Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Edutouring 2.0 - Getting ready for the TTS US Education Tour

I have to admit to feeling rather spoilt, only 10 days after returning from an amazing edutour through Boston and Canada my Principal (Maurie Abraham) and I will be heading off again on the TTS US Education Tour. Where our first trip focused on self-directed learning, this trip is more focused on e-learning and schools leading the way with one-to-one devices.

The trip is based in the greater San Francisco area and includes a number of schools, a day at Apple (woot!) and a tour of Stanford University.

So what do I hope to get out of it?

To be honest I am hoping to gain a little e-learning inspiration and insight. I am however very aware of how well placed we are here in NZ when it comes to e-learning integration. Whilst there might not be universal adoption and integration here yet, we are certainly moving in the right direction. I am hoping to see e-learning being used mindfully and in such a way that it supports greater student self-direction and genuine differentiation in and beyond the classroom. Am also open to magpie-ing anything that looks good - tips, tricks, apps, platforms and/or programmes.

I will endeavour to post up regular reflections over the next fortnight, or if you prefer your updates a little more bite size, ensure you check out the hash tag #TTSEdUSTour for tweets from the whole tour crew.

In the mean time, thanks to Mary McQuoid and the whole TTS crew for doing the planning, can't wait to don my tour jacket - just as long as it ain't polar fleece ;)

Edutouring - Reflecting on lessons learned from Canada's Self-Directed Schools

It is interesting to reflect on what has stuck with you a week or so after traveling. There was definitely a huge amount to learn from the Canadian Coalition of Self-Directed Learning, with each school visited providing a slightly different iteration of the same vision for learning.

So what did I learn?

1) Teacher Advisors are the key
In each of the schools Teacher Advisors or TA, to a greater or lesser extent, played a central role in the lives of students, providing a single person that the student connected with throughout their high school career. In the schools where the TA worked best they had regular contact time with students - in Mary Ward students checked in with their TA three times a day and sat down for a formal learning progress interview once every two weeks. This meeting was recorded on a school SMS and sent home to parents as a pre-formatted email. At Bishop Carrol the relationship was similarly formal, but with students determining how regularly they met one to one with their TA, enabling students who were falling behind with more regular contact and support. The TA/student relationship was warm, close but definitely a learning relationship. A powerful way to ensure students received support, encouragement and guidance - particularly important when students are selfdirecting and may not connect with subject teachers on such a regular basis.

2) The more flexi-time the student has, the better
Whilst it was tempting to default to (and feel more comfortable with) a more hybrid structured/self-directed model, I still believe the more flexi or self-directed time students had, the more rewards there were for the learner in the long run. There is no denying that many students struggled to adapt to having the freedom to manage their own learning, but you could see that by Grade 12 (Year 13) the students that worked their way through several years of self-directed learning were seriously switched on, and as John Wright would say, they demonstrated a real sense of agency - they could manage their learning, and time and time again we heard how these students flourished beyond high school. The schools that ran on, pretty much, all flexi-time (Mary Ward and Bishop Carroll) also were they schools that had students making the most of this flexibility, particularly those that sporting or creative commitments. So often we see students fall behind for these very reasons, which is actually what their education should be about, not something they have to pursue on top of their regular timetables. Students could prioritise their passions and have more or less time and more or less focus on topics as needed.

3) Flexibility and freedom requires structure and systems to work well
There is every chance that giving massive amounts of freedom to teenagers could result in chaos. It was clear that if you want to ensure academic rigour you need to ensure that there are clear boundaries, clear expectations and a whole lot of check points and support to help keep students on track. At Mary Ward this was achieved by a combination of morning TA time where students received TA mail (personalised messages notifying students of upcoming assessments, grades etc), TA check in before lunch and end of day. Students had large diary planners to plan their time which were regularly checked by TAs and they also had regular sit down TA interviews. This system ensured no students fell behind (or if they did they were identified and supported) and that students were encouraged to create their own structure within the flexi-time.

4) Inquiry plus a kick-arse Learning Management System (LMS) are the key to doing it our way
One element of the whole self-directed learning model that we all struggled with (as did the Canadian Schools who were working to remedy this) was that at present they were paper heavy (students often picked up paper Learning Guides for each unit) and courses were for the most part strictly sequential and offered little in the way of differentiation or variation of teaching and learning styles. Having a powerful LMS that is used from day one would (or at least could) provide a means of overcoming these shortcomings. I personally have a vision for an integrated LMS made up of a Moodle, Google Apps and My Portfolio mash-up as the base for all learners (plus any tools or platforms that meet the needs of teachers and learners). If we were also to frame subjects/modules/units with an inquiry or big questions and deliver any material online (as well as providing time for face to face and teacher time) surely we can deliver rich multi-modal Learning Guides (visual/oral/written) and hopefully provide more opportunities for differentiated pathways in more manageable ways.

5) We need our Student Management Systems (SMSs) updated - I'm looking at you Kamar!
Flexible learning paths means we need to be able to report on student learning in flexible ways.  From what I know of  Kamar (correct me if I am wrong) itself to having a class of students all doing the same standards or assessments. I suspect genuine flexible learning paths may require this mold to be broken. Could it cope with a whole school of Individualised Education Programmes (IEPs) and could we sit down with a learner each fortnight, feed back on their progress and email it home at a click of the button?? Because I think we might need to be able to do that. I suspect the SMS will need to provide the structural backbone for a more flexible model of teaching and learning.

6) You don't need a Modern Learning Environment to deliver 21st century learning
The schools we saw that were built for purpose, i.e. the schools that has open learning commons and break out rooms, definitely made it easier to manage more flexible self-directed learning and seemed to discourage too much teaching from the front and for this reason I am thankful about delivering this model in our school (Hobsonville Point Secondary School). However I also want to stress a really big lesson learned from Westmount - you do not need a flash Modern Learning Environment to make this happen in your school. Westmount provided an excellent example of a very 'old school' school delivering a powerful model of self-directed learning. These models rely on what school leaders and teachers truly believe students are capable of doing and teachers being brave enough to get out of the out of the way and let students learn on their own terms. You can teach less and have students learn more.

Finally, I want to know more about the High School Flexibility Enhancement Project
Okay this isn't really a lesson learned, but we did hear about this project in Alberta and it does sound sort of like what we want to achieve and seems to build on lessons the whole province has learned from the Canadian Coalition of Self-Directed Learning. Thanks to John Wright for sharing this video.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Edutouring - evolving self-direction at Thomas Haney

Thomas Haney was the last school visit on our US/Canada whistle stop tour. It was also the last of the four Canadian schools we have visited that are part of the Canadian Coalition of Self-Directed Learning. Whilst the previous three schools represented a kind of progression along the continuum from self-paced to increasing self-paced and self-directed, Thomas Haney represented a bit of a detour, as a school who had revised the self-paced model to suit the needs of their learners.

Thomas Haney is a co-educational public school in Vancouver, Canada. It is 21 years old, having been founded in 1992 and designed and built to meet the demands of a self-directed school. This means it has a number of large open learning commons, referred to as the "great halls", each housing a different learning area. Around these are a number of more traditional classrooms. For many years I believe the school followed a similar model to that of Westmount, Mary Ward and Bishop Carroll, where by students checked in with Teacher Advisors but then spent their school days working in the space they chose, on the subject of their choice at a pace that suited. This was enabled by a series of Learning Guides that provided detailed instructions and resources. This however was changed in recent years, in response identified needs of the learners at Thomas Haney.

Enter Sean Nosek, the passionate Principal who has been leading the school for four years. Sean greeted us on arrival at Thomas Haney, and took us through to a meeting room to introduce us to the school and to share his powerful vision for learning at the school. Sean, who has been at the school for a number of years as an English Teacher and leader before stepping up as Principal, has a clear view of 21st Century Learning and can clearly and persuasively articulate how Thomas Haney has evolved to become a leading school in the province. They are the only school in the area with a climbing roll, with students travelling from around the province to attend the school. Sean spoke of the principles behind self-directed learning - teacher advisory, flexible scheduling, personalised programming, collaborative teaching environment, authentic assessment, continuous progress and an interactive learning environment. He stressed their desire to be self-directed rather than simply self-paced. He acknowledged that they did not want to be a correspondence school where students simply take the package and go (this had been something we identified as a potential issue at earlier school visits). He also stressed that he wanted them to enjoy class and form a relationship with each teacher, not just the teacher advisor.

So how did they achieve this?

Basically, (let me know if I get this wrong!) Thomas Haney has revised the original model and has now put in place a structure that facilitates a gradual move from structured to unstructured, from inflexible to flexible as the student progresses through the school years. The school time table consists of five blocks a day with the students meeting with their Teacher Advisor (TA) at the beginning and end of each day, on Monday the TA is a bit longer. Each TA group is vertical (Grade 8-12) with up to 22-23 students. Siblings are placed in the same TA and students stay in that TA throughout their time at Thomas Haney. In Grade 8 classes are fully scheduled, except for one single block, referred to as Y block. This gives the first years a taste of flexibility and gives the students time to prepare for future flexibility. In Grade 9 - eight blocks are unscheduled, turning over one third of the school schedule to students to make their own decisions. In Grade 10, 11, 12 - 2/3s of the schedule is turned over to student. One period of each subject and each elective are locked down each week. Students are expected to use their time to visit teachers. The hybrid model allows freedom as well as the time for building relationships with subject teachers. The aim is to deliver increasingly personalised learning - with the what, when, where, being increasingly controlled by the student.

There is some interdisciplinary learning, with some formal organisation by teachers and students definitely encouraged to construct links for gaining credit from a number of subjects through a single project. There is room in timetable for events to sprout - such as Haiku death match or poetry slam. 125 of the 1050 students even have agreements that allow them to work at home - but this is formally arranged and approved.

What are the pros?

This definitely sounded like the perfect blend, and it definitely offered, I believe, a great model that could be adopted by traditional schools that want to make the shift. You could see that this model offered students more hands-on support, and also provided subject teachers more opportunity to connect with their learners. They also seemed to be the least dependent (of the four schools) on Learning Guides and therefore did not feel like a correspondence school inside a school.

At this point I do have to acknowledge some of the great authentic learning we experienced, with lunch being catered by Grade 9 students, hats off to Sean and his team as it was nothing short of divine - stuffed chicken breasts and salad, followed by apple cobbler and divine homemade spiced apple ice cream. Delish!

And the cons?

There is no question, I loved Sean's passion and vision for learning at Thomas Haney and I do believe the redeveloped model was created to meet the needs of the learners in this community. The school is succeeding both academically and in terms of student numbers - both a reflection of strong leadership. The downside, I did suspect, is that in adding structure back into the mix, freedom and flexibility had been lost and somehow the students seemed a little less in charge of their learning, particularly compared to the schools we had visited previously. Also, in enhancing the role of the subject teacher, the Teacher Advisor seemed to fade a little into the background. The past three schools seemed to have a lot more structure around TAs and used these as a means for linking with home in a way that didn't seem as prevalent or as regular at Thomas Haney. But then again, you can't deny a school's responsibility to change to meet the needs of their learners, and from what we heard from students and staff alike, this change worked for them.

In summary, it was great to see yet another iteration of the Canadian self-directed school movement. Each school has provided inspiration and real insight into how we might deliver learning in a way that better meets the needs of our 21st century learners. Each school has impressed us and challenged us in different ways.

Now for the tough part - bring it all together and working out what should be added to the mix at Honsonville Point Secondary School!

At this point I also want to acknowledge Maurie Abraham our Principal, who worked hard to set this all up, this trip was MASSIVE, but so worth it. Thanks also to our BOT who supported our edutouring.

Over the next week or so I will be sharing further reflections from the trip, snapshots from Ignition 13 and the BYOD conference to be held at Albany Secondary High School. In May I head off with TTS on the Apple schools tour, so standby for a bit of Edutouring 2.0.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Edutouring - learning and sharing at Bishop Carroll

We arrived in Calgary to -1 weather, spending our first evening taking a jaunt though the -5 degree snow laden streets. Bishop Carroll is the third of four "self-directed" schools and the second Catholic school we are visiting on our US-Canada edutour.

Calgary is cold, the people are not.

Like the two self-directed schools before them, Bishop Carroll welcomed us with open arms and after a brief unfortunate incident (we were introduced as Australians over the loud-speaker.... ;) we spent a fabulous day learning and sharing with the Principal Daniel Danis and his students.

The school has been self-directed for 40 years in a building created for purpose in 1971. They are now in the third year of a one to one laptop programme, running a lease to own programme and like the other Canadian schools we have visited they used D2L (Desire to Learn) as the LMS (Learning Management System). Bishop Carroll is considered a "magnet" school, taking students from all over Calgary. Approximately 20% students are high level sportspeople (the flexibility well suited to students travelling throughout the year), there are a lot of music students, approximately 20% of students with identified learning needs and 25% students who had English as a second language. Flexibility makes it appealing to students involved outside of school. One of the central philosophies of the school was that it was "a school for everyone" guided by the text of the same name by by J Lloyd Trump.

As this is a senior school, taking only Grade 10-12 (our Year 11-13) and the only self-directed school in the province, it is important that all students complete 2-3 weeks orientation at beginning of year, during this time students are introduced to the self-directed timetable structure and given strategies to cope with it. Being the school with the longest history of self-directed learning that we have visited so far meant that it also seemed to be the school where it felt the most innate. Where Westmount and Mary Ward provided students with A4 sized diaries to manage their time, the students of Mary Ward seemed to find their own way, with many relying on the schedule on D2L or using their smart phone or laptop calendar to keep a schedule. In many ways the school operated and felt like a mini university with students being free to work where they pleased (I imagine the inclement weather also helped keep students in the building!), students arrived each morning, checking in with their Teacher Advisor and collecting their student ID lanyard which they wore thought the day day before returning at the end of day to their advisor to check out and return their ID. Students for the most part, worked independently through Learning Guides that they either collected from Learning Area resource centres or accessed online (once again these were pretty inflexible and sequential, with little differentiation across units but some within). They tested their learning at the end of each unit and moved on to the next. When they need to be assessed they booked in for tests or examination at the Examination Centre. A variety of tests for each unit were available to minimise the chance of sharing and cheating. Unlike Westmount and Mary Ward, Bishop Carroll students had to compete a number of end of year exams - Science, Maths, English and History exams (I think) in Grades 3, 9, 12. These are province wide, assessment is made up of 50% exam and 50% internal assessment. One frustration for these learners was that they did have to wait to sit the end of school year exam.

So what were the pros?

The sheer fact that this has been operating for 40+ years certainly proves the long term success of the self-directed movement - this ain't no pedagogical fad! I have to admit, the atmosphere of the school was pretty magic, the students somehow coming across as both more laid back, yet more switched on to learning than any school we have visited so far. Daniel, the Principal mentioned that engagement and ownership of school was better than any other school he has been in, I couldn't help but agree with him. These students owned their learning, they could take advantage of the flexibility to engage in what we would regard as extra-curricular activities during the day, they called the shots as to where and when they learned. The more physical, practical subjects such as physical education, technology and performing arts could be focused on for hours at a time if needed. We sat in on a 10 minute student written and directed play that was testament to the benefits of this - it was stunning. The drama teacher, Pat Doyle (who had been there so long he had a theatre named after him) was equally stunning - energetic, passionate and with a twinkle in his eye. You did wonder if this flexibility enabled the educators to flourish as much as the students.

And the cons?

The Principal would have been the first to acknowledge that of course there was areas of weakness and as always, much they could improve. In fact, at this point I want to acknowledge how much we appreciated and enjoyed the fact that Daniel was so eager to learn from us, this visit more than any other felt like a genuinely two way discussion, with the acknowledgment that New Zealand is actually leading the way in many areas, for one, our curriculum never fails to be a source of national pride.

In terms of areas of improvement, he suggested that students could have benefitted from some more concrete deadlines, particularly as they did encounter these at tertiary level. He also hoped that next year all teachers would have to have two learning guides - one that is a structured and detailed full teaching and learning guide and another that is more like a frame that allows the student to co-construct the content with the teacher (I LOVE this idea). There was also a need for more cross-curricular links - more of learning areas getting together and create a course that is interdisciplinary. Also like the schools before there was still an element of correspondence school learning, albeit with more opportunity for face to face seminars and learning when needed. The Principal also suggested that he would suggest having more structured classes for Science and Maths, this was the first school to really discuss concept of different pedagogy needed for different disciplines - Science and Maths seemed to struggle a little with such flexibility. I thought this was great to hear, I think one issue we all need to reflect on when considering new models is that any one model does not fit all - neither students nor disciplines.

It will be interesting to develop a model that is actually flexible enough to allow for inflexibility where it is needed.

Some other interesting points.

Student notices come around each morning to show students what is on.
Some seminars are compulsory some are not.
English has choices of texts throughout.
They have a "prime time" 12.45-3.10 where students aren't supposed to move around.
English has physical sign up for English and others are online.
This is a true high trust model - some grade 12 students did take off during the day (they are teenagers after all) but they do fall behind and seem get back on track (this according to our lovely student guide).
Each teacher has a personal office.
There is an interesting flexibility project happening in Alberta - http://ideas.education.alberta.ca/hsc/current-projects/flexibility-enhancement-pilot/ (I plan to investigate this more!).

Recommended Reading

A School for Everyone by J Lloyd Trump
The Self-Directed Learning Handbook by Maurice Gibbons

In conclusion, this was another awesome school visit. The opportunity to share was as enjoyable as the opportunity to learn. This school proved the long term benefits of both flexibility and high trust. The students were pretty spectacular - somehow pulling off relaxed, learned and mature beyond their years.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Edutouring - Moving on from self-paced to self-directed at Mary Ward

Mary Ward is the second of four self-directed schools we are visiting on our journey, and in a sense also represents a shift along the continuum from self-paced to a more genuinely self-directed style of learning.

Like Westmount, the staff and students of Mary Ward greeted us with warmth and openness, keen to share and to also learn from us. The weather, whilst still icy, was a little more kind and we managed to arrive in time to experience a full school day. On arrival we were greeted by Derek Chen (one of the Vice-Principals) who welcomed us to the school and took us through to the library to be introduced to Mary Ward life by a lovely group of students, giving us all a snapshot of what a day at Mary Ward entailed. Unlike Westmount which is a traditional school that has adopted self-directed learning, Mary Ward is a school built for the purpose. This means the design and layout can in a sense more effectively support the model, with each Learning Area having a large Learning Commons, a staffed resource centre and a range of smaller rooms and seminar spaces to support different modes of teaching and learning.

Mary Ward is working towards a model of truly self-directed learning, working to develop a genuine learning partnership between student and teacher.

So how do they manage this?

All students meet with their Learning Advisor (a group of 18 students or less) every morning. During this time they take the roll and plan their day ahead. They have three advisory check-ins a day including this morning session, this allows them to complete roll checks and attendance, this being vital as subject teachers may not see their students for days at a time.

During the day students can work in the space of their choice, completing Learning Guide workbooks either independently or in groups. Students also have the choice of working independently or seeking assistance from a subject teacher who is rostered on to floor time in every Learning Common. Students can also sign up for seminars to support their learning, students are notified of seminars through a daily notice referred to as TA (Teacher Advisor) mail. This daily notice also provides each student with updated grades and personalised messages from subject teachers and coaches. This is generated through a web mark software which seems to provide the much needed means of structure and order in what may otherwise become organised chaos. Similarly to Westmount the whole system is very paper heavy, but this is something they are aware of, and with increasing numbers of students bringing their own device are looking at moving to handle through online platforms. Interestingly their is a providence wide Learning Management System referred to as D2L (Desire to Learn) and whilst a single LMS seems useful, it didn't seem to allow for teachers and students to integrate other platforms the may have preferred (although as always I believe other platforms such as Edmodo were still being used at this stage).

Students for the most part seem to be independently working through paper based Learning Guides that we collected from resource centres in each Learning Common, with students completing units at their own pace and signalling when they were ready to sit a short test at the end of each unit, which they often assessed themselves to measure whether they we ready to move on to the next unit. Like Westmount there was little differentiation across units, but there was increasing differentiation within Learning Guides around contexts and ways they could demonstrate their understanding.

One of the real highlights at Mary Ward was their development of Learning Quests that happened at different points of the programmes and often provided a way for students to demonstrate learning in more than one subject through a single product. A quest unit seemed to take place at specific points of a programme. For example in a 18 unit course they may complete normal Learning Guides for units 1-3 and then the fourth unit may be a quest unit where the student negotiates with teacher and works out a way to demonstrate their learning. They can be interdisciplinary and can sometimes be completed as a group. Interdisciplinary connections were often suggested in the quest, such as if you were doing a report for History, you might be able to have this count as credit for English etc. Students made the comment that "to quest" had actually become a verb with students looking at ways they could "quest" tasks across curriculum areas and saw it as challenge to try and quest things across as many subjects as possible. These seemed to be negotiated with each of the subject area teachers. Cross-curricular and interdisciplinary ways of learning were also being explored more formally with themes such as genocide being covered in tandem across Learning Areas.

Another great example of more truly collaborate learning was in Art where in Grade 12 (our Year 13) students were given pretty much blank programmes, with the teacher working with each student to actually develop the units of work themselves. This, of course, was only possible due to the knowledge they had gained from years of experience of the system. Very cool.

The formal student/Teacher Advisor interview that took place once every fortnight was another real highlight. All teachers were advisors and each had timetabled time for a fortnightly 15 minute interview with each and every one of their students. During the interview the teacher brings up a screen on the (LMS) Web Mark software. The screen shows each of the student's subjects, grades and comments from the last interview and the same subjects, updated grades and space for comment to be completed during this fortnight's interview. The teacher then talks though the each subject checking that progress has been made since the last interview, writing a brief comment for each subject. This gives the teacher an opportunity to put in place interventions as needed, for example students falling behind may have to start using a "unit tracker" which involved teachers signing off progress on a daily basis. Once this was completed the student and teacher typed in a general comment and then completed a rubric measuring Communication and Application (effort) for the past fortnight. The magic of this software, is that then with a click of a button this was converted into a templated email home to the parents - providing incredibly efficient and regular feedback to students and parents. Take note KAMAR software developers, we are going to need something like this, sooner rather than later!! It was the technology that actually provided the structure and management to make this work without becoming unwieldy.

In summary, Mary Ward was doing some excellent things. Student learning was more genuinely self-directed and they were increasingly able to co-construct their learning path. There were still some cons; some students clearly struggled to manage their time and tried to take advantage of the relative freedom. The system was also VERY paper heavy (at present) and did still have elements that felt, like Westmount, a bit sequential and correspondence school-like. But that said, they were definitely working to improve these areas, and like Westmount were very open and honest about the need for continual development of processes and systems. It was lovely to enjoy time with yet another group of passionate, open and honest group of teachers and learners. There was so much to learn from Mary Ward and they most willing to share.

Mary Ward is another great school I would heartily recommend educators to investigate, especially if they want to see how students can genuinely direct their learning with forgoing structure and rigour.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Edutouring - the journey from traditional to self-paced and beyond atWestmount

Canada greeted us with most unfriendly weather, zero degrees and snow on the ground. This however could not have been further from the warmth and generosity we were greeted with on arrival at Wesmount.

Westmount is the first of four Canadian schools that we are visiting, all of whom are part of the Canadian Coalition of Self-directed Schools. These schools range from Catholic to secular, old to new, high decile to low decile, large to relatively small, all however are defined by their desire to deliver self-paced and increasingly self-directed learning programmes for students. This means students, by and large, are free to design each school day, choosing where and when they complete their school work through a system of daily or weekly planning under the watchful eye of a learning advisor and then work through units of work at their own pace in the space that best suits them. Having seen two of the four we are visiting, I suspect each school sits in a slightly different place on the continuum from more structured, self-paced learning to genuinely co-constructed student developed and self-directed learning. Westmount being a long established traditional co-ed public school probably sits closer to the self-paced end of that continuum, and because of this actually offered an excellent example of how any traditional school in very traditional spaces should not use this as an excuse to not develop 21st century learning models that challenge students to genuinely lead their own learning. Westmount was also fabulous in the way they clearly demonstrated what they were doing was a long and tough journey. They had come a long way from anything I have seen in NZ, yet they were nowhere near content to settle on where they had got to, with teachers actively seeking out ways to develop the model from a self-paced model to a truly self-directed one.

So what did we see there?

Due to the unseasonably unreasonable weather, we were a little late to arrive, meaning we missed experiencing the day in its entirety, this coupled with the fact that it was the day of the state wide literacy test, meant Juniors were locked down for the morning and some seniors had chosen to work from the warmth of their own homes. Still, on reflection, we saw and learned a huge amount.

On arrival, we were greeted at the door by the passionate and charming Principal, Rick Kunc. You could see immediately that his relaxed, open and honest nature had gone a long way in establishing an open, friendly and genuinely reflective team of teachers who were willing to admit shortcomings, share practice and take positive risks to ensure their model was forever evolving and developing in a way that met their learner's needs. Rick and one of his senior leaders, Greg, welcomed us in and gave us a brief introduction to what the school was trying to achieve and some of the successes they had enjoyed so far.

Basically (and apologies if I get this wrong Westmount!) how the school works is by offering what looks like a normal weekly timetable, with teachers allocated to each class, however teachers did not necessarily lead the learning (unless a skill or concept needed to be directly taught), instead students picked up a learning guide for a unit that they worked through at their own pace, meaning they could "fast track" their learning if they wanted to, or could take longer if needed. This meant they could also work pretty much independently if they preferred, or could work more closely with peers or teachers as needed as well. In addition to this, students were free to sign out of their classrooms to work where they thought best met their needs, so if they they needed to work on something in another area, they could do so. Teachers continued to maintain a level of control in that they were could veto student requests to move about if they were seen to be falling behind or taking advantage of their relative freedom.

Students who then took us on a tour gave us insight as to how they used the system, but also were candid enough to share how at least one of them really struggled with it, having to manage her time from Grade 9 she clearly took several years to refine the art of managing self-paced learning, learning the hard way by initially procrastinating and then cramming in a way most of would find familiar if reflecting on first year at Uni. That said, she had got to Grade 12 (equivalent to our Year 13) and she now had worked out how to use her time wisely and avoid panic setting in. I couldn't help but think how much better she was equipped for dealing with post school life, these students were definitely confident and in control by they time they graduated.

The way they managed the fast tracking did rely on pre-written Learning Guides, so if a student competed their first Learning Guide, they let their teacher know they were ready to be tested, they could then go to an Examination Centre in the library to complete the assessment, and if they succeeded they could then pick up their next Learning Guide. Each Learning Guide represented approximately a week's work (I think), students could complete a maximum of two a week (this helped to manage work flow of both teacher and student). This meant a student could potentially fast track some courses and free themselves up to complete other courses at a more leisurely pace. Students sat down with a Learning Advisor at least once a fortnight to go over grades, track progress and ensure students were doing what was best for them.

In the afternoon when we sat down with a team of of their teaching staff we got to hear their perspective. What was most heartening was their revelation as around how they struggled with, but ultimately enjoyed their transition from "sage of the stage" to facilitator and how they really did see that you could in fact "teach less" and see students "learn more" as a result. They also shared how they were trying to now move from simple sequential programmes that were paper heavy (this system involved a lot of paper!) to integrating blended approaches to begin offering multi-modal and more differentiated programmes. They were incredibly honest about the pros and cons and how they were learning and had a long way to go to become truly self-directed. One teacher shared his Media programme that had become a more buffet style course, where some units were compulsory, whilst others were their own choice selected from a wider range of units. Teachers were also working hard to give students choice about the means and modes by which they demonstrated learning. In this way I felt a huge connection with where NZ teachers are in their exploration of blended learning and differentiation.

There were some short comings, this approach does not suit all learners, it was at present paper heavy, and in parts felt like distance learning at school. But on the other hand they had achieved a spectacular shift away from what we presently do, giving the opportunity for students to become self-advocates in a way that will set them up for life. It was lovely to see such a passionate group of educators so happily sharing their journey.

If you are looking for models that demonstrate how a traditional school can genuinely shift the educational paradigm I would suggest Rick and host team offer a great place to start!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Edutouring - Lights, Camera, Action at The Met School

It somehow seems appropriate that a group of teachers should begin their adventures in the big apple, even if we did only get a nibble at it. In our first five days of travelling we have been lucky enough to begin with a day and a half in NY before heading off to Providence, Rhode Island to visit our first school stop - The Met School.

The Met School was the first of a whole educational movement that comes under the title of Big Picture Learning. Established by Elliot Washor and Dennis Littky in 1995 and beginning with The Met Schools in Providence, Big Picture Learning is now an educational movement that has expanded around the globe. On the day we visited, we were lucky enough to meet (albeit briefly) Dennis Littky who was on site for the annual business plan competition. The Met School campus we visited is situated in a low decile area of Rhode Island and is made up of for schools within in a school, each with approximately a 150 students and their own Principal, the campus being overseen by a director. Each school is grade 9-12 (equivalent to NZ Year 10-12). The idea behind the four schools is driven by the belief that an effective school should be no larger than 150, so as to ensure every student being known and ensuring the school is a real community.

So what did we see?

On arrival we were greeted by the PR leader, Lynda. This itself is key. The Met School definitely understands the power of marketing...maybe even a little too much (but more about that later). Lynda gave as a brief run down of what the school stands for and armed each of us with a folder containing marketing brochures about the company. Then we got to head off to our first class. It was a Wednesday which meant the students were on campus (on Tuesday and Thursday they engage in internships or learning through interest that is often off site). The morning class was a 45 minute interest group that students selected. All interest groups appeared to have a literacy focus. Teachers had each pitched their topic the entire school meet up and then students get to submit their top three choices and teachers then negotiate best fit for the students. Interest groups run for a trimester. I spent time in two - the first one looking at 'Racism in Film', the second 'Poetry'. Classes were vertical and operated in university tutorial style with students and teacher around the table discussing ideas. The students were engaged and articulate and the teachers passionate.

Next up we got to head along to the 5th annual business plan competition. This was pretty darn awesome. The campus has a stunning purpose built entrepreneurship centre or e-centre which houses a series of start up offices (each office even has its own garage door...in honour of the idea that the biggest ventures often began in someone's garage), a meeting room, workshop space and conference centre. Students pitch ideas at the competition, and successful students win funding and an office for their business for their venture for the next trimester. The students who pitched had already competed a entrepreneurial course that ensured that their pitches were thorough and universally impressive - ranging from shoe repair kits to a national campaign for life saving heart pins. The secret to the success of this was, in-part, that the whole competition had been turned into a seriously impressive "event" held in their multipurpose black box theatre. Dennis Littky swept in to welcome the troops, and future entrepreneurial students practiced their 30 second pitches. An impressive line-up of judges were introduced (another key factor, as these people had serious national business clout). A past e-centre student was compere. Hopefuls then had three minutes to pitch their proposals. Then it was time for a break whilst judges went out back to confer, then prizes were awarded, followed by a rather "American" standing ovation. The Met School likes a bit of fanfare, and to be fair it seems to work for them.

The afternoon saw us going on a tour with a student who attempted to explain their timetable and how it all works. I think I understood it, but to be honest it was all a bit of a struggle to get your head around how it actually worked and I got a sense that unless you paid up to be a big picture school or at least paid up for a conference they weren't particularly forthcoming with concrete plans or resources....you could however buy the book. So here's my attempt to try and explain how (I think) it works....

Monday, Wednesday and Friday are on campus days. Students begin the day with a meet up in the commons area and then head to their Learning Advisories which are their home rooms for the four years they are at The Met School. Advisories are small (15 at most) and the advisor is their key person who looks after their pastoral and academic well-being - guiding their learning, internships, interest groups and connecting with family often. The rest of these days are made up of interest groups and more traditional subjects, ending each day again in the advisories.

Tuesdays and Thursdays are all about learning through interest and internships. The aim is for all students to be partnered with a mentor in the real world, pursuing potential interests and gaining real world skills in real work situations. The Met School works hard to gather up over 2000 potential community and business contacts with the view to all students being able to work and/or study alongside specialists in their chosen field, whether it be hospitality, childcare or dance. Students are encouraged to pursue internships in an area of interest, with some continuing with the same area throughout their time at the Met and others exploring a range of interests. Those who haven't been placed (or aren't ready for this level of responsibility) seem to either work on campus or pursue other learning on campus or at other local colleges.

So what did we learn?

First up I had to say I was struck by the power of their marketing. I couldn't help but feel like, at times, we were seeing The Met School show. Everyone was "on" and very aware they were performing to a visiting audience. The Met School is a commercial beast and possibly a victim of their own success. They have seen there is a real opportunity to make money out of their school's success, but to be fair, you can see the money is being invested back into the learning and the students clearly benefit.

Secondly, I loved the interest groups. Students had the power to choose and clearly loved these sessions.

Thirdly, the advisories work. The students are nurtured and guided throughout their educational lives. No one can fall through the gaps, students are cared for and challenged.

Finally, the internships are the key! Students pursuing and developing real world skills seem incredibly powerful. The students at The Met School were articulate and confident beyond their years. They were clearly benefitting from not only from their real world learning they also clearly had a sense of self worth that had been nurtured by everyone around them.

All in all, The Met School delivered the goods. Maybe it is just the New Zealander in me that struggled with American flavoured fanfare, but then again, maybe we could all benefit from a little more celebration and "Light, Cameras, Action!" in our school lives.