I am the principal of a school with 326 students.
This year, like every other year, those students were grouped by age and then broken into divisions within what might be called the factory model of learning.
I already knew that each class would have:
- a broad range of skills;
- a broad range of maturity;
- a broad range of interests.
Yet, it will be the role of the teacher to differentiate for those students, bring them together as a cohesive group and ensure that their personal interests and aptitudes are tapped into throughout the year. Teachers do this, and they do it well. I’m wondering though, is there a better way? Students move from term to term and grade to grade with students of their own age because…? Yes, there are developmental considerations but have you been in a classroom? There are students wise beyond their years, those with a maturity to match their ages and those still “catching up” to their peers (usually those with late birthdays according to Malcolm Gladwell). There are students who are fascinated by concepts and ideas above their grade level and those curious learners who have trouble grasping learning simply because they may need more time to think, execute and reflect.
Just today this tweet by Dean Shareski captured my thoughts exactly with his Alfie Kohn quote…
Our school, like most schools, strives to connect students with one another and we notice students teaching students. The grade 7’s might be teaching the kindergarten students the skills to use an iPad, but as those kindergarteners ask questions and make mistakes, they are giving back by helping build empathy (and probably perseverance) in our grade 7 students. Our school, like most schools, has students who are enthralled with specific areas of interest and crave to share their knowledge with other learners. They don’t all tend to be in the same grade so this sharing is forced to happen at recess and lunch.
So, how can we design better learning environments? I’m not talking just physical space – I’m talking the whole package.
How can we redesign schools to better meet students where they are as learners across all disciplines?
I don’t have the answer; but I’m curious to find out. I know that some schools around the world report out curricular outcomes on a formalized K-12 continuum. That’s interesting to me. At our school we have a host of clubs that are driven by student interest – what if these were during class time? We are investigating how to connect literacy and numeracy more with the maker movement. We possess the digital experience to now leverage the use of technology in student learning to a greater degree and our teachers have begun moving away from textbooks and more to Khan Academy and Discovery Education in math and inquiry to allow greater personalization. We are connecting our HOPE (Me to We) Committee members with the local high school students and outside agencies such as Startup Skool and Women Leading Change to provide relevant and meaningful learning opportunities. We are exploring opportunities to change our learning environments to be less designated classrooms, and more flexible and purposeful learning spaces. In this space the teacher role could change from “sage on the stage” or “guide on the side” to be more an “activator” of learning. A role of asking more questions that provoke debate, exploration and further drive curiosity and learning. This is interesting to me.
I am excited to delve into my question “how can we redesign schools to better meet students where they are as learners across all disciplines?” as this will be the focus of my Growth Plan this year. The title of this blog is Help, and though a little tongue-in-cheek, there are many aspects of my inquiry question that lend itself to the sharing of ideas, examples and could open up some great discussion. I welcome your thoughts and suggestions as I look to inform my professional learning over the course of this year.
Finally, I end this post with the words of Will Richardson who nailed why this question is important in his recent TEDxWestVancouverED Talk. You can watch his Talk here.
I’m having the same struggles in my K-6 school, and wonder when one of us will have the momentum to “blow up the model” and do something different. We have had a grade 4/5/6 multi-age class for a few years with some great success. The teacher knows the kids very well and can adapt instruction well as they go through the three years. I think we had something right in the “one-room” schoolhouse back in the day. Maybe a hybrid model could work: A school with K-3 ad 4-7 classes only. With a scheduled time each day (about an hour) where kids work in “grade groups” on focused curricular areas.
I think to make this happen, the easiest place to start is a brand new school without a “way we do things”. You can then hire staff who are competent and qualified to do this. Anyone ready?
Hi Kyle, thanks for the comment and sharing your ideas. In British Columbia we are moving in the right direction in a number of ways; a new curriculum that focuses on big ideas and less specific outcomes to teach; an ability to leverage the power of technology; inquiry-based pedagogy; and recognition of the importance in engaging the interest of students. That said, there remains a “system” that could probably be improved. We see students who don’t understand a concept that was taught in first term possibly not revisit that concept again until the next grade and they are already behind. This is nothing new but is one of the reasons I want to explore this question. I think there are many excited and qualified educators who do an excellent job. I think it has more to do with the structure of schooling that has been around a long, long time and as such becomes a challenge to change. Thanks again, I’ll touch base with you for ideas as time goes on!
Creating a new school is the easy way out. ;0)
Seriously, blowing up the model takes years of capacity building for staff, parents, and kids. Craig, meeting kids where they are is THE goal, no doubt. But as you know it’s much more complex than that. What is the overarching goal of your school, the one that teachers, parents, admin, and students are all working toward? The one outcome that drives all of your decisions as you move forward? Your mission. I have an answer, as I’m sure you do, too. But our (yours and mine) answers don’t matter. It’s the school community’s answer that does. I think the first step is taking the time to engage in conversations that help people see the world through a more modern lens and are able to have that conversation in meaningful and relevant ways. That takes time and…wait for it…”commitment and courage” to lead. ;0)
Thanks again for the opp to speak at TEDx WestVan, and for the link here. Let me know how things go!
Thanks for posting. My current Grade 5 class has ages ranging from 9.5 to 11.4. The class makeup depends on what learning experiences and different the kids have had previously and whether they have been accelerated. I have 2 children who have been accelerated into my class and all 9 Grade 5 classes have been streamed due to math ability. I believe this is the first step in de-industrializing our classrooms.
I also believe differentiation needs to be given more thought than not. The quality of learning engagements should be mirrored in the possibilities of differentiation. That is, any activity worth its salt should be inclusive of all levels and inabilities. Keep in mind, “shallow floor, high ceiling”. Here (http://www.insidemathematics.org/problems-of-the-month/download-problems-of-the-month) is a terrific web resource that I have used for math. Problems start in the shallow end, and then progress to the deep end.
You’ve mentioned a couple of key points that quite interesting Craig. We actually need to look at the curriculum that is being taught, and then focus on how it is being taught. What’s worthwhile for the kids to know? What’s getting in the way of guided inquiry? What’s the most effective ways to teach what’s worth knowing? How will they know that they have learned what’s important? Consider checking out McTighe & Wiggins Understanding By Design and if you would like, I can email you the first chapter.
My own professional learning this year is centred around evidence of learning and continuums of assessment. I look forward to a professional development opportunity in Chiang Mai that I will be attending in January as this is the focus.
Keep posting Craig as I look forward to hearing more of your learning journey for the year ahead.
Great thoughts Trav. Let me know what you learn in Chiang Mai!
What an interesting question!
When I child is in Pre-K although there may be an age range of just 12 months, the developmental range in that same cohort is enormous. Maybe Alfie Khon is viewing learning from an adult’s or senior school perspective? If Alfie were a Pre K learner maybe he would already feel that he’s learning in a classroom full of friends with vastly different ages!
I think that the flexibility to learn with others of different ages or interests is a great idea and definitely a strategy for stretching the wise, waning or wonderous at times – at least at times within the school week. I’m very skeptic of dissolving age band admissions though – I have queues of parents who think their child is a genius and should be moved up a grade. Perhaps by keeping the geniuses with the rest of the gang ensures diversity in one room and working with people you might not choose to do so – kind of like the real word!
I love this post as you’ve got me thinking! Especially the Gladwell bit. I’ve just finished Step 1 (beginner) Japanese (again) and I have decided not to do Step 2 but instead choose to re-do Step 1. Not because I’m particularly bad (I’m pretty average in my group) but because I want to feel like I’m ahead of my cohort as I think I’ll learn better.
Great thoughts Frosty! Your point about pre-K is important because yes, the developmental range is so broad. In looking at Multiple Intelligences, we know there are “geniuses” at different aspects of intelligence and I still grapple with the “box” that age based learning creates. With that, I really do wonder about the leveraging of technology so that students are connecting with peers of their own age but there is a greater allowance for differentiation in learning. I think we exist in a factory system of learning that isn’t bad – but is there a better way? Happy to continue this conversation with you Frosty as you always extend my thinking!