I recently responded to a request from a colleague as a part of his masters program to talk about our work with MPX this year – perfect chance to add to the blog this morning… his questios and my answers below
1. What influenced/inspired you to head up the MPX program?
Philosophically, it was in line with where my professional work was going – more emphasis on how we teach and how curriculum is delivered. Although the past 20 years of my life have been spent more than the role of technology in the classroom, I always believed that it was to support a more progressive learning approach, this was a perfect opportunity to put it into place.
Professionally, it was a new challenge for me as I have not been in the classroom for a long time. I believe fundamentally that we must practice what we preach, and if we wanted to see more folks at the school adopting these ideas, I needed to live this as a part of what I did.
2. What is your philosophy of Project Based Learning?
Ultimately, I believe in the same basic ideas John Dewey supported: learning by doing. We often times in education spend so much time doing skill development with students but never giving them the whole problem to understand why they should learn something. I’m a firm believer that the cognitive science makes clear that when we first give students the whole problem in context, the skills and knowledge that are needed are grafted into their learning more powerfully and therefore gives them a reason to learn and a passion to understand.
3. What challenges have you faced with students that are not used to the “lack of structure” in a Project Based Learning class?
It is very common for students that have been raised to not do project-based work to spend time waiting to be told what to do. Reading other school stories have confirmed this occurrence. The challenge, therefore, is walking a thin line between explicit structure (do this, then this, then this…) and implicit structure (in order to get to the end, what things need to be planned and attained to get there? What drafts, resources, models, interviews, practice sessions so you can show proficiency?)
There is inherent tension in a structure so students keep doing work, not so much structure that it’s being driven by the teacher, not by the student. That kind of puppetshow “ignore the man behind the curtain” scaffolding is a challenge to make sure that it works effectively and the students are productive. Most importantly, they need to feel that work and the structure came from them as they need to solve their problem, not set on them by an adult without them understanding why it needed to be done that way.
4. What has been / is your greatest challenge in defending the purpose and success of your program to “non-believers”?
We all see the world through the lens of our culture and our accepted practice. When we use words like school, teacher, curriculum we all already have experiences in this and therefore expectations of what that should look and feel like. One of the phrases that came out of students thinking early last year was “but I don’t think I’m learning anything”. It took us a while to unpack this statement, and we realized that students thought learning only occurred when the teacher told him something and they memorized it, or completes a worksheet following the instructions.
There is also the challenge of a standard curriculum and tests. The work we do does not lend itself naturally to the delineated scope and sequence and the testing regimen that is part of traditional schooling. If we think broadly about education, we want students to be better thinkers, better problem solvers, better writers & communicators, better readers and critical thinkers. In many ways, the work we do supports this easily, but it does not always map back to the scope and sequence charts that are in the disciplines that are prescribed for our coursework.
5. Your program has just completed its first two years. What types of challenges do you foresee, if any, your original students will face in mainstreaming back to a traditional teacher-centered classroom?
In a perfect world, we would be able to keep our students to the end of high school, then the transition would only be going to college, which is a very different experience and from other PBL school’s history is not a major concern. Our biggest challenge is taking students out of 10th grade after adopting one way of learning, and forcing them back into a seven period Day in which six or seven teachers have different expectations in which more than not work is still teacher centered. Although our students that have left the program have said it takes a little while to transition on this, I wish it wouldn’t have to be that way. Hopefully, the positive of this is students are more critical (in the actual sense of the word) or maybe a better word is discerning, about the curriculum that they see in front of them and ask hard questions about why do we need to know this? How does it fit into what I need to know the real world? Where is this taking me for my future? What are things I need to take away that I will find exciting and useful?
6. What letter grade would you give your program after its first two years of existence and why?
I would much rather give narratives than letter grades. In much the same way that a letter grade does not really paint a full picture of an explanation of learning that happens in our program, a letter grade for our program as a whole doesn’t begin to cover what we have done. Much the same as our elementary school gives narrative assessments, and places students on a continuum of learning, I feel we need to do the same with our program, and frankly should for our high school in general. One of the ways that we measure doing good work in our program is whether we hold to the 6 As of good project design:
The Six A’s of Designing Projects
• Academic Rigor
• How do the projects address key learning concepts, standards or help students develop habits of mind and work associated with academic and professional disciplines?
• How do the projects use a real world context (e.g., community and workplace problems) and address issues that matter to the students?
• Applied Learning
• How do the projects engage students in solving semi-structured problems calling for competencies expected in high-performance work organizations (e.g., teamwork, problem-solving, communication, etc.)?
• Active Exploration
• How do the projects extend beyond the classroom and connect to work internships, field-based investigations, and community explorations?
• Adult Connections
• How do the projects connect students with adult mentors and coaches from the wider community?
• Assessment Practices
• How do the projects involve students in regular exhibitions and assessments of their work in light of personal, school and real-world standards of performance?
Using this as our framework for assessment, we made substantial strides this year in developing projects that more closely aligned with the six tenets of good project-based learning – which we argue is the best kind of learning.
7. Where do you see your program in two years, five years, ten years from now? How many students participate in the MPX program and do you see it growing in numbers or remaining status quo?
The initial vision of this program was always an incubator to help inform the entire high school about ways to adopt more authentic learning experiences in their curriculum. To that end, I see the work we’re doing as continually feeding into the whole school as a means to develop ways to help everyone adopt more engaging in effective learning activities in their classes. It certainly challenges our ideas of testing, curriculum, and what should be our core knowledge and skills as a high school. We debate a lot about how big this program should be – if we take it in context of what the intent was (what I just mentioned above), the size is not nearly as important as the purity of work that we do – if we can continue to do exciting state-of-the-art curriculum ideas that are based on authentic problems, then they will lend themselves to the adoption of others looking at ways to improve their practice.
Personally, in my “fantasy world” all learning should be like this – shouldn’t it? In other words, in a perfect world, students would work on projects that they choose and are inherently interesting, and adults would help shape that learning so that it may map to appropriate content areas. I fully understand that is no small order given the current culture and context of education, but if we really want what is best for students, rethinking the whole enterprise about learning is worth considering. I might add, that our elementary school more than not already teaches this way.
8. What types of barriers have you encountered when trying to initiate changes?
One of my favorite quotes from the last few years was by Calvin Taketa, the head of the Hawaii Community Foundation. At a conference about transforming schools, he used the line “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. We have in education the problem of “that’s the way we have always done it”. More than not, school and curriculum is based on the concept of conformity and uniformity. These barriers are tough when we look at what it takes to really design engaging curriculum that builds students into a model of active learning. This is not a mid-Pacific Institute problem. It is an organizational problem. All organizations develop a culture in which ideas that go outside of the norm are challenged, and typically dismissed because they would mean making substantial changes to the structures in place. Clay Christensen’s research in “The Innovator’s Dilemma” spells this out and it is what led to his work “Disrupting Class”. A couple of examples of this in our case are the inability to support students about their work because of graduation requirement conflicts, programming our schedules so that we have access to the kids more regularly in a row, the fact that we have to set minimum entry points because when our students leave our curriculum they have to fit back in to the schedule, the need to map against some of the core concepts that really need to be rethought for everyone, but we have to play to that specific set of standards, designing inherently exciting and innovative curriculum takes time and coordination – we have very little time as a team sit down and really think about the work we are doing.
9. How have you overcome these barriers?
We haven’t overcome all of these yet, but in some of them we have been able to get a little more time for our teachers, we’ve been able to negotiate ways to have less stress about covering every core concept that is not in the traditional courses, we try and help our students in leaving our program choose wisely so they are in courses that more line with their interests and abilities, we continue to try and add more teachers to our conversation to help us build the bridge so that our kids are not perceived as different than others…
10. What has contributed to your and your program’s success?
Most importantly, our team for our program has been outstanding in our vision in their willingness to work in these Muddy Waters that we have been traveling through to build the program that we have. I can’t speak enough of, or praise enough, their willingness to continually make the adjustments needed so that we can work and build exciting learning experiences for our students together. Our administration has been fantastic about trying to support this program, in understanding that we need to create some space and time to give this an opportunity to succeed. They also know that the goal of the program was not to make it separate, but to use it as a lens into powerful ways of learning, and they continue to lead us to make sure that others have an opportunity to learn from the work we are doing to make it a vehicle for incubating ideas.
One of our surprising findings was that our parents have become one of our best advocates, as they have seen very exciting results for the child that is positive and they have been excited about it. We also have been blessed with community partners who have been excited to work with our students. This created the opportunities for authenticity and community involvement that we so greatly aspire to.