Guest Blogger: Matthew Scott

Matthew Scott

My name is Matthew Scott. I’m a teacher and writer from the UK. I currently live in the US and decided to explore some of the innovative work taking place here in education. This was mainly done in the hope of being able to take a few ideas home with me when I go back to Britain. Then I got carried away. This blog will chart that journey.

One: The Storm Before The Calm

I’d never driven through a tornado before. It was a Wednesday morning and I was on my way to Monona, Wisconsin, a town just over an hour west of where I live. My destination was the Project Based Learning Un-Conference organized by WISN and Project Foundry. It was a gathering of educators with varying degrees of expertise in the field of PBL. I’d been in touch via email with Sarah from WISN who had been extremely positive and helpful, but I was still nervous. You see, I’ve been in the US for a couple of years and (apart from volunteer work at a downtown Milwaukee city literacy center) haven’t set foot in a classroom for a while. My wife assured me I’d be fine – teaching was like riding a bike. Yes, I thought. Or driving a car. On the ‘wrong’ side of the road. Through a tornado…

Okay, perhaps this is a little over-dramatic. There was no twister that morning but the warnings were out and judging by the number of cars with hazards lining the highway or hiding under bridges, the likelihood of one touching down wasn’t altogether unreasonable. And my nervousness was extremely real. Apart from a vague outline, I had no real idea about PBL. It did actually feel a little like the first day at high school again.

I needn’t have worried. The Un-Conference was hosted by the wonderful people of MG21 Liberal Arts Charter School and as I pulled into the parking lot I was relieved to see the WISN and Project Foundry signage pointing me in the right direction (again, read the symbolism there as far as cliché will allow). After signing in, I headed into a large computer lab for the welcome speeches and breakdown of the sessions for the next few days. The room was already buzzing with conversation and it was clear that a lot of people knew each other or had come as part of teams. At that time I was still absolutely convinced I was the most clueless person there. Everyone had laptops – really nice ones. I had a legal pad and two pens in case one ran out of ink. But despite the diverse range of experience and experiences in the room, it was clear that this conference was designed with the goal of exploration in mind, and what’s the good of exploring if you already know exactly where you are going?

My own meandering began with a session on Advisory. It was run by the Valley New School from Appleton, WI and after circling-up for a few ice-breaking games, people began to explain why they were there and what they hoped to take out of the session. I will admit now that although I was taking in a great deal of information much of it swirled about like the weather on the way in that morning – the odd tree branch might flash by in the wind, something recognizable, but nothing for me to grab hold of with any confidence. This had nothing to do with the excellently led session and more that so much of the terminology and language – the basic jargon of US education – was so alien to me. Imagine a US educator visiting a similar event in Britain and having to work out what Key Stages, or Pupil Premium, or even GCSE meant before they’d even had a chance to think about the topic being discussed? Luckily, for one activity, I found myself partnered with Steven Rippe from WISN and, as I’m sure any of you who have spent any period of time in Steven’s company will attest, things suddenly got a whole lot cooler.

Having worked out what I was actually doing there, it was Steven who came up with what this whole blog is going to be about: It’s a project. ‘If your aim is to find out as much as you can about PBL, treat it as a project’ – that was his suggestion. Suddenly all the anxiety about not knowing anything became a driving force: I could just learn. Need-to-knows, making real-world connections, linking back to standards: all of this went from being the content of the learning to the actual process. I was going to do a project on finding out as much as I could about PBL and the product, tentatively, would be this blog.

So, this is the first post: an introduction. Forgive me for not going into detail about the rest of the terrific Un-Conference: the sessions on building a culture for PBL in a traditional school environment; how to integrate PBL into core subjects; examples from educators actually doing PBL in teacher-led settings, student-led settings and everything else in between; PLPs; assessment; Project Foundry; and the inspirational key note address from Joe Bower – no, all of these matters and more will, I’m sure, be discussed in more detail in later posts.

Nor am I going to write too much just now about the quick realization that although the jargon might be slightly different, this infamous shared language, which is often ironically said to separate us on either side of the Atlantic, actually speaks of exactly the same concerns, challenges and, most importantly, passion I hear when talking to teachers back home. Sometimes it’s buried deep beneath warranted frustrations but it’s still there.

For now I’m just saying hello.

Before I go though, I should mention that a week after the UnConference, I drove to the WISN office in Madison to discuss this whole adventure. The weather that day? Glorious sunshine.

Creating KTEC: Kenosha School of Technology Enhanced Curriculum

Creating KTEC: Kenosha School of Technology Enhanced Curriculum

The mission of Kenosha School of Technology Enhanced Curriculum (KTEC), a preschool – eighth grade charter school that engages all students in an innovative learning environment, is to prepare students through academic excellence by the use of 21st Century skills and technology integration. Students at KTEC are participants and collaborators in engaging lessons that integrate technology into all curriculum areas to ensure learning and higher order thinking skills.

The Kenosha School of Technology Enhanced Curriculum (KTEC) serves the needs of students in preschool through eighth grade.  KTEC opened with 325 students in the fall of 2007 and now is at capacity with 471 students and over 300 on a waiting list.

We all know that technology has revolutionized how people around the world work, play, and communicate.  Studies show that the meaningful integration of technology into the curriculum can enhance student learning.  Integrating technology in the curriculum also helps students improve the skills that are necessary to succeed in a future dominated by technology.

The IES (Institute of Education Sciences) Practice Guide, published by the U.S. Department of Education, presents evidence-based advice to practitioners working to encourage girls in mathematics and science. The Guide provides five recommendations for encouraging girls in mathematics and science, including the level of evidence to support each recommendation and guidance for carrying out each recommendation. These recommendations include the following:

  1. Teachers should explicitly teach students that academic abilities are expandable and improvable in order to enhance girls’ beliefs about their abilities.
  2. Teachers should provide students with prescriptive, informational feedback regarding their performance.
  3. Teachers should expose girls to female role models who have achieved in math or science in order to promote positive beliefs regarding women’s abilities in math and science.
  4. Teachers can foster girls’ long-term interest in math and science by choosing activities connecting math and science activities to careers in ways that do not reinforce existing gender stereotypes and choosing activities that spark initial curiosity about math and science content.
  5. Teachers should provide opportunities for students to engage in spatial skills training.

KTEC is headed in the right direction, utilizing the IES recommendations for the future of their students. According to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, in the next five years, STEM jobs are projected to grow twice as quickly as jobs in other fields. While all jobs are expected to grow by 10%, STEM jobs are expected to increase by 21%. Similarly, 80% of jobs in the next decade will require technical skills. The US Department of Labor claims that out of the 20 fastest growing occupations projected to 2014, fifteen of them require significant mathematics or science preparation. The U.S. will have over one million job openings in STEM-related fields by 2018; yet, according to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, only 16% of U.S. bachelor’s degrees will specialize in STEM. As a nation, we are not graduating nearly enough STEM majors to supply the demand. To put these numbers into perspective, of the 3.8 million 9th graders in the US, only 233,000 end up choosing a STEM degree in college (National Center for Education Statistics).

One of the major tenets of KTEC is that staff members need to have training that fits the school’s mission as well as their own professional needs and interests. Dr. Angela Andersson, Principal of KTEC, is a leader who believes in shared governance and empowering staff members and parents to take the necessary steps to continue forward progress. As an example, staff members Michelle Zazula and Sarah McMillian have had ongoing national training in STEM practices and Project Lead the Way and are now training not only staff members in their own building but educators across the state and nation.  Scott Hodges has also been trained in myriad STEM approaches as well as Lego Robotics and uses his expertise to offer training across the nation as well.

In partnership with the Wisconsin Innovative Schools Network, KTEC staff have been sharing their practices with educators across the state and continue to do so with planned visitations and collaboration days throughout the 2013-14 school year. You can find out more by visiting InnovativeSchoolsNetwork.com or KTEC.kusd.edu.

Welcome to the 2013-14 School Year with WISN

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction announced the recipients of charter school grants to support the opening of 19 new charter schools for the 2013-14 school year.  These new schools are among those included in a new round of federally funded charter school grants for the state totaling $12.8 million. WISN will be partnering with almost all of those grantees.  We look forward to the experience and enthusiasm they will bring to the WISN, a new and growing network that works best with educators willing to engage in a give and take of ideas, seeking and sharing at the same time.

Collaboration is at the heart of WISN’s success because schools in general, and charter schools in particular, face many challenges as they operate in a public environment that is often uninformed or sometimes hostile. We believe committed educators are key to changing this environment, and that by working together we can realize the innovation and school improvements we dream of for our students.

WISN is an organization built on these dreams, but it is also built with a deep understanding of the day-to-day needs of educators like you. Our team knows what it takes to implement technology, examine pedagogy, build community, deal with budgeting, planning, and governance—and a host of other subjects crucial for successful charter schools. This is perhaps our greatest value: To offer expertise, consultation, and services on topics such as these, while we expand our own pool of experts from our partners.

To help them choose the services right for their schools, we’re delighted to present our brand new online Marketplace where partners will be able to browse and “shop” for WISN events, workshops, etc. Partners will gather the decision-makers for their school, explore the Marketplace together, and create their WISN School Profile and Service Agreement by following the instructions in the Marketplace.

You can join with us by heading to our online Marketplace to register for WISN workshops, online sessions, visitation days, or just browse our website to learn about other partner schools. Above all, we are a network of resources. If we don’t know the answer to your question, we can point you to someone who does. We’re confident that partnering with the network will make your school stronger, and we are also confident that other schools will be stronger for your contributions.

Welcome to an exciting upcoming school year. We look forward to working with you.

Dr. Heather Terrill Stotts, Executive Director

The 5 Things You Need to Make Your School Great

This was the first weekend in a very long time that we’ve had sunshine and warmth. Springtime in Wisconsin (albeit very late this year) always brings about a promise of what we know will follow. The ‘greening’ of everything around us and the growth pushing through the ground are reminders that the seasons cycle, ultimately, and with the exception of taking better care of our environment, there is little we have to do with this cycle.

To me, the analogy to students receiving a public education is obvious. No matter what happens, children arrive at the threshold of our schools on or around September 1 every year and leave us again sometime in June. We have no control over the students that are sent to us. They arrive and we teach them. Like flowers in the spring, we nurture their growth and watch them go through changes throughout their years with us. It is our hope that when they leave the K-12 system, they will become productive, well-educated, happy members of society. Yet, are we really making any change to the system which they go through? Are the students of today getting a radically different education than generations gone by?

I contend that we know what is good in schools. We have the knowledge that what makes schools great is simple: (1) education built on experiential, developmentally appropriate practices; (2) deep and meaningful parental and community involvement; (3) engaged highly-trained educational professionals who are given time to meaningfully collaborate and are passionate about their roles in the school while receiving ongoing training in effective practices; (4) a strong school leader; (5) enough funding to be able to ensure the first four items listed. And yet, we continue to try to find quick fixes because we don’t implement one through five above.

My daughter, Celeste, is eight years old. Her classroom is a 2nd/3rd grade multi-age and her teacher is wonderful. Energetic, positive, and a good communicator. Celeste is the last of my four children to have gone through this school district. We have seen NCLB come and go (almost), Assertive Discipline, basal reading series, multi-age and single grade classes, PBIS including rewards and punishments, the WI Model Academic Standards and now the Common Core State Standards, and the list goes on. Just recently I found out that the district is implementing Mondo: a reading series that they hope will ‘fix’ what’s wrong with literacy instruction and Celeste’s school is doing away with multi-age classrooms because it’s “too hard to meet the CCSS if you are teaching more than one grade”. The cycle seems to never end. Does this sound like your school or district? Probably so. I see this everywhere.

While there is nothing wrong with the CCSS or Mondo, the problem is that their implementation detracts from a focus on what matters most – a deep consideration of how we teach. Experiential learning in Celeste’s school is almost nonexistent. If the students go on a field trip it must be with the entire grade and no more than once a month. The trip has to have a direct tie to the CCSS for that grade level or they can’t go. We’ve seen educational trends and approaches come and go. We all roll our eyes as a new focus or system is implemented. We know that in a few years there will be something new. The problem is that these new systems rarely are a step forward in what counts. Too often we ignore the essentials that are found in our most innovative schools and superimpose a structure that disallows what is most important.

We know what’s wrong, and I believe we know what works. It’s up to all of us who care about education to ask for, advocate for, and ultimately demand that schools move forward to the essentials: experiential education, collaborative practice, focus on individuals, and encouraging students to explore how they learn, so that they’ll keep learning long after they’ve left our schools.

We nourish these flowers, and it’s a cliche to say we’re sowing seeds of the future. But just as we know a lot about how plants grow, we know enough about how children learn to proceed with a certain confidence in our fundamental approach, and not be fooled by the topdressing of the latest educational trend.

If you are interested in really moving forward, please consider partnering with the WISN. We look forward to the seasons with you.

Heather Terrill Stotts, Executive Director
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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

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