(From the “In Search of Bold Schools Dept.”)
One of the points I’ve been trying to make to school leaders and others (with mixed success, I think) is that moving toward more student-centered, inquiry-based, connected classrooms and “passing the test” are not mutually exclusive. That if we’re focused on developing learners instead of making kids “learned,” the test scores will take care of themselves. (Note: I can make this case anecdotally, but if anyone has any research that will convince the hard core skeptics, please share.) No question, given the current realities of testing and performance evaluation and everything else, public schools can’t simply ignore the test. But, unfortunately, schools that are willing to forego the test prep and keep the focus on learning as I’ve defined here are hard to find.
That is the approach at Downingtown (Pa) STEM Academy, however, under the guidance of principal George Fiore (@georgefiore) who was nice enough to show me around for a few hours yesterday. Now there are lots of caveats here: it’s a 1-1, IB, magnet school in its first year with 400 sophomores and freshman who are still a year away from taking “the test,” which makes it a tough school to use as a model for change in existing, traditional schools. But it’s a great model for what can be, and there are mindsets at play here that any school can learn from.
And “mindset” is the operative word. As George went through the process of creating the school in 2010-11 and then opening it in September, he was guided by the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck. At this school, learning is about effort and habits of mind, about having a “growth mindset” that propels not just students but teachers, parents and community members to a higher plane in their thinking and their practice. And, frames a different lens when thinking about “the test.”
“The PSSA is a minimum competency test,” George says. “What we need is the courage to say ‘if this is a minimum competency test, why aren’t we aiming higher and jumping over it?’ Right now, most schools are in it not to lose. That’s not a healthy learning attitude.”
Like Lisa Brady, George has invested a lot of time with parent groups educating them and giving them a voice in what happens at the school. (Parents were partners in the design of the academy.) He stresses that grades are not important, that 15 is a better time for their kids to struggle than 25, and that effort = intelligence. “High IQ scores do not correlate to success,” George says. “But a willingness to work hard and to develop the right habits of mind do. That’s our focus.” Those habits are effort, respect, engagement, responsibility and compassionate participation.
Learning is based around inquiry and a lot of writing. Students work in collaborative teams to solve real problems guided by teachers who push them to think deeply and ask developing questions. Almost all assignments and assessments involve writing. But while it may be a STEM school, art and music and fitness are all valued as well. (I listened to one student record an original song while another student played the music and three others worked the sound board. Here’s a pic.)
Technology was everywhere, but most of it came from over a quarter million dollars in donations that George was able to solicit from local businesses in the last year.
“A lot of my time is spent doing outreach and involving local industry and business in the conversation,” he says. “It’s amazing the extent to which they are willing to help us with equipment and facilities purchases.” (He’s also working with the business communtiy to put together 200 internships for all of his juniors next year.) That makes for a rich, constructivist learning environment where students are creating and prototyping and performing on many different levels using a host of different technologies. The independent engagement on the part of students was palpable, and it was built on high level of trust and respect between the adults and the kids.
There’s much more here, obviously. But the big news is that George is leaving the school next week after just one year to take a principalship and a high school nearer to his home which is an hour away from Downingtown. He intends to take much of what he’s learned in creating a school to the job of now changing a traditional school, a challenge that will bear watching. He’s immediate goals are to: 1) Move his administrative team to being instructional leaders instead of disciplinarians, 2) Change the library into a “Learning Commons” which will serve as a digital hub for the school (no paper books) as well as the place where community members and students and teachers gather for weekly “lunch and learns” every Friday, and 3) create parent and community advisory boards to generate conversations about learning and change. In three years he hopes to have moved the school to an inquiry based environment in at least science and math where students can bring their own devices. And he hopes to have made deep inroads into the changing the culture of learning.
“We need to innovate, and the key factor in my current position and my new position is the support at high levels for innovation,” George says. “We have to cultivate those types of leaders in schools right now.”
1. New school or old, the learning cultures we construct in schools do not have to be predicated on the narrow definitions of “achievement” that the current testing regime relies on. Cultures built on inquiry and creation and student directed personal learning will serve our students more effectively in the long run.
2. We need to educate parents as to the value of this type of learning, and we need to engage in conversations with them about what expectations are meaningful and relevant and what expectations may be worth retiring.
3. There are avenues for any school to use to fund initiatives around learning with technology.