How Do We Change The Way Students Experience Learning?

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Curious.

When you have a moment to yourself throughout the day, (driving in the car, running on the treadmill, when the sun is rising and you’re just waking up) what does your mind go to?  In the past, it’s been anything from how can I get ALL of my students excited about reading to imagining myself singing an epic (most likely 80’s) song on stage with a live band.

Lately though I’ve been reflecting a lot on my last post about the purpose of education.  A former instructional coach and now administrator, I’m always thinking about the practical end of my ideas.   The questions that seem to be recurring most are:

  •  What is the core foundation of instructional practices in a school that values creating meaningful learning experiences that build on strengths and develop students’ passions?
  • How do I actually go about making this vision of a learner-driven education a reality?  More specifically…
    • What structures need to be in place? (schedule, student grouping, learning spaces, etc)
    • What are the mindsets and values of the leaders and learners in this type of school and how can I help to develop them if they are not already there?
    • What shifts should be prioritized first?

So I was blown away when I started listening to a recent Modern Learners podcast (if you are not listening to this podcast you are seriously missing out) where the hosts, Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon, interviewed Megan Power, a teacher who had not only explored these questions and more, but had been part of designing and opening a PUBLIC school that was actually DOING all of these things.

Located in San Diego, Design39Campus, is part of the POWAY School District.  Its inception story is similar to many public schools around the country.  Because of the growing number of homes being built in the area, a new school was needed to help with overcrowding in other buildings.

That’s pretty much where the similarities stop.

Instead of building a school that mirrored the others in this high performing district, the superintendent took this as an opportunity to go beyond what they had done before.  With this in mind, he put together a team with a very specific challenge, how do we change the way we do school?  The team took this question a step further and asked…

“How do we change the way students experience learning?”

The result of a deep exploration of this one question is what has built the foundation of this incredible school:

“Learning experiences are designed with the individual learner in mind. As a collaborative community, we nurture creative confidence, practice design thinking, learn through inquiry, connect globally, use technology and real-world tools, and promote the courage and growth mindset necessary to change the world.”

This approach has not only impacted traditional academic metrics (Their 6th-8th grade students consistently outscore the other students in the district on standardized tests.), but the mindset of the students as well.  Instead of being excited when they have days off of school, parents are reporting that their students are actually upset not being able to attend.

Lessons Learned & Ideas to Emulate

Rather than rehash the entire episode, I’d rather focus on the big takeaways related to the questions I have been reflecting upon lately.

1.  Time & Design Thinking

The first thing that really stood out to me was the amount of time that Megan Power and the team took to think deeply and explore every possible avenue related to their big question.  Using a design thinking approach they “threw every piece of the education puzzle onto the floor” and reflected on each piece to see what worked and what they might want to change.  Because of a grant, the members of the team were had an entire year out of the classroom to focus solely on this endeavor.

It has been my experience that in education we have a bit of the “Squirrel!” mentality where we jump from one new idea to another without really delving in deeply to explore why we want to implement the initiative.  Even worse, we don’t take the time needed to explain the purpose and build the capacity of those who will be implementing said initiative.  This results in either shallow implementation confusion or overwhelmed colleagues which inevitably leads to push-back from many.

2.  Building a Shared Vision

One of the models of complex change that I continually come back to use in reflection is from Ambrose.  complex change

In order for complex change to occur, the five elements above must be woven into the work.  If one is not present, then any of the five items on the right will occur.

One thing that the founders of Design39Campus did exceptionally well is build a shared vision and understanding among ALL of its stakeholders before even opening its doors.  This started with parents.

Instead of telling parents what Design39Campus was going to be all about they held community nights where they asked participants what they wanted for their students and for the school.  Attendees were asked to respond to the following:

  • Imagine a place where students could…
  • Then we need teachers who…
  • Then we need leaders who…
  • Then we need parents who…
  • What skills do parents use in their jobs all the time?

They wanted this to be an open forum so, in addition to holding multiple events, they collected every single post-it response created, typed them up, and posted them online.  Their goal wasn’t to convince the community that they had all the answers, it was about getting their input so they could help decide what their school could be.

And it wasn’t just about getting their input in the beginning, the parents continue to be a partner in learning. They regularly hold workshops for parents and also share articles, videos and books aligned with the vision.  Parents are frequently asked for feedback and this feedback is incorporated into the workings of the school.  It is a continual collaboration between the community and the school.  On their website, there is a plethora of information including a genius glossary of all of the terms they use in their school that includes everything from instructional approaches to places in the building.

3.  Getting “The Right People on the Bus”

Because they were building a school from a design thinking perspective, the team knew that they needed the right type of educators to become a part of the team.  They wanted to hire teachers and leaders who were creators, innovators, and risk takers who would create deep learning experiences for students that would foster curiosity.  With this in mind, they changed the titles of teacher and administrator to Learning Experience Designer and Lead Designer.  I love how this small change already creates a different mindset of what each of these roles has traditionally meant.

If they were looking for a different type of educator, they realized that they needed to rethink their hiring process as well.  A three-part process, the goal was to really get to know the educators personally and see how they worked in a team dynamic.  The teachers would be meeting for an hour daily to reflect on practice and design learning experiences together so the ability to collaborate was critical to the success of the students and the school.

The first part of the hiring process they had teachers submit something called an E-Tell where could create anything they wanted to tell the school about themselves. In the next stage, selected applicants were asked to participate in a design challenge where they worked on a team to design a lesson.  The finalists from this stage were then invited back to participate in an interview with a group, but even this was more targeted at getting to know them as a person outside of the school setting rather than their curricular expertise.

4.  Deep Dives, Explorations & Integrated Learning Time

One of the trickiest dilemmas that I have reflected upon most often in this journey is how to balance building content knowledge and skills with fostering students’ passions and curiosities.  In addition, I have always wondered how do we help students to discover new passions in addition to the ones that they are currently interested in?  This delicate balance is an area that Design39Campus does incredibly well.

Design39Campus does not have a set curriculum that students must master at the same time each year, however, they do teach content.

“Yes, your children will learn phonics, write on lined paper, and learn how to read and do math. It is our plan to make those learning opportunities engaging and interesting for them so they never lose the joy of learning. Filling out stacks of homework packets is not what we are about.”

I can only imagine the conversations that inspired this quote. 🙂

The way they accomplish this is, instead of breaking up the day into subjects, which puts a focus on content areas, their school day is broken up into Deep Dives, Explorations and Integrated Learning Time.

Integrated Learning Time is when students learn content and build skills.  Just like it sounds, subjects are taught together as part of a broader question that the students explore.  This creates connected understanding and more greatly models the way the world works outside of school.  During Deep Dives students are able to explore a passion of their choosing in an academic setting.  Design39Campus has partnered with local businesses to create a wide variety of options.  Finally, students go to Explorations.  This is where they get to try new things that they might be interested in exploring more deeply later.

5.  Constant Learning

Everyone at Design39Campus views themselves as perpetual learners.  As Megan Power explained,  “they are going to be like a start-up forever.”  Because of this, they are constantly asking questions, reflecting and learning together.  Teachers observe one another’s practice.  They go and observe in other schools.  They even have time that they spend in local businesses to better understand the work that they are preparing students for.

With design thinking, you are focusing on solving a problem through the lens of the people that the solution will serve.  They spent the first institute day of this school year investigating the question, “What is learning?” demonstrating that, even though they have been doing this for five years, they know there are ideas to ponder and questions to explore that will even better the learning experiences for their students.  Although they have created an amazing model they know they can always improve.

A Step Further in Answering My Big Questions

This podcast was extremely helpful in coming up with some answers to the questions I have been exploring lately.  I especially love how a design thinking approach permeated the entire school from the start to current practice.  If you’re an administrator like me you’re probably wondering though, how could I come close to replicating this in a school that is already established?

Going back to the work of Ambrose, I believe it starts with creating a shared vision.  Because the founders of Design39Campus took the time to build a shared vision with all stakeholders, they created momentum for success for the future as well as greatly diminished a large push back to change.

It doesn’t just stop with vision though, a plan has to be created with specific ideas for not only actions to be taken, but knowledge to be gained by all stakeholders.  If it’s a vision similar to Design39Campus’, then part of the plan has to be building capacity in learning experience design.  When the majority of our educators went to college they were taught how to manage time, follow a curriculum and teach for understanding.  The type of learning experiences we are expecting teachers to create in this type of school involves asking big questions, giving powerful feedback and starting with the learner in mind as opposed to the curriculum.

We can’t just expect educators to make this shift overnight.  We have to build their capacity in a way that is meaningful and builds upon their strengths. We won’t be able to do any of this effectively if we don’t get to know the needs of those whom we serve first.

It may seem counterintuitive, but when I think about the structures that need to be in place I’m not sure that question can be answered prior to building vision and capacity first.  One thing that I think will definitely be a part of the plan if we are going to teach from a broader perspective is larger stretches of time for students to work as opposed to segmenting the day up into smaller chunks.  However, without building the common vision and understanding of why we need to do this the result will be a shallow change in instruction. Additionally, I would envision a large amount of push-back from parents and staff.

One of the most important takeaways from the entire podcast is that to truly do this well takes time.  Give yourself permission.

Explore.  Imagine.  Create.  Reflect.

Enjoy the journey.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from their website:

“Because of what we do, our kids don’t just ask about the who, what, and where, but they ask about the why.”

What the educators at Design39Campus are truly empowering students to do is to be eternally curious learners.  And for me, that’s what makes all the difference.

Thanks for reading.  I look forward to hearing your thoughts.  Christina

4 comments on “How Do We Change The Way Students Experience Learning?”

  1. Christina, this is a fabulous share! Thank you for sharing it! Only through this type of information will educators on all levels be inspired and empowered to execute the type of change that education now needs. Sir Ken Robinson, in Out of Our Minds, The Power of Being Creative discusses other schools like this one, that have been created by people with this broad vision for the changes needed in order to created happy citizens of the 21st century. We need this type of thorough education reform and this article proves that it can be done and all stakeholders benefit. Keep up the great work on this blog!!

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