This is the fourth and final post on Student-Focused Learning in Springdale, Arkansas.
We want students to take learning risks and press themselves to learn and achieve beyond the minimums we expect and require. We know that after they leave us, their success will greatly depend on their ability and inclination to take responsibility, make commitments, and push themselves to risk, learn, and grow without always having to be pushed.
Yet, the traditional design of schools is based on assumptions of compliance, responding to the direction of adults and meeting the expectations of others. More than one hundred years ago, when the American public school system was designed, these conditions made sense. Most students would leave school and enter a workforce where compliance, following directions, and meeting external expectation were most of what was required.
The world has changed and will change even more in the decades today’s students will spend in the workforce. In an era of learning and innovation, success will require commitment, curiosity, creativity, and courage to act, even when not all elements and implications of the situation are known. Preparing today’s learners for their future asks more of us and them than the legacy design of schools can deliver. We must create a new set of learning conditions, expectations, and supports if we hope to have our students leave us ready for their futures.
This reality was reinforced for during a recent conversation with students at the Don Tyson School of Innovation (DTSOI) in Springdale, Arkansas. The conversation also gave me hope and confidence that it is possible to create these conditions and position students to take risks, venture beyond their experiences, and engage their world inside and outside of school with courage and commitment. The students were freshmen and sophomores who are learning in a very different environment than most adults experienced.
Interestingly, the students emphasized the importance of having adults around them who care deeply about them and their success, make risk-taking safe, allow mistakes and missteps to be part of learning – not embarrassing or shameful actions – and hold high expectations for their learning success. As one of the students explained, “We know that teachers here are in our corner. They want us to succeed, but don’t expect us to be perfect.” Another noted, “When we try something and it does not work out, or we fail, they are ready to listen, talk, and help us figure out what to do next.”
It may seem counter-intuitive that we must first establish solid, safe conditions and relationships on which students can rely when they try and fall short for them and risk failure and confusion. DTSOI students explained that they often are reluctant to push themselves beyond the safety of the classroom to learn in the community, stretch their skills, and build their knowledge in areas unfamiliar to their experience. When I pressed these students to explain what conditions or assurances they need to take significant learning and experience risks, here is what I heard:
- I need to feel that I am valued and respected as a person and learner.
- School is a safe place to try, fail, learn, and try again.
- Adults in the school expect me to push the boundaries of my learning, but they will be there for me if what I try does not work out.
- My teachers are my best learning advocates.
- Planning for success is key to every element of my learning and growth.
- Learning is the engine of my success.
- Real world connections and experiences help clarify and shape my aspirations.
As I reflected on what the students had to say, I wondered how often we may think that we have provided these conditions without checking to see if and how students experience these supports. What matters most is that students feel them. If students do not, it does not matter if we think they are present.
I pressed the students to be more specific about what it is that adults do to communicate that they want students to take ownership for their learning, be motivated, be willing to take learning risks, and persist when success does not come. At first, the students pointed to a variety of processes, practices, and programs they experience. At this point, Principal Joe Rollins stepped in and observed that, “We are committed to providing a culture of learning, innovation and growth.” Then he turned to the students and asked them to select a single word or phrase that captures their experience. Here is what they shared, with their follow-up explanations:
- Supportive: I know that it is okay to take risks, help is near and ready to step in if I need it.
- Step-by-Step Learning: Here, learning is a path. Not everyone follows the same path and that is okay. What is important is that we know our path and that the path will take us where we want to go.
- Responsibility: Adults expect us to learn, but they also want us to own our learning. We talk about why it is important to learn what we are taught, but learning is our responsibility, with the help of adults.
- Little Drama: At my old school, there were lots of conflicts and drama. Here everyone shares the goal of learning. Building and managing relationships is easier. Everyone is on the same page.
- Self-Motivating: I have learned that I cannot wait for someone else to motivate me. I need to figure out how to motivate myself. Motivation is my responsibility.
- Mutual Support: Here, other students are key resources for learning. They are ready to help and many of the projects we do require us to collaborate and work in teams. Adults are available to help, but so are other students.
- Change: Life is change. We need to accept that. We do not need to be bored. Change is life.
- Exciting: Here we are always experiencing something new. We cannot know what we will learn or what will happen next. The unexpected keeps learning interesting.
- Uplifting and Aspirational: The learning we do here is different. We do not always succeed on the first attempt. We are expected to try again and figure out how to succeed. Mistakes are not bad; they are part of learning.
- Opportunity to Fail: No one is blamed because their first try is not successful. Not succeeding at first is part of learning. If we take risks, we will fail sometimes. It is expected.
- Choice: We have lots of it. It is the definition of this school. At first we are asked to make fewer choices, but now, I have lots of choices. I know that I have to live with the consequences of my choices, but I love it.
My visit to Springdale was delightful. I deeply appreciate the kindness and hospitality I felt from everyone with whom I had contact. Certainly, they face many of the same challenges we all face. However, there is a spirit and commitment to innovation and quality learning that is unique and inspirational. There is much we can learn from communities, school districts, educators, and learners such as these. It is wonderful that they are so willing to share.
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James Rickabaugh is the Senior Advisor of the Institute @ CESA #1, an education innovation lab located within the Cooperative Educational Education Agency that serves 45 school districts in Southeastern Wisconsin. James has more than thirty years of experience in educational leadership and education related organizations. He has been honored as Superintendent of the Year in both Minnesota and Wisconsin.