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From Schooling to Learning: Create a Community of Learners First

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This post is by Monica R. Martinez, a leading education strategist, author, presenter, and Appointee by President Obama to the President's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. She, along with education sociologist Dennis McGrath, is the author of Deeper Learning: How Eight Innovative Public Schools Are Transforming Education in the Twenty-First Century (The New Press, 2014).

When you ask people what comes to mind when they think of the high school experience, chances are their answers include any of the following: social rituals like homecoming, prom, and cliques; structured concrete buildings that resemble a prison; a day dictated by class bells and students rushing through halls; a favorite teacher or perhaps a very authoritative, intimidating teacher.  In fact, one of the best depictions of high school culture and student-teacher relationships occurs in the opening scene of Mean Girls. Protagonist Cady Heron is trying to adjust to the local high school after being home schooled abroad for several years. As Cady rushes through a crowded hallway full of teachers barking orders at students, she comments: "The first day of school was a blur. A stressful, surreal blur. I got in trouble for the most random things - 'Where are you going?'  'Oh, I have to go to the bathroom.'  'You need the lavatory pass.'  'Okay, can I have the lavatory pass?' 'Nice try. Have a seat.' If not that, 'Don't read ahead!' 'No green pen!' 'No food in class!' I had never lived in a world where adults didn't trust me, where they were always yelling at me."

This kind of culture is teacher-centric and authoritative and one we have learned to accept as the norm for high school. In this kind of culture, however, control and efficiency is valued and sets students up to be passive learners and rule-followers who are expected to record and absorb knowledge through isolated, standardized activities.

Now imagine a school that is horizontal, meaning there is an emphasis on informal social relations, collaboration, and participation, not hierarchy and regulation. Imagine walking into a school with a vibrant energy where teachers and students value one another and share similar expectations. In this school you may see students and teachers sitting together in common areas talking and working collaboratively,  or classrooms where students are free to be out of their seats, actively working or huddled in groups around tables, engaged in deep discussions or using technology to create a project. The principal's office, because it is centrally located, is open for students to drop by with any problem, no matter how big or small. Students are not focused on following rules and learning in silos. They are trusted, respected and able to direct their own learning to master essential academic content, think critically, solve complex problems, work collaboratively, communicate effectively, and have academic mindsets.

Let me introduce you to eight public schools that are on the frontlines of implementing this new vision and featured in Deeper Learning: How Eight Public Schools are Transforming Education in the 21st Century: Avalon Charter School in Minneapolis, MN, Casco Bay High School in Portland, ME, High Tech High in San Diego, CA, Impact Academy in Hayward, CA, King Middle School in Portland, ME; MC2 STEM High School in Cleveland, OH, Rochester High School in rural Rochester, IN, and Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA. 

My co-author and I had the privilege to spend time at each of these schools and saw how these schools established a very different kind of high school experience. First and foremost, they have a shared vision as to what students will need to know and do to be successful in college, career and civic life: Deeper Learning. This vision of Deeper Learning drives and ties everything about the school together--from the school culture to the connected instructional practices, partnership development, and the use of technology. Nothing is left to chance. And because the vision is so clear, they do not have to rely on a formal institution of rules and standardization to drive learning.

A common school culture saturated in trust permits a consistent focus on learning.  In particular, a strong culture helps entrust young people with as much responsibility for their education as the adults in the school and allows teachers to agree upon and use common practices that provide students with a coherent conception of learning.

Teachers design learning experiences that are connected, meaningful, and most often occur in a real world context as a result of the partnerships developed by the principal or teachers with community members. Diana Laufenberg, a former teacher at Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy, works to make the concepts relevant to students' lives through real world problems and historical context, connecting her subject to the other subjects the students are taking. For example, when she taught about the electoral process, she took her students through the history of the right to vote for marginalized groups, African Americans, and women.  She then helped them to identify their own role in the electoral process, sending them out to the polls on election day to interview citizens on their perspectives on voting, tying together the interplay between the electoral system and the individual throughout history. Diana is not alone in how she creates these learning experiences that draw connections between history and students' contemporary lives; she exemplifies what we saw across all eight of schools.

We saw how these schools can change learning in a fundamental way that needs be replicated throughout the country. Our schools remain among our most ossified social institutions. We cannot allow yet another generation of young people be turned into disengaged and passive rule followers. The practices that characterize the best of these schools can serve as a bridge to the education we need and should be implemented throughout the country. 

Only then can we create positive environments in which students thrive. Instead of the negative interactions Cady Heron had with her teachers, we can build positive relationships and make real impacts on students' lives. We will know we've succeeded when we hear more comments like this one from a Casco Bay High School graduate: "I fell in love with a place that I first hated with my heart and soul. I fell in love because of you. Because of all of you."

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