Families are Fundamental: Takeaways from The National Center for Families Learning Conference

Families matter. Literacy changes lives. Family literacy activates generational transformation and change. These tenants form the basis of the 2018 convening of the the National Center for Families Learning Conference held this past week in Fort Lauderdale, FL. A wide array of experts, researchers, policymakers, elected officials, philanthropists, and educational practitioners came together to share and discuss innovative strategies and contemporary efforts for connecting and engaging both child and parent or caretaker with learning and personal growth.

The National Center for Families Learning (NCFL) is an organization dedicated to “eradicat[ing] poverty through education solutions for families.” They see a two-generation learning model as a key to accomplishing this end. A two-generation learning approach creates learning and growth opportunities for both children and adult caretakers. These structured experiences can occur independently, in parallel, and/or simultaneously depending on the particular model. These efforts are characterized by opportunities to have both the student and caregiver provided with integrated supports, a coherent set of developmental experiences, and the underlying belief that their experiences should be shared with each other as they can make a better future for both generations together. NCFL also promotes the notion that a coordinated community-wide approach to creating these two-generation learning opportunities is necessary to tackle the challenges of poverty, disempowerment, and hopelessness. Together, generations within a family and across their community, families of genetic connection and personal bonds, can improve both a tomorrow and today.

Strategies for Engaging Families

The assertion is simple: families are key to literacy development, especially building early literacy skills, in children. Research shows that family engagement in learning has marked positive effects on learning measures across all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. And the impact is especially beneficial for children from vulnerable families. However, engaging families from these communities, where poverty is pervasive, previous educational success is limited, and high percentages of members are nonnative speakers of English, in the schooling process can be particularly challenging. NCLF conference presenters made the case that this task can be accomplished despite the immense effort, time, and resources that it is perceived to require. Presenters, many of whom are practitioners in the field, offered several innovative strategies and exemplars for reaching families and connecting them to learning opportunities for themselves and their children.

  • Strive to Understand and Address the Unique, Dynamic Circumstances and Needs of Families:  José Muñoz, Director, Coalition for Community Schools at the Institute for Educational Leadership talked about his experience leading a community school in Albuquerque, NM.  He explained that a major reason his parents at his school would engage was because they had younger children at home and no childcare. In order to deal with that barrier, the school began providing childcare for events and parent seminars. They also came to understand that two-thirds of their students were food insecure. The school partnered with a local culinary school to create a “Homework Diner” where families can come to school, receive assistance, together, on homework lessons, and receive a hot meal. These efforts to remove barriers to participation allowed to the families to fulfill extant desire to support their students.
  • Meet Families Where THEY are Comfortable: In order to engage parents and caretakers in student learning and to offer opportunities for their own education, families must come into a school site. Many families, especially those from underserved communities and those who are not native English speakers, do not always feel welcome or comfortable in a school setting. Muñoz advised attendees that “you need to go where they [the families] are comfortable until they feel comfortable coming into the spaces we want them to (schools).” Having school events away from the school and in facilities that families frequent for non-educational purposes, such as malls, municipal buildings, and community centers demonstrated both availability to and respect for the families.
  • Focus on “Transformational Rather than Transactional” Services: Shaundelyn Emerson, Program Officer at Children Services Council of Palm Beach County explained that a key to engaging families and building capacity is “moving from transactional services to transformational services…so participants can take ownership in their own lives, their children’s lives, and their community.” LaDevlin Walker, a keynote speaker who was a participant in a family literacy program in Flint, MI described how her experience in a family literacy program gave her tools to support her own son’s learning as well as access to courses and workshops for herself. This experience took her from being “a good mom to a great mom” and allowed her to go from a receiver of services to now a service provider at another local family literacy center.
  • Empower Parents to Participate in Learning Regardless of Literacy Levels: Many parents from underserved communities may be illiterate themselves or do not speak English. These issues can be barriers to parents or caretakers reading with their children and working with them to build literacy skills. Ready Rosie is a communications and content platform that seeks to “bridge the gap between school life and experiences at home.” The site uses videos of real families demonstrating ways to build earning into everyday home life. Videos are shown in English and Spanish and the multiple presentations empower parents with low literacy levels to become active participants in their children’s learning at home. Other attendees noted making audio versions of books available to families, either digitally or via compact discs, to allow parents and caretakers who might not be literate or fluent English speakers participate in reading with their children.

The attendees were clear that obstacles are being overcome and communities are experiencing success. The next horizon of challenge is to nurture these efforts and conform the demonstrated successes to other local conditions.  Success at scale is not replication of specific programs, but the on-going adaptation of multiple, reinforcing approaches.

“Collective Impact”: Community Partnerships are Key to Engaging Families

A common theme from the NCFL conference is that schools are not equipped to solely address the myriad needs that students from impoverished communities live with every day. And, these many issues–e.g., a lack of healthcare, food insecurity, parents who do not speak English–often stymie a child’s learning and literacy development. These students have the capacity to excel but have not been provided, by circumstances structural realities beyond their or their parents control, the experiences and supports that are necessary to use their intelligence and effort in maximizing their preparation for self-sufficiency and civic engagement. Despite these conditions, personal and school educational accountability, including the expectation to have students read on grade level by 3rd grade, is typically seen as the sole responsibility of our public school system, regardless of the broader context in which the child lives.

NCFL speakers and presenters promoted reframing this traditional conception of education. They put forth a much broader vision of the process of educating students and families. They advocate for the approach that the idea that the broader social and economic conditions of many of these students must also be addressed in a coordinated way in order to effectively build foundational literacy skills, and long-term academic success, of students in schools. Participants and presenters shared a common vision that partnerships between community organizations, other governmental institutions, philanthropists, and businesses and the schools has the potential to create a dynamic and productive web of services capable of addressing these complicated needs. Schools are then an important habitat within a larger ecosystem of human development. The health of that habitat is dependent on and contributes to the overall sustainability of the ecosystem and the health of the members, both mature and young.

The concept of “collective impact” is key to this community-wide approach to learning and literacy.  A “collective impact” framework acknowledges that solving complex social issues and problems requires a multi-faceted, multi-layered, coordinated effort. No single institution or organization is equipped to address the complicated social challenges that so many face. With this line of thinking, the individual, the family, and the surrounding social institutions have a coherent language, intentions, and reinforcing efforts. Work is done from a place of common goals and coordinated solutions.

Presenters shared best practices for partnering schools, libraries, community organizations, governmental agencies, and businesses in efforts to promote family literacy. Some key takeaways:

  • Decide on a common goal and plan to get there. This requires agreeing on rhetoric that can be used by all collaborators, publishing common calendars and expectations, and compromising on resource allocation decisions.
  • Create a strategic plan among all institutions that is approved by governing boards and is publicly endorsed in a high profile manner.
  • Engage in mutually reinforcing activities, which means taking time to align calendars and schedule joint events.
  • Agree on data sources and analytic frameworks with shared metrics for gauging impact.
  • Language matters. Participants must use inclusive words such as “ours” rather than “mine.” Creating an additional shared identity for the community respects people’s existing relationships and builds new relationships.
  • Build trust and deliver on promises.  New partnerships, no matter how well intended, must show value in the near-time in order to survive for the long-term.

Family Learning Must Include 21st Century Literacies

The conference closed with a keynote address by Getting Smart CEO Tom Vander Ark. In his speech, Vander Ark extended the conversation from the contemporary work of family learning and literacy to the future, taking into account emerging dynamics and evolving societal, economic, and technological trends. Participants were challenged to take into account the current presence of, and growing pervasive reliance on, artificial intelligence across private lives and public services.  From receiving Netflix recommendations to dynamic credit scoring, from distributing public transportation options to public safety officers, formerly static big data sets are being mined and analyzed to drive resource allocations.  This necessitates a broader approach to life-readiness to empower communities to understand, inform and author the algorithms and machine learning systems with which they interact.

He explained that, with the development of new technologies at an exponential rate, students will face complex issues and questions that we cannot yet anticipate. Because of this, “there are a new set of literacies that are key to unlocking opportunities and creating pathways for children and adults” going forward. These new literacies must be part of the overall conversation around family learning and literacy as the absence will further leave families from underserved communities behind.

Vander Ark described four new literacies that are necessary for success in the emerging innovation economy:

  • Design Skills: an iterative problem-solving approach;
  • Entrepreneurship Skills: taking initiative, marketing, managing a project, learning to deliver value;
  • Social Skills: self-management, collaborating on diverse teams, and decision-making; and
  • Discernment Skills: understanding algorithms, differentiate between valid and invalid sources of information, and staying safe online.

But, he warned, many schools “still value routine and compliance” with curricula focused on outdated conceptions of the kinds of skills and competencies necessary for students and adults to be successful in the future. Vander Ark advocated for opportunities for project-based and deeper learning–for children and adults–to create opportunities to practice confronting and solving the complicated issues they are destined to face. He applauded the efforts of the conference for their success in finding impactful solutions of yesterday and today, and acknowledged their readiness to take on the challenges of tomorrow. Success using the two-generation approach, and in fact success for the every generation approach, requires both persistent effort and constant reevaluation of what and how children and adults need to learn. It can be done.

For more, see:


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Cutting To The Chase – How a School’s Approach To Technology Can Impact Learning Outcomes

By: Giancarlo Brotto

Technology can help transform learning. But as numerous studies have shown, more tech in the classroom doesn’t automatically equal better results. Most notably, OECD and Hattie have raised concerns that education spending does not equate to better outcomes. Effective learning and technology use each depend on systems and behaviors that are more complex than putting a device in someone’s hands.

But we know that when the conditions are right, technology can accelerate and advance learning significantly. So, getting the conditions right is vital for the success of today’s schools, teachers and learners.

Earlier this year, SMART Technologies commissioned a global survey of 481 education leaders to investigate the link between their reported EdTech capabilities and learning outcomes. Education leaders from 10 countries participated, including the United States, China, the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands, and Spain.

The survey asked participants to rate themselves in 22 evidence-based capabilities identified through an extensive literature review of EdTech best practices from around the world. It also asked them to rate their success in achieving and advancing learning outcomes like better test scores, greater career readiness, and higher teacher satisfaction.

Our survey found that schools who reported higher development in the 22 capabilities also reported better learning outcomes. While the average stage of development worldwide was at 62 on a scale of 100, 16% of respondents reported significantly higher learning outcomes.

This 16 percent of respondents who identified themselves as high-outcomes schools showed some differences in the way they approach technology.

What Are The Conditions For EdTech Success?

Of the 22 EdTech capabilities measured in the survey, some showed especially strong correlation to learning outcomes. In fact, the 16 percent of respondents who reported high learning outcomes were more likely to:

  • Have detailed technology visions and plans
  • Involve teachers and students in technology planning
  • Formally and regularly evaluate the effectiveness of their technology

Interestingly, schools with high and low outcomes also said they prioritized EdTech capabilities differently. High-outcomes respondents placed a much higher priority on having a strong leadership vision and aligning stakeholders to it. They also prioritized the planning of professional development much more highly than low-outcomes respondents did.

High-outcomes schools also indicated they used more software relating to assessment, game-based learning and student collaboration than their lower outcome achieving peers.

Tackling Concerns

A 2016 study showed that technology drives better learning outcomes when it is chosen to complement defined teaching practices. That study, titled Teaching, Technology, and Learning: Understanding the Interconnection, concluded that superb teaching and school management involving collaborative learning, combined with complementary classroom technology, leads to more positive results among students

SMART’s global study discovers how technology and collaborative teaching are best used together; the results highlight great teachers as the unsung heroes behind improved student success and high outcomes; while, demonstrating the role school business managers can play bringing, the benefits of using technology in collaborative learning environments.

What Can We Learn From The Study?

I truly believe that success in the classroom begins with great teachers. I also believe our study shows that great teachers can only achieve great outcomes when they have the right support. They need technology that’s chosen to complement their desired teaching practices, sustained by shared capabilities among school management, and supported by strong professional development and infrastructure.

Technology providers need to work with schools, not only on product implementation but also on education and enablement—to make sure that their customers can make a meaningful impact in their business or classroom environment. Research has shown that well-implemented EdTech can also reduce costs in other areas.

At SMART Technologies, we embarked on this global study to help provide a roadmap for schools to understand and implement the right capabilities to inspire greatness in each student and achieve better outcomes overall.

It’s clear the right technology, used the right way, has the power to transform teaching and learning and secure a brighter future for schools and their pupils.

For more, see:

Global Education Strategist at SMART Technologies, Giancarlo Brotto has more than 20 years experience working in education technology in K-12 and university environments. His areas of expertise include education policy, classroom practice, training, and professional development, education research and technology implementation. (Twitter: @4GBrotto)


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All aboard Lego’s “Coding Express”

Having been a long time Lego fan and advocate for integration in learning for all ages, I was excited to sit down with my son to unpack and review Lego Education’s Coding Express. As an educational tool designed for early learners, my approach was to look at it through multiple lenses to include specific insights as a former principal of a Pre K-8 public Montessori school with teachers and learners who would thrive in this innovative approach to “encouraging learning through play.”

With eager anticipation, we cleared the dining table, laid the ground rules (if help was needed, he had to ask in the form of a question) and began to unpack the contents. It included 234 familiar and unfamiliar building pieces, a series of well-designed picture cards and resources with instructions to access associated curriculum and apps aligned to support and enhance the product.

He started his build by laying the tracks. This was fun to watch as he explored all of the different possibilities, and he gave very intentional thought to maximizing the pieces to create a layout that utilized as much table space as possible. He then jumped into the building of the train. This provided his first opportunity to utilize the “build cards” and while he originally created the “classic engine,” he continued to explore the cards and ended up dismantling to create the more modern iteration. After utilizing about 90% of the provided pieces, strategically placing each addition to the landscape of the dinning table, he was ready to explore the pieces that he had not seen before.

What would quickly be identified as the “magic” behind the Coding Express, we looked at the color-coded inserts and the function that each served in the travel and animation of the train. With that, it was “all aboard” and the train was on its way. While there were countless applications that could be easily be introduced in a variety learning setting, the real insights were delivered in the observations gathered after the completion of the build (and subsequently, the next afternoon into the evening). He continued to engage with the set, moving associated parts; the refueling station, landscaping additions and animals, with independent alignment of the “coding strips” to match functionality with design.


Lego Education outlines the Coding Express “Key Learning Values” to include:

  • Sequencing
  • Looping
  • Conditional coding
  • Express ideas with digital elements
  • Language & literacy
  • Collaboration
  • Problem-solving
  • Critical thinking

and while I completely agree, it is the learner familiarity of product as a bridge to innovations in learning that is the absolute gift of the Coding Express. Through a learning lens, this tool would be welcomed in any early learning environment, with excitement around what’s to come.

For more, see:


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Mentors Enhance Project-Based Learning

Extended community-connected projects offer at least seven benefits to students:

  1. Big multistep projects teach the practical skills of project management.
  2. Challenging projects build the habits of persistence (sometimes called grit) and self-direction.
  3. If they include some degree of voice and choice, projects build ownership and motivation (with self-direction, these dispositions are often called agency).
  4. Integrated challenges teach critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. Problems with no easy answer build design skills.
  5. Team projects develop social awareness and collaboration skills.
  6. Projects often conclude with written and oral reports that build communication skills across the disciplines (e.g. writing about science).
  7. Well designed projects conclude in a public product that may make a community contribution and allow young people to experience the benefits of service.

Patty Alper adds an eighth benefit. She wants every kid to have a mentor and thinks projects are the right place to connect.

Alper explains the role of a project-based mentor in her book, Teach to Work: How a Mentor, a Mentee, and a Project Can Close the Skills Gap in America.

Alper is a board member of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) where she discovered active learning and power of mentoring.

The opening chapter includes interviews with five companies all looking for employee engagement-willing experts that could support student projects. Mentorship provides reciprocal benefits to mentors and companies. Executives get a chance to give back and companies build the workforce pipeline.

How and Where Mentors Can Support Projects

The Framework for High Quality Project Based Learning (above) articulates six criteria for high quality student experiences. Mentors can play a role in enhancing each of these six areas.

HQPBL Criteria Potential Mentor Roles
Intellectual Challenge and Accomplishment
  • Students rise to the challenge more and push themselves when they know there is someone who truly cares and is paying attention. An established mentor can be that extra nudge or source of support for a student needing to push themselves.
  • Mentors can serve as a means of validation for a student when they accomplish a stage in their project or progress in their level of understanding. While teachers certainly can play this role, students need more than one champion.
Authenticity
  • Mentors can help drive projects to be more authentic and real world. A mentor may work in a field other than education and be able to provide real-life and real world work anecdotes, cues, feedback and support.
Public Product
  • A student may or may not be encouraged to share their learning with another student, class or audience. The mentor is a guaranteed audience and provides a student the stage to share their work.
Collaboration
  • A mentor is another source of collaboration for students in their projects. They likely have a network of their own that can be a source of connections for a student.
  • A mentor may have a unique challenge or opportunity that students can play a pivotal role in addressing.
Project Management
  • Project management can be tricky for students just learning how to engage in projects. Mentors who have worked with the same student(s) overtime can see patterns and help identify strong points and areas that need improvement when it comes to managing a project.
  • A mentor can serve as another checkpoint and someone who is helping to monitor progress and project cycles.
Reflection
  • A mentor is an external figure that is vested in this students life. They are able to provide more objective (and subjective) feedback that someone working directly with the student everyday may or may not be able to provide.
  • A mentor has a different worldview and/or experiences that can color commentary to a students’ reflection.
  • A mentor who has an ongoing relationship with a student is able to provide more longitudinal reflections and share feedback about long-term growth and changes they see.

Teachers also can use their own project planning as an opportunity to consider when mentors can enhance their project design. How might a mentor weigh-in on the driving question for a project and add what he/she thinks is relevant for students to be asking? During the inquiry-stage of a project, teachers can incorporate mentors who can help push students and add to their growing body of research.

Examples of Mentors Making a Difference

For over 100 years, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have incorporated mentors into community connected learning and growth experiences for young people.

At ACE Leadership High School in Albuquerque, students co-construct projects alongside their mentors. Their mentors are considered partners in their work and are pivotal in making decisions with the students every step of the way. Student projects are often guided by a client or mentor need and are solving a real challenge or problem — not one that is contrived or made-up. Therefore, mentors play an essential role in providing real feedback, real input and supporting the students so that the outcome not only benefits the student but also their own place or work.

In the same network, at Health Leadership High School the staff solicits project ideas from community health providers. Projects are connected to mentors and partners and every project must have deliverables valuable to the community. Health Leadership students also participate in a paid internship. It gives the school the opportunity to backward map projects from work experiences which makes them even more authentic. Students are prepared to add value right away when they enter their internship.

In rural Arkansas, Cross County High School (a member of the New Tech Network) developed a virtual mentoring program that includes an MIT professor and a scientist from GSK in Belgium.

Seattle nonprofit Educurious connects students to working professionals who serve as subject matter mentors, creating connections between the classroom and the real world.

Extended challenges build the cognitive muscle for the new economy. Adding mentors to the process builds relevance, motivation and social capital.

This post was originally published on Forbes.

For more, see:


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Network of Place-Based Community-Connected Rural Schools Receive Grant to Expand

Despite dedicated teachers and schools, many rural communities are struggling to survive. Young people grow up and move away. Schools shrink and close accelerating the downward spiral.

A new approach to education could be the solution to rural decline–small schools of 15 to 150 students (often called microschools) sharing resources in networks and leveraging local learning opportunities.

Small community connected schools aren’t a new idea. Big comprehensive schools are a recent invention that created the impression that schools need 40 acres and a $1 million administrative team. While big campuses offer extracurricular amenities they can separate education from community and create diseconomies of scale. (There are as many non-teaching adults as teachers in American.)

Teton Science Schools runs small place-based schools and experiential science education programs in Wyoming and Idaho. They inspire curiosity, engagement and leadership through transformative place-based education. The six design principles include learner-centered, interdisciplinary and inquiry-based, using the community as a classroom to build a local to global context and implementing design thinking to develop solutions.

“Rural schools often have incredible community assets and dedicated staff, but also may struggle with poverty, economic challenges and access to the innovations and resources found in more densely populated areas,” said Nate McClennen, vice president of education and innovation for Teton Science.

To expand access to quality rural education, Teton Science launched the Place Network, a collaborative network of rural K-12 schools that connect learning and communities to increase student engagement, academic outcomes, and community impact.

Within an innovative place-based approach, students in Place Schools share a common learning model. They do much of their learning in projects. They receive personalized support and progress based on demonstrated mastery. Habits of Success including self-awareness, social-emotional skills, and leadership play an equivalent role to other knowledge and skills competencies.

This month, the Place Network received a $1 million grant from NewSchools Venture Fund to expand.

“The goal of the Place Network is to build an innovative and replicable K-12 model to help all rural schools accelerate in partnership together to reimagine their rural futures,” said McClennen.

Early members of the network include Mountain River School in Vermont; University Charter School in Alabama; Koshkonong Trails School in Wisconsin; Swan Valley Elementary School District and Meadows Valley School District in Idaho; and Leadership Preparatory Academy in Washington. In partnership with Journeys School and Teton Valley Community School, the hub schools run by TSS, these pilot schools have helped to refine the model in preparation for future network scaling.

Schools in the network have access to project plans, implementation support, network tools, and an online professional learning community.

Most schools in the network will be small rural public schools – specifically those in areas with higher rates of poverty. A few will be urban schools and independent schools to test and refine the model. Differences will advance learning around how the model works in diverse geographic areas.

Network goals are to improve academic outcomes, student engagement and community impact for students in rural communities. Over the next three to five years, the network will support 50 schools serving 10,000 students. The network is currently accepting applications for the 2019-20 cohort year.

For more, see:


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50 Resources for Makers and Creative Classrooms

If you’re anything like us, you’re always looking for new inexpensive (or better yet, free) resources that can introduce more students to STEM and maker education. There are a lot out there, but the really useful ones can be hard to find.

Here, we’re excited to share 50 resources that we think are doing a great job of expanding access and pushing the envelope.

Maker Resources

Books for MakerEd

  • Free to Make: How the Maker Movement is Changing Our Schools, Our Jobs, and Our Minds, by Dale Dougherty‎, Tim O’Reilly (Foreword),‎ and Ariane Conrad (Contributor)
  • The Kickstart Guide to Making GREAT Makerspaces, by Laura Fleming
  • Maker-Centered Learning, by Edward P. Clapp,‎ Jessica Ross,‎ Jennifer O. Ryan, and‎ Shari Tishman
  • The Space: A Guide for Educators, by Rebecca Louise Hare and Robert Dillon
  • STEAM Makers, by Jacie Maslyk
  • Worlds of Making: Best Practices for Establishing a Makerspace for Your School, by Laura Fleming
  • Your Starter Guide to Makerspaces (The Nerdy Teacher Presents), by Nicholas Provenzano

Regional STEM Networks

  • Arizona STEM Network: Led by Science Foundation Arizona
  • California STEM Learning Network: Bringing together a wide range of stakeholders in California
  • Colorado STEM: A community-driven effort to develop and implement the Colorado STEM Education Roadmap
  • DC STEM Network: Inspiring and preparing all DC youth to succeed, lead, and innovate
  • Educate Texas: Public-private network of seven T-STEM Centers and 60+ Academies
  • Idaho STEM Action Center: Connecting resources, students, teachers and businesses
  • Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council: Increasing STEM interest and achievement
  • I-STEM Resource Network: Working to reform K-8 science education in Indiana through the Indiana Science Initiative (ISI)
  • North Carolina SMT: Created in 2002 to help provide students with the resources, knowledge and skills to excel in STEM
  • NYS STEM Education Collaborative: Coalition of 10 regional New York networks
  • Ohio STEM Learning Network: Anchored by Battelle and Metro, a great Columbus STEM school
  • Remake Learning: a Grable Foundation-sponsored network of 250 organizations in southwestern Pennsylvania focused on engaging, relevant and equitable learning (see Getting Smart feature)
  • S²TEM Centers SC: “Wants learners to experience the “WOW” of STEM, everyday, in and out of school”
  • STEM Action Center Utah: Drives research and implementation of STEM education best practices across Utah
  • Tennessee STEM Innovation Network: Promoting and expanding the teaching and learning of STEM in K-12 schools across Tennessee
  • T-STEM: Public-private initiative of Texas academies, professional development centers and networks
  • Washington STEM: Seven regional STEM networks in Washington State

Is there a resource you would add to the list? Share in the comments section below, and check out our other recent Smart Lists at our Smart List Series.

This Smart List was developed by Getting Smart, who helps schools, districts, and impact-oriented partners design and implement powerful learning experiences and forward-leaning strategies, and thought leadership campaigns. Learn more about how we can help you extend your impact.


6 Ways to Inject Creativity Into PBL

Project-based learning, when implemented well, is a profusion of things to both learners and facilitators. It should and can be engaging, relevant, public, collaborative and authentic. But, with enough student ownership, as well as real-world challenges, PBL can produce a multitude of creative opportunities for learners and facilitators alike. Here are six ways that one could infuse creativity into a project-based learning environment:

Product Development

All learners need to demonstrate their learning publicly in PBL with a product. These can be many things. Sometimes it’s appropriate for all learners to produce the same type of product. For example, it’s very common to expect all learners, whether individually or collaboratively, to produce a final presentation. And this can work well and is often vital in that facilitators are trying to not only get their learners to master content, but also skills. And presentation skills are essential today. However, it is also appropriate in PBL to create an opportunity for students to choose the means how they will demonstrate their learning. For example, in addition to that group or team presentation, maybe learners can produce an individual product that could take on a number of forms: video/film, written product, podcast, photo essay, website or any number of other products.

Tool Time

Naturally, using available technology and resources is relevant to producing high-quality project-based learning. However, they could also be a gold mine in terms of fostering creativity. Take the early presentation example. Do we need to have all students use the same application to produce their presentation? Or can we encourage them to use their choice (Google Slides, Powerpoint, Prezi, Video, etc.)? Maybe they can document their project work for reflective purposes and do this through a blog but again choose their application (Blogger, WordPress, Weebly, etc.).

Real World Roles & Responsibilities

We have placed students in various roles for years. Positions such as Teacher Assistants, Cafeteria Volunteers, Attendance Monitors, Class Monitors, Drum Majors, ASB Officers, and many others are the norm. But beyond those, learners are ready, willing and able to take much more responsibility as it relates to their learning. Stepping into roles maximizing one’s individual strengths and skills will increase student ownership – more ownership will increase the environmental odds of higher creativity.

Examples could include, but not be limited to Media Coordinator, Social Media Coordinator, Project Coordinator, Design Coordinator, Social Coordinator, Web Coordinator, YouTube Channel Coordinator, Community Coordinator, and many others. It’s not about titles for title sake (although students do respond to positions). It’s about learners taking greater responsibility for the strategic roles in the classrooms. It’s about allowing learners to bring their expertise and experience forward for the greater good, while also enhancing their skills, resumes, portfolios and ultimately creativity.

Audience Analytics

One of the foundational tenets of high-quality project-based learning is going public. The learners need to demonstrate their learning to others. It’s this presentation (face-to-face, digital, group, individual) to others that allows for opportunities to increase creativity. Initially, our audiences in PBL tend to be the facilitators and others learners (peers). However, that can be expanded to others on campus (site leaders, staff, other learners and others), as well as others outside of our school environments (community partners, business professionals, civic leaders, parents and guardians). This latter one may invite the outside others in, as well as bring our learners to them. Either way, it will encourage the learner to not only step up their proverbial PBL and presentation game. Creativity can be further induced by catering the messages to these respective audiences, as well as needing specific and appropriate ways to engage these audiences. The more partners we enlist as part of the public aspects of project-based learning, the more our learners will step up their game and see new possibilities for higher level project-based learning.

Free Ranging Focus Areas

Project-based learning is inquiry-based and often works to address real-world problems, issues, questions, and challenges. Additionally, it connects these inquiries or pursuits to content areas and standards. In this process, there are multiple ways to allow students to focus on specific topics or applications related to the overall quest. For example, let’s say a group of learners is studying the effects of climate change on their local environments. A driving question might be, “How can we positively affect climate change in our local environment?” This is a question that could allow for students, individually or in teams, to choose and hone in on a variety of specific focus topics such as water, air quality, conservation, transportation, recycling and repurposing, agriculture and foods, waste and so many others. Although all of the learners will be studying climate change and their local communities, this opportunity to specialize and focus will foster creative opportunities. These different topics will require the use and application of different resources, tools, experts, partners and more. All of this will increase creative capacity.

More Partners At The Party

One of the more recent expansions in the area of project-based learning is the strategic and more formal deployment of one of the best resources in education – our local partners. These are experts, leaders, business leaders, practitioners, higher education personnel, non-profit representatives, parents, and other civic-minded folks. These partners not only want to often contribute to the learning process of all students in their communities but have tremendous assets such as equipment, technology, resources, professional relationships, organizational connections and more. They allow our learners to have increased opportunities for support, relevance, authenticity and especially creativity.

Bonus: Going Off Menu or Template

Throughout PBL implementation, we will see facilitators deploy menus or templates. These are great ways to insure higher quality projects. Indeed, student choice and voice is a delicate proposition. No choice limits engagement and creativity. Too much choice often leads to learners being overwhelmed or increasing that affective filter. So, menus and templates of choices – whether they be for types of products, various areas of focus and even whom to work and partner with – are great compromises and typically successful across the board. Facilitators present the choices (products, topics, etc.) and most students will typically choose from these. Again, it’s the compromise or balance that leads to success. However, one easy twist is to always off the learners the opportunity to go off menu or template. Facilitators create a process where learners can pitch their ideas about why they are going off of the list of choices. This could be a form or application to complete, a conference with the facilitator or any other mechanism that the facilitator deems appropriate. Most will never put in the energy or have the desire to go beyond the official list of choices. But for those who do, there is a huge sea of creativity waiting to be sailed. And the psychological message to the learners that they are empowered is powerful.

The benefits of PBL are numerous, to be sure. It can be useful for all of the “4 Cs.” However, it won’t always automatically lead to the development of these dispositions and skills. These six strategies can help educators become more intentional in bringing creativity into PBL.

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The Promise & Challenge of Student-Centered Learning

In the old days (like 3 years ago) we told computers what to do, now they increasingly figure it out on their own. Artificial intelligence—code that learns—will prove to be humankind’s greatest invention. It will help cure disease, create clean energy, produce cheap safe transportation. It will also displace jobs, concentrate wealth, and create new existential risks. AI will have more influence on the lives and livelihoods of young people than any other factor.

Our #AskAboutAI investigation identified eight key trends shaping the future of work:

  1. Change is exponential but we still think linear.
  2. Every field is computational, everyone is augmented.
  3. Most work delivery by diverse teams (complexity > experts).
  4. Majority freelance/gig workers in 10 years (now for high school grads).
  5. Everyone experiencing novelty and complexity at work and in life.
  6. AI will eat the middle of the job market, unemployment and income inequality will increase.
  7. AI creates employment and contribution opportunity for people and communities that skill up and support entrepreneurship.
  8. AI will outstrip the civic capacity to deal with rapid-fire complexity.

The World Economic Forum calls this bundle of AI-driven trends the Fourth Industrial Revolution (the first three were steam, electricity, and computers). It demands a new approach to learning and living together in community.

AI will steadily improve teaching and learning as well as most back office services. Following right behind it will be improvements in security, portability, and efficiency using distributed ledger technologies.

We see a dozen trends shaping the future of learning (particularly P-12):

  1. Personalized skill building
  2. Community-connected projects with public products
  3. Dynamic grouping (skill, interest, theme, age) and scheduling
  4. Progress on demonstrated mastery with teacher and machine-scored tasks
  5. AR/VR + Voice as the new interface for a 4 screen day
  6. Interoperable formative provides composite real-time status
  7. Expanded (official) student records and portable (curated) learner profiles
  8. Smart recommendations provide informed options
  9. Stackable micro credentials (earned anywhere) signal progress
  10. Rapid pathways to good jobs and affordable postsecondary
  11. Space that supports dynamic models (with cheap, safe transport)
  12. Talent development is personalized and competency-based

Given the extraordinary opportunities and challenges of the world of work and the new chance to personalize learning, it’s a good time to reconsider what it takes to be successful.

What Should Graduates Know and Be Able to Do?

This year’s first graders are the class of 2030. Those graduates will live in a very different world with new challenges and opportunities. We owe it to them to discuss what graduates should know and be able to do.

There is a broad movement to expand the definition of success from basic literacies to work and life readiness. In the last few years, a number of outcome frameworks have been introduced that value success skills including:

  • NGLC MyWays: a well-developed framework from Next Generation Learning Challenges that builds on David Conley’s Think, Know, Act, Go framework. Stressing applied knowledge, MyWays includes “wayfinding” and “creative know-how.” NGLC provides lots of resources and some assessment strategies across the framework
  • ACT Holistic Framework: early learning to job training, has assessments behind most dimensions
  • XQ Learner Goals: a composite framework that provides guidance to 19 super school grantees. To “creative and generative thinking,” XQ adds “Learning for life”
  • KnowledgeWorks’ Foundation of Readiness puts social and emotional at the heart of an outcome framework focused on the future of work
  • Vermont’s 7 Transferable Skills include 34 sub-skills with enough detail to guide assessment. Schools and districts can modify and expand
  • Battelle’s Portrait of a Graduate: with a nod to the 4Cs from P21, Battelle resources include a gallery of sample graduate profiles and a roadmap for how to construct them

It’s time for communities conversations about an updated set of goals for school—goals that reflect the future of work and life. With those new priorities in mind, the next question is what kinds of learner experiences will produce the knowledge, skills, and dispositions for success?

4 Tenets of Student-Centered Learning

Self-direction and project-management can be learned by engaging in extended challenges. Individual needs can be addressed through personalized learning. More time and support can be provided through competency-based progressions. Social capital can be developed by supporting rich community connections. The Nellie Mae Education Foundation calls this approach student-centered learning.

With new practices, tools, and structures, student-centered learning holds the promise of providing powerful learning experiences for every student while developing deeper learning outcomes. The four tenets of student-centered learning (see the Students At The Center Hub) are described below with associated trends and challenges.

Personalized learning recognizes that students engage in different ways and in different places. Students benefit from individually-paced, targeted learning tasks that start from where the student is, formatively assess existing skills and knowledge, and address the student’s needs and interests. Working together, educators, parents, and students customize instruction as much as possible to students’ individual developmental needs, skills, and interests. Students develop connections to each other, their teachers, and other adults that support their learning.

Signs of progress and key trends include:

Barriers and equity challenges include:

  • Technically challenging: apps, Wi-Fi, and schedules
  • Inadequate learning platforms limit individual pathways
  • Can’t combine formative (weak interoperability)
  • Sameness reinforced by structure, staffing, testing, and tradition
  • Class management challenge: lots of activity, new roles
  • Struggling students require more time and support
  • Risk of small tasks focus on low-level skill building (and no extended challenges that promote higher order skills)

Competency-based learning enables students to move ahead in the curriculum based not on the number of hours they spend in the classroom but, primarily, on their ability to demonstrate that they have reached key milestones along the path to mastery of core competencies and bodies of knowledge.

Signs of progress and key trends include:

Barriers and equity challenges include:

  • Technical, structural, political and talent challenges
  • No consistent way to measure learning
  • Inadequate learning platforms limit individual pathways
  • Can’t combine formative (weak interoperability)
  • Low stakeholder demand (from higher ed and parents)
  • Struggling students require more time and support
  • Risk of skills checklist with binary assessment (no extended integrated challenges)

Anywhere anytime learning creates equitable options to learn outside of the typical school schedule and away from the campus. Whether that means studying online, completing an internship over the summer, or taking advantage of some other out-of-school opportunity, they can receive credit for the knowledge and skills they master.

Signs of progress and key trends include:

  • More organizations using badging platforms to certify learning
  • LRNG badging for out-of-school learning
  • Place-based and project-based learning are spreading: schools in libraries, zoos, museums, manufacturing plants, micro-schools (15-150 students) are spreading
  • Widespread access to online and college credit classes

Barriers and equity challenges include:

  • Need consistent ways to measure learning
  • Districts guard budgets, resist portable funding
  • Challenge to fund equitable access to quality out-of-school learning
  • Risk of low-level field trips, bad online choices
  • Quality guidance is key to equity as options expand

Ownership (Agency, Growth Mindset) is developed as students gain an increased understanding of and responsibility for their own learning via frequent opportunities to decide such things as the topics they study, the books they read, the projects they pursue, and the curricular pathways they take en route to meeting college and career-ready standards.

Signs of progress and key trends include:

  • Growth in project-based learning with more voice and choice (e.g., New Tech Network assesses agency in each project)
  • Widespread recognition of growth mindset: effort matters
  • Secondary advisory (distributed counseling) is key but idiosyncratic
  • Advocates: “learners are active participants in their learning as they gradually become owners of it.” (Education Reimagined)

Barriers and equity challenges include:

  • Standards-based reforms reinforced teacher-directed cohort learning which may improve test scores but can reduce self-direction and persistence
  • Challenging to integrated standards-based and interest-based learning (i.e., where/how to add voice and choice)
  • Most teachers not trained in student-centered learning
  • Risk: interest isn’t always the best next step

How to Promote Student-Centered Learning?

Projects can be a great way to promote extended community-connected challenges that uniquely produce deeper learning. Some projects can be individual, some team-based; some with a specific product and some that require an iterative solution; some teacher-directed but with increasing voice and choice; and some community-connected projects resulting in public product.

Individualized skill-building strategies before and during projects enable equitable participation.

Next generation assessment, as David Conley describes it, promotes student ownership of learning and help students identify interests and develop self-knowledge. By producing actionable information, assessment profiles guide development and goal attainment.

Improved data interoperability will allow many forms of assessment to be combined. Smart tools will allow different learner profiles to be compared.

Advisory systems in secondary schools are a distributed modeling of counseling that provides a daily check-in for academic and personal growth. They often provide opportunities to build social and emotional learning skills.

DIY doesn’t work

Most schools cannot figure this out on their own. Personalized and project-based learning is complicated. Developing aligning structures, spaces, schedules, and staffing is hard. Building an integrated technology stack is complicated. Most measures are immature and hard to combine.

As discussed in Better Together, networks can reduce complexity and improve effectiveness in every classroom.

Some networks share outcome frameworks (IB, Building 21). A growing number of networks share learning models and platform tools (New Tech Network, Summit Learning). Curriculum networks share partial school models and digital tools (PLTW, AVID). Regional collaborations like the Pittsburgh Personalized Learning network and leadership networks like the League of Innovative Schools share best practices and attack common problems.

School visits are the best way to learn. Check out 100 middle and high schools worth visiting and 85 K-8 schools worth visiting.

10 State Policy Levers for Boosting Student-Centered Learning

States that want to advance student-centered learning have at least 10 levers: standards, assessments, accountability, funding, certification, authorization, resources, infrastructure, incentives, and partnerships.

Standards. State learning expectations are communicated as student learning goals (standards), summative assessments, graduation requirements, and occasionally as graduate profiles (like Virginia and South Carolina). Potential next step:

  • Express career ready aims but avoid incorporating immature measures into accountability systems.

State assessments (and accountability) most concretely express what’s really valued. Potential Next Steps:

  • Subsidize climate and SEL surveys (PanoramaEd)
  • Create plans for skinny summative (banking on cumulative validity and interoperability)
  • Pilot diploma networks with assessment systems proven reliable and comparable

Accountability systems reinforce grade-level proficiency, dampen competency progressions and reduce the focus on career-ready outcomes. Potential next steps:

  • Consider a performance assessment pilot (like New Hampshire)
  • Pilot addition of work-ready skills to an extended transcript (24 states already use climate survey as an early proxy)

Funding signals values. In many states, funding remains unequal and reinforces inequitable practices. Potential next steps:

  • Increase weighted funding to support equitable learning
  • Pilot prepaid accounts for out-of-school learning (could make it a blockchain pilot)

Certification is the talent gateway. Potential next steps:

  • Increase alternative certification flexibility
  • Sponsor (then require) personalized and competency-based preparation

Authorizing new schools can target types, locations, and student groups. Potential next step:

  • RFP for student-centered schools in underserved areas (supported by grant funding).

Resources. States can subsidize or provide important resources such as curriculum and guidance information. Potential next steps:

  • Sponsor open curriculum units (e.g., Louisiana) and guidance programs (e.g., Washington)
  • Subsidize personalized learning platforms (e.g., Canvas in Utah)
  • Sponsor robotics activities (e.g., FIRST)
  • Sponsor maker activities (e.g., MyMachine in Belgium)

Infrastructure. Access to devices and broadband facilitates anywhere anytime learning. State data systems can be a barrier to SCL. Potential next steps:

  • Check for equitable access: ask your education department for a report on broadband in schools
  • Consider partnerships to expand family access at community hotspots
  • Modify data systems to support nontraditional grading and progress reporting

Incentives. State grant programs can be helpful in scaling innovation:

  • Straight A Fund in Ohio ($280 million) resulted in networks
  • Texas High School Project (now EdTx.org) yielded 135 STEM and early college high schools
  • Virginia awarded 10 $50,0000 high school innovation grants

Potential state sources of investment: reserving a portion of federal Title 1,2 or 4 grants; seeking national grants, and partnering with nonprofits that run statewide programs (eg, Highlander Institute in Rhode Island).

Partnerships can expand learning opportunities, improve college access, and improve youth/family services. Potential next steps:

  • Require Higher Ed to accept competency transcript (could expand homeschool provisions)
  • Support College Promise Campaign (based on Tennessee Promise)
  • Encourage district-charter collaboration (eg, Texas SGS)

The dominant philanthropic view has a strong point of view on half of these levers: Common Core aligned standards and assessments; strong accountability; weighted, flexible, and portable funding; and cities as multiple-operator portfolios with equitable resources and access.

Diploma networks are an alternative way to spread student-centered learning. As the Building 21 network illustrated, diploma networks are schools that work together with a shared outcome frameworks and assessment systems, and platforms including curriculum materials and professional learning opportunities. As schools join geographic or thematic diploma networks, states could reduce required summative assessments.

Student-centered learning is promising but challenging in many respects. It requires new goals and new roles; new incentives and new supports (for both teachers and students); new partnerships and new measures of success.

Well implemented, student-centered systems will produce more equitable results –more young people prepared to contribute in this age of innovation.

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Students Learn Project Management From HQPBL Experiences

One of the keys to successfully integrating a project-based learning experience into the classroom is project management. A teacher first must effectively plan for and manage the design of the PBL lesson and students then, in turn, manage themselves and their work. So what exactly do we mean when we say, “project management”? The leading project management experts, Project Management Institute (PMI), define project management as “the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.” PMI strongly believes in project management’s place in education and brings project management to teachers and students through the work of the PMI Educational Foundation (PMIEF).

The future of work is going to necessitate that individuals know how to manage a multitude of projects, so it makes sense for students to learn this valuable skill while in school rather than at their first job. The High Quality Project Based Learning Framework (HQPBL), which PMIEF helped fund, recognizes project management’s importance and includes it as one of the six criteria for HQPBL. See below for the Framework’s guidance on how students should be integrating project management into PBL.

Courtesy of HQPBL.org

While the Framework discusses the student experience, it is important to also understand how teachers are integrating project management skills into their practice. PMIEF recently developed a video where one teacher shared, “Project management has impacted me as a professional as it provides a structure to my planning and encourages me to reflect on my own teaching.” Hear from other teachers and Bob Lenz,  Executive Director of the Buck Institute for Education, in the video below. You can also access the video here.

Video courtesy of PMIEF.org

Wondering how to include project management skills into a HQPBL lesson? New Tech Network has developed a tool which will can help ensure students’ projects are on track.

We’d love to hear how teachers and students are integrating project management skills specifically into their PBL lessons. Comment below or join the conversation on Twitter using #HQPBL.

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Microsoft Flagship Schools: Transforming Education From The Ground Up

As a design partner, Getting Smart will be excited to share learnings from the experience as this first cohort of change catalysts embark on the flagship journey. 


The future of learning is a popular topic on our site, within our team, and a motivator in the work we engage in with partners throughout the world. A large part of this “future” involves innovative design that matches instructional practices that redefine learner experience in every sense of the concept. Along this line of thought, we are excited to share and celebrate Microsoft’s recent launch of its Flagship Schools program. This fall – 17 schools throughout the world will embark on a collaborative journey to “transform education from the ground up.”

With a foundation of 12—thoughtfully designed—tenets, that align with the K12 Education Transformation Framework, the Flagship Schools program will deliver a collaborative learning experience to “design, develop and deliver” new learning models, with ground up learning spaces that will accelerate holistic integrity of each model. While each participant will maintain autonomy in the design of their outcome, this inaugural cohort of schools will share insights and learning grounded in a shared philosophy of transforming learning. Armed with a common mission to better serve each learning community, Getting Smart is excited to embark on this journey as a design and deeper learning thought partner.

The inaugural cohort of Flagship Schools will include;

  1. University of Central Florida, Florida, USA
  2. Asten College, Cairo, Egypt
  3. St Catherine’s British School, Athens, Greece
  4. Colegio Tomas Alva Edison, Mendoza, Argentina
  5. Sri KDU International School, Klang, Malaysia
  6. Inner City North State Secondary College, Queensland, Australia
  7. Bertha Park High School, Perth, Scotland
  8. Monio High School, Tuusula, Finland
  9. IB Campus, HdWM, Mannheim, Germany
  10. Chicureo Pioneers’ Academy, Colina, Región Metropolitana Chile
  11. Smart Learning School, Cairo, Egypt
  12. Baocheng 39th District Nine-years School, Baoan District Shenzhen, China
  13. Whyalla Secondary School, Department for Education, South Australia
  14. NMS Graz – St. Leonhard, Graz, Austria
  15. Ministry for Education and Employment, Malta
  16. AQARAT, Dubai, UAE
  17. Renton Prep, Washington, USA

Full announcement blog can be found here.

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