Blog Three: A Visit to Valley New School
I’m not famous for my sense of direction. Nor am I very good at finding things. And that ‘not very good’ becomes borderline hopeless if said thing is behind another thing in the fridge. Still, education is something I’ve been involved in almost all my life so I felt pretty confident about finding a school. For a start I know what they look like: big, purpose-built buildings accompanied by various plots of playing field that are circled from above by hovering property developers. This is why it took me a while to find Valley New School: it’s quite unlike any school I’ve ever seen before.
Firstly VNS is in a civic-administration-and-offices-type-building with a mall and even a food court. Secondly, once I’d found it, the majority of the school consisted of one large, open-plan space with highly personalized, cubical-esque workstations. However, I then noted the sound – not barely contained bedlam nor coerced and fearful silence but that grail-like hum every teacher yearns to hear: learning. Yes, this was a school, and by the sound of it a very good one.
As a small, visiting group of teachers from various schools, it was appropriate to begin with a discussion of the educational cultures from which we had come. As usual, my being from a different continent caused a few raised eyebrows and quizzical looks but I think I managed to convince people that what I was doing was a good thing.
I was also glad that we began with a discussion of culture. As I mentioned in my last post, culture-building is something I am particularly interested in because I’m sure it is the ‘magical’ ingredient necessary to begin doing Project Based Learning. I was soon to change my mind. Culture-building is the secret ingredient necessary for any quality learning experience to take place at all. If you’ve got a good classroom, you’ve built a good culture; even if you’d never consciously thought about it, or planned for such a thing to take place.
But imagine if you did?
The first thing to note at VNS is that the teachers are known as advisors. This is a subtle and necessary shift. In a document produced by VNS staff there is the following paragraph:
“A coach is ineffective if his players do not trust him; likewise an advisor’s advice will not be accepted if a trusting relationship is not formed first. New students transitioning from traditional teacher-as-authority settings may be especially wary…”
(Raising Hope: A Guide To Advisory, Nicole Luedtke and Jennifer Plamann)
The second sentence in that paragraph felt especially relevant to my essential question of how to integrate PBL into a traditional school setting. In such a school every learner would be transitioning in the way described above. If we can create these trusting relationships, maybe we would be well on our way to making such integration happen?
Before we go down that path, it’s only fair that I provide a little context as there is much about VNS that isn’t simply a question of culture-building. VNS has a population of fewer than 120 pupils. There is an advisor to student ratio of between 1:15 and 1:18. It is a multi-age environment with no streaming or setting and pupils in different grades work together. Curriculum is based on standards produced by the school itself that have been ratified by the local school district, and content for the curriculum is as non-prescriptive as it can get: the students create it.
Anyone from back in the UK could be forgiven for wanting to stop reading at this point. Our schools are more likely to have over one thousand pupils with class sizes of thirty plus. We group by age and often ability. We have a centralized National Curriculum with very clear guidelines on what must be taught. For the final two years of their formal education, our students are likely to take around ten different subjects based upon one of four or five national, government-approved syllabuses. Each of these pupils will then be assessed by at least one externally marked exam in each subject. The results that follow will largely decide what that student can hope to do next, and also how that school is judged to have performed by the local authority.
But do read on.
Yes, this is not an ideal comparison, but there are things done in VNS that are instantly translatable to the traditional setting. There are things we are doing already. Some others take a little imagination. Certain things, at this moment in time, seem pretty impossible. But I’d like to concentrate on the things we can, and may already do:
– We can create an environment where students are helped to be autonomous, to take responsibility for their learning and their role in the community.
– We can focus more on process than product, where assessment is continual, reflective and collaborative rather than only final and summative.
– And we can make the switch from teacher-as-authority (not to say that the teacher doesn’t have authority, just that this isn’t the over-riding trait on display) to teacher as coach or advisor.
But does it work?
Following our opening discussion, the rest of the day had learners involved at every point. We could speak with students, were taken on tours by students, and even had the privilege of spending a half hour block one-on-one with a student where we were taken through the day-to-day experience of being at VNS. This wasn’t a sales pitch. The atmosphere was completely honest and open – sure, some young people have come to VNS and this style of learning wasn’t for them, but they had a choice: the option was actually there.
The students themselves seemed almost entirely on board with their responsibilities and functioned as such. Projects were self-determined, stringently planned, logged (the role that Personal Learning Plans or PLPs played in this cannot be underestimated but probably deserve a blog post of their own), and students had to prove which curriculum standards were being met by their project.
During projects, if certain areas of study that might need improvement cropped up – the nitty gritty of a certain grammatical rule or mathematical formula, for example – pupils recognized this and sought guidance either from an advisor who might then run a masterclass on the matter or by other self-directed means. Many looked to online tutorials – online lectures even!
Yes, people can still learn from a lecture; a lot of it has to do with whether they have chosen to sit in on the lecture in the first place. One student spent an entire weekend watching online lectures at home with a bowl of popcorn; she was able to recognize a learning need and make a choice to do something about it. In fact, the level of reflective prowess on show was astonishing – some pupils made insights about what makes them tick that put many adults to shame.
As for assessment, we often equate ‘rigorous’ or ‘high stakes’ with ‘high-pressure’ or ‘regurgitation’ but these, as we teachers know, are not synonymous. I had the privilege of sitting in on one end of project assessment. The project had taken six weeks to complete and so was akin to a piece of coursework, or an assessment at the end of a unit of study. The finished product had to have a non-written as well as a written element. However, instead of the teacher taking this work home and spending twenty minutes marking it, the same amount of time was spent with four advisors, the student and an outside audience (from that ‘real world’ we keep talking about as if we should accept schools as outside of it). They then discussed the work and used a rubric to collaboratively come to an idea of what had been achieved. Grading was descriptive (although for the sake of external assessors each description could also be given a letter or number – importantly though, the student never even asked for this), and the descriptor chosen was one suggested initially the student. The student knew what she had achieved, areas to look at next time, and younger students even sat in on the process to learn from it. When I think of all those essays I’ve handed back with some comments in red pen and a circled, capital letter from A to F, my heart sinks.
So yes, it works. And it works because the pupils and advisors have bought in. They believe in it. There are practicalities that are huge factors in it working so well but without the staff and students buying into the ideal, it couldn’t work at all. The ratio of staff to pupils is important but much more important is the ratio of time spent building and maintaining the culture of the school to the business of ‘teaching’.
This is the main thing I took away from VNS. Each day begins and ends with an Advisory. In Britain this is basically called Form Period and deals mainly with administrative tasks, ushering pupils to an assembly or checking that everyone has uniform and equipment. Here it is extended and involves games, discussion, problems that have come up, all types of – not team building – but culture building. I say this because of another quote I’d like to pull from the Raising Hope: A Guide To Advisory document I cited earlier. It made me smile – a wry smile, and one definitely directed at my own outlook in the past rather than anybody else in particular:
“Educators may need time to accept the validity of ‘touchy-feely’ culture-building activities.”
Okay, it’s gong to take time to help pupils transition to this type of setting but it’s not going to be easy for the staff either! We are building a culture, a community, so advisories are for all parties – staff and students, an ever-evolving reflective yet active period where a lot of hard work is done in the pursuit of genuine efficacy rather than heads down time filling designed to look like a lot is being achieved.
It must have taken an enormous amount of such genuine hard work and determination to get to where VNS are now; you can tell because they make it look so effortless. Let’s not make that mistake when judging our own classrooms. Listen: does it sound like learning? Because learning, like schools, can look like a lot of things, but it always sounds the same.