The past couple of Educon days at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia were, as always, packed with fun catching up with old friends (and meeting new ones) but, as always, also filled with conversations that have me thinking more about what “reform” looks like and what bold schools might do to get there. It was fun not to lead a session this year and just be an attendee (though I really need to stop putting stuffed animals on my head). Anyway, just want to share out a couple of what I think are compelling narratives around change to start the week.
First, I’d heard of the iSchool in NYC but as with a lot of other innovative schools, I’d never had the chance to get my brain around what they do. I’ll admit to a certain bias for learning the lessons of schools that have been in place for decades that have made a real shift toward more progressive learning. The iSchool is going into it’s fourth year. Nevertheless, the teachers and principals who presented two sessions at Educon made a great case for inquiry/challenge based learning in way that fits the “doing both” spirit of the bold schools I’ve written about. To get some sense of the culture, check out this 5-minute video on “Disastercamp” where students attempted to answer the question “How can first responders to disasters use social media to improve communication and coordination for disaster relief?” And here is another, the 16 Module, where students dive into the question “What does it mean to be 16?” It’s the type of learning that I’d like for my own kids.
But here, perhaps, is the best part. When it comes to prepping for the NY State Regents test, students get access to self-paced, online test prep courses they work through on their own that is then supported in the classroom. That means way more time is freed up to do the real learning work of inquiry in the classroom with teachers who are learners as well. (In one of the sessions, one of the iSchool teachers said they basically start with a theme for a class and then create the curriculum as they go, that they can innovate on the fly which, to me at least, suggests they are learners first, teachers second.) Interestingly, that’s the same approach I heard from Knewton a bit ago, and I’m starting to wonder what’s really wrong with tacking in that direction during the transition we’re in. I do find it kind of scary that former NYC schools chancellor Joel Klein doesn’t take issue with this either. If we’re going to be stuck with the test, why not just offload it to technology and spend our time in more valuable learning pursuits? (That’s worthy of a post in and of itself down the road.)
And here’s the other story that I find interesting: I had a chance to chat with Chris Walsh who is the Director of Innovation and Design for the New Tech Network of schools. They’ve either started or refashioned 86 schools across the country at this point and they have an eye on 30 or so more next year. It’s a pretty interesting model for change, especially in the way that communities, not schools, fund their work with New Tech. Basically, through fund raisers, donations and other contributions, the community “invests” in the change that happens at the school which, no doubt, helps those changes weather the problems of leaders leaving, pressures from state governments, etc. In theory, it allows schools to shift in measured, sustainable ways. I haven’t had the chance to dive into all that New Tech offers in terms of PBL and technology to know if their curriculum is truly “bold,” but that’s an interesting model nonetheless, and makes me wonder how to drive more community investment in change.
As always, the great thing about Educon is the sincerity you sense of everyone in the building in trying to figure out what’s best for kids in terms of learning and schools. No one’s trying to sell you anything or promote themselves or make it about anything other than figuring it all out for their unique spaces and for the larger community. Looking forward to the conversations continuing.