projects. As you can see in the picture of our storage below, our in-progress project storage (on the right, under the window) needs some work.
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Electrical Outlets. A wall without an electrical outlet is a lost opportunity. The wall in our makerspace pictured below has zero electrical outlets on any side, severely limiting how we can use it. Further, an electrical-outlet-desert in the middle of a room is a hindrance. Think carefully about whether to install ceiling-mounted or in-floor electrical outlets.
In our digital space–with unmoving computer stations–in-floor electrical outlets give us the flexibility to place computer stations without extension cords running to the walls. In our building space, ceiling-mounted pull-down electrical outlets (visible in many pictures here) give us similar flexibility without the tripping hazard caused by uncovered in-floor outlets.
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Ventilation. Even if starting without soldering, 3D printing, vacuum forming or laser cutting, consider the enormous expense it would entail to retrofit sufficient ventilation into an existing space. If you’re building a new space, or even just opening up the walls of an existing space, plan for significant ventilation needs in the future.
Many schools fitting makerspaces into existing spaces are needing to purchase large and very costly filtration systems to make up for a lack of ventilation. Even with our large and lovely hood, I’m already wishing for more ventilation as we add a vacuum former to our equipment.
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Flooring. We talked our architects out of carpet for our building space, and the final vinyl tiling pattern designed by our head-of-school had a great serendipitous effect… The grid formation gave us great structure for on-the-fly group organization! Younger elementary-aged kids benefit from having a distinct line to “line up” on, and groups that need to spread out to work benefit from being assigned to a specific section of grid. Perhaps this is something school architects already know, but it’s amazing how flooring pattern can support (or, presumably, hinder) each group management!
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Continuous New Findings. Just as teachers stay up-to-date on the latest research in effective teaching and learning, architects for schools need to stay up-to-date on the latest research on how space impacts learning. Sometimes I feel like a broken record, but I can’t emphasize enough how critical I think Dr. Sapna Cheryan‘s research is in designing and maintaining STEM learning spaces that are equitable and promote belonging for ALL learners.
I hope learning institutions continue moving towards encouraging “maker” education and the idea of tinkering-for-learning. As more and more institutions do so, we’re also continuing to learn more and more best practices, from getting off the ground to dedicating significant time, space and professional development to the movement. Wherever you are in your process, there are more great resources to get you moving, from this
Wherever you are in your process, there are more great resources to get you moving, from this iNACOL webinar with my colleague Lina Rose and myself, to the #makered Twitter hashtag, to the K12 Fab Labs Google group.
For more, see:


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Gen Z Students Need Schools That Match Their Dream Big Approach

By Becky Wallerick
The buzz around education today includes personalized learning, digital citizenship and Makerspaces.
But schools, for the most part, are continuing to offer the traditional 19th-century model of education, where days are split into 45-minute segments and students are told to sit in desks and follow the teachers’ directions.
Can education really change and manage the dichotomy between tech savvy kids and rules-based systems?
Our schools are filled with Gen Z kids—the generation born after 1995. These students have had their existence in a world saturated with technology and social media. Smartphones top TVs, desktop computers and laptops for “most used” devices. However, the teachers born in generations preceding them come from a universe where phones are forbidden and not useful for learning.
I visited two schools recently where “No phones allowed during the school day” signs abounded, and classrooms had pouches where kids needed to put their phones before entering. It surprised me to see this as computers were allowed and students know how to text from them just as easily as they text from their phones. Gen Z students have the discipline to manage their devices as well as create and make beyond our adult imaginations.
According to Upfront Analytics, Gen Z-ers are “Go Getters, Activists, and Dream Big.” Their research shows that of these kids in high school today, 75% want to convert their hobbies to full-time jobs, 61% would rather be an entrepreneur than an employee when they graduate college and 72% want to start a business someday. 
New Life Academy (NLA) in Woodbury, Minnesota, has created a way to have the best of both worlds. Their STEAM teachers visited 3M’s Innovation Center in May 2016. What they observed is that many businesses, like 3M, have adopted this idea to give their employees the freedom to make and create AND complete their required daily job duties. Employees spend 15% of their time creating.

Accordingly, the NLA teachers created an idea based on what they learned called 15% IP (Innovation Portfolio). Students in 6-12th grades spend 15% of their science track in creative time outside structured classroom lessons to pursue an idea or passion in one of three STEAM areas: science, engineering or coding.
Students store innovative projects in their Innovation Portfolio (thus, the name 15% IP). For more, check out this recent NLA blog about the initiative.
Students and teachers at NLA recognize that their ideas may not turn into solutions to the problems they are researching, but they are “Dream Big” people. Some examples of current projects include:

  • A group of sophomores is researching how to improve access and delivery of essential medicines in Africa.
  • Another group is researching how to help solve the problem of invasive species, including the Asian Carp.

Providing opportunities–such as 15% IP–so that all students can create taps into the “Dream Big” approach of Gen Z students.
For more, see:

Becky Wallerick serves as Academic Dean at New Life Academy in Woodbury, Minnesota. Follow her on Twitter: @BeckyWallerick


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3,500 Educators Committed to Innovation for Equity

The Getting Smart team spent last week at iNACOL’s annual Blended and Online Learning Symposium. This year more than 3,500 educators and leaders gathered in San Antonio, Texas, to learn from and inspire one another.
The conference focused on two themes–Innovation For Equity and Redefining Student Success–but these themes were not just empty titles on the conference program.
There were presentations and conversations from individual breakout sessions to general session keynotes that reinforced these twin goals. In fact, “big picture” drivers of access and equity have inspired shifts to personalized learning in classrooms across the country.  
Check out this Storify curated by the Getting Smart team. We think it’s the best way to get a sense of the spirit of #inacol16 and the passion of the educators and leaders who left the event inspired and committed to take what they learned back to their own schools and communities.

For more, see:

Feature image courtesy of Virgel Hammond


Every Educator Should Be a Connected Educator

By Dr. Samantha Fecich
October is Connected Educator Month, so what better time to ask this important question:

What defines a connected educator, and what is the value of being one?

To me, a connected educator is someone who:

  • Connects with others to collaborate, problem-solve and think critically about the classroom and education;
  • Is always looking to improve his or her practice; and
  • Works to collaborate because it is best practice.

Connected educators are also willing to think outside the box, to take risks, and—most importantly—to follow through on their ideas. They can do all of this because they have the support of a personal learning network (PLN).
A PLN is priceless. My PLN is my go-to for questions, ideas, resource sharing and best practices. I go to my PLN to keep up to date with educational technology in the classroom. It is learning on demand, anytime and anywhere.
PLNs come in many forms: face-to-face or in person, in your school or district, across school lines and virtually across the world. In fact, I met a colleague, Nicole Butler (@nbutler912) at EdCamp Pittsburgh in 2015 and we found out that she teaches right across the street from me. This has been a great professional connection because we collaborate on projects with her middle school students.
For teachers who may feel isolated in their classrooms, virtual PLNs are a valuable resource because they allow you to connect instantly with professionals around the world. Virtual PLNs can be found on social media networks such as Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram. While all of these are fantastic resources for teachers, I am going to focus on Twitter.

Helpful Hashtags

Now, some of you may be thinking, “But Twitter is for celebrities!” Well, I would have to argue that Twitter is an amazing educational resource just as long as you know which hashtags to use. Some of my favorite educational hashtags are:

  • #edchat (for all things education);
  • #edtech (all about educational technology);
  • #elemchat (specifically for elementary education teachers) and
  • #pretchat (a hashtag for preservice educators).

I can ask a question to my PLN using specific hashtags and get a response in minutes. Educators have used Twitter in their classrooms to chat with an author or expert; or have created class hashtags to use as exit tickets, to post reminders and to keep parents in the loop. School hashtags can be used to promote a positive presence online. Twitter is a great resource to see what is going on in other schools and classrooms around the world.

Other Online Communities

You can also find virtual PLNs in the community or discussion forums posted in your favorite educational websites. One of my favorite websites and go-to resources is the community tab in ClassFlow. I go there to find out best practices to deliver lessons in ClassFlow, professional development resources, monthly events/observances that I can create a lesson around and tips to make my ClassFlow lessons really energize students. Another neat feature is the section about lifestyle in the community. There are posts there about work/life balance—which can be difficult for a busy teacher.
The community on ClassFlow has helped me to become connected in a way that is different than other social media. Specifically, it connects me with a community of people who use the same technology tool that I do so we can share triumphs, ideas and best practices. Through this community, I was able to reconnect with a colleague that I met in person at EdCamp Pittsburgh, Justin Aglio (@JustinAglio).
Virtual PLNs are a fantastic resource for any educator, whether you are looking for ideas, resources, tools, tips on how to get into a routine, someone to bounce ideas off, or even crockpot meals you can eat all week.

Virtual Connections Are A Real Help

For me, virtual PLNs have not only been a source of quick tips but also long-term collaborations. I met Dean Mantz (@dmantz7)  through Twitter, and now we co-host #pretchat, a conversation for pre-service teachers, every other Thursday at 7 PM EST. We have never met in person, but constantly connect through Twitter, Google chat and Google docs. I also met Susan Poyo (@spoyo), a professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville, through my virtual PLN. We met on Twitter and were able to connect in person at ISTE in Philadelphia. This has led to a professional friendship, and we are currently working on a publication together.
Making connections outside of our classroom’s four walls is vital to our professional growth. By connecting with fellow educators outside of my geographic area, I have gained new ideas and learned about best practices from all over the world. And these connections move beyond the virtual–through my virtual PLN, I am able to bring guest speakers into my class to show the best practices that we first discussed online.
With the wealth of tech tools available to us, I believe every educator can and should be a connected educator.
For more, see:

Dr. Samantha Fecich is an assistant professor and instructional technologist at Grove City College, and former special needs teacher. Follow her on Twitter: @SFecich


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Creating Personalized Learning for English Language Learners

English Language Learners (ELLs) make up approximately 10% of the American student population, and the number of ELL students is increasing in America’s public schools.
We must prepare all students, including ELLs, for college, career and civic participation. Technology can play a useful role in assisting English language learning and acquisition. We recently wrote about this in our publication, Supporting English Language Learners with Next-Gen Tools.
This year’s iNACOL conference in San Antonio featured an interactive session led by Tom Vander Ark and Bonnie Lathram of Getting Smart and Tricia Lopez of IDEA Public Schools, a large network of 50+ schools based in Texas.

In the iNACOL conference session, teachers and education leaders matched tech tools to specific students for best use cases, explored what’s next in next-gen technology for ELLs and crafted a plan for implementing next-gen tools and strategies.

Technology Trends to Support ELLs

dsc_0070The session was an “ELL Hackathon” and began with an interactive conversation led by Tom about emerging technology trends. Participants identified a long litany of current trends including the increase in mobile devices, the increased use of wearables and the rise in cloud-based technology.
The participants also discussed trends in education technology overall and identified major trends, including Learning management systems, connectivity, BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), mobile apps and digital assessments.
The conversation then transitioned to discuss trends in language development, which included a conversation about how language learning and tools need to move beyond translation. Participants also identified that learning management systems specific for ELLs (including Ellevation Education, present in the session) as well as a move towards blended ELL classrooms.
Participants designed essential questions to share with participants and session leaders, creating opportunities for dialogue and communication about strengths and deficits of ELL approaches. They then interacted with specific ELL language and math tools and apps in various stations and with various devices in order to simulate “what works” and “what’s next” in language learning.

The team from Getting Smart and IDEA Schools were joined by the following edtech companies:

Thanks to all the participants and edtech companies who joined Tom, Tricia and Bonnie in this session.
For more, see:


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5 Ways to Teach Students to Think for Themselves

I believe that real 21st-century learning means preparing students for a world that we can’t even imagine yet.
We won’t be with them when they face that world, so the most important 21st-century skill we can teach our students is how to think for themselves.
I never do any kind of lecture, PowerPoint, presentation or lesson that involves talking at my students. No “sage on the stage,” no dazzling stories, no prezis. Okay, partly that is because I never learned how to set up a PowerPoint let alone make my own. But mostly that is because I really don’t believe in conveying content to my students.
Instead, what I want is to empower my students to find their own answers and communicate those to others. If I can get them curious about a topic, they will teach themselves more than I ever could.
Okay, sounds great, but how does it work in real life? What can you do in the day-to-day classroom to prepare your students for a world that we can’t even imagine yet?
Here are five ways you can help today’s students start thinking for themselves:
1. Let students know that you don’t have all the answers. Last year, I was reading Twelfth Night with a class. It was probably my twentieth time reading the play in my life, but when a student’s interpretation of one of the main characters differed from mine, I admitted to the class that I had missed that meaning.  
I love to read challenging poems with my classes and I tell them that, while there are some wrong answers, there are also many right answers and I don’t have them all. Likewise, I don’t know what their thesis statement should be on their next essay or which anecdote they should use in their personal essay. They will have many tougher decisions than that in the future, and the sooner they get used to uncertainty the better.  
2. Question everything and encourage them to do the same. I could argue both sides of just about any issue, and I frequently do that in class. I also teach my students that what they are told isn’t necessarily the truth. I want them to feel empowered to find their own answers, but I want them to be able to distinguish between good information and bad. Doing a Google search and reading the first article as 100 percent fact is not a great way to become an informed citizen. Reading multiple sources and learning how to distinguish good ones from iffy ones is.
3. Force students to make their own choices. This may seem like a paradox, but it would be a lot easier on everyone if I called all the shots. I can’t count the number of times that students have begged me to just give them a writing prompt rather than make them come up with their own idea. From reading workshop, to writing workshop, to I-Search papers, I want students to know that their education is their responsibility. I’ll be there to offer tools or structure or advice, but I can’t make them learn.
4. Avoid exams like the plague. I used to give tests on every novel or unit, and what I wanted was for students to repeat back to me what we had discussed in class. I suppose that I was nervous that they weren’t listening or paying attention. But I have moved more and more away from standard tests towards alternative assessments. I want them to show me what they can do with what they have learned, not just repeat it back to me.
5. Push them to try new things. Creative writing might not be an obvious 21st-century skill, but getting students to constantly grow their comfort zone by pushing them to try something new is important. If they can make up a poem or write a group play, then they will be more likely to be able to try whatever new thing is demanded of them from the 2026 workplace. The kids who are rigid and afraid as teenagers will never succeed as adults.
Creative writing assignments based on emojis or math problems based on Pokemon Go might seem timely, but they are not doing students any favors. Focusing on what is popular now isn’t the same as preparing students with the skills that they will need to face a constantly changing and evolving world.
For more, see:



Personalization and Real-World Learning at Big Picture Schools

By Rosie Clayton
I recently visited two Big Picture Learning schools in Seattle (Highline Big Picture & Gibson Ek High School), and it’s fair to say I was absolutely blown away — without a doubt the most un-school schools I think I have ever visited.
I spent the day with Jeff Petty, Director of the Puget Sound Consortium for School Innovation (and Founder/ former principal of Highline) observing a number of activities and talking to students and staff. The perspectives and intuitions I drew from the visits flowed from our many thought provoking and thought challenging discussions throughout the day, and I was hugely impressed and excited by how they are redefining school culturally and philosophically, as well as pedagogically. And also how they are reimagining the role of a school within a wider community ecosystem, and perceptions of where and how learning happens. School and community felt symbiotic.

Big Picture schools tend to be located in higher poverty neighborhoods, offering a highly personalized and student driven curriculum, framed around individual strengths and interests weaved across a core set of competencies, and linked to State standards. Their outcomes for students under both state metrics and Big Picture specific metrics are impressive, and in almost all of the contexts in which they operate they outperform surrounding districts on indicators such as graduation and college progression rates — whilst also serving a higher proportion of students with additional learning needs — which is quite an achievement.
There were so many things to love about both schools I visited, but here are my top six:

1. Personalization + Personality

In addition to the delivery of a sophisticated student-centered curriculum, designed around Individual Learning Plans — which are the core tool for scaffolding and assessing learning and progress throughout the year — the expression of personality is a foundational driving energy across the school community, leading to a highly creative and slightly anarchic culture. A community of unique individuals (one student I met wears 1940s aviation type outfits to school every day!) who may have struggled within traditional school cultures driven by conformity, control and hierarchical power dynamics.
Adult relationships facilitate individual expression also, leading to spaces feeling comfortable and cosy, and Jeff described the dynamic between student and adult as being one of mutual respect and care — in all conversations the most important question being ‘what would you do as a caring human being,’ not as an authority figure or powerful adult. It absolutely reaffirmed my feeling that school design all starts with the adults, even if the endgame is student driven learning, as the relationships, dynamics and behaviors have to be fundamentally different from the outset.

2. Internships

Internships drive all learning, which involves students being offsite two days a week, having a wide range of learning experiences across the City. Offsite is almost more important than onsite activity. Assessment is holistic and industry/third sector/community partners co-construct the assessment rubrics, so their standards and expectations become part of the school operating system and culture.
The process for how students acquire internships is brilliant in scaffolding and building their relationships with the wider community, and internships are seen as very much an academic experience, reframing the academic/vocational value divide which is very powerful. Relationships are horizontal, with learning being facilitated by a wide variety of adults and mentors.

3. The Fit

Highline Big Picture just established an onsite thrift store (formed out of an internship) which will be run as a sharing economy enterprise, where anyone from the school and wider community can come in and swap clothes, and donate things — a collective closet almost.
During the day students can even come in and change what they’re wearing — linking to the expression of personality as a core cultural driver — and it’s a very important source of more formal clothes (e.g., suits for some internships). At the moment it’s just clothing, but we discussed how they could have all sorts of consumer goods in the space in the future, building a local ecosystem around re-using, sharing, recycling, rather than constant consuming. And redefining school as a builder of new market and economic dynamics within a community.

4. Unschooling Process

Jeff and I discussed the difficulty of de-institutionalizing students and teachers from traditional systems, and building new school systems and cultures from the ground up. For students, at Big Picture, it’s all about unexpected adult behaviors and surprises — for example if they get into trouble, taking them out for a coffee to talk about it rather than detention, disrupting normal thought processes and throwing expectations. And building new patterns of behavior, and the obvious, patience and persistence. Another thing I loved was that every time I asked questions using traditional education language — e.g. ‘what’s your ability profile?’ — Jeff gave me a confused look. They just don’t define or understand school in these terms.

5. Play & Curiosity

Linked to the expression of personality, play was just effervescent throughout both schools, with Gibson Ek in the process of developing a strong maker culture. One student said to me that ‘school lets me dabble in lots of different things,’ which is exactly how it should be. Sadly I had missed Cardboard Day of Play the previous week:

But I did get a demo of the smartphone-controlled robot race challenge:

Later that afternoon students were going to be exploring their interest in the latest craze of bottle flipping (yes this is a thing!) through using drones to capture the aerodynamic movements of the bottles.

6. Collective System Leadership and Knowledge Development

I was extremely interested in the impact that Big Picture Learning wants to have at the system level in the U.S. — I asked Jeff what the 5–10-year vision was for the Big Picture network, and he said system change towards innovative approaches and more dynamic demonstrator schools.
This is being pursued through a number of pro-active initiatives — for example setting up new schools, developing a leadership incubator for new Principals (inspired and linking into Impact Hub Seattle), expansion of the Big Picture network with low barriers to entry, a Fellows programme, open national events, and regionally establishing the PSCSI as the first model for building capacity and diffusing practice across a geographic area. Providing spaces and places for education innovation to happen, and this links strongly to their wider philosophy. There is also a big culture of growing your own and promoting talent, including positive discrimination to ensure diversity, and coaching and supporting ‘underperforming’ staff.
At an individual level, I was struck by Jeff’s role as the pollinator of ideas and practice across the network, and also co-creating new ideas and knowledge through collaboration with individuals in other networks. For example, he had recently crowdsourced feedback on the differentiators, attributes and design principles for Big Picture from all the top people he knows across other networks, an amazing piece of intelligence and insight, which has informed both his work and that of others. And it goes beyond the notion of the inspiring individual entrepreneur towards recognizing the importance of collective knowledge development in innovation and system change.
For more, see:

Rosie Clayton is a freelance consultant currently working across education, tech, school and network design in the U.K. She is exploring innovation ecosystems in education across the U.S. as part of a Fellowship with the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. Follow her on Twitter: 
This blog originally published on Medium


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5 Professional Learning Practices for PBL

By Dr. Katie Martin
Have you ever left a staff meeting, PLC or any other professional development session wondering what the purpose of the time together was, still unclear about what is expected of you?
Unfortunately, you are not alone. I frequently hear about schools or districts who are “doing project-based learning,” yet when I talk to teachers they aren’t sure what is expected of them and how the new methods align with previous expectations and policies.
When districts implement new project-based learning initiatives without creating opportunities for administrators and teachers to understand the goal or the underlying pedagogy, teachers often get mixed messages and lack necessary support to make the desired shifts a reality in their classrooms. We need to empower teachers, value their opinions and recognize their professional learning preferences.

Start with Teachers’ Preconceptions and Learning Preferences

We have to realize that teacher’s beliefs, knowledge and skills are shaped by their experiences both past and present, and that these often get mirrored in their classrooms. To ensure that the desired change to authentic, project-based learning environments has the desired impact on how students learn in school, we have to change how teachers learn.
I have been asking teachers across diverse schools, districts and states what they feel they need to be successful in shifting their practices and designing learning experiences to meet the needs of all students. Teachers consistently tell me they want their professional learning to include the following five characteristics:
1. Development of a Shared Understanding of the Vision and Expectations. Teachers (like all learners) thrive when they have a clear understanding of the vision and know where they are going, yet have the autonomy to get there in a way that meets the needs of the students in their classrooms. Teachers want to have a clear picture of the desired learning environment and clearly understand the expectations related to their role to ensure their students are successful today, tomorrow and in their distant future. With a clear purpose and goal, educators can leverage a wide variety of resources and experts both in schools and across the global community to continually improve practice.
2. Opportunities to be Learners. Learning through exploration or a deep dive into a project or challenge is an inherently different learning experience than planning for how to create a project or hearing about what project-based learning should look like. Teachers want opportunities to engage in projects in order to understand the obstacles and opportunities that learners face when engaging in these types of learning experiences. Through this experience and reflection, teachers often gain key insights into how personal circumstances, resources, connections and motivation impact their learning, and become more cognizant of how to better design project-based learning experiences in their own classrooms.
3. Access to High-Quality Examples of Desired Model of Teaching and Learning. Exploring models can inspire teachers to create and build on existing projects that others have created. When this is done in collaborative groups, educators can not only gain ideas from the models, but also benefit from the experience and expertise of their colleagues as well. Creating new projects from scratch can be overwhelming. When models exist, teachers build on the foundations and adapt or integrate other ideas to meet the needs of their unique context.
When models exist, teachers build on the foundations and adapt or integrate other ideas to meet the needs of their unique context. Additionally, utilizing protocols such as the Looking at Student Work Protocol can help facilitate a thoughtful process in order to go beyond the project plan and delve into student work to analyze and reflect on the impact of the desired learning experiences.
4. Opportunities to Observe Teaching and Learning. Teachers have been far too isolated and the teaching profession is plagued by a culture of closed doors. When given the opportunity (and sometimes a gentle nudge), teachers appreciate observing peers and reflecting on their own practice and almost always want to do it more. There is value in observing peers both to develop a shared understanding of what learning and teaching look like in a teacher’s own context and to determine next steps.
In addition, visiting and connecting with other schools is extremely important. When teachers have access to other teachers in different contexts, they see new approaches and possibilities that exist beyond their own classroom and school.
5. Engagement in Job-Embedded Collaboration. Teachers like to learn from their peers, and seek regular collaborative learning opportunities during the work day.  When these effective systems are in place for all teachers, they often learn new strategies and increase their effectiveness and efficacy through the collective knowledge and support of the learning community. Teachers regularly suggest the following structures be embedded in the work day to facilitate their growth and development:

  • Communities of inquiry to find and solve problems together
  • Differentiated opportunities to choose based on comfort, skills or context
  • Collaboration with teams or departments

Moving Forward

Creating diverse opportunities for professional learning is more important than ever as many schools strive to move away from standardization to more personalized environments for all learners. Ensuring that teachers have opportunities to develop a shared vision, engage as learners, access resources and materials, observe models of the desired teaching and learning, and collaborate with peers in more authentic and personal ways are critical to shifting to more authentic, project-based learning.
In the end, though, I hope you don’t just take my word for it. I keep asking teachers what they need to meet the needs of the learners in their classroom and I hope you will too.

This blog is part of “It’s a Project-Based World” series. To learn more about this series and to learn ways that you can contribute, click the icon below to go to the Project-Based World page. 

Join in the conversation at #projectbased.

For more, see:

Dr. Katie Martin is the Director of Professional Learning at University of San Diego’s Mobile Technology Learning Center. Follow her on Twitter here: @KatieMTLC 


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