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Designed for Learning?

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This post is by Ryan Krohn, Assistant Superintendent, and Robert Antholine, Director of Education, at Waukesha School District, Wisconsin.

Deep learning mirrors the conditions of authentic experiences by providing students ownership of their learning path with choice, application, discovery, struggle, success, and feedback.  An inquiry-based, real-world-problem approach created to occur within a community of learners provides a defining frame of authentic learning. Yet too often our system is designed for instructional efficiency. As educators we need to overcome and move past traditional structures and routines.

Are we wrong in stating that typically educational institutions are designed to give instruction? In a drive to deliver more powerful experiences for students, educational leaders must lead the pursuit of practices by shifting the learning paradigm (a shift in thinking of what is needed and wanted for the learner) from providing instruction to producing learning.  As educators we must be keenly aware that for learning-centered, personalized learning practices it is crucial that the instructional designs match the primary function: student learning.

As we begin another school year, educational leaders must reflect on the paradigm, or platform, that they are operating on as the foundation of their work. The simple question that leaders can use to guide the work is, "Is the environment designed for learning?"  This question is being asked by leaders of schools and classrooms across the Waukesha School District, located in southeast Wisconsin, as the district is constantly redesigning traditional instructional models while in pursuit of learner-centered, personalized learning practices.

As we strive to bring deep learning into all classrooms we have to ask: are district leaders, principals, and teachers preparing the school year for instruction or learning?  The assigning of teachers to classrooms, the creation of schedules, and even creating class rosters are too often designed to coordinate with the instructional model. Classrooms provide a place for teachers to go (usually independently), schedules provide the time to arrive (and leave) a location, and the roster defines who you are learning alongside.  These simple structures actually make professional collaboration more difficult, promote siloed instruction, and keep time as a "constant" in the learning process. What needs to be the constant in education is that students are able to be engaged in learning that inspires them to continue to ask questions to get to their next level of learning--a deeper learning experience. Not where they have to be in third period at 9:15am.

To better design our schools for learning, we as leaders have to begin the conversation while operating within the learning paradigm.  An example occurred at one of our Waukesha High Schools where faculty were asked if your team's task was to provide an optimal learning experience, and be accountable to moving a group of students from point A to point B, would you craft a schedule to have students attend class every day, at the exact same time, in the exact same place, and with the exact same group of students, and with the exact same teacher?  Each time this question was asked, the response I heard was NO. The environment in this school changed from that day forward.

The education challenge is to take a risk and open the doors for creativity inside a system designed for instruction. The leadership challenge is to allow and support those who are ready or almost ready to take that risk, while continuing to grow the understanding of other educators who do not yet see the need to make the change. When leaders do even the littlest things, such as assigning a group of students to a classroom, they are running a system designed for instruction. What has to happen so that students have increased opportunities to engage in authentic and self-directed learning.

Much has been enough written about innovations occurring best at the local level. Thus in education it is the leader's role to support local classrooms to create learner centered classroom instructional designs. Leaders within the Waukesha School District are asking the question, "What would you design to optimize learning?"  The question is purposeful and has resulted in new learner centered designs for deep learning and new levels of achievement.

Students are not the same as they were 5, 10, 15, 20 years ago. Because of this, schools are taking on a new shape--they have to. No longer does the 30 students-to-1-teacher classroom design fit the model for deep learning. In some spaces having 45-55 students and 1 teacher is optimal, while other times the 1:1 ratio is helps create connections. The key is that these flexible models meet the learner's needs and promote deep learning. Students need makerspaces, labs, video production zones, online access, and collaboration spaces to really show what they are capable of doing. We need to do our best not to critique students for drawing outside of the traditional lines, but encourage them to do so.

As a result of the learning-versus-instruction question(s), and supportive conditions, teacher leaders have responded with new models. Schools are now filled with teachers working within new roles, students diving deep into their learning, and even the instructional spaces have taken on new designs.  The new designs are emerging with the support of a local partnership with The Institute at CESA #1. 

The Institute at CESA #1 is a local agency designed to leverage and network support for what was thought to be innovative thinking three years ago, but now we are realizing it is just the environment that most of our students need now to succeed at the levels they need to be community and globally competitive. The Institute created a change model, represented by the Honeycomb image, that has supported educators ready to begin looking at reaching deeper levels of learning with personalized learning practices.

In addition to resources, CESA #1 has supported local districts in thinking that has made southeastern Wisconsin a learning community truly making strides in teaching and learning. CESA#1 and Wisconsin are further supported by a similarly like-minded national network called the Innovation Lab Network, supported by the Council of Chief State School Officers.  Together, these networks support the drive for deeper learning between districts, schools, departments, and classrooms.  The movement to design a personalized system built with learning as its primary function.

F.L.I.G.H.T. The FLIGHT Academy (a programing model within a school), launched just one year ago, is designed with all of these aspects. FLIGHT's philosophy gives students control of what they learn, how they are going to learn it, and how they will demonstrate what they have learned. Rather than a push-based instructional model, FLIGHT students take a pull-based approach to learning. FLIGHT (Facilitated Learning through Independence, Guidance, High Expectations, and Technology) is designed to engage students in the learning through a process of ownership. An example: FLIGHT students schedule their learning day based on their most recent self-assessment.

Waukesha S.T.E.M. Academy. At the Waukesha STEM Academy the acronym STEM stands for Strategies That Engage Minds and defines "how" deep learning is achieved. The instructional model at the school includes the traditional "what" of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), but the application-based, personalized learning model is focused on the "how." The strategies include an environment of competency-based learning and grouping, with student ownership of learning. STEM students are challenged to demonstrate learning through project based learning experiences.

The depth of learning that occurs at within these schools and throughout each classroom that has taken on this mindset begins at the student ownership of the learning experience. Engagement, trust, risk, trial and error, successes, and failing forward are aspects of deep learning.  Beyond knowledge and into application... Beyond describing and into defending, proving, questioning, and modifying...  Learning deeply requires that our system is designed for learning.

 

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