What do we want from our schools?

In the December 17, 2012 issue of the New Yorker, Louis Menand writes about one of the French President’s more obscure powers; he can abolish homework, and in fact has the intention of doing so. It’s easy to imagine that such a move would win him a huge majority of voters in the 8-18 demographic, but the article goes on to explore the efficacy of homework in general. As I’ve argued for a long time, there is very little reason for homework, and very little correlation between homework and academic achievement. The longest term and most in-depth studies show only a slight connection between homework and success in school, and it’s a connection that draws at least in part on the relative education and income levels of families. There is no study that shows that large amounts of homework make much, if any, difference for students.

I encourage you to read the New Yorker article, as it explores these questions in more depth. But I was more intrigued by a deeper question Menand poses. He asserts that homework is in fact a reflection of the kind of schools that a country and its population perceive that they want. Thus, Finland, the most highly rated education system in the world by Pearson’s global report, has no homework. South Korea, in the number two spot, is legendary for the sheer quantity of study expected by their students. Each approach reveals something about the national character.

And so the question surfaces for us. What kind of schools do we, as a country or a state, want? Especially at a deeper, perhaps less conscious level, what do we as parents, educators, and citizens, want for our students?

I’ll hazard a couple of guesses, in no particular order, but I’d be very curious to hear what others’ perceptions might include.

I believe that Americans in general want schools that are orderly, safe, and serious. Parents are often confused when they see children out of their seats, not utilizing textbooks, having fun, even when deeply engaged in learning. Somehow we carry an image deeply embedded in our cultural psyche that learning means sitting at a desk and being quiet.

Americans want the basics covered. The horror stories of students graduating and being unable to read, or being deficient in foundational math skills, provoke a round of collective disapproval and often blame aimed at the education system.

Surveys also have shown that parents want their children to learn kindness, to get along with others, and to show compassion.

We also want schools that compare favorably to schools in other nations. One of the best ways to get us riled up is by showing how we are lower than others in international rankings.

It’s not a comprehensive list, but it raises the question of where the central focus of the WISN fits with directions in American education.

At the WISN, we believe that the focus on schools should be on encouraging innovation in education in order to identify and share best practices. We also believe that those best practices include a focus on collaboration, creativity, and student-focused instruction. Does this vision fit with the larger direction of American education, and with the image our culture has for schools?

The short answer is that I don’t know, but that I believe a central tenet of our work is to share what we are learning about education, not only with members of our network, but with the public at large. It’s not enough to function within an isolated group. The work of changing education takes place as much in legislative bodies and community forums as it does in schools themselves.

And so our direction in the new year becomes two fold, inner and outer. We will continue making connections between educators, sharing what we’re learning. But we will also work to form and reveal a vision of what education can be, to be part of the debate about where schools are headed.

And if, along the way, we can rethink homework, we’ll have a host of new advocates, drawn from those who matter most— the students themselves.

As always, I welcome your feedback.

-Dr. Heather Terrill Stotts, Executive Director

Welcoming 2013…and reviewing our mission

In my role as executive director at the WISN I have been part of literally hundreds of discussions about collaboration, creativity, pedagogical approaches, and ways forward for all schools. I’ve spent hours planning events and learning about the wealth of resource and experiences all over our state.

But here at the beginning of 2013, I find myself thinking about very different issues. Where in schools’ missions do we find a place for grief, compassion, and even outrage?

Shootings in schools make the news with a certain regularity, but something about the events in Newtown Connecticut have struck a deeper chord than before. Everyone is appalled at the carnage, but the solutions offered vary widely, from arming teachers to focusing more on mental health issues, to, of course, the possibility of greater limits on gun accessibility. It’s too early to know what will change in our country as result of the shootings. It’s possible that the demand for change and the spikes in public opinion will ebb, and that politics as usual will forestall meaningful legislation or policies.

But what can we as educators do? As we seek to chart new directions and new beliefs about what schools can and should do, how do we include educational initiatives that can begin to address the conditions and symptoms of school violence, as well as help students with the aftermath of events and eventually come to their own reasoned and informed opinions about these issues?

I believe that we need to see issues of emotional competence, empathy, and organized political action as central to our teaching, not as add-ons during “character week” or a six-unit focus on responsibility or generosity. There is plenty of room in the curriculum to explore character issues within the study of history or science, and to have students reflect on their own values and beliefs within the scope and sequence of a discipline or subject. Emotional intelligence, with all of its varied attributes and demands, takes place throughout the course of our days, and our lives. Why should schools isolate such considerations? Such isolation detracts from depth of learning, and sends a message that the affective quality of our lives can be contained or limited, when in fact, it’s the affective nature of our lives that determines our quality of life.

In addition, we do need to focus on certain issues. Bullying has been in the spotlight for several years now, and I believe this focus is making a difference. Perhaps we need a similar focus on issues of violence itself. Students know violence, and experience it frequently through the media. Can a specific theme like this become central to schools?

The implications of such approaches reach directly into the 21st century skills we refer to so often. Communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity all have strong roots in how we process emotion. Bringing a metacognitive sensibility to classrooms will not only help students to communicate and collaborate more effectively, but can help them reflect on the emotional processes, strengths, and weaknesses that they bring to any project.

As educators, we also need to take time to grieve what happened. Our students may or may not react deeply to the events of the Newtown school, but every teacher I have spoken with grieves for all the children, and the brave adults involved. We grieve for the families, but also for our image of schools as a safe place, devoted to learning and community. Events like Newtown shatter, or at least chip away, at this image we carry of our schools. My own grief at what happened increases my commitment to improving schools, and for telling the world about the great things that happen there. I want the nation to have greater respect for the profession, and to have a greater understanding of the urgency facing education. It’s not just about curriculum, it’s about the way we are as a community. And even tragedies can, in the end, help us grow.

Our prayers and thoughts go out to everyone affected by the shooting. There is no way to minimize the events. I hope that I can keep the sense of urgency, and the sense of possibility, as we enter into this new year.

Your comments or questions are welcome. Please send  to me at Heather@InnovativeSchoolsNetwork.com.

Heather Terrill Stotts, WISN Executive Director


An Innovative Approach to the Common Core State Standards

The Common Core standards have arrived, or are on their way, depending on which state you are in. Forty-five states have adopted them, and we can expect that the rest will probably follow. The intention behind the Common Core standards seems to be good; let’s standardize what we expect students in the U.S. to know, appreciate, and be able to do, in order to simplify instruction and provide a consistent foundation for wide ranging assessment. Although we might argue with the particulars of what’s in the standards, it’s reasonable for a society to debate what we want students to know. At present, the standards are only for English Language and Mathematics. The debate over content in social studies and science carries political implications that will complicate that branch of the effort.

The work behind creating and establishing the Common Core State Standards has spanned years, and millions of dollars. I wish that a similar effort could examine not what teachers should teach, but how they should teach. Education for the future needs to be less about content than it is about learning approaches and styles. With the availability of the internet, knowing facts has less meaning than ever. However, ways of thinking are even more important. What if, along with the implementation of the CCSS, we had similar expectations around instructional practice? What if we expected teachers to be versed not only in content, but in a variety of educational strategies? In the same way students should be exposed to American and European and World history, perhaps they should also be exposed to inquiry based and project based learning, arts integration, Montessorri and a variety of other approaches utilizing multiage settings. The opportunity to learn in different ways would have a greater impact than the opportunity to focus on any particular content.

In short, the foundation of learning is about how you learn, not what you learn. In that sense, the CCSS do not address the heart of the problems and promises of education.

However, they are here. How do educators who are interested in fostering innovation and collaboration work within the structure and demands of these standards?

Perhaps the first response is to reframe the question. It’s not a matter of how to work within the structure, but instead of how to use the standards to engage within the structures of meaningful learning, especially along the lines of 21st Century learning skills. Apart from the scope of what’s expected, there’s nothing to prevent teachers from using a variety of educational approaches and framing content within the pedagogical perspectives we are interested in applying. Schools have had standards for many years, and following national ones doesn’t change the essential questions of how we enhance creativity, collaboration, and authentic preparation for the future.

The answers haven’t changed because of the Common Core State Standards. Students will continue to need a variety of instructional methods, especially those that require the use of 21st Century skills. Arts need to remain a non-negotiable part of student learning. Teachers need to share successful practices. And educators in general need to keep their eye on what’s really important – not acquiring content, but acquiring habits of mind that will serve over the course of life long learning.

Dr. Heather Terrill Stotts, WISN Executive Director

2 Valuable Features of the WISN “School Profile”

The “School Profile” online platform was released this past week to schools that are contracting with the WISN for services. Once a school has receive a log in email they have access to the exciting features below. 

  1. Unique snapshot of a school’s structure and innovation.
  2. Document Warehouse
  3. Coming Soon! Media Warehouse

1. Unique snapshot of a school’s structure and innovation.
Once logged into the school profile you will have the ability to answer a variety of questions that plot to show the makeup of your schools innovations. When users have filled in a schools information they will be able to visually share the makeup of that school to parents and the community. The school profile is editable at any time to show how your school is growing and changing. Example below. 

2. Document Warehouse
Within your school profile you have the ability to import and store important documents. Some of these documents could include:

  • School Development / Governance Docs (contracts, bylaws, grants, calendars, meeting agendas/minutes
  • Curriculum Docs(rubrics, project guides, standards, personal learning plans, student work samples)
  • Community Docs (press releases, handouts, testimonies)
  • Administration Docs (reports, budgets, job posting, enrollment/registration)

3. COMING SOON! Media Warehouse
The media warehouse gives users a place to store and share photos and videos of creative projects and learning events. Just import the image or youtube/vimeo link to start filing your warehouse.

Start a school youtube account here.
Start a school vimeo account here.

We are excited for schools to begin using this online tool.  The WISN web team is working hard with developers to give users the ability to share, comment and correspond with other schools and staff. Be looking for updates throughout the fall.   Contact todd@innovativeschoolsnetwork.com for more information.

Web Development Task Force Update

Technology is changing at the speed of light, making the obstacle of distance in collaboration shrink drastically.  The WISN has made a commitment to harness the capabilities of current technologies to form a web based platform for educators. The development of this platform will allow schools, educators, innovators, and students from around the state to share ideas and resources quickly and network organically.  Phase I of this online tool is currently in development.

Phase I “School Profile”
The focus of Phase I is to give charter schools around the state a place online to showcase the hard work that has gone into the planning, establishment and growth of their school. Schools will have the ability to create their own profile that gives an indepth look at the unique aspects of their structure and innovation.  Essentially schools will be able to browse and search other schools in the state in order to share resources and ideas.  The largest hill to climb currently is getting a number of schools to beta test the platform. If your school would like to be one of the first to navigate this exciting new online collaboration tool please contact the WISN and leave the name of your school and a contact person at Heather@InnovativeSchoolsNetwork.com

Follow us on twitter, facebook, google+ and linkedin for more updates on Phase I and subsequent phases.

Project Based Learning Basic Training

This training is designed for PBL Teachers and Charter School Planning Teams.  It offers hands on training to develop knowledge and skills to begin planning, or to start teaching in a project based learning charter school.  Professional learning communities will be offered for high school and elementary.

PBL Basic Training Brochure – June 18, 19 and 20.

Lodging in Park Falls


Personal Learning Plan Symposium

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

9:30 am – 1:30 pm

Holy Wisdom Retreat Center, Madison, WI

Register by going here: http://www.coopecology.com/Coop_Ecology/PLP_Registration.html Activating customized, innovative learning for the 21st century learner with a comprehensive personal learning plan. Led by Lewicki Education Consulting (LEC) LLC James Lewicki M.S., M.E.P.D. Dr. Steven Rippe Ed.D Darlene Machten, distinguished teacher