Driving Innovation: Accelerators

By: Norton Gusky

In 2018 the Consortium for Schools Networked (CoSN) transformed the K-12 Horizon Report into The CoSN K-12 Driving Innovation Series with three reports. The reports are based on the work of over 100 educators around the globe who look at emerging technologies through three lenses: Hurdles, Accelerators, and Tech Enablers. As the co-chair of the CoSN Emerging Technologies Committee, I was selected to be part of the process. The Advisory Group engaged in several months of discourse about the major themes driving, hindering, and enabling teaching and learning innovation at schools. After each phase, final thoughts from advisory board members were distilled in surveys discerning the top ve topics to feature in each publication.

Currently, I’m working with the Emerging Technologies Committee to expand the work of the Advisory Group around Accelerators, in particular, Data-Driven Practices. The CoSN Emerging Technologies Committee felt that all ve themes (see graphic) were important, but for the CoSN audience, Data-Driven Practices had the greatest relevance. Plus it has been over three years since CoSN had worked on examples in this area.

According to the Driving Innovation report, data-driven activities can be defined according to this statement: With more engagement, performance, and other kinds of data being collected, schools are leveraging that data to make decisions about curriculum, hiring, technology investments, and more.

 CoSN’s previous discussions on Data-Driven Practices focused on administrative issues relating to privacy, security, and uses of data to inform instruction, with a major focus on compliance issues relating to No Child Left Behind. Now with the move towards student-centered learning, there’s a growing interest in looking at other ways of using data in the educational arena. The Data Fluency project at Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab is a great example of how data is now viewed as a tool for empowering both educators and student learners.

According to the Mission/Vision statement from the Fluency Project:

Fluency is a process of deep inquiry, case-making, and advocacy. Guided by shared values, we explore how technology and data can serve as tools to enhance the voices of teachers and students. Co-powering teachers and students to be “Fluent” means they can gather information, reconcile it with their personal experience, and influence public discourse. Within this framework, the focus is on creating an individual path for exploration based on self-knowledge, in the context of the world around you. While students will have access to new tools for understanding data and creating compelling media, we believe it is the Fluency process that will lift up their voices, and mold them into critical thinkers and active citizens.”

In order to understand how this looks in a K-12 world, I interviewed school leaders and teachers from two school districts in the Pittsburgh, PA region who are taking a lead in using data to enhance student agency – Carlynton and Allegheny Valley. The principal of Carlynton Jr/HS, Michael Loughren, introduced me to two of his English teachers who have taken the lead on the Data Fluency project – Kristen Fischer and Wendy Steiner. We don’t usually think about data projects in English. Kristen and Wendy have discovered a new approach to give students a voice in their writing, oral and digital communications.

For the study of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, students now analyze the character in relation to episodes of PTSD. They have to find details (data) in the form of repeated words and phrases that support an argument that Macbeth suffered from PTSD. For another project, students had choices of expression for an oral history project on a self- selected element of family history. The students used a different tool to express themselves – a podcast format. According to Kristen and Wendy, there have been a number of benefits. Student work is now always original with no elements of plagiarism. All students are engaged and see a purpose in their writing. According to Michael Loughren the Data Fluency project has deepened and strengthened relationships between teachers and students. In addition, he has witnessed a decrease in the number of discipline problems.

At Allegheny Valley, Brent Slezak, the technology director, has seen similar benefits using the Data Fluency approach. Student voice has been amplified by allowing each student to make their case, which in turn has led to more student engagement. Brent emphasized the importance of using an inquiry-based processed. Students need to start by asking essential questions. At Allegheny Valley, the essential question for one high school project was: What is air quality? Why is it important? Students used a SPEC sensor from the CREATE lab to monitor the air quality in multiple classrooms. The students then had to analyze the data and make their case. The problem required the students to “scrub” the data and visually represent what was happening. The students discovered patterns that led to conversations with teachers. The students had to develop a narrative so that the data created a story. The students then had to advocate for changes within the classrooms. The students discovered how data revealed solutions for real-world problems.

There were more projects that Carlynton and Allegheny Valley teachers created. In every case, students voice became amplified. Data provided a way to gain insights into real-world problems. Students discovered that data can be more than numbers. Students took their ideas to new levels by becoming agents of change advocating for solutions to solve real-world challenges.

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Norton Gusky is an educational technology broker and uses technology to empower kids, educators and communities. You can find him on Twitter at @ngusky.

This blog was originally posted on nlg-consulting.net

Teacher Reflections on Practicing Student-Driven Formative Assessment

By Barbara Jones

Tulsa Public Schools teacher Jennifer Lowther recently told me that, “I’m a completely different learner in formative assessment right now compared to a year ago. I can’t imagine how different I’m going to be in another year.” Jennifer has been practicing formative assessment as part of the How I Know initiative, a project created in partnership with the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation in which 60 teachers from Dallas ISD, Austin ISD and Tulsa Public Schools have been developing their formative assessment practice.

While each district’s team has developed different models for teacher professional learning to support pilot teachers’ formative assessment practice, our team of WestEd coaches (who collect observational evidence about changes in practice) recently began to notice teachers from the three districts raise similar observations about the changing roles of teachers and students that have emerged as a result of their use of formative assessment.

We observed that one of the most critical moments for teachers learning formative assessment is when they have a mindset shift about the potential for the student role in learning. It is when a teacher realizes students have the capacity to gauge where they are in their own learning, to set their own goals for next steps, and to help their peers tackle learning challenges. We interviewed three teachers, one from each district, to learn more about their journey, and explore their reflections about these changes to the teacher and student roles. Below, we share what they view as primary outcomes, challenges, and strategies for encouraging this shift.

What the Change in Student Role Looks Like

All three teachers we interviewed described shifts in their mindsets as they gained experience in formative assessment. Jennifer Lowther, a teacher from Will Rogers Junior High School in Tulsa put it like this:

We talk a lot about our mindset shift, and … I call it a philosophy, like a classroom philosophy. You really have to change it and shift it, and that kind of collectively happened for us in December. So I feel like we’ve really been diving in for the last four months.

Another How I Know teacher, Esmeralda Hernandez, who teaches 3rd/4th grade bilingual math and science at Ben Milam Elementary School in Dallas, shared how a change in the student role in her classroom has helped students experience their own mindset shifts, enabling them to take ownership of their learning:

I noticed that the students are more positive and they want to learn, and math has become an area of strength for all of them. It’s just been very powerful, to see that they own their learning, and that they can all achieve. Because that is the shift in the mindset that they can all achieve, because maybe before they would think “Oh, I’m not good at this.”

We also heard from teachers that this mindset shift does not necessarily happen all at once, but can come slowly. For example, they may see first that students are more competent than they expected at using success criteria to evaluate their learning status. Then, later on, they may glean that students can also participate in co-creating the learning goals and success criteria, as well as participate in decisions about how to move learning forward. As Esmeralda mentioned, students may also begin to develop positive learner identities as a result of these shifts. Kevin Rawlings, who teaches 7th grade English Language Arts at Bailey Middle School in Austin shared his evolving understanding of formative assessment in this way:

[In the past] when I would hear the term formative assessment, I would think of it as, essentially, what I now think of as an evidence gathering tool. Where it was just something that’s “one and done” that you just use in the classroom. But now I’ve since learned that formative assessment is a much broader thing–it’s an overall ethos and it’s something you apply in your classroom that isn’t just … a single tool. Rather, it’s a different approach to teaching. It’s more of something that is ongoing, and it involves more student-led activities rather than just being teacher-centric.

However, making this transition is not without its roadblocks.

The Challenges Facing the Transition

Sometimes, even with an evolving understanding, teachers may struggle with applying a more student-centered model in their own classrooms. Teachers shared that they sometimes feared that their classrooms could become too chaotic, that they could lose control and never get it back. Yet as these teachers gained more experience, they also said that they could begin to see a path forward, and while it could get messy, and many wrong turns could be taken, the benefit of shifting the roles in the classroom so that students have more say, more agency, and more buy-in, are invaluable. Jennifer explained that, “I feel like my expectations of them are changing, so how I define the student role is changing.” This perspective also leaves open the possibility for future change as her expectations of students continue to evolve.

It is, to be honest, still usually a long journey to realize the vision of students as equal stakeholders, even after deciding it’s necessary. Teachers rarely have models to show them the way forward. Many teachers who see the benefit of sharing responsibility of learning with students don’t always believe it is possible with their students or their grade level.

Teachers in the How I Know project are no exception. Kevin shared with us how he started his formative assessment journey by increasing the amount of independent group work students engage in and reducing the amount of lecturing he does. He says, though, that much of his attention during lessons is still focused on containing the energy and volume of the classroom. His sense is that his 7th graders are continuously pressing against the classroom order and his ability to keep control is important for learning to occur. “The reality of it is sometimes if you just take the reins off in a seventh-grade classroom like that, it can get into some pretty off-task behavior.” Kevin is currently in the process of integrating peer feedback into his lessons and developing more structures that involve focus on student learning within collaborative structures, such as mock debate and student creation of learning posters. These structures support extended discourse and rich academic discussions in which students learn together.

Using Transparency as a Strategy for Moving Forward

Though challenging, however, these teachers talked about learning from, and wanting to continue, making this shift in the student role. Jennifer, who also teaches middle school, decided to take the plunge. She shared that she believes in the importance of increasing the student role in learning through formative assessment, and sees the value in engaging students more as partners in the learning process. Once she understood the mindset change needed, she decided to engage her students by becoming completely transparent with them about her own learning, as well as theirs. Here’s what she said about starting with a new group of students last January:

A lot of what was different at that point was what I was telling students. I was telling them what I was working on and where I was and the team that I was a part of. I was very transparent about my goals for myself for the next three or four months and what I wanted to get out of my time with them. And then we started talking about what I hoped they got out of that time. But I started the conversation being very transparent. I promised, you can learn from me, but I’m working on all of these things.

And I was also really honest about what I wanted them to hold me accountable for. I said, “One of my goals is that we have a learning goal and success criteria every day that you understand and that you can use.” And there have been days where I’ve been sick the day before, and I show up, and I don’t really know what’s going on, and they want to know where their learning goal is. And I say, “Hold me accountable.” Because that was my goal for myself. So that was a huge difference for them. And I think I can tell it was different for them to hear their teacher talking to them about what they were wanting to learn and what I was wanting to learn. So that immediately affected our dynamics.

With this approach, Jennifer positioned herself as a learner and the students as important supporters of her learning. She also modeled that it is okay for them to share where they are in their own learning and to identify as beginners. This sets up a powerful model and helps establish a trusting and more equitable classroom culture. Her next step in her effort to shift the student role was to help students create their own learning goals:

Then we took some time for them to create some of their own goals. Which I do a lot, but I also made the step of what’s your success criteria for that? To help them go through the process of making one of these and what it feels like. And we refer back to those. For example, I ask, ‘How is this helping you get to your second success criteria?’

Esmeralda also shared how she works to increase the capacity of students to drive their own learning. She said that, “My students have learned to identify their needs and create a path to get to their goals.” When asked about what scaffolds and supports she provides students as they use formative assessment, she stated, “A lot of modeling and sitting with them and going over the work.” Just like Jennifer, Esmeralda also relies on transparency as an important strategy in her formative assessment practice. For her, transparency comes in the form of think out louds while she is modeling:

It’s a lot of me thinking out loud for them at the beginning. I have to say, ‘Okay so this is what I’m thinking.’ ‘Oh, I struggle with these things too.’ So giving them examples of how I struggle myself and how they can correct me shows them how everybody makes mistakes, and that it’s okay because this is how we learn.

Closing Thoughts

Each of these three teachers highlight important issues as well as solutions for implementing formative assessment. Jennifer hit on a final important strategy when she said:

Something that I underestimated in formative assessment is how much I really need to know about each of my students. Because you’re asking them to do things that are harder… Or [work in] a situation that is uncomfortable for them, even if the tasks aren’t any harder. Because you’re really putting that responsibility of learning on them.

What Jennifer is getting at is that when teachers know their students well, they are better equipped to accurately interpret the evidence of learning students share with them. These teacher voices also hint at a two-way transparency that develops in formative assessment, where there is a new “honesty” about what each person in the classroom knows, including the teacher and the students. This enables the development of a supportive classroom culture where individuals aren’t afraid to show what they know and ask for help. This also creates more and better evidence of student learning.

As these teachers have shared with us, it is the daily practices of providing transparency about learning and ongoing modeling and support that enable them and their students to make the shift towards greater shared responsibility for learning. With these daily practices, students gain more confidence and knowledge to manage their own learning, and the teacher continues to develop new routines, structures, and activities through which students can do the learning. When they’ve made the shift, the pay off is not only that students learn more, but they learn how to learn, gaining skills that don’t fade over time, but instead strengthen as they continue to create their own learning pathways.

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Barbara Jones is a Senior Professional Learning Specialist at WestEd. Connect with her at [email protected].

This post is a part of a series focused on the “How I Know: Designing Meaningful Formative Assessment” initiative sponsored by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. Check out the How I Know website (www.formativeassessmentpractice.org) and join the conversation on Twitter using #HowIKnow or #FormativeAssessment.

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Assume Good Intentions: Lessons for Responsive Family Engagement

The number of decisions that the average person makes in a day is seemingly countless. If that person also happens to be a parent or a teacher (or both!), then the number is even more unfathomable. Yet the decisions of parents and teachers are tremendously important and quite often have very serious consequences. Over time decisions are strung together and collectively make an impact that very often was never intended. Relationships between teachers and students as well as those between parents and children are affected by those accumulated decisions. The relationships between teachers and families are no different. Our experiences amass and before even encountering one another, our preconceived notions have begun to shape our interactions. And what psychology teaches us is that negative experiences outweigh positive experiences in our memories (Baumeister et al., 2001). This is the case for all involved–teachers, students, and parents.

As a middle and high school classroom teacher, I was always mindful to consider that I was most likely not the first teacher with which families had communicated. While each year presents a fresh start, those collected experiences are informing everyone’s expectations for the interactions we have. Because those interactions are largely teacher-initiated at many schools, I viewed the responsibility for setting the tone as mine. And while I always hoped that families’ experiences had been positive, I also knew that I couldn’t expect that. Each new year was a new opportunity to demonstrate my commitment and begin to build trust.

There were several guiding principles that informed my interactions with parents and families, and that I believe set me up for success. These principles were also helpful reminders as the school year wore on and we encountered the inevitable bumps in the road.

  • Assume good intentions. This is perhaps the most important principle that I’ve held onto throughout my career, and it’s especially important when interacting with parents and families. If we assume the best of one another, then we’re more likely to ask questions and empathize rather than judge or discount families’ actions. Most parents, I’ve learned, are doing what they can to support their children and act in their best interest. Often, though, and for a variety of reasons, that’s not readily apparent. As teachers, we’re viewing parents’ actions through our own lenses. We know how we were raised and/or have defined what successful family engagement looks like based on our own experiences and understandings. In so doing, we’re more likely to misinterpret or misunderstand. We don’t know what’s happening in each family’s life or the barriers or challenges that families are working around each day. However, with time, a willingness to avoid judgment, and a conscious effort to learn about parents and families’ lives and approaches, teachers can come to understand and then engage in sincere dialogue that will ultimately benefit students. At the beginning of the year, I’ve asked parents and families to share some of their hopes and dreams for their children, and I’ve also asked for them to share the approaches they use to motivate, encourage, or re-focus their children. This gives me a frame and additional strategies on which to draw throughout the year. And by asking, I’m demonstrating that true engagement is a team endeavor that requires that I learn about and build upon the strategies they’ve used as they’ve raised their children.
  • Generally, if we knew better, we’d do better. I still recall the first time I called home to talk to a parent about the challenges their son was having in my middle school ELA class. I had tried a variety of strategies and experienced little consistent success. I called home and when I explained what was happening, the mother replied by saying, “I know. I have the same struggle at home. I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve tried everything, even things I’ve done in the past, and nothing seems to be working.” Unfortunately, that wasn’t the last time I heard those sentiments, but it forced me to consider that parents are constantly learning about their children too, and middle schoolers can be different every day!  Further, just because you’ve raised one child, doesn’t mean you’ll know exactly what to do for the next. We’re all learning and navigating this together, and what’s important is to continue to work as a team, with families, students, and other school resources being included in the team and remaining open to the dialogue. And then, once we gain ground and make headway, it’s important to share and celebrate together.
  • Trust is built by saying what you’re going to do and then doing it. What’s at the core of all of our work, both with students and with families is trust. And trust, I’ve learned, begins with something simple–saying what you’re going to do and then following through. If you send a note home at the beginning of the year that says you’ll be making phone calls or planning home visits, then you’ve got to be prepared to do just that. If at a family conference, you tell families you’re going to follow up on something and get back in touch with them, you’ve got to do it. It may sound simple, but things get busy and what’s on our list gets lost or too much time passes, and soon we haven’t followed through. If we’re serious about fostering productive relationships, then we’ve got to have that foundational trust.

Together, these principles have led me to produce, often lasting relationships with parents and families. What I’ve learned through these relationships has not only benefited the particular child but has come to inform my practice in ways that I believe enhances the experience for even more children. My own awareness about the wonderful and varied ways that parents and families support and nurture children has grown tremendously, and because of that, my repertoire of strategies grown, and so, too, have I!

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Reimagining Education in High Need Areas with Cascade Public Charter Schools

“Well, I always blame it on Scott,” Garth Reeves tells me jokingly when asked about their initial idea of opening up a free, public charter high school in the Midway/Woodmont neighborhoods of  Federal Way, Kent and Des Moines in the Fall of 2020.

Coming from “non-traditional” education backgrounds, Garth and Scott Canfield first met at West Seattle high school four years back when they were brought in to inject energy around grading practices, inquiry-driven curriculum and other aspects of “non-traditional” education into a traditional, comprehensive high school setting.

While proud of accomplishments and growth achieved at West Seattle, they remained frustrated by intransigence and a lack of urgency around underserved and marginalized students and shifts toward deeper learning pedagogies in general. “We were able to implement school-wide Advisory, a 1:1 mentorship program for students needing extra support, and dramatically decrease discipline disproportionality by bringing in restorative practices, but it still felt like playing around the edges of the fundamental issues. So, when Scott came across a school incubation fellowship, it just felt like, yes, we should do this,” said Reeves.

The state of Washington has some of the strictest charter school laws in the country, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Among them:

  • The state law includes all of the model law’s provisions for transparent charter application, review, and decision making processes.
  • The state law includes all of the model law’s provisions for comprehensive charter school monitoring and data collection processes.
  • The state law includes many of the model law’s clear processes for renewal, nonrenewal, and revocation decisions.

Cascade Public Charter Schools has the vision “to reimagine public education, co-constructing an innovative network of mentorship-based, deeper learning schools with the communities we serve”.

They are launching in the Midway/Woodmont area. Cascade was looking for an area in need of more educational opportunity. It is an area where just 50 percent of ELL students are graduating on time and the gap continues to grow. In terms of location, it is also located at the intersection of 3 school districts and will offer students in these neighboring districts additional innovative educational options.

To understand what makes the Cascade Public Schools stand out is to understand that instruction is built around relevancy, personalization, and empowerment. This makes it possible to drive what students are learning based on what is impactful to the community and focus on cultivating students to become global citizens. Each of these program elements is designed with varying degrees of individualization to create an academic experience that reflects students’ post-secondary goals and aspirations.

Cascade Core Programs
  • Interdisciplinary, inquiry-rich, and competency-based approach to the academic core
  • Built on topics and issues relevant to students and the community
  • Asks students to solve complex problems through project-based learning, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration
  • Students demonstrate mastery of standards-aligned Learning Goals through exhibition and portfolio
Individual Pathways
  • An advisory-led culture of high expectations and high support
  • Individual Learning Plans, personal and academic goal setting and progress monitoring
  • Daily literacy and numeracy blocks support student academic needs from intervention to acceleration
  • Explicit post-high school planning and goal setting starting in 9th grade
Leaving to Learn
  • Interest-driven, community-based internships
  • 1:1 mentorship focused on supporting and developing college & career readiness
  • Integration of “school” and “real world” learning with deeper learning competencies
  • Students develop personal and professional  networks, building social capital

Cascade looked to several schools for inspiration with their own school design. They looked to Big Picture Learning for their career-connected learning and personalization, Evergreen State College for their core programs, High Tech High for their learner-centered focus, and Rise Up in Denver for their culture and family atmosphere. Similar to many of their inspiration schools, the curriculum will be competency-based with student exhibitions and portfolios. Cascade Public Schools has also developed key strategic partnerships with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound to offer 1:1 community-based mentors for every student, and the National Center for Restorative Justice to design and implement school-wide restorative systems to promote relationship-building and a positive school climate

Looking forward, Garth and Scott hope students graduating from their school are empowered to set and achieve personal goals, develop a social network, and have a clear post-high school plan that will prepare them for success in this ever-changing world.

Our team is excited for the opening of a local charter school, expanding choice to students in our community and look forward to following the Cascade Public School’s journey.

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Inspiring and Supporting English Learners with Adaptive Tools

As our country’s ever-evolving demographics change, this month we are focusing on the growing population of English Learners (ELs) across the U.S., and the support tools currently available to support their success. Diagnostic and instructional resource development organization Curriculum Associates is a great example of a company integrating supports for ELs into its products.

Why EL Work Is Important

While we know generally that the EL student population is growing, we dove into the data to get a better sense of the urgency in making targeted efforts to better support these students. According to the U.S. Department of Education data collected in 2009-2010 and 2014-2015, the percentage of EL students increased in more than half the states, and increased over 40% in five states. By 2014-2015, there were over 4.8 million ELs in the country – which equates to roughly 10% of the total K-12 population. More staggering is the rate at which this population is expected to grow; according to the National Education Association, ELs are the fastest-growing student population group and are expected to comprise an estimated 25% of the public school student population by 2025. While ELs represent all races and ethnicities and over 400 spoken languages, a vast majority (more than 75%) of these students are Hispanic and Spanish-speaking.

In keeping with its founding mission, Curriculum Associates believes in making classrooms better places by offering assessment and instructional tools (such as i-Ready Diagnostic, i-Ready Instruction and Ready Classroom Mathematics) that meet learners where they are. They also embrace an asset-based philosophy, focusing on the richness that populations of students like ELs bring to learning and striving to leverage what different learners can bring to the classroom.

For all educators and providers of support tools, it’s important to look at the unique challenges ELs face and the broad spectrum of needs they may have. By taking a personalized approach with EL students, educators can get to know their strengths and abilities and better assess their students’ needs. Culturally responsive teaching practices and being able to support language development in conjunction with core instruction become vital to the success of EL students.

Growing EL’s Beyond Proficiency – Connecting EL Needs + Instructional Actions

Curriculum Associates considers it a priority to ensure ELs achieve academic success and considers the needs of English Learners from the start when developing their products. Their approach is all about collaboration – when they’re creating anything new, be that lessons, curriculum, or products, there is someone from the EL team at the table from square one, ensuring there is a focus language acquisition. Claudia Salinas, Vice President of English Learning, shares, “When we sit side by side, it allows us from the beginning to think about our English Learners and their needs.”

The EL Team perspective is all in the details… and none are too small! A team member may provide input on whether a sound does or does not transfer appropriately to English – this insight informs what could be more difficult for an EL student and then guides the product developers’ decisions in features such as the products’ emphasis on or repetition of certain sounds. The team provides expert advising on where they may see differences in how learning is expressed in each student.

How i-Ready Supports EL Achievement

So how do the tools offered by Curriculum Associates help EL students specifically? By integrating a combination of language development strategies, culturally responsive teaching principles and strategic scaffolds, their product suite identifies and provides the exact level of instruction at which students can thrive and grow.

Adaptive diagnostic tools identify areas of greatest need and assist teachers in translating assessment data into personalized instruction. Teachers receive clear results and data-based insights into what the student is and is not able to do and the appropriate next steps regarding the placement of a student and where to focus instruction.

i-Ready Instruction places each student on a personalized online lesson path based on diagnostic results, and embeds language support tools specifically helpful for EL students such as multiple representations of material, engaging visual supports to coincide with audio, and flexible audio supports to coincide with any words on the screen, real-time instruction and feedback, pro vocabulary development activities, and strategic scaffold supports for Spanish speakers.

Curriculum Associates advocates for the use of strategic scaffolds with lesson planning for EL students. This is to say they avoid the norm of over scaffolding instruction such as emphasizing the correct answers too quickly and easily. Instead, strategic scaffolds provide for productive struggle where learners are more challenged to use the skills and knowledge they already have to discover an answer to a new problem. For example, Spanish-speaking EL students might be presented with scaffolded instruction in which they are exposed to words that look and sound similar in Spanish and English and instruction will emphasize the Latin roots of words to explain their meanings.

In time, i-Ready’s assessments and diagnostic capabilities become useful in re-classifying EL students. In a video highlighting the the use of i-Ready with ELs, Amy Boles, Director of Educational Services for Oak Grove School District shares, “i-Ready has been really instrumental in giving us some kind of a benchmark around academics for our EL students so if they’re on-level or above then we’re seeing that we can utilize i-Ready to re-classify our students to ‘English Proficient,’ and so we’ve been able to re-classify a lot more EL students with the data from i-Ready, which has been exciting to see.”

EL Gains Shown in i-Ready Data

Perhaps one of the most encouraging pieces in this work is the data showing significant success made with ELs. Not only did the 87,000 ELs who took the i-Ready Diagnostic show promising growth, but they also showed greater gains than that seen by the nearly one million native English speaking students receiving i-Ready instruction.

ELs At Home – How Connecting to Family Can Make Bigger Impact

Classroom work that carries over to the student’s home can improve the academic gains students are making. Knowing this, CA has made it a priority to develop relationships with families in an effort to bridge EL products and practices from the classroom to the home. All parent letters that i-Ready generates are available in Spanish. These family letters explain the math or reading lessons being taught, and include conversation starters and ways to practice at home. Additionally, many of their instructional videos are offered in Spanish.

In addition, CA incorporates Culturally Responsive Pedagogy into their approach and materials. Dr. Mark Ellis, Ready® author and industry-leading scholar in mathematics education, acknowledges that each student brings their own unique way of quantitative thinking and reasoning, as well as interaction and communication style that can serve as a foundation to build their understanding of mathematics. He describes in a recent whitepaper that Culturally Responsive Mathematics Teaching (CRMT) “is more about considering how to engage all students in meaningful learning; while this may include modifications to lessons, is also includes thinking about norms and routines you establish, connecting parents and community to students’ mathematics learning, and supporting every learning in developing a sense of ownership of mathematics.”

The EL population is complex and essentially stands as a representation of the diversity within as well as the future of our country. Our education system has to address their needs, integrate their languages, and capitalize on their strengths and abilities. Curriculum Associates is one organization demonstrating a willingness to innovate its products in response to the needs of this ever-growing and evolving population.

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Assistive Technology: Finding the Right Resources for All Students

Finding resources for our classrooms today should seem like an easy task. When it comes to technology, there are thousands of options available within seconds by completing a simple Google search. However, with so many options, the choice can become somewhat challenging. Knowing which tools will provide the best learning experience for students and that goes beyond a simple substitution of a traditional method or teaching tool, takes time. Technology is constantly changing and new apps and teaching tools are being developed every day, especially when it comes to accessibility, there are amazing developments for individuals with disabilities. The decisions we make need to be based on selecting the tools that will enrich the learning experience and provide personalized opportunities for each student, rather than based on which tools populate the Google search the fastest.

About a year ago, I wanted to learn more about the resources available to teachers for working with special needs students. I felt that I did not know enough and was overwhelmed by the amount of information available and uncertain of what I needed to know. After attending a session on inclusion at a local edcamp and then doing my own research, I felt more confident in providing for my students and sharing my new knowledge with colleagues. My experience also reinforced that collectively, all educators need to prepare by understanding the different types of tools available, learning about each student’s specific needs, and being aware of how to implement these tools in our instruction.

One area that I have focused on learning more about has been Assistive Technology. Assistive technology is used to help students who have learning disabilities overcome barriers. Assistive technology can be used for many types of learning difficulties, including listening, reading, writing, and speaking, and also assist with some routine daily tasks.

Finding the Right Information

The number of special needs students in schools was estimated at 6.6 million students making up 13% of the overall school population. An interesting fact I recently came across is that from the year 1989 until 2010, the amount of time that special education students spent in general education classrooms increased by 90 percent. With 62% of the special education students being enrolled in general education classes for the majority of the day, regular education teachers must be knowledgeable of the needs of each student and prepared to provide a variety of tools to enhance each student’s learning experience.

The  ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) Teacher Education Network recently focused on assistive technology for its monthly newsletter and Twitter chatEach month we focus on a specific theme and our goal is to gather resources through multiple avenues. This supports a thorough collection of information shared with the ISTE community and our own professional learning networks (PLN).

In our February newsletter, there were several guest posts which shared information about many of the tools, strategies, experiences and best practices when it comes to assistive technology. If you are looking for organizations or people or hashtags to follow on Twitter or just some ideas of tools specific to writing skills or reading skills, you will find the newsletter to be full of helpful information and tips. While it is impossible to know everything, educators can stay current with the best practices and tools for fostering an inclusive learning environment by being part of a learning community. ISTE and its state affiliates provide increased access to resources through Twitter Chats and other forms of social media for learning.

Resources to Try

There are many tools available to educators and families to help students with the process of learning, in particular, those who may struggle with some aspects of the learning process. It is important to make sure that the tools are accessible and work on different devices and that there is a way to find tech support if needed. Here are some tools and websites for getting started. While not all tools necessarily work on each device, the majority of those listed will be accessible. There are also some really good apps available, among thousands to choose from, but these can be used in multiple grade levels and content areas.

  1. Microsoft Learning tools. As a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert, I enjoy being part of a learning community that is dedicated to lifelong learning and providing tools and resources that promote personalized learning and accessibility for all. Through Microsoft Learning Tools, students can improve reading and writing skills through the use of the Immersive Reader, Speech to Text and Text to Speech, and improve comprehension using the picture dictionary if needed. Students simply hover over a word to see a picture representation in order to determine meaning.
  2. Read and Write enables students to interact more closely with a document by using the text to speech (TTS) feature to hear the words, use the text and picture dictionaries to understand the meaning of words, and create a summary or simplify the webpage by removing distracting ads.
  3. Screenleap for Education allows teachers to share their screens with students and record it for later viewing. Using a tool like Screenleap is a great way to provide students with access to the lesson to review when they need it, providing more accessibility to the right tools for reviewing the content material.
  4. Assistive Tech for Reading, Writing and Math – Some examples of tools available are Bookshare, an online database of books available to students with a documented print disability. Using a tool like Natural Reader, students can copy text or import a document, choose from a variety of speaking voices and speed, to listen, or read along as the text is read for them. Rewordify is helpful for students working on reading skills and comprehension, as it takes the text input and replaces the more difficult words so students can build on their skills. SpeakIt! is a free text to speech app available in 50 languages, where students highlight the text to be read and can then practice.
  5. Quizlet offers many options for practicing vocabulary through flashcards that include an audio component through TTS. The availability of different activities for learning and reinforcing the content offer more personalized options for students.
  6. Augmentative and Alternative Communication Tools – TapTapSee is a free app on iOs and Google Play that can identify objects once the user “taps” the screen to take a photo of an object and then can listen to the description (if Talkback is enabled on the device).  Let me talk is a free AAC app where you can line up images and have them read back as a sentence. Speech Assistant is a free medical AAC app that helps people with speech impairments create sentences by typing in words or selecting images from categories in order to communicate. Symbo Talk is a free app with communication boards that provide a voice to those who are unable to speak for themselves.
  7. Learning and Attention Apps lists eight apps listed that offer students tools for text to speech, organizational tools, help with staying focused and even note-taking strategies through the app. Most are free and available on iOs with some available now on Android.
  8. Understood is an organization that is focused on providing resources for students and their families on topics such as learning and attention issues, feelings, school and learning, and assistive technology, as well as many other areas.
  9. Early Childhood Education Zone offers the 20 best apps for special education for students with Autism, or ADHD, and provides links directly to the App store to purchase or download the free apps.
  10. Artificial Intelligence – Using virtual assistants such as Alexa, Bixby, Echo and Siri can help students with physical disabilities, or visual or motor impairments have better access to information and additional learning resources without the barrier of interacting with a physical device.


The most important step is to always start by getting to know your students. Building relationships are the most important aspect of our role as educators. Find ways for students to interact by including time for students to work together and learn about one another. Sometimes technology is the way to do this, choose a game or find a resource online that students can engage in together. Make time to connect with families and share the resources that are being used in school so that families can provide the same support at home. Also don’t be afraid to reach out to the special education teachers in your building or even through social media like Twitter, follow hashtags such as #specialeducation, #spedchat, #inclusion. We are preparing students for the future and need to provide all that we can to give them the best opportunities for learning and growing together.

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Arizona State Accelerates Progress with Adaptive Active Courses

Work on student engagement began in earnest at Arizona State University in 2007. Advisory services were improved. More data was collected and used to improve student supports. Retention rates climbed from 60% to 85%.

To reach a goal of around 90% retention, Vice Provost Arthur Blakemore knew they’d have to get at the heart of learner experience. He launched an adaptive learning initiative and, beginning in 2011, ASU incorporated adaptive software into introductory math courses.

The math team got rid of non-credit developmental math courses and developed an emporium model of blended learning which replaces lecture-style classes with collaborative, activity-based work done in a learning resource center where students access the online course materials. After several iterations, the math team selected ALEKS from McGraw Hill. Rather than in content delivery, faculty work in a problem-solving role.

Students that need more time to complete a course can stretch their enrollment over a second semester.

By focusing on key skills, the ASU math faculty pared down the ALEKS curriculum from 1000 lessons to 320. They embedded faculty developed videos to provide additional assistance.

Branching Out From Math

Dale Johnson, the adaptive program manager for EdPlus at ASU, said the adaptive active model has expanded to other departments. The template is adaptive online learning used to prepare for active learning in class.

The Introduction to Biology course typically has 450 mostly business students and historically had high withdrawal rates. After adopting the adaptive active model, withdrawal rates dropped.

“Students are getting the academic benefit of learning biology and the social benefit of support,” said Johnson.

Instructors benefit from real-time information about where the class needs help. “Instructors see quiz results, know who struggling, and can adapt class time accordingly,” added Johnson.

The shift to adaptive active allows faculty like Dr. Susan Holechek to shift classtime from content delivery to debates about the merits of vaccination.

Starting with a horizontal strategy, Johnson looked for an opportunity to infuse one course in each discipline using the best adaptive tools available. The Learning Objects platform from Cengage is used in Psychology and Economics. Smart Sparrow is used in Habitable Worlds, which explores the formation of stars, planets, Earth and life.

The new opportunity is developing vertical course integrations. For example, Cogbooks, a Scottish startup, provides the adaptive spine of a Biology sequence. The 19 courses on Cogbooks also include History and Philosophy.

The ASU adaptive active blended learning initiative is meeting students where they are and making class time high-value engagement.

“Our goal is the right lesson to right student at the right time,” said Johnson.

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This post was originally published on Forbes.

Developing 21st Century Skills and Content Knowledge Through Dance

For years, workshop facilitators have been showing an amateur video from the 2009 Sasquatch music festival as a way to demonstrate the complex relationship between leaders and followers in the creation of a movement.

The video intrigues me not so much because of its implications for change management but more for the message it conveys about the power of movement to express complex ideas.

In early March I spent a few days in Austin, Texas, at the SXSW EDU conference. Among my routine activities is a workshop called Enhancing Student Creativity through PBL. I’ve delivered a variation of that workshop more than a dozen times at SXSW EDU and ISTE. My act is polished and popular. It’s also in need of deep revision.

At the conclusion of the workshop, I was approached by two organizations that focus on movement as an integral tool in the development of 21st-century skills. Not just the obvious skill of creativity, but critical thinking, collaboration, and communication as well. When I returned home to Northern California I began to explore this concept.

Moving Minds is a small company organized by sisters Elizabeth and Kate Jewett. The Jewett siblings facilitated a workshop called Mind-Body Decision Making at SXSW. The session focused on enabling participants to develop awareness of how our mind-body connection affects the way we communicate, collaborate, and create.

Elizabeth Jewett earned a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from Columbia University with a concentration in Cognitive Development and Problem-Based Learning. Her research explores what learning looks like when it is designed to improve our ability to identify the right questions and work together to solve problems. Kate is a dancer and choreographer based in Brooklyn.

Elizabeth makes a powerful argument in favor of dance as a means to develop 21st-century skills: “One common thread of 21st Century learning skills is that they cannot be taught in a “how-to” format. They involve making decisions within an infinite number of unpredictable contexts. These contexts are defined by the experiences and emotions of each individual involved. Movement is a way to fill in the blanks between the logical “how-to” or “dos and don’ts.” It brings the internal senses to the forefront and increases our awareness of their role. Not only in how we decide but also in how our decisions are conveyed. Dance is particularly valuable to this process because it combines internal awareness with action. “

A few minutes after I finished my chat with the Jewett’s I was approached by Amy Tepperman, the founder of a Toronto-based startup called Moving Edgeucation. Tepperman spent eight years working for a digital animation company before leaving that career to provide what she calls “dance-party” style workshops for teachers and students. Those workshops turned into Moving Edgeucation’s business model.

The company’s website explains its services and offers free curriculum. A quick scan of the activity plans led me to Zombie WORDocalypse, which helps elementary grade students develop an understanding of parts of speech through physical movement. Who does not love a good Zombie activity? Anway, this focus on literacy is stage two in the curricular development of Edgeucation, which launched its disciplinary focus with activities focused on math and movement.

As Tepperman explains, “It started with math, a way to explore all the concepts through movement and creativity. It was about having multiple ways of coming up with the answer through movement. Then we started to move into literacy, creating ways to bring different books to life. Now we are ready to move into science. We want to keep creating materials that teachers can use to explore core subjects through movement.”

Yet another thing I didn’t know – this work on movement and skills/knowledge development has been going on for years but is only now gaining prominence because of the focus on Whole Child Education and social-emotional learning.

An organization called Human Kinetics has produced a book called Teaching Children Dance. Authors Theresa and Stephen Cone explore how dance experiences assist children in cultivating the 21st-century skills of creative thinking, collaboration, communication, global awareness, and self-direction.

I enjoy the Cones explanation of how movement develops 21st-century skills: “Each time a teacher asks students to find various ways to make a round shape with their bodies or move across the space using various directions and levels, the students engage in creative thinking to discover solutions to the task. As the students make the shape and move across space, they evaluate the success of their solutions and increase their knowledge of the ways the body can move to express and communicate a concept. This self-directed moment builds on previous creative experiences and develops the children’s understanding that many solutions exist through using the exploration process.”

Such ideas are becoming more commonplace in U.S. educational policy and practice. For example, the Kansas State Department of Education has created Dance and Creative Movement Standards that begin with the bold statement that “dance is core to academic growth and central to the education of every student.” The KSDE standards highlight the primary benefits of dance and movement:

Through Dance Education, students learn the meaning and value of creativity and innovation by:

  • demonstrating originality and inventiveness in work and being open and responsive to new and diverse perspectives;
  •  developing, implementing, and communicating new ideas to others through creative movement; and
  • acting on creative ideas to make a tangible and useful contribution to the domain in which innovation occurs.

Through Dance Education, students obtain critical thinking skills that shape their efforts and affect their personal value choices by:

  • exercising sound reasoning in understanding and making complex choices and decisions;
  • understanding the interconnections among systems; identifying and asking significant questions that clarify various points of view and lead to better solutions; and
  • framing, analyzing, and synthesizing information in order to solve problems and answer questions.

This conceptualization was not essential to the vision of the Partnership for 21st Century Learning when the Framework for 21st Century Learning was released a decade ago. But now, movement can be added to the mechanisms through which students develop the 21st-century skills of creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication.

Be warned. If you come to my 2020 session at SXSW EDU you had better bring your dance shoes…

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Bad Bargain: Why We Still Ask Kids to Factor Polynomials and How We Fix It

OK, we cut a bad deal 20 years ago and it’s time to fix it.

Kids are still factoring polynomials and that’s just dumb. Requiring every student to pass a course on regurgitated symbol manipulation (Algebra 2) is torturous for many students and why some dropout. It’s an inequitable barrier to college and careers.

“The tragedy of high school math,” said venture investor and education advocate Ted Dintersmith (who has a Ph.D. in math modeling), “is that less than 20% of adults ever use algebra. No adult in America still does integrals and derivatives by hand – the calculus that blocks so many from career paths. It remains in the curriculum because it’s easy to test, not important to learn.”

Math educator Dan Meyer told the We’re Doing It All Wrong Podcast that the symbol manipulation of Algebra 2 can be “arcane gibberish” and “not useful knowledge” and “the work of numerical monks.”

Algebraic Backstory

The rise of the information age began ratcheting up labor market skill requirements. The mantra was A Nation At Risk. States responded in the early 1990s by developing new higher academic standards. More math, science and English credits were added to state graduation requirements.

By the late nineties, many of us advocated for ‘all kids college ready’ in an equity-focused policy push. Some of us knew it was a bad idea to try to push more kids through Algebra 2, but we not only did that, but we also added other “21st century” aspirations. We took the old definition of “college ready” and piled on.

Common Core was a chance to fix the problem with “fewer, higher, better standards.” But the mathematicians love the historical path to calculus and couldn’t let go of Algebra 2, the pinnacle of polynomial gymnastics. Probability and statistics and some finance were added. The standards were somewhat better but not fewer.

The problem is thorny, as Dintersmith points out, because Algebra 2 is embedded in some state graduation requirements and many college entrance exams, “requiring mastery of obscure algebraic procedures that the vast majority of adults never use.”

New New Math

With cameras and sensors everywhere, the Internet of Things exploded in this decade. Giant data sets and cheap cloud computing, fed the rise of artificial intelligence and, in the last two years, every field has become computational.

Now, rather than the plug and crank of symbol manipulation, we should be teaching computational thinking. As mathematician Conrad Wolfram said, we should be teaching math as if computers existed.

Rather than a separate symbol language, Wolfram argues, math should be taught as computational thinking and integrated across the curriculum. That starts with problem finding–spotting big tough problems worth working on. Next comes understanding the problems and valuables associated–that’s algebraic reasoning. But rather than focusing on computation (including factoring those nasty polynomials), students should be building data sets and using computers to do what they’re good at–calculations.

A little coding can be useful to set up big tough problems. A basic coding class or two can be helpful in this regard. The new approach, exhibited at Olin College and signaled by the launch of the Schwartzman school at MIT, is just-in-time coding, a computational resource available across the curriculum–learn the right coding to apply the right tools at the right time to solve the right problem.

South Fayette School District in Pittsburgh is a great example of incorporating computational thinking across the curriculum. Next door in the Montour School District, middle school students learn how and when to apply artificial intelligence tools.

To fix the problem, states that require Algebra 2 should swap it out for a course in coding and computational thinking. Colleges and college entrance exams should drop Algebra 2 requirements. They should start by asking young people about their contributions to solving big problems.

By the way, I loved math. I’m an engineer with a masters in finance. I’ve built a lot of real estate and invested a lot of money, but I haven’t factored a polynomial in 40 years. It’s time to stop torturing kids by making them factor polynomials. It’s time to stop using Algebra 2 as a screen that keeps low-income kids out of meaningful careers. It’s time to start using computers for what they’re good at—crunching big data sets. Let’s stop asking young people to manipulate symbols and start asking them to solve real problems.

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This post was originally published on Forbes.

Is the “Place” in Place-Based Learning Enough?

We all know experiential learning can be powerful. We learn by doing, immersing ourselves in long-term projects, tasks, adventures and more. Place-based Learning is a framework that effectively delivers experiential learning and supports teachers in amplifying learning from place and context. Place-Based Learning “places students in local heritage, cultures, landscapes, opportunities and experiences, using these as a foundation for the study of language arts, mathematics, social studies, science and other subjects across the curriculum” (Center for Place-Based Learning and Community Engagement). While this may seem broad, it allows for different levels of implementation while still ensuring quality. There are many ways to implement place-based learning as shown in the graphic below:

One of the most common ways schools and teachers engage in Place-Based Learning is through trips (which is one of the levels of implementation). I was lucky enough to have a week like this at my school in Washington State when I went to Middle and High School. It was called “Focus Week,” and I was allowed to engage in a variety of experiences from traveling to the Ashland Shakespeare festival to spending a week at sea on a Schooner. Some of these trips required extensive travel while others were more local. All trips though involved connecting with people and places in our community. Now that I am at an international school, I learned that this experience is more common in said schools. International Schools, specifically, leverage the unique opportunity that it has to connect students with the countries they reside in or other countries. Many international schools have an experiential learning week that often involves travel or learning outside of the walls of the school.

Shanghai American School, where I currently serve as an Instructional Coach, has had this learning part of its history for quite some. I’ve chaperoned two trips, one where students traveled to Yangshuo to participant in collaborative learning activities in a beautiful environment. Students engaged in activities such as cooking authentic Chinese food to rock climbing and hiking through Mud Caves. In another trip, students traveled to Xian to see the famous Terracotta Warriors and visited famous historical cultural sites. I really enjoyed the trips and learned a lot, but I had a similar gut-check when I participated in these trips during some of the activities – the same gut-check I have when I examine some projects. “Is fun and enjoyment enough?” I was also wondering about the payoff of the experience. It’s such a privilege to engage in place-based learning experiences that It requires us to ensure it is meaningful and an experience unique enough to warrant all the expense and resources.

Craig Tafel is our director of Ménwài (门外) – translated as “outside the gates” – at Shanghai American School, and his job is to coordinate all the facets of learning outside the walls. He has been both a teacher at the school as well as the coordinator of a specific experiential learning offering called, Microcampus (see video below). It involves small groups of students who spend four weeks during the school year living and learning in a small village in the foothills of the Tibetan Plateau. Students take on roles as ambassadors and the need for them to be aware of the group’s impact on people and places. This is an example of both “Service Learning” and “Local Experiences and Expertise.” They partner with villagers to learn from them, tell their stories and create videos to celebrate their learning. It really is an exemplary place-based learning experience.



Diving Deeper into Place

Tafel has recently been tasked with reviewing and revising the Ménwài (门外) program at Shanghai American School. According to Tafel, “There were (and are) some shining examples of student offerings where teachers and travel partners worked together to create some very special, significant offerings—but for nearly two decades we really did not have a shared sense of purpose. We had dozens of ‘trips”—again, many of them very, very good—but there was not a shared way of identifying, assessing, revising, or building the experiences.” He told me that many people, while they value trips and place-based learning, there are a lot of misconceptions around this purpose of the goal. He shared, “The concept of student “bonding” as a goal in place-based learning seems to come up quite a bit, but I try to push back against that. Of course, our students will form close connections with one another as a result of this work—that is what students do, after all, and they will do that naturally and without the time, expense, and risk associated with taking students out into the world beyond the school grounds to learn.”

Tafel and his team have worked towards the revision and created a framework to ensure high-quality place-based learning at Shanghai American School. The goal was to create a simple set of “pillars” that would serve as a filter to inform the design process and support student learning. They are as follows:

  • Expanding intercultural understanding by connecting with members of local communities and their surroundings;
  • Working through challenges while engaging in authentic activities that require students to depend on themselves, their peers, and outside experts;
  • Personal growth resulting from leaving comfort zones, challenging assumptions, expanding boundaries, taking reasonable risks, and making thoughtful choices; and
  • Awareness of impact on the places we visit and the people who live there through shared experience, responsible action, and sensitivity to the environment.

The framework ensures intentional purpose and meaningful learning. Here are some of the big takeaways that I have learned from Craig Tafel and my examination of effective place-based learning.

Clear Outcomes and Curriculum Focus

The framework above helps to ensure there are clear learning outcomes for place-based learning. However, there are also clear curriculum goals aligned to the experiences. These experiences align to long-term transfer goals we have as a school such as “Ethical Global Citizens, “Skillful Communicators,” and “Critical Thinkers.” These learning goals are utilized in the curriculum both inside and outcome the classroom. Also, many of the new trips have a focus on the “micro” curriculum and standards in specific disciplines such as visual arts, social studies, and physical education. This ensures that place-based learning is “Curriculum with Context.” These learning outcomes are assessed throughout the place-based learning experiences in many forms from formal products to shorter tasks and checks for understanding.

A Framework, Not an Event

Place-based learning is not an event. It shouldn’t just be a week where we take students outside the walls of our classroom. It has specific components that serve as its quality indicators such as “Local Experiences and Expertise,” “Service Learning” and “Inquiries and Investigations,” and more; all of which are explained in Getting Smart’s publication, What is Place-Based Education and Why Does It Matter?. It is a mindset and framework we should use to approach any time we want students to learn outside the walls of their classroom. Whether it simply involved communicating and partnering with local experts outside the classroom during a school day or embarking on a journey to a foreign language, schools should have a set of principles and purposes to ensure that all place-based learning aligns to the school mission and goals.

Leveraging Project-Based Learning

In the revision of Ménwài (门外), many of the current trips are building upon the elements of Project-Based Learning. Many of the experiences have students creating authentic products to capture the learning. Students collaborate to give and receive feedback from peers and people in the community. The experiences are a focus on learning and inquiry where students ask questions before, during, and after a journey to a place. Place-based learning and project-based learning can support and enhance one another, and place-based learning can create an authentic context to explore topics.

Small is Great

One common misconception is that place-based learning has to be a “big deal”. In fact, it can be a simple extension of learning in the community that only takes a few hours. Tafel shared one example with me: “An example from my days as a science teacher: we were learning about plant parts and functions. During a regular class period, I walked with students over to a local market, with a fairly simple assignment: find, sketch, and name two examples of edible leaves, flowers, stems, and roots—with English and Chinese names, since we were in Shanghai. In this process, students not only reinforced concepts from our in-class learning, but they also practiced their inquiry skills in a real-world context.” These smaller experiences are just as meaningful and can provide stepping stones and foundations to more extensive experiences, and are an example of “Community as the Classroom,” where the community itself becomes the school.

It is critical that place-based learning is done in a thoughtful and intentional way. It should be a comprehensive framework and process, not simply an event. Just like all learning experiences, it should be purposeful and grounded in a shared understanding and vision.

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