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Leadership for Student-Centered Learning in Action: A Visit to Iowa BIG

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This post is by Adriana Martinez, Senior Associate, Innovation Labo Network, Council of Chief State School Officers. 

When I first arrived, Cedar Rapids, Iowa seemed like a sleepy town surrounded by expansive fields. I had just returned from a trip in Tokyo and the Iowa Department of Education invited a group from the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) to visit some schools in the area. It didn't take long to shake off the jetlag, because once we started talking to teachers we found Iowa's schools filled with excitement, buzzing with energy and pushing boundaries. As a member of CCSSO's Innovation Lab Network, Iowa is paving the path for student-centered learning through their focus on competency-based education (CBE). Schools visits such as my trip to Cedar Rapids always provide valuable experiences because it's difficult to grasp innovation in education until you see it in action. This visit, in particular, opened a window into a topic the ILN is tackling this year: leadership for student-centered learning.

Our itinerary took us to Iowa BIG, a joint partnership between Cedar Rapids Community School District and the College Community School District, is a competency-based program where high school students can opt to complete community-based projects to meet their school credit requirements. This program embodies personalized learning, and its first tenet is that "the student must choose and love the project." During our visit, we learned about the unique learning experiences BIG gives to its students that offer voice, choice and ownership of their learning.

Many things struck me about our visit to Iowa BIG--the beautiful space Iowa BIG shares with other startup companies and entrepreneurs; the many partnerships the program fosters with their local community; the diverse and creative projects students are leading and the challenges they're still tackling. High school students from Cedar Rapids public schools may choose to enroll in the program and alternate their time with their school, which they endearingly call "the mothership," and Iowa BIG. You will see few students walking the halls of the building because they're mostly busy working with industry or community partners to complete their projects. As they work on projects, students must demonstrate that they are learning and applying academic content and skills they would normally learn in a traditional school setting--and they have to prove it through specific tasks as part of a project, and through the project's successful completion. For example, some students were building a water drone to measure water quality, which they're constructing in the workshop space of the building. Another exciting project launched by Iowa BIG is the Minnow Tank, a pitch competition to encourage middle school girls to develop leadership skills (check out this news clip to see it in action). Learning in Iowa BIG differs dramatically from most schools, and they're able to do so by leveraging state policies that create flexibility and support CBE.

Iowa's journey in CBE began several years ago when the legislature eliminated the requirement to use the Carnegie unit as the basis for credit in high schools and launched a task force to investigate CBE. The work of the task force culminated in a report with recommendations for developing CBE in the state. In 2013, in response to the task force recommendations, the legislature allocated funds for the Iowa CBE Collaborative to "engage in collaborative inquiry to investigate, develop, and implement competency-based educational pathways for their students and create a framework to guide the statewide implementation of CBE." Cedar Rapids is one of 10 participating districts piloting CBE and building tools and protocols that will help others engage in CBE in the long-term. Trace Pickering, Iowa BIG co-founder and the associate superintendent of Cedar Rapids Community School District, clearly emphasized the importance of this legacy during our visit: without CBE policy, Iowa BIG would not be possible.  

Despite the exciting policy developments in the state, policy rarely creates change by itself. Educators, teachers and administrators are the catalysts that take traditional models of teaching and learning and transform them to student-centered models. As I reflect on my visit, what impressed me the most was the passion and vision of the school leaders and teachers who opened their doors. They capitalized on CBE policy change to reimagine what learning could be for students.

The teachers and leaders we met at Iowa BIG provided insight on leadership in the context of a personalized, competency-based program and exemplify many qualities of transformational leadership. These leaders are driven by a sense of urgency to do things differently, not to reform or improve the current system. Shawn Cornally, for example, one of Iowa BIG's co-founders and teachers, embodies this characteristic. Before Iowa BIG, he was in a high-performing high school teaching Advanced Placement. Shawn left because he believed that the traditional structure of school wasn't designed with the needs of all students: not all students learn within the constraints of block schedule, not all learning needs to happen within school walls. As a result, Iowa BIG was designed to push anytime, anywhere learning. This doesn't mean that a student gets to do what they want whenever they want; rather, they work with advisors to plan their schedules so that they best fit the projects that interests them and fit their learning needs.

The teachers and leaders of schools and programs such as Iowa BIG create a vision focused on long-term goals and aspirations for their students. Success for these leaders is not only focused on student achievement, it's also focused on cultivating deeper learning skills and dispositions. This implies that schools must create environments where students can develop skills through real-life, hands on learning experiences. These leaders believe that we cannot expect our students to become independent, critical thinkers if their learning is always prescriptive. Students who participate in Iowa BIG have an advantage as they transition to college and/or career, because they can demonstrate with concrete examples that they're problem solvers, they can collaborate with different communities and stakeholders, they can manage their time and they learn from their failures. The teachers we met are committed to this approach because they witness the potential of students when you give them the opportunity to drive their own learning.

Finally, leaders create the safe space teachers and students need to take risks, try new solutions and learn from failure. Not everything at Iowa BIG is perfect, and they acknowledge that. The student who spoke with us shared with us his struggle to manage his time because he would work on his projects until late at night. Now, he and his advisors are working to improve his school-life balance and help him be smarter about how he uses his time. Systems transformation is inherently messy; and educators and leaders must empower students and be comfortable navigating through the ambiguity and adversity.

The teachers and leaders in Cedar Rapids showcase the knowledge, skills and mindsets necessary to transform a traditional system into something like Iowa BIG--qualities that a new project launched by CCSSO, Jobs for the Future, and the Center for Innovation in Education will try to define and help multiply. This project, Leadership Competencies for Personalized, Learner-Centered Schools, launched in May with a group of thought partners, state leaders, and local education practitioners. Our goal is to create a set of competencies that describe the skills, mindsets and dispositions leaders need in personalized, competency-based settings. If states want to advance student-centered approaches to teaching and learning, then we need to understand, incentivize, and grow transformative leadership. Learning from ILN programs from across the country will be crucial to this project, so if you have examples you'd like to share, let us know on twitter using the #ccssoILN tag.


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