This is the third post on Student-Focused Learning in Springdale, Arkansas.
If we want students to be prepared to innovate and drive their future learning, they need a set of skills and experiences that prepare them. We cannot expect learners who have grown up on a steady diet of being told what to learn, when to learn, how to learn, and how well to learn to confidently and competently understand and engage in self-initiated learning as adults.
Yet, self-initiated and self-directed learning will likely play a key role in their ability to survive and thrive in an economy that is increasingly driven by learning and innovation. Once they leave us, they will no longer be able to depend on having what they need to know delivered in a professionally prepared, perfectly time, expertly delivered lesson.
What students know when they leave us remains important, but we cannot predict what they will need to know even five years beyond graduation. Many of today’s students will be engaged in work that has yet to be invented, using skills that have yet to be defined. In many cases, they will be asked to create and shape these roles, not just fill them.
This reality presents at least three challenges for us as we think about the allocation of time and our focus on learning priorities for today’s students. First, we must find time for students to engage in this type of learning without sacrificing development of core academic knowledge and skills. Second, we need to engage with students to create authentic, significant, and purposeful learning experiences in which they are active co-creators and shared owners. Third, students need to see learning as having value for them and relevance to their lives now and in the future.
I gained some important insights into how we can meet these challenges during a recent visit to the Don Tyson School of Innovation (DTSOI) in Springdale, Arkansas. The Tyson School of Innovation serves approximately 500 students, 47 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch and more than 50 percent of whom are minorities. Most of the families do not have a history of education beyond high school. DTSOI was created through the imagination, creativity, and leadership of its principal, Joe Rollins. DTSOI has taken on the dual challenge of addressing core academic competencies while preparing students for the workplace of the future, and has some important insights and strategies to share.
Principal Joe Rollins explained, “Rather than starting with the traditional curriculum and lineup of courses in which students are expected to engage, they began by identifying the crucial competencies that students are expected to master.” By stepping away from an incremental approach to find time to address what is important for students to learn, they were able to see new options and possibilities. For example, they noticed that several competencies are taught at multiple times and in multiple locations across the curriculum. Too often, the result is that students are retaught something they already know, thus wasting time. Alternatively, students sometimes fail to see how a competency addressed in one course or discipline applies in other contexts and content. In the words of Principal Joe Rollins, “By combining skills and knowledge across traditional subjects and integrating them into learning experiences, we have been able to reduce redundancy in learning and trim some of the excess present in much of the traditional curriculum.” The result has been an acceleration of progress in core academic knowledge and skill development. According to Rollins, “Most students are able to master core required competencies between their entry in eighth grade and the end of their sophomore year.” When students demonstrate mastery of a concept, skill, or body of knowledge in one area, their achievement counts as meeting requirements in multiple subjects. Equally important, students are better able to see connections and applications of what they learn across multiple areas and disciplines.
The savings in learning effort and time gained from reorganizing and consolidating mastery of key competencies create space and a path for students to engage in areas of learning that they find purposeful, compelling, and life-preparing beyond core academics. At DTSOI, students are encouraged, supported, and expected to engage in activities to apply and extend their skills and knowledge. Rollins explained, “We work closely with employers to understand their needs and create opportunities for our students to gain first-hand experience in areas of interest and aligned with future career goals.” Employers regularly visit the school and speak with students about work-based skills and career opportunities during weekly “Real world Wednesday” activities. Academic classes are scheduled on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday to create time for this unique opportunity each week. The schedule also provides time for students to go out into the community and learn first-hand through visits, shadowing, and internships.
Students work with educators to explore their interests and talents and potential opportunities to match their hopes and preferences with experiences. According to Mr. Rollins, “Students are active participants in developing plans and identifying experiences in which they will engage.” Ownership and commitment are built into plans from the beginning. Obviously and importantly, sometimes when students learn more about a career option, they become less enthusiastic and realize they need to change direction. Mr. Rollins pointed to this learning as being as important as discovering a passion for a career or specific work environment. Often the career path students are constructing includes formal education beyond high school. Students at DTSOI can take college-level courses through a partnership with a local community college while still in high school. As a result, students and families are able to save significant resources while accelerating post high school study.
The third challenge, finding value and relevance in learning, is also a key focus at DTSOI. Students are encouraged and supported to reflect on their learning, whether in the classroom or workplace. Responsible risk-taking in learning is part of the experience. Mr. Rollins noted, “The close connection between academic content and skills gained in the classroom and the knowledge skills and behaviors developed in work-based experiences makes relevance obvious.” Even when students find that they need to adjust their career goals and path, the experiences they have gained still provide relevance to their learning. Since most students will leave DTSOI already having earned multiple college credits, experienced multiple internships, and, in many cases, earned an industry-based certificate, the question of learning relevance is not much of a concern. It also helps that the school staff and local employers have worked together to ensure that the learning pathways and certificates are connected to regional workforce needs, so there is limited risk that what is learned in school will not translate to a local career, should students choose to stay close to home.
Throughout this experience, students are playing an active role in planning their learning, learning how to learn in a variety of contexts and taking responsibility for the direction of their lives. If you are looking for ideas and a model for how to create time and opportunities for student-driven learning for adolescents, check out the Don Tyson SOI. They have learned much and are 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.