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Aurora Institute

Asking the Right Questions: Urban Assembly Maker Academy

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started, Learn Lessons from the Field

UA MakerDesigning a school with only a blank page to start can be a daunting task. Where do you begin? Values? Themes? Needs of target population? Instructional approach?

I couldn’t stop thinking about design at the very, very new UA Maker (the twenty-fourth in the Urban Assembly network) because design itself is at the core of the school model. So are its values. A poster on the wall articulating the norms of UA Maker really brought this home:

We agree to center our work on the core values: curiosity, empathy, risk-taking, self-awareness and resilience.

We agree to:

  • Engage in Design Thinking and understand this work as iterative
  • Engage in growth mindset
  • Document our process
  • Respect each other’s time

The following highlights of their school design are based on conversations with Luke Bauer, Principal; Madelaine Hackett, Urban Assembly’s Carnegie Design Fellow embedded at the school site; Alexis Goldberg, Urban Assembly’s Achievement Coach; and members of the NYC Department of Education’s Digital Ready team Michael Preston, Jeremy Kraushar, and Joy Nolan.

The UA Maker Approach

UA Maker opened this September with a ninth grade of 105 students. It is one of the Carnegie Corporation Opportunity by Design (there’s that word again) new schools based on 10 principles, one of which is “prioritizes mastery of rigorous standards.” As one of the initiative sites, the school is supported by Springpoint.

UA Maker’s overall approach is guided by four overarching ideas:

  1. Mastery-Based Learning
  2. Career Themes
  3. Asynchronous/Personalized Learning (they use the term to mean self-paced)
  4. Project-Based Learning

Because the school is at such an early stage in their implementation, there are more questions than infrastructure at this point. Given their focus on design, I can imagine that this iterative process will in fact become a part of the school DNA.

Mastery-Based Learning

Bauer described UA Maker’s mastery-based structure as one that is designed around a growth mindset, where feedback and formative assessment are emphasized. This approach is balanced with an equal emphasis on mastery and excellence, as these are both elements of success in industry.

He noted, “Our success depends on our ability to move the culture from one of completion to one of revision.” In fact, at UA Maker, the principles of design drive toward excellence—not only proficiency. As Hackett noted, “One of the challenges we are having with competency education is that the focus on reaching proficiency can also create a culture of ‘doing just enough’ rather than focus on excellence.”

The team at UA Maker is still in the process of designing their mastery-based infrastructure. They’ve organized three sets of competencies: design thinking, content (Click here to see examples of how they are constructing competencies), and Common Core (math and ELA). However, they were bubbling over with questions they would eventually have to resolve in order to put the full structure in place:

How do we make the feedback cycle more manageable?

  • Revision should be part of the culture, and students are powerful partners through self- and peer-assessment.

What criteria should we use to determine grain size of competencies and standards?

  • Granularity and the number of targets should be designed around meaningfulness to students and teachers (provided they are measurable). Look at other schools examples and pick one or two as starting points.

How many times do students need to provide evidence of learning for teachers to determine mastery? Three? Five?

  • Three pieces of evidence (what they referred to as “at bats”) to determine proficiency—including teachers’ professional judgment based on conversation—is plenty. UA Maker refers to “mastery” as providing adequate evidence of learning.

How do you support new teachers when you are rolling out a new school grade by grade?

  • Invest heavily in the culture, rituals, and routines that help students own their learning. Without that in place, the school remains teacher-driven, with enormous pressure on the teachers to meet all of the students’ needs all of the time.

Should we have a school-wide rubric, and if so, how should it be designed?

  • It’s smart to start with a school-wide rubric and grading system, allowing teachers to modify the rubric for specific units. Think carefully about what you are assessing: content, process, and/or skill standards.

What is the information that students, parents, and teachers need to have, and when do we guide their progress and pace? Are there any information management systems available that provide comprehensive support rather than a “grading tool”?

  • Vendors of information management systems have not yet caught up with the needs of competency education. Find a vendor willing to engage in an agile development process with you in order to get what you want. Again, keep it simple at first so you can approach real-time information about progress. Feedback loops and reporting can develop over time, as members of the school community begin to demand (and consume) information.

The UA Maker team was asking all the right questions. In addition to the answers provided above, I did have one final piece of advice: Take a step back and simplify at the beginning. Put the essential pieces into place and let the rest develop over time.

Using Career Pathways to Prepare Students for College and Careers

UA Maker offers three pathways for students to pursue preparation for college, career exploration, and valuable skills. In the ninth and tenth grades, introductory courses are provided to students. By eleventh grade, students pick a pathway: Interaction Design (study of user experience in physical or online space); Physical Computing (creating software and hardware that can sense and respond to the outside world); or Digital Media (visual storytelling). In the senior year, students working in teams will do capstone projects, drawing across the three pathways.

School-wide design competencies are a powerful organizing structure at UA Maker. The team has created a rubric around the design thinking process, which breaks down the steps of iterative problem-solving: Discover, Define, Design, Develop, Deliver.

UA Maker is also investing in building partnerships that can create exciting opportunities for students. They have a full-time partnership coordinator, Ivy Anderson, dedicated to building industry, collegiate, and enrichment partnerships for students to explore “making” and to develop soft and hard skills in a variety of environments. As is a required component of CTE schools, Maker exposes students to its pathways (interaction design, physical computing, and digital media) through visits to and support from companies like Control GroupParsons, Shapeways, and Intel. During orientation week, Maker partnered with Control Group and Knewton so students could test out new software and give feedback to its engineers (while practicing identifying core concepts like “target user”, “critical feedback” and “design thinking”). Parsons has dedicated a graduate level course to developing curriculum and industry connected projects for the school. After-school partnerships with community-based organizations like Girls Who Code and MOUSE Squad provide students an opportunity to meet peers and mentors across the city who are equally enthusiastic about creative technology, and to connect students to organizations committed to equalizing access to creative technology across gender, race, and class.

Balancing Personalized and Project-Based Learning

As in most communities across the country, there are a large number of students entering UA Maker with significant gaps in prerequisite skills. Bauer estimates that 10 percent of the students are significantly above grade level, 20 percent are at grade level, 50 percent are at one- to two grade levels below, and 20 percent have elementary-level skills. He explained, “We are organizing the school around project-based learning.  We want students to have personalized (self-paced), asynchronous (students learning different things at different times) experiences so they can progress based on their instructional level.”

Personalization starts with a commitment to support each student, with plenty of feedback and opportunities to revise. Building a strong culture of learning, UA Maker is drawing on self-assessments, peer assessments, and a conferencing model based on Learning Cultures Model. They also make sure students are working at their individual instructional levels by carefully assessing students to determine their skills and where they are on their learning progressions. For reading, they use Degree of Reading Power assessments three times a year and Cloze assessments, which are provided by LightSail on a weekly basis. For math and social studies, they assess using in-class assignments and Edgenuity. Other courses use teacher-designed assessments to map student progress weekly.

Blended Learning

Blended learning offers students opportunities to work at their own pace. Students are using iPads to work on adaptive software such as LightSail, which uses a combination of highly engaging texts with adaptive questions to measure student reading progression. Students see their Lexile level improve as they answer questions and engage in tracked teacher conferences. Hackett explained, “Students gain confidence as they know where they are and can set goals for where they should be in a week or month. They start to challenge themselves to go faster. For teachers, the pre-loaded comments streamline the feedback cycle, as well.”

Hackett described the approach to project-based learning as, “We design projects around the six A’s: authenticity, academic rigor, applied learning, active exploration, adult connections, and assessment. Projects are designed to take four to six weeks so the learning can happen within and because of the project. Teachers develop mini-lessons to be delivered on a need-to-know basis. We think of it as teacher-guided and student-driven. Teachers develop entry documents and highly aligned rubrics that guide students toward the learning.”

Of course, the challenge teachers then face is how to tag standards to these projects. Liz Dowdell, a science teacher who applied to UA Maker because of her interest in mastery-based learning, described the challenge as, “We found that focusing on power standards made it more manageable to make the connection between project-based learning and the mastery-based structure. We are also starting to realize that standards are the stepping stones towards competencies. At UA Maker, we need to offer opportunities for students to become proficient in the little pieces and then demonstrate that they can apply them”

Liz used her physics class as an example. “In a project on Experimental Design, I observed that students struggled with different standards. Some students had trouble identifying variables, while others didn’t quite grasp how to analyze data. So, I created a presentation task where students were grouped with others who had the same struggle. Students received additional readings and questions around the topic and had an opportunity to further develop their understanding. They presented their findings to the class, which served as a review.”

Students who have gaps may need additional opportunities for support and revision. All of the students may be working on the same standards over the course of the class, but they may be focusing on different ones at different times.

Creating Feedback Loops to Support Student Achievement and School Improvement

Hackett is digging into the problem of how to provide an information system that supports leadership, teachers, students, and parents. Her frustration is evident: “Many of the systems have incredible functionality, but you can’t get the information out in a way that provides a meaningful feedback loop to support school improvement or student learning. Haiku wouldn’t allow us to get the information we wanted, so we are using Canvas, which has lots of great functionality and is used by our higher education partner, Parsons Design School. However, like many other information management systems, it is designed around courses, not students. It’s nearly impossible to get profiles about individual student advancement along learning progressions or analysis of student progress across the school.”

Hackett has been using Excel to create a tool and customized reports that can provide the type of information students and parents need to assess progress. It’s helped her to clarify the types of information UA Maker needs and in what format. However, it’s been cumbersome, and she is still on the lookout for the right product.

UA Maker hasn’t worked out all the kinks for a grading system that focuses on learning. First, they don’t have the mastery-based structure fully in place, as they are still thinking through design and granularity. They have found that in some classes, the grain size is very small, while for others it is much larger.

The grading structure/technique is also still being developed. The rubrics all use the continuum of beginner, advanced beginner, emerging proficient, proficient, and advanced proficient. Hackett explained that they are finding problems with many of the grading strategies. “We looked at Power Law grading technique, but it doesn’t work if there is a zero, or if you miss assignments. In mastery-based learning, students may take more time to complete an assignment so it looks like a zero when it isn’t.”

UA Maker is dedicated to design through iteration. This means that tough questions are being asked, and that structures and practices may be prototyped before being implemented school-wide. With design as the driving force behind UA Maker, we can expect great innovations in mastery-based structure as they apply their design thinking and problem-solving process to re-engineering the time-based A-F education system.