Now! A More Useful and Engaging Curriculum Framework

We're really excited about some new curriculum thinking that holds huge potential for kids and schools. Here's how we got here.

The first time I got really provoked about curriculum issues was when Coalition of Essential Schools Founder Theodore Sizer visited our school in the early 90’s. He spent most of a day and seemed to have had a great visit, roaming around the school on his own for several hours, asking students about their experiences. On his way out, after a few glowing remarks about the climate, he asked, with a curious look, “You know, schools are funny. I wonder why we’ve decided to offer American History in the morning, but American Literature in the afternoon?” He asked it lightly, in a tone that suggested he wanted me to think on it more than he wanted an answer. That would be Ted.

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As a busy high school principal, I didn’t give it a whole lot more thought that day, but it came back to me that evening, and again the next day. That simple question from Ted led to weeks, and ultimately years of thinking about how we order things, how, in Jal Mehta’s words from The Allure of Order, we attempt to “rationalize” human learning and school behaviors. Ongoing deliberation on his question led our school to move eagerly to a Humanities format that included those two traditional fields, or “classes”, that Ted mentioned, but also social sciences, music, art and design, themes re-cast in deep exploration of issues that matter to us all, that go beyond simple notions of “inter-disciplinary”.

A decade later, I, like 15 million other viewers, chuckled and nodded through Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk- “do schools kill creativity?” Of course, they do. We know that. They are meant to instill conformity instead. But in his delightful skewering of our industrial model, he not only reminds us that the traditional curriculum is wildly unhelpful, he traces its origins to the desires of late 19th century policy makers to prepare a small percentage of learners for academia and the professorship, another small batch, the would-be doctors, lawyers and generals, and the rest for work and various levels of drudgery.

So began my long road of nagging doubts about the effectiveness of the traditional “math, science, history and English” line-up. My experiences as high school principal, college professor, school coach and consultant repeatedly unmasked school as limiting and often discouraging. At each stop along the way I was reminded me that people crave connections to their own “mysteries”, want to ask their own questions and chase big ideas, to find out more about things that really matter, not bounce around each day in a world carved into four or five thin slices.

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In agreement, and likely somewhat out of pity, a good friend, the late and great Ron Wolk, founder of Education Week (an early and persistent Jiminy Cricket of our disappointing “standards” movement) urged me to read Marion Brady’s work. Brady’s rich library of thinking on curriculum and standards added perspective and substance to my own from-the-trenches critique. See link.

That talk with Ron, who had his own rich legacy, inspired me to put my mind in a more focused way to contributing to school redesign. Serious redesign. The kind we imagined with Ted in the early 90’s. Not the silver bullets we’ve seen come, go, and repeat themselves --mastery learning, “PBL”, “blended” learning, competency-based instruction. They’re helpful but insufficient, adaptive approaches that accept most of the current “arrangements” of school. Our schools need the kind of redesign that doesn’t skirt the core issues and problems of our school “architecture”. I wanted to surface the hurtful impact of our industrial approach to school on learners and families, issues such as the false correlations between time and learning, the smothering limitations imposed by age-alike cohorts and overly simplistic cognitive and social/emotional development paradigms, reductive concepts of the locus of learning, and above all, the CURRICULUM. The curriculum that’s like carbon monoxide, that puts us to sleep without our knowing. A curriculum whose origins we can’t cite, that seems to have no agreed-upon aim or over-arching purpose and disregards the seamlessness of human perception. As Brady points out, our traditional curriculum thinking "accepts short-term recall rather than logic to access our memory banks, has few criteria for determining the relative importance of what' being taught, relates only occasionally to real-world experience, and fails to encourage creative thought".

I had a breakthrough moment in 2013. I had the good fortune to read a short yet especially thoughtful article, “Synergies”, by G. Wayne Clough, then Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. His insights in to the urgency of organizing human thinking in a collective effort moved and excited me just as they had inspired his colleagues and collaborators at the Smithsonian. Finally, here was a way of making sense of our intellectual efforts, our potential as social and thinking creatures, and doing so in a way to make for a better planet and a better “civilization”.  See link.

The Grand Challenges presented themselves immediately to me as a framework for re-igniting the passion and curiosity kids bring to the early grades but which are mainly lost as they learn to conform and to please, solving predetermined puzzles, a framework that can help us dig out from under the glut of competencies, do-now's, etc. that no one wants to come to grips with, but which is link here to Gallop poll putting kids to sleep.

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Over the past two years, my ERC colleague Katrina Kennett and I and a small but growing number of teachers and schools we work with are helping us to deepen our understanding of the potential of The Grand Challenges. We’ve developed powerful visual provocations and entry events that correlate to the Grand Challenge topics and issues, as well as new tools to organize and expand the learning environment. We have imagined a unique learning landscape and developed a glossary of terms that explain those new structures and practices. Our “New Architecture of Learning” includes the elements of an ecology that can sustain more robust learning and activate powerful affinities among people, places and ideas, in the spirit of the original Grand Challenges.

Along the way, we’ve also learned that dissatisfaction with the traditional curriculum is not unique to us, is quite long-standing and comes from a wide variety of historical figures and intellectual fields. Link here. 

This new collective energy gives us increasing hope that people can begin to slowly put aside our tired approach to “curriculum” and replace it with explorations and activities that use the Grand Challenges as a framework for learning, activities that erase some of the unhelpful boundaries and structures that inhibit passionate learning. Whether you use it in an existing unit of study, as a larger scaffold, as an alternating curriculum, or as your basic framework, you’re helping us move the dial.

White Mountains Regional HS STEAM Innovation Academy

So, if you’re ready, here’s the Grand Challenges “primer” you’ve been asking for, link below. Check it out. Imagine new, place-based, YES IN MY BACKYARD additions to the Challenges that resonate where you are and far beyond. Join our network, connect with others and help us move forward to meet the needs of our people and planet! Link here to see primer.

Serious School Redesign: ERC Efforts Moving Forward

We’re proud to announce that an ERC-led team has been selected to participate in the upcoming Mass Ideas Summer School Design Studio, a three-day working session for teams that want help to create innovative school models (whole-school redesign or new school design). The experience is intended to support teams to apply key levers for high-quality, innovative learning design and develop action plans for continued work following the event.  According to their website, Mass IDEAS “supports bold education thinkers across the Commonwealth to turn their ideas for reimagining school into reality, and with interest in any Massachusetts public school governance options”.

The team consists of ERC Co-Founders Wayne Ogden and Larry Myatt  joined by community partner Michael Dawson of Innovators for Purpose (iFp), strategy advisor Sharon Lloyd Clark, and Kristina Lamour Sansone of Lesley University, College of Art and Design who brings graphic design for learning expertise. Dr. Katrina Kennett, ERC Consulting Practitioner for Technology and Professional Learning, will join the team as needed moving forward.

Many of the ERC team’s ideas are guided by redesign and inquiry efforts well under way at White Mountains Regional High School and Manchester’s McLaughlin Middle School, through a STEM partnership with STEAM-Ahead NH. Both schools are moving ahead with a strikingly different approach to organizing for learning, adopting a novel framework and practices that the ERC Design Team will seek to refine in the Summer Design Studio. ERC in particular is looking for community collaborators seeking more inclusive, high-performing STEM programming and who are excited about new designs to achieve that.

Beginning in 2020, Mass Ideas will offer implementation grants for school teams who are ready to launch their designs. Mass IDEAS is part of an initiative launched by Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC). Since its founding, NGLC has grown to include a burgeoning group of organizational and philanthropic partners who are actively expanding the adoption of innovations that completely reimagine K–12 in their regional communities and nationally. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Broad Foundation, Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, Oak Foundation, and the Barr Foundation are among the key funders.

The ERC group has built its approach around “six big ideas”:

1-the equity challenge: high-quality opportunities for learning are distributed unevenly in Massachusetts (and elsewhere); achievement is unacceptably low in many schools

2-a core challenge in secondary schools is student disinterest in classroom learning; loss of curiosity, choice and engagement explain flat achievement

3-the traditional curriculum is increasingly problematic; the allotment of time, adult roles, assessment schema, student groupings and pedagogy that accommodate it prevent and undermine truly “student-centered”, personalized learning

4-a more engaging curriculum framework is available

5-re-ordering key elements of learning will yield greater student engagement and achievement

  • start with curiosity and thrill

  • hands-on, experiential activities and multiple inquiry efforts propel learning

  • learning with generative, big questions, and the uninhibited pursuit of learners’ “mysteries"

  • emphasize skills in a “learning team” context

  • unpack and negotiate a more suitable and generative place for standards

6- a new, comprehensive learning management framework is required and is part of our design

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For more information on the ERC Redesign and Grand Challenges efforts, please email wayne.ogden@gmail.com.

White Mountains Students Join to Help Bees Prosper

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In this time of peril and hope for our global bee population, we can’t help but say that one of our ERC Grand Challenges Network schools is creating quite a buzz! The Spartan STEAM Innovation Academy (SSIA) at White Mountains Regional High School, teaming with the school’s Agricultural Science program, recently was awarded a Whole Foods BEE-cause Grant.   

Things began to hum this past winter, when a White Mountains High School team consisting of plant science and horticulture specialist Rick Grima, SSIA Teacher Leader Melissa Jellison, and science and math specialist Daniel Hubacz joined a bee-keeping workshop at the Rocks Estate in Bethlehem, NH, teaming with White Mountain Apiary and local Beekeeper Janice Mercieri as a Bee Mentor. Beekeeping books, bee-made products, and tools for the hive came from the Savannah Bee Company as a part of the Whole Foods grant through which the program’s students will become co-creators and eventual owners of an on-going project to bring their winged friends to White Mountains Regional High School in New Hampshire’s North Country. Once they have studied where bees are happiest, they will find a permanent and suitable location, measure and clear the land, build the facility, and with their new state-of-the-art bee suits, will activate two new hives to host a bee population provided by the White Mountain Apiary. The goal is to ultimately host 40,000 honey bees. 

Using the Grand Challenges as a framework for exploring past, present, and future challenges to planet Earth, STEAM Innovation Academy students are in hot pursuit of scholarly, experiential ways to understand where bees fit in sustaining our biodiverse planet. See ERC's Grand Challenges Network link here. WMRHS is poised to become the first and only school in New Hampshire to have and keep bees, beginning with a summer work program to maintain the hive when school is out, track bee health and supervise honey production. Grima, who splits duties with SSIA and agriculture sciences, and is one of the Bee program founders told us, “By September we should be in great shape to utilize the hive regularly with students taking over all aspects of the maintenance and monitoring.”

For staff and partners, two chunky Grand Challenge-related learning objectives sit at the heart of all this Bee commotion:

  • Improving understanding of and access to the biology and natural history of the species, their evolutionary and ecological place in global ecosystems, and the processes responsible for population declines and extinction.
  • Developing concepts, theories, tools, and models that contribute directly to halting biodiversity loss, managing species and their habitats, restoring ecosystems, and mitigating threats to the environment.

Scholarly standards such as these are high, but the kids themselves are just raring to get out there and get with the bees. Front office staff and passing teachers get a kick of Grima and his students in bee suits with bright orange "Bee Buckets" as they had out each morning like clockwork. As word spreads, students have already begun to research and develop products at school and in “home food labs” with the beeswax scraped from the first sampling of the frames, including lip balms flavored, so far, with eucalyptus and lemongrass.

As hoped for, curious community helpers are materializing. Geoff Gaddapee, manager of a local hardware store and a beekeeper himself, provides support, hardware and tools and NH Fish and Game biologist Andrew Timmins visits to work with students and monitor bear activity around the hives. Each hive is expected to produce around 300 lbs. of honey every year, so students will suggest unique labels, flyers and develop marketing and advertising plans for honey sales, all of which will underwrite the on-going hive operations. Popular WMRHS Culinary Arts Chef Matt Holland hopes to utilize the homegrown honey in as many recipes as he can.

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Next fall SSIA will kick-off with a survival unit that includes food growing as part of living off the land. The math department will support student team projects revolving on population estimates, calculating population growth in the hive each day, and using scales to track the weight of the hive as the bees build and work inside. Down-the-road plans include working with the local Cooperative Extension and USDA office to create a SSIA Bee-related website, a global resource hub with updated-daily information about local bee keeping, bee projects, bee health and science, explorations of pesticide effect and attempts to rejuvenate bees world-wide. NH Fish and Game could possibly add a link on their site to be managed by SSIA student teams. Although SSIA generally only hosts visitors once a month, staff are arranging for the Lancaster and Whitefield Elementary STEAM programs to visit periodically and work with high school student mentors on several projects across the school year.

All in all, its an exciting time for the Spartan Steam innovation Academy which expanded from its original two-year STEAM-Ahead program, with more students and staff and a range of new learning activities, project teams, inquiry and learning management tools. Principal Michael Berry has been a champion in supporting the effort to create a culture of intense and engaging student learning through greater collaboration among teachers and, with support from ERC, innovative practices in inquiry learning. His motto of more success for more students is increasingly becoming a reality as the school’s reputation grows and continues to attract new, motivated, high-quality professionals to the school.

Keep your eyes and ears open for more news from NH’s newest bee keepers! For more information on the bees and/or SSIA contact jlabounty@sau36.org

 

School Shootings: Things Overheard

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In schools that I visit, here are some things I’ve heard teachers saying:

  •  I try not to, but I’ve had to think of how I would respond if I heard gunfire down the hall
  •  my wife/husband says good-bye to me differently now each morning
  • I have students who don’t want to leave my side
  • teachers have speculated about which might be the students who would come after them
  • students have been asking me if I want to carry a weapon; if I say “no” I wonder does that mean they think they can’t count on me?
  • we say our school perimeter has been “hardened” but in casual conversation we’ve ID’d three easy ways to get into the facility
  • where would I keep a gun?
  • in the cafeteria, I overheard kids predicting which of their peers is that kind of dangerous
  • I never dreamed of discussions like these in my school
  • I had “active shooter” training in my undergraduate teacher education program, so its not a new idea to me
  • if first responders swarm our school and we have multiple people with multiple weapons, who are they going to target?

Spending a lot of time in many different schools, it’s been impossible to avoid the myriad feelings and emotions brought to the surface by the Florida (and other) school shootings. The reactions have been surprising in their breadth, sobering, moving, alarming, and, frankly, new and unanticipated to a veteran educator who did NOT have to confront such issues while leading my school.

But, on the positive side,  here's a huge reason I believe in our kids and in K-12 schools. Check out this video. Go to link.

 Dr. Gil Noam, PEAR founder,  speaking at Albuquerque Sign Language Academy

Dr. Gil Noam, PEAR founder,  speaking at Albuquerque Sign Language Academy

Finally, for the past four years, I’ve appreciated being a working partner of and  of and with the Partnerships in Education and Resilience (PEAR) Institute. Their work helping schools to know young people is more important than ever. PEAR Founder, Dr. Gil Noam, has responded with this thoughtful piece and I think it’s a critically important perspective. Go to link.

 

Stay safe.

Dr. Larry Myatt

Co-Founder

 

Treating Students with Dignity

This past August I had the pleasure of attending some professional development activities organized and presented by educators within the Central Falls, Rhode Island school district. One workshop was being presented by David Upegui, a science teacher whom I knew from my days consulting in the district years ago.

David is a big thinker with a huge heart, always active doing things for young people and the community, see link. He’s well-known in the state, see link and I wanted to make sure I took the opportunity to see what he was up to, what he was saying of late.

His workshop was full of great ideas and his unique provocations. It reminded me of how much work we have to do to nourish the spirit of young people. And how important it is, each and every day, to remember the powerful role we have as educators in treating students with dignity. I asked David to recap his workshop in this following essay.

 Larry Myatt
Co-Founder
Education Resources Consortium

 

  David Upegui

David Upegui

It so happened that I grew up and went to school in the most economically disadvantaged city in Rhode Island. Even more than I realized at the time, I was in dire need of guidance, support, academic discipline and most importantly, a sense that I mattered, that I had a future. I was among the few and the fortunate to find that one special teacher, one that understood how that idea of agency would determine my future.

Now, as a teacher in my very same alma mater, I see it as my turn. I work as diligently as I can with a new generation of students, trying to provide for them that same sense of agency that freed me from economic -and intellectual- poverty. I had left my job as a researcher at an Ivy League university in hopes of igniting minds, in that very same place I had once sat as a student.

My son was born with an extra chromosome in each of his cells. Life with and learning from a young person with Down Syndrome is not what I had expected when I became a parent, but my son has taught me more than I learned in any class. My work became making sure that he would be treated fairly, with equanimity, and that he would have positive school experiences. It reminded me in the most powerful way of the power of each human being, and the fundamental belief that ALL children can and should learn. That’s what drives my teaching now.

So how do we do our best as educators, every day, to ensure that all our students are empowered and treated with that kind of dignity? Here is a short list of things I try to do that have shown positive results for my students --simple but important things—some having to do with the environment in my classroom and others more specially about my content teaching.

I call students by their last name. As simple as this may sound, this enables all of us to address each other with respect. When some students first hear me say “Ms. Rodriguez” or “Mr. Hernandez”, they are confused – it’s new to them. But I tell them that I try to look beyond their current status, that I see them as significant right now, that they will become even more important as they grow in our community.

I greet all students as they come in to the classroom. As an American-Latino, salutations and recognition of the other person were of importance growing up in my household. It may seem like a small gesture, but a smile and a hardy hello can have a profound impact. Even though I teach students that are in their final years of high school, I still begin each class with a “good morning/afternoon” and I expect the whole class to repeat it – it has become our custom. 

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Being prepared with lesson plans and materials. This may seem like a no-brainer, but one of the simplest ways to show respect to the students is by being prepared for class. When we are prepared we send subtle messages that let our students know that we are thinking about them outside of class. When we are not, that resonates as “he doesn’t take us seriously”.

Discuss the “rules” for all (including teacher). The rules that I have settled on are very simple: be prepared, be present and be respectful. They apply to everyone in the room, including me (and this is stated). It’s our way of agreeing on how we can be at our best with each other as we learn.

Introduce and value student questions. As a way to demonstrate the importance of questioning, I try to acknowledge and reward “good” questions. I have to make time for them, to go with the moment of curiosity. Over time students begin to notice the significance of questions and provide each other with encouragement.

Play music. This may seem trivial, but music can have a great effect on the culture of the classroom. I select playlists that not only have baroque musicians (studies have demonstrated the effect of this type of music on learning) but also include music that represent the wide variety of background my students bring. For example, I may play Sara Tavares or Mayra Andrade (both Cape Verdean), or Carlos Vives and Pedrito Fernandez (Latinos) and follow that with Air Supply, Olafur Arnalds, and Bach.

Regular communications. Some of these exchanges may be in-person or email, and regardless of method, communicating with students about their work, their academic performance, their strengths/weaknesses, dreams and plans, enables students to feel valued and important.

Explicit democratic voicing. I tell my students not to believe anything and everything that people say (even me!), unless evidence and data are provided. In other words, I want my students learn to be skeptical of “beliefs” and begin to recognize that their voice and opinions matter.

Bring in outsiders to the classroom/bring the classroom outside. Our classroom has many visitors each year. Any given week may include visits from college professors, nurses/physicians, graduates of the school, engineers, a swami (to teach the physiological effects of meditation on the body), or scientists. When visitors spend time with my students, everyone wins. My students begin to recognize that there is a larger world that wants them to succeed. And the visitors are inspired by the potential my students hold. Also, I try to take my students out of the classroom as much as possible – even it is just around the block – they are part of a greater community.

Storytelling/circle time. As unusual as this sounds, I hold “circle time” with my seniors in high school. I stop the action and call my students to bring up their lab stools and sit around a circle so we can all see each other. This works for many reasons including the fact that storytelling is the oldest form of communication and education (as well as being able to see who has their cell phone out). The stories I tell may include specific stories about science like the stories of Rosalyn Franklin, Lynn Margulis, Michael Faraday or Alhazen; stories which speak about perseverance, overcoming obstacles and using curiosity as an empowerment tool. Other stories may be my personal experiences or just about inspiring people such as Wilma Rudolph or Michael Jordan. Regardless, stories connect us as humans.

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Specific lessons that address liberation. A powerful examples is what we call “race”. I introduce the science underlying that notion. Skin coloration has historically been used to segregate and discriminate people, but what if we take a look at the data of ultra-violet radiation (UVB) and human skin pigmentation patterns? In this light, students begin to see that skin coloration is based on where our closets ancestors lived: the closer to the equator, the more skin pigmentation they had (as a natural protection from damaging sun rays). Once students appreciate that natural variation, they can begin to question why skin pigmentation was erroneously connected to human capacity. My students leave my class knowing that we are in fact only one human species (otherwise we could not successfully breed and have viable offspring). Undoubtedly, there are tons of lessons in all content areas that can be developed, delivered and shared with our students – we just need to consider them as what they truly are: the future stewards of the earth.

What we do as educators is never trivial. In front of us each day are the future problem-solvers of the world and it is up to us to enable them to recognize their great potential. We have more power than we recognize, and we are either part of the problem or the solution.

A Better Approach to STEM - Interview Part II

We’re really proud of the work our colleague Larry Myatt has done at Manchester New Hampshire’s West High School. Despite a proud history in the Queen City, the school has struggled with declining achievement and one of the state’s highest drop-out rates. It has all the challenges that face many kindred urban schools and communities. Yet, of, late some truly bright spots have emerged. The school’s fledgling STEAM (STEM+) initiative was recently lauded in a University of New Hampshire evaluation link and West was recently awarded a Barr Foundation grant for initial redesign efforts. Link here. 

 STEAM Ahead NH Engineering Lab

STEAM Ahead NH Engineering Lab

In an era of flat achievement and declining student engagement, Larry’s work with West High School’s STEAM initiative has shown what is possible --with committed teachers, leadership, resources, and importantly, different thinking about the systems, culture and practices. We wanted to talk with him about it.

Here is Part Two of that interview

--Wayne Ogden and Katrina Kennett

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WO- The last time we spoke you were talking about flat results for STEM programming in general. What did you mean by that?

LM- Well, let me say first that I appreciate STEM initiatives. They provide funding and energy when money is scarce and I especially like it because it tends to bring business and industry players to the table, and they can make things happen in ways that school districts, higher education and state departments of educations can’t. So, STEM for me holds a lot more promise than we currently expect from it and push for.

Having said that, I was struck by a detailed Wall Street Journal article a few year ago, and subsequent research that pointed out that after a decade or more of substantial STEM investment in schools, the number of students pursuing degrees- at the undergrad, masters and doctoral levels- had barely changed.  Still more men than women and still fewer candidates of color, but overall, no increased interest in entering fields where science and math are building blocks.

WO- What do you make of that?

LM- Well, to me, on a more superficial level, we portray STEM as for geeky kids building robots and taking all advanced classes. And that’s unfortunate. I actually asked several people who work nearby in Kendall Square, a global tech mecca, what they think of when they think of STEM, and that’s pretty much what they said. Pocket protectors and super heavy backpacks, mostly limited to high achievers.  But I think that the problems that dissuade students from science and math go far deeper than that. I think the roots unquestionably go back to the student experience in middle and high school, where we have all the data mentioned in part one of this interview – greater disinterest in school learning, perceptions that what we ask them to in school is not relevant or meaningful in the long run, more novelty and exciting ideas available outside of school -culminating in the fact that the longer students are in school, the less enjoyable it becomes. Deborah Meier had a wonderful essay on that some time ago, “Why Kids Don’t Want to Be Well-Educated”. That’s a plausible but overlooked explanation for the flat NAEP scores, just one among several other indicators of low engagement.

KK- You mentioned a New Hampshire STEM study as well.

LM- Yes, that students surveyed in 8th grade are turning away from science because of how they’ve experienced it thus far and how they see it being offered in high school.

KK- What is it, do you think, that turns kids off?

LM- Well, first of all, the way we’ve come to think about and organize curriculum has little to do with the ways that we actually learn, or care to learn, the way the brain and motivation co-exist and inter-play. We’ve developed huge lists of “standards” and materials that portray a smooth and steady path to “knowledge”. We ask teachers to dole out little bytes of content and skills each day as some kind of linear, step-by-step exercise and expect students to care about them and be diligent in memorizing them.  What we really know is that learning starts when learners encounter something they wish to learn. And the student voice data suggests that the topics chosen by teachers (and hardly ever by young people) are of diminishing interest, and are taught in un-engaging ways.

KK- The other thing you’ve been saying regularly is that STEM initiatives cannot survive the industrial architecture of schools. Can you explain?

LM- Sure. If you’re asked to spend 50 minutes reading some Romeo and Juliet, then dash off to Algebra for 50 minutes, then on to the Civil War, a 25-minute lunch, then the water cycle or photosynthesis,   topped off by 50 minutes of Spanish or gym or health class, how interested and excited would WE be if that was our diet day after day? A colleague described the traditional curriculum alignment as being like carbon monoxide- its puts us to sleep without us knowing or even thinking about it. Who that you meet in a store or at the gym or the workplace can tell us why its organized and pursued this way? No one! It’s much more of an impediment that we realize, and helps to explain the epidemic of student disinterest.

Furthermore, it’s an impediment to pursuing big ideas and topics, to curiosity, creativity and passion for learning. Ideas in school come in fragmented form and themes are short-lived, truncated, dispensable. Things like “PBL” and thematic instruction are limited in their impact by where we see them able to fit in and how much time we can give them before we have to move on. Marion Brady has critiqued the traditional curriculum alignment quite articulately, by the way.

Getting back to school, as my friend Tony Monfiletto says, we have to find ways to put the thrill back into learning. “Erase the lines” has become a mantra -the lines between classes and courses, between themes and topics, the lines between in school and out of school.

KK- do you have ideas on how to do that?

LM- Sure. Its how we’ve made this progress at the school and how other schools we work with are beginning to think about what happens in the classroom. We’re flipping where the standards fit until further down the road in project design, and not only hoping for but managing and structuring in ways for students to do rigorous work, but work they care about. Diversity is natural, its good, it can be harnessed for the purposes of challenging intellectual work (Newmann). Everyone is reading, writing, curating, presenting, researching -all the standards are there and at a rigorous level. We just don’t start by telling the students what they should care about. And using things like Learning Murals (see link) brings colleagues and especially students into the design process.

 Manchester West HS STEAM-Ahead staff members prepare Learning Murals for presentation to their colleagues

Manchester West HS STEAM-Ahead staff members prepare Learning Murals for presentation to their colleagues

KK- It sounds like it requires a different kind of teaching.

LM- Yes, it’s a very different management schema than trying to move 20-30 kids down the road together in lock step but it finally flips the role of teacher from presenter, content expert, entertainer, chooser of topics and materials, to that of coach, connector, advocate, facilitator. Ultimately its more satisfying and more rewarding. That’s the change I mean when I talk about moving from a culture of teaching to a culture of learning. We evaluate successful teaching by focusing only on the adult as the agent and then some test scores down the road.

I prefer to assess quality learning by a focus on what and how students are doing, what they are passionate about and supported in pursuing. We’ve been overdue in making that distinction and supporting it with tools and routines for half a century now. We have those tools now, and a team of teachers working with teams of students can really begin to transcend some of the limitations imposed the traditional high school. Linda Chick at Manchester NH’s West High School STEAM Team says she now conducts “near-constant negotiations” with students and small teams, helping them to pursue the mysteries and passions they have, connections and extension, going deeper, to fuel projects that can last weeks and beyond. I love that word “mysteries” as Roger Martin posed it, the myriad different things that touch us and move us differently as individuals from childhood onward.  And again, now we have the tools and routines that help students learn to do that negotiation and pursuit with less and less provocation from adults and more confidence in their own learning. We can integrate technology regularly and smartly, with contextual uses, such as learning spreadsheet alongside water quality analysis or weather patterns, finally giving the term personalization some true meaning.

WO- How might that impact our thinking within the traditional “school architecture’ as you call it?

LM- Here’s one example. I recently asked a stellar group of thinkers that ERC convened to operationalize more robust school redesign and when I asked them how long a project should last, unanimously they answered, until the curiosity fades. Beautiful! That’s how it works for us and our mysteries. But that simple but brilliant thinking can’t survive when learning has to end with the bell, with the next topic, with the marking period, with the report card.

Another example is that if ninth-grade students are excited about and able to learn skills and content that might traditionally not be presented until “11th grade”, that’s going to mess with our rigid sense of scope and sequence –of who can learn what when. But what a great problem to have! What’s out there that only a 13 year old can learn, or only a 28 or 56 year old? This reliance on the old model of school is killing authentic interest in learning and we have been reluctant or unable, as innovation expert Clay Christensen said, to offer up new models of school.

WO- That’s a lot, but its powerful and positive. Any final thoughts about this?

LM- For sure. One is to bring higher education into these settings, sending new educators for year-long co-teaching with master teachers, moving the locus of “teacher training’ to the school. And not to do what they’ve always done in teacher development but to join in the new construct. Schools and teaching are going to change radically and this is the chance for the new generation of educators to get it right.

Next, my redesign Charrette colleagues reminded me forcefully that documentation is the best assessment. I knew that, of course, from Project Zero, from Reggio Emilia, from my teaching years, and my own children’s learning. But we lose sight of it in the torrent of more simplistic and mechanistic “instruments”. Archiving and curation, interviews, portfolios and presentations will show schools and communities how students are learning.

 Fabrication Station

Fabrication Station

My last two: One, get the “A” for “arts” into STEM.  It’s the biggest piece my schools are missing right now. Student creations and performances of an artwork provide opportunities to clarify what students are (or aren’t) taking from STEM activities. They’re an on-ramp for learning. Designing, creating and interpretation offer high levels of critical thinking and help students to better understand concepts and ideas via a range of learning styles: visual-(learn through seeing), auditory-(learn through talking and listening), tactile -(learn through touch; psycho-motor) and kinesthetic (learn through doing and moving). Arts, technology and design should be integrated into all projects, supported by Humanities and integrated Math/Science as the curriculum pillars. It’s also a chance to finally get a math curriculum together that is meaningful and doesn’t turn students off.

Finally, we need the business community to dig in directly to schools, not through intermediaries. Their energy, brains and resources are critical, and they know by now that current education policies are unhelpful to developing their work force. We need them to help guide us, regularly, at the school level. Left to the traditional conveners, too often STEM investments are for more of the same, such as more AP courses for select students and teachers. Businesses make a difference. When I served at Brown University with Ted Sizer in the 1990’s, business folks were always at the table and investing in a big way, and they understood it would take research and re-design, multiple and diverse ways to re-think school. That was before they lined up with “think tank” policy makers for efforts such as Achieve and other reductive, top-down approaches to improving schools. We need to get them back at the table.

Businesses have a lot to gain from investing in STEAM. Communities as well. STEAM-Ahead NH is a great example of something that’s begun to grow in the ways I think are a model for the future. To me, this transformation is simply not that hard if we have the will. See link. I invite anyone who wants more and better from STEM investments to contact us. We can do better.

 

Dr. Larry Myatt, ERC Co-Founder

 

A different brand of STEM brings new life, new hope to an urban high school

We’re really proud of the work our colleague Larry Myatt has done at Manchester New Hampshire’s West High School. Despite a proud history in the Queen City, the school has struggled with declining achievement and one of the state’s highest drop-out rates. It has all the challenges that face many kindred urban schools and communities. Yet, of, late some truly bright spots have emerged. The school’s fledgling STEAM (STEM+) initiative was recently lauded in a University of New Hampshire evaluation link and West was recently awarded a Barr Foundation grant for initial redesign efforts. Link here. 

In an  era of flat achievement and declining student engagement, Larry’s work with West High School’s STEAM initiative has shown what is possible --with committed teachers, leadership,  resources,  and importantly, different thinking about the systems, culture and practices. We wanted to talk with him about it.

--Wayne Ogden and Katrina Kennett

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WO- Larry, you knew West High School from an I3 grant effort several years ago. What’s happening now that people are shining a light on new, positive developments?

LM- There are some good achievement results and qualitative hints of growing confidence in an ability to change and grow. The secret sauce would begin with leadership at the building and teacher level, accompanied by both a team and leadership culture of willingness to let go of old practices and beliefs. Add to that an energetic fund-raiser and convener –Bob Baines of STEAM-AheadNH, the city’s former Mayor- and at the center, some great young people –the students- who are clearly responding to a more appealing and authentic kind of learning.

KK- How did it get started for you three years ago?

LM- Chris Motika had recently been named the new principal of West at the time STEAM-Ahead was looking for a home. He knew my work from the I3 grant and I knew him to be a thoughtful guy. Based on my prior experiences at the school, I wasn’t sure that promising work could take root in the building but I agreed to an initial session. 

KK- What convinced you to sign on?

LM- For one, I learned that at the outset Chris Motika had been adamant that the program be open to any and all 9th graders, not limited by grades or recommendations as so many STEM programs are. That caught my eye and was a sign of the right kind of against-the-grain leadership. Bob Baines, on the STEAM end of things, got it as well. So I agreed to a first 2-day session and I encountered an interesting mix of younger and mid-career teachers who were energetic, open-minded and anxious to be part of a highly-collaborative team. They were smart and interesting adults, the kind that kids respond to. Voila.

WO- What was the essence of your initial work?

LM- Exploring the cognitive dissonance on the team – how dissatisfied they were, are, with “traditional teaching” as defined by what’s it’s become over the last 15 years.  In conversation we shared a number of things we had all seen that didn’t work but kept reappearing on the menu for them to implement. We looked at exemplars of traditional practices versus more engaging inquiry learning. And I also asked a lot of questions about what they were looking for –as individuals- in a new professional experience that they could largely define. What was their skin in the game, as they say.

Key to those first two days was also to get a sense of how much support and latitude (i.e. trust) Chris could provide for their efforts - which turned out to be a good deal. Those “pioneer teachers” brought will and commitment, and a stout talent level, to make good on that trust. We began pretty quickly to agree to let go of things –as a team-  that we knew got poor results and to replace them with sound practices emerging from a different orientation. And of course pushing hard on high levels of teamwork and collaboration to support their new work was key –and the team welcomed it .

WO- This is where our leadership lodestar Bill Bryan would chime in that a high degree of adult learning and teamwork usually correlates to high performance. That the psychological contract is strong.

LM- Yep.  And this is a case of him being right again. Leadership at all levels was a key to the launch and in the first year, and when, in year three Chris left for a new position. Fortunately, new principal Rick Dichard is not only equally committed but sees STEAM as a harbinger of what the entire school might look like in a re-imagined form.                                              

WO- You’re not necessarily the “STEM” type, am I right?

LM- You sure are. I had to do some homework. But I knew from my teaching principal days that one key element would be making the shift from a culture of teaching to a culture of learning. People haven’t thought a great deal about why that’s a critical re-orientation. We tend to give only second thoughts to what students will DO, but we’re almost maniacal about the granular behaviors of teachers, as evidenced by our evaluation rubrics and procedures. I’ve worked hard, along with both of you, to redefine and support the spread of more engaging practices, activities that require a different mindset and some different skills from our current ideas of what it is to be a good front-of-the-classroom teacher.

KK- Any other thing you had to dig in to as far as STEM goes?

LM- For sure. I looked at great STEM projects that provoke and inspire lots of different explorations,  solutions, research, designs, models, etc. -not the pursuit of one pre-determined outcome, but generative, suggestive frameworks that present students with “mysteries”, to use Roger Martin’s terminology – questions and ideas that appeal, that make you curious to know more, explore more.

The other thing I researched was how STEM efforts were faring regionally and nationally. There’s been over a decade of solid investment in STEM, but it turns out that results are not so good – nationally or regionally. Last year’s New Hampshire Charitable Fund report on STEM efforts in the state was consonant with outcomes in many other states – they found that students are turned off by the way they experience math and science, far too many of them by the end of middle school. The Wall Street Journal reported on the flat numbers of those entering STEM careers at every level. I saw the problem as starting earlier than that, and not being so much about the kids but what the school -and math and science-- have become. Tightening up what we already do in STEM is not an answer.

See Technical Challenge graphic here.

KK- You’ve identified other studies that talk about why kids are less motivated as they enter high school, right?

LM- Yes. And so much of it is about sitting and listening. When I was working in Rhode Island there was a local study of student experience in urban high schools, and those two words –“sitting” and “listening” came up all the time. 90 % of students said they found their classes uninteresting and unengaging. Words that hardly every appeared were “doing” or “making”.

It’s important to note that the class of 2016 was our first all-NCLB/standards-and-testing cohort. And guess what? Kids are saying they don’t enjoy school as much. Link  My mission along with the West STEAM team began, and remains, to put the thrill back into learning. And we’re just getting into the groove. The teachers have been open-minded, willing to try new things and highly collaborative, really refreshing and energizing to work with, and Rick Dichard as well.

WO- You’ve also drawn a fairly major conclusion about STEM efforts, correct?

LM- Yes, and I think it helps to explain why STEM interest is flat – it’s that STEM  can’t thrive in a traditional, comprehensive high school environment.  The experience is too fragmented, the learning activities too flat, and the architecture and programming too out of sync with what we know about learning and motivation. There are other, far more promising things we could be doing with STEM programming. I actually think that STEM -with an added “a” for arts and technology-  could be the Trojan Horse for the school redesign we’ve been saying we’ve wanted for almost 50 years but, as Clayton Christensen said, we haven’t done much about.

WO- So, you’ve agreed to a “part two” of this interview. and we’ll talk about that more specifically next time. As well as some things that the program is still striving for, right?

LM- Right you are and thanks for having me!

 

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Dr. Larry Myatt, ERC Co-Founder

Stay tuned for our next e-newsletter-: Part Two - STEM as an engine for school redesign

Summer in New Mexico’s Progressive Small School

  Santa Fe plaza

Santa Fe plaza

I spent a good deal of time this summer in two of our “new” states –New Hampshire and New Mexico. (More on NH in an upcoming post)

I’ve had the good fortune to work in schools over recent years in The Land of Enchantment. New Mexico faces some stiff economic challenges and a department of education that has not been friendly to new ideas and diverse approaches, but I continue to find schools and networks that studiously embrace all learners, reach out into the community and strive to learn from each other.

One of my first summer stops was Amy Biehl HS in Albuquerque, a school I had collaborated with in its early years. The school is located in the city’s old Federal Court House in a gorgeously restored setting. Humanities teacher Frank McCullough is now the school’s leader, and along with Dean of Students, Mark O’Gawa, I had a chance to work with their very skilled Student Support Team. Over a decade ago, the Amy Biehl SST offered an early model of how to bring social-emotional support out from behind the counseling curtain and share ideas and practices school-wide. We spent a full day taking stock of the team’s role in a very mature school, sorting through challenges and assets, and identifying milestones through some appreciative inquiry.

  Amy Biehl HS  Indaba Hall

Amy Biehl HS Indaba Hall

Next, my travels took me to Santa Fe to facilitate a leadership retreat for the Albuquerque Sign Language Academy (ASLA), an innovative, dual-language school open tuition-free to the community and region. ASLA is a great story, “the little school that could”. Sensing a lack of non-residential educational options for deaf and hard-of-hearing young people and their families, the school was created by parents, educators and collaborators less than a decade ago. The school now offers grades K-10, and approximately 60% of students qualify for special education services and 85% of students have a link to the deaf community. Under Rafe Martinez, ASLA’s Director, two partnerships have increased the school’s capacity and raised its profile --one with the University of New Mexico which welcomes new and practicing educators to learn and study at the school, and a second with the PEAR Institute which will guide wellness programming.  

   ASLA Executive Director Rafe Martinez and legislative collaborator Rick Martinez

 ASLA Executive Director Rafe Martinez and legislative collaborator Rick Martinez

The school’s own increase in student enrollment (a waiting list has grown), inquiries from other schools in the region, and their own ambition to provide state-of-the-art services to the community, signaled the need for the executive administrative team to look ahead to new leadership strategies and key upcoming milestones. I joined local consultant Everette Hill of the Social Innovation Strategies Group in guiding the team through a set of activities that will provide a road map for the upcoming year as they grow programs and partnerships and lead the faculty in concert. Facilities options, board development, developing a revised professional development calendar, and identifying key benchmarks and support required to get there all surfaced in the intense three-day retreat.

Early August brought me back to Albuquerque for on-going collaboration with the New Mexico Center for School Leadership. It’s “Leadership High Schools” network includes a focus on re-engaging older students who had left school but now wish to return and need an environment specifically designed for them. Based in part on the design of the New York City Young Adult Borough Centers, the Network’s Re-Engagement Schools provide an afternoon-early evening schedule, social workers and counselors, connections to growth industries and employers and hands-on learning in the areas they require to meet state graduation standards. Key to the mission is shaping the community’s understanding that different types of students require a diverse and substantial portfolio of educational options, and then designing forward.

   Albuquerque Sign Language Academy leadership team members, Leticia Archuleta (left) and Jennifer Blythe (right)

 Albuquerque Sign Language Academy leadership team members, Leticia Archuleta (left) and Jennifer Blythe (right)

School leaders and wellness pillar administrators from the network schools came together to assess the efficacy of current efforts and to begin a more intensive study of the needs of older students, implications for design and gathering promising practices. The Center’s doctoral Intern, Rachel White, presented the findings of her research in the current state of the network’s evening Re-Engagement programs. A new partnership with local youth development agency NMCAN will assist the Center and the schools in leveraging resources in support of re-engagement programming.

  Rachel White presenting Re-Engagement Research                         

Rachel White presenting Re-Engagement Research                         

That same week the Leadership HS Network administrators and boards joined forces for a retreat to focus on policy development, good internal board practices, and support for school leaders. Held at the new Siembra Leadership High School, nearly thirty people from three schools gained some big picture take-away’s and promising practices before going into school-based teams to assess current efforts and upcoming opportunities for focus and growth.

 

   Leadership High School Network boards retreat

 Leadership High School Network boards retreat

My final NM summer outing was a day-long retreat with, and for, new amigos at the Media Arts Collaborative secondary school. The school seeks to prepare students for an education in the media arts at the university and community college level, as well helping students and families to understand the global role of media arts and how people’s lives are shaped by them. I was fortunate to meet Glenna Voight, the retiring Media Arts principal, at a CES conference last fall, and now count new leader Jonathan Dooley as a friend and colleague. I’ve also quickly grown fond of the school’s diverse, open-minded and accomplished staff.

 

   Media Arts Collaborative secondary school.

 Media Arts Collaborative secondary school.

Working with Media Arts’ middle and high school staff, the day was a mixed bag . We began by exploring concepts from learning science (most at odds with today’s linear learning, standards and testing regimen), exploring the not-so-hidden effects of industrial age schooling, and reviewing current national achievement data for context. We transitioned to hands-on project design through visual provocations of the kind I do in STEM schools, some re-imagining of teacher roles in that kind of inquiry-based learning motif, and finally, sharing personal milestones for the upcoming school year. An intense and rewarding day.

 

New Mexico has a number of small progressive schools proudly peeking out from under a layer of bureaucracy that has not resulted in achievement gains or social-emotional improvement over the past eight years. They’re holding their own conversations and moving forward smartly. They’re worth a visit, your interest and your support. Adelante, New Mexico. 

 

    

 

  Albuquerque Convention Center Plaza

Albuquerque Convention Center Plaza