This summer, zones of innovation popped up everywhere across the 26 schools in the district where I work. They represented spaces of creativity where educators experimented with learning design grounded in inquiry, maker ed, integrated curricula, and multi-age groupings.
Here’s some of what I’ve thought about this summer.
School is wherever you make it. Our young people and even some of their parents participated in a summer of making in a well-hidden barrio almost under the shadow of Jefferson’s Monticello. They worked with visiting professors from MIT, STEM educators from the community, and guest teachers and librarians who dropped by to support children’s inventive minds as they built with Arduinos, Maker-bots, cardboard, donated fabrics, PVC pipe and 2-liter bottles. One MIT professor worked with a boy with limited English who could not be stopped from creating a working aquatic robot. Professor Moriarty commented, “this one could be at MIT one day.” I thought, “And, we’ll keep that path open for him.” I know it because Juan will return to a school staff committed to dual language literacy, STEAM, making as a way of learning, and finding talents within each child rather than looking for what s/he can’t do. And what he learned in his summer of making opened up possibilities he never may have considered otherwise – just as he did for the teachers who worked with him.
School connects children with community. Across America, as political reformers standardized schools and super-sized the importance of other people’s tests, we subtracted something from learning that educators know is important. Kids need to see and experience their community. Field trips are important. Working with community members is important. Seeing a world beyond their own homes and schools is important. Giving back to their community is important. In another elementary school summer program, I observed youthful educators build a curricula that enriched learning through creative design and build processes and developed literacy through experiential learning that took children outside the school walls into the natural and built environments of their community. Their work to create was supported by a local business person with an affinity for the arts. The kids supported his work by creating and donating their own art to an arts park for the entire community. Everyone benefited.
Empowered learners are engaged learners. Whether working in a summer fine arts academy, a leadership academy, a coder dojo, project-based summer school, or summer maker spaces, young people become active and committed learners when they:
pursue their own interests and passions,
challenge themselves to think critically and create with purpose,
experience opportunities to collaborate with peers and,
communicate their learning with power to authentic audiences.
When young people chose to participate in learning because they wanted to be there, it changed the context for them as learners whether acting in fine arts camp or wiring cardboard houses in maker camp. We created spaces “to educate children for life, not for school” and they showed us learning that went well beyond our own expectations of what we expected to accomplish.
Kids and Educators need “What If rather than Yeah But” learning options. Sure there are outlier situations … However, principals and teachers share over and over again that attendance increases and discipline issues decrease when young people feel investment and ownership in their own learning even when it’s a struggle for them.
In summer reflections with an experienced educator friend, I asked recently, “If we can gain a new market share of engaged learners through use of empowering learning strategies such as we used in the summer, why would we continue to invest in compliance pedagogy during the school year that results in kids who run the gamut from tuning out passively to dropping out actively?” Her response? “Perhaps, Pam, it’s because we educators live in a compliance-driven work world and we just do to kids what’s done to us.” I’m a firm believer in the principle that educators are some of the most innovative people on the planet. They just need freedom to be innovators and opportunities to innovate. As Fred Bartels (@fredbartels) said in a tweet to me about what new teachers need from administrators “tell them that you are here to help them flourish, not just function in their jobs.”
Summer provides an innovation zone for school districts. I saw kids this summer struggling to learn challenging riffs in Jazz camp or writing intensively all day for a week and then getting up to share their poetry with an outdoor audience on the downtown mall. I observed kids in project-based learning produce a video in multiple languages to welcome a range of limited or non-English speaking peers to their school. I chatted with girls who barely stopped working on a coding challenge to create a website during our three-week Coder Dojo. I visited two maker school spaces where kids were “hacking their notebooks” one day as part of a national writing project challenge to use paper circuitry to bring content alive. Not only was a multi-age group of kids working intensively together on their notebook projects but they were simultaneously multi-tasking via Google hangout with an inventor of paper circuity applications, a writing project leader, and a local school librarian – all gathered in California to facilitate National Hack Your Notebook Day. The work of educators and learners in these environments informs our thinking about shifts we can and should make during the regular year. The challenge is to make the school year reflect what we learned in the summer.
What’s the end in mind and how do we get there? We are invested in seven pathways that transform learning and lead children to develop Lifelong Learning Competencies. We continue to unfold what these pathways mean for our students and for us. We see the pathways as a design for learning that activates deep learning and this summer allowed us to test and refine that design.
I end with a reflection on our work toward a different end in mind than simply passing tests and acquiring credits to graduate from high school.
There’s nothing really new about how humans learn and excellent teachers teach. The technology may change. The century may change. But people have always learned more easily when they feel personally confident and physically comfortable, especially when challenged cognitively to push to a new level of skill or knowledge. Children have always learned best when they interact and connect with others as aspirational models, peers, and apprentices. Learners challenged by the conundrums of problems have always found curiosity in the work they do and that curiosity leads learners to a passion for gaining knowledge and finding solutions. The best teachers always have sought to understand how each child is unique and in doing so to vary the paths needed to access learning based on a child’s needs. Teachers who grow and develop as learners in their own right consider new information, ask questions, seek understanding, observe and notice with patience, and change what they do in response to what learners need.
As we amplified an ethos of innovation this summer, we multiplied the talents of learners rather than diminished them. Now we need to sustain that momentum for another ten months. I know we can.