Sunday, March 16, 2014

What could be more important than unlocking the world for kids?

Less than 6 months after its last article on the Philadelphia Public School’s Science and Leadership Academy, Education Week is at it again. One reason may be financial: a note at the end of the article explains that a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation supports “coverage of ‘deeper learning’ that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world.”

The article, fittingly, brims with issues relating both to “deeper learning” and to finances. First, there is Philadelphia School Superintendent William Hite, who, after opening schools in September with hundreds of absent (i.e., laid off) librarians, counselors and nurses, is “still scrambling to find $14 million to balance this year's books.”:

Last spring, Mr. Hite pushed through a five-year, $28 million plan to expand three programs, including SLA, a district-run magnet high school. In February, he won approval to invest millions more in three new outside-the-box high schools slated to open next fall.
Although he says the 131,000-student Philadelphia district needs $440 million just to provide a "bare minimum" level of service to schools next school year, the superintendent sees little choice.
With “competition from charter and suburban schools for the city's few remaining middle-class families” and “the new Common Core State Standards,” which “expect students to think critically, solve problems, and work collaboratively,” Hite knows that there’s only one way out of Philadelphia’s educational quagmire: the "inquiry-driven, project-based, technology-infused" approach so enthusiastically and comprehensively embraced by the school district’s Science and Leadership Academy:
This is exactly what we want our children to experience. Instead of 1,000 things that teachers must get through in 180 days, it's deep learning that occurs over and over again.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with SLA, here is how this “deep learning” occurs:
Rather than deliver content, SLA teachers are expected to help students develop the skills and mind-sets necessary to formulate and pursue their own questions and ideas.
Technology helps: Teachers and students are issued their own laptops to use in school and at home, and software applications that facilitate independent research, content creation, and peer collaboration are widely used.
The ultimate goal, in the words of Principal Chris Lehmann, isn’t "Making sure students get the mandatory content delivered on demand.” Rather:
We want to unlock the world for kids.
So mind-blowing and educationally revolutionary is Lehmann’s goal that
The school has attracted significant national attention. In January, the computer-manufacturing giant Dell announced a $625,000 grant to both SLA campuses. A portion of the money will be used to form a "Center of Excellence in Learning," through which Mr. Lehmann's approach is to be shared with educators around the country.
And, indeed, in Edweek’s words, “progress” is already afoot:
Science Leadership Academy has established a second campus that mirrors the quirky, intimate atmosphere of the original. At the new SLA@Beeber, students skateboard through the hallways past a teacher draped in Christmas lights, and no one bats an eye. [Boldfaces mine]   
It should be noted that there’s still some room for improvement:  
Inside classrooms, efforts to re-create SLA's instructional model have been uneven, highlighting the challenges faced by the growing number of districts seeking to open and replicate nontraditional, technology-oriented schools.
For example:
[A] first-period [freshman] engineering class has just been derailed by a series of small frustrations: Students strolling in late. Questions met with blank stares. Smartphones used for text messages instead of research.
“Sometimes, it’s like pulling teeth,” says teacher Karthik Subburam, a former engineer and five-year veteran, a teacher at SLA’s new satellite school, SLA@Beeber. Here, Subburam recently completed a unit on load-bearing structures in which students ultimately construct model houses. The unit, as Edweek reports, was “intended to last three weeks” but “dragged deep into February”:
Midway through the unit… Mr. Subburam is struggling just to get on base. Nearly half his class has neglected to bring in building supplies for their model houses. His third cup of morning coffee is nearly empty. After delivering instructions for a classroom research activity, Mr. Subburam tries to answer questions from a half-dozen confused students, while the rest of the class grows impatient. The disruptive chatter is unrelenting.
"I don't want all the information to flow through me," the exasperated teacher finally tells his students. "But if you don't listen attentively, this new style doesn't work, and we'll just go back to me telling you what to do."
But a few weeks later, Mr. Subburam “experiences a breakthrough”:
His classroom still feels a bit chaotic, but now it's because students are scattered across the room in small teams, immersed in the construction of their model houses. Rather than seek to re-establish himself as the focal point of the classroom, Mr. Subburam encourages the groups to interact with each other.
The “wildly varying designs” that result provoke an enthusiastic discussion that Mr. Subburan later characterizes as “awesome.” "We were learning things together," he said.

Taking things to a whole new level of awesomeness are the raucous experiments:
A group of students gathers around a table, eager to see if their classmates' model house will withstand the "simulated natural disasters" that their teacher has concocted. The teens are loud. Scraps of cardboard litter the floor. One group's model house tips over when confronted with a gentle breeze.
Then, the teacher places a five-pound bag of pennies on the roof of a student-built house. It's a test of the structure's ability to bear a heavy load. The top floors sway slightly under the pressure, but most of the weight is transferred down to the solid foundation. The students high-five, elated that their skyscraper-inspired strategy worked.
This, presumably, is what Mr. Lehmann means by “unlocking the world for kids”--which, surely, far outweighs preparing them for college-level engineering classes by delivering actual content.*

But wait: if you think SLA@Beeber is unlocking the world for kids, take a look at what’s happening across town at SLA’s main campus. SLA@SLA provides, as Edweek puts it, “a clearer vision of what's possible.” Consider Matthew VanKouwenberg's advanced engineering class, which he's taught since the school opened in 2006:
In early February, while the freshman engineering class at the new SLA@Beeber struggled to find its footing, Mr. VanKouwenberg's advanced engineering students were engaged in a unit on cybersecurity. Their ultimate task was to construct a radio transmitter capable of sending an encrypted message. To get there, Mr. VanKouwenberg guided the class through a series of smaller projects that built on each other, taking detours as needed to teach key concepts or address misunderstandings revealed by students as they worked.
On this day, the teens assembled in teams around the cluttered room, using paper plates and bowls, wires, magnets, tape, and an amplifier to build makeshift speakers. Their teacher eased into the background, eating yogurt and listening.
Seniors Seamus Kirby and Ethan Reese produced a speaker that played surprisingly crisp, clear music.
Mr. VanKouwenberg sidled up.
"What did you guys do that made it sound so much stronger?" he asked.
"We flipped the magnets," the boys responded.
"Why?"
Shrugs.
"No, seriously, what benefit did you get from it?" Mr. VanKouwenberg persisted.
After an extended silence, he gave the students a friendly nudge.
"It looks like you've done a good job with your speaker," Mr. VanKouwenberg said. "Now, I want you to figure out why it works."
What happens next doesn’t make it into Edweek. Instead, the article moves on to Mr Gray's physics class:
Mr. Gray... recently used the Christmas lights he had earlier worn through the hallways as the basis for a culminating project in which students were expected to create "electric art"—an object of personal significance that incorporated functioning circuits.
As their deadline approached, more than 30 teenagers gathered in the physics room during lunch, eating chips and wiring stuffed animals and sneakers as their teacher danced around to opera music.
Christopher Johnson, the veteran Philadelphia administrator who now heads SLA@Beeber, was thrilled.
"I'm seeing kids tinker. I'm seeing kids be creative. I'm seeing kids able to reflect on who they are," he said.
Once again the keys clink inside the cosmic door latch. Who cares if no one delivers to these students the content necessary for college-level physics classes? The world’s doors have opened and the kids know who they are.

And the great thing is, there’s still room for progress. Edweek cites former district administrator Jolley Bruce Christman:
For 30 years, Ms. Christman has watched as small bands of city teachers have attempted to incorporate inquiry-based instruction into their schools and classrooms. Almost inevitably, she said, "the tide washes over their efforts, and they get burned out."
But not Mr. Lehmann:
Early struggles for teachers new to the approach are natural and predictable, Mr. Lehmann said. What's important, he maintained, is an "upward trajectory."
And, darn it, SLA’s trajectory is upwards; not sideways, and definitely not downwards. After all, when the ultimate goal is “unlocking the world for kids” rather than "making sure students get the mandatory content delivered on demand," how could it be otherwise?

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*SLA insiders have remarked upon the large number of students who end up having to take remedial math.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

"I'm seeing kids tinkering."

Kids can tinker at home (I wish more of them would; video games allow for tinkering but not of this sort). Their tinkering is far more informed (and likely to result in something useful and truly creative) if it's supported by some content knowledge.

They can also tinker in shop class (too bad that no longer exists) where they are guided by experience teachers who know a lot about tinkering (and also content).

Cynthia812 said...

Halfway through I started hoping you had somehow stumbled on an Onion article. It's getting hard to tell the difference.