Encouraging Learning Risks and Growth

May 2, 2017 by

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.” (more…)

Finding Time and Providing Support for Student-Driven Learning

April 26, 2017 by

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. (more…)

Building Learning Momentum at Springdale’s School of Innovation

April 24, 2017 by

This is the second post on Student-Focused Learning in Springdale, Arkansas. Read the first post here.

I find it exhilarating when what I hear from people in the field brings to life what I have read in research and know from experience to be true. This sense is especially powerful when the insights come from learners.

I recently spent some time with a group of high school students at the Don Tyson School of Innovation (DTSOI) in Springdale, Arkansas, querying them about their experiences and what makes their learning lives at DTSOI stand out. I received an earful and it was great. It was especially powerful since so much of what I heard is highly consistent with what research tells us about motivation, the role of purpose in learning, and the importance of taking ownership for the direction of our lives.

As educators, we can spend a good portion of our time looking for ways and trying out strategies to motivate learners. We know that motivation is the entry point to stimulate and support engagement in learning. Without motivation, not much learning happens. Yet, as I listened to what these learners were describing about their learning and the environment at DTSOI, I kept wondering if we too often approach this challenge from the wrong direction. One of the young men captured this insight succinctly, “I now understand that I cannot wait for someone to motivate me. I need to be responsible for motivating myself.” What a powerful understanding about life and success! This student’s observation begs the question of whether we should be spending less of our time trying to motivate students and more time focusing on developing the ability and inclination of students to be the source of their own motivation. We know that the ability to self-motivate is a key life skill, but how can we build this capacity in learners? More about that later.

While I was absorbing the significance of helping learners build the capacity to motivate themselves, another student followed with an equally powerful observation. She noted, “At DTSOI, almost everything we do has a purpose. Whether it is what we are learning in class, participating in an internship, or listening to people talk about the real world, there is a purpose behind it.” Again, a powerful insight about success in life. The more we see the purpose in what we do, the more likely we are to focus on and persist in achieving what we set out to do. If we can help students to seek and see purpose in their learning, their success is likely to grow. If we can help them to transfer a sense of purpose to their lives, we give them a gift that can last a lifetime. Again, more about this later.

Yet another student observed that what makes learning at DTSOI unique is that students actively participate in planning their own learning paths. He noted that students, with their parents, have planning conferences with school staff. They set goals, decide the direction they want to pursue, and then select and create options and opportunities to form the learning path. Once the path has been created, learners still have regular opportunities to make adjustments and add experiences and elements that combine formal learning in school and community college with less formal, application-based learning in the community. It was clear from the discussion that students found this aspect of their learning very powerful.

So, what do we know from research about learning that parallels and reinforces the experiences these students shared? It turns out there is plenty. (more…)

Springdale, Arkansas: A Tradition of Innovation and Future of Opportunity

April 19, 2017 by

James Rickabaugh

CompetencyWorks is delighted to share with you a special four-part series based on James Rickabaugh’s Student Focused Learning tour in Springdale, Arkansas. Rickabaugh is the senior advisor at Wisconsin’s Institute for Personalized Learning and the author of Tapping the Power of Personalized Learning: A Roadmap for School Leaders.

I love visiting schools, talking with students and educators and seeing the power of learning. That’s why a recent visit to the Springdale School District in Springdale, Arkansas, was a special treat. I met wonderful educators and enthusiastic and motivated learners and encountered some innovative, promising ideas and practices worth sharing.

Arkansas has recently taken some important and promising steps forward with the creation of a state Office of Innovation. In 2013, the Office of Innovation for Education was opened to support local education innovation through designation as Districts of Innovation. The Office of Innovation is located at the University of Arkansas, led by Denise Tobin Airola and her team. Springdale was one of the original school districts to apply for and be selected as Districts of Innovation by then Commissioner of Education Tom Kimbrell. In addition, Springdale was awarded a Federal Race to the Top District Grant in 2014 to accelerate its efforts to rethink and redesign learning that is “student focused.” The focus of the grant included beginning to move beyond seat time and traditional credits as measures of learning to focus on competency and supporting students to become more actively engaged in and take greater ownership for their learning, including the launch of student-led conferences.

Springdale has long enjoyed a reputation for excellence and innovation within Arkansas. However, as I learned more about Springdale’s recent history, this culture of innovation became even more obvious and seemed like a model from which others could learn. Just a few decades ago, Springdale was largely a Caucasian community enrolling around 5,000 students. Today, Springdale serves 21,500 students in PK-12. Meanwhile, the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic composition of the learner population has become much more diverse. The school district has a majority-minority student enrollment, including 31 percent Caucasian students, 47 percent English Language Learners, 46 languages spoken, and 63 percent free and reduced lunch eligibility. Included among the diverse learners is a comparatively large Marshallese population. (Native to the Marshall Islands, the Marshallese historically were a fishing-based culture until a portion of their country became the site of U.S. nuclear testing in the 1950s. A subsequent agreement with the U.S. government allows the Marshallese to travel freely between their country and the United States.) (more…)

Innovation Springing Up in Springdale

September 28, 2015 by
Dr-Megan-Witonski

Dr. Megan Witonski

When you talk to Dr. Megan Witonski, Associate Superintendent in Springdale School District (AR), it feels like she is just about to jump out of the phone, she is that full of passion, insightfulness, and the all-important we-are-going-to-make-this-happen-ness. I couldn’t but help imagine her with a superhero cloak.

Springdale, based in Northwest Arkansas, has 23,000 students, half of whom are English Language Learners. The district is entering their second year of implementation of a new 8-12 School of Innovation. The strategy doesn’t end with a new school – Springdale is personalizing their school district by having six of their schools approved (and the waivers that come with it) under the Arkansas Department of Education School of Innovation initiative. These six schools all provide students to the School of Innovation, led by principal Joe Rollins.

We’ve all seen districts start up new innovative schools but leave the others to stagnate. Not so at Springdale. For example, they found that advisories have been instrumental in the new School for Innovation in lifting up student voice, ensuring strong relationships are built with students, and helping to personalize instruction and support so they can be confident students are learning. As a result, they’ve already introduced advisories into the other middle and high schools.

What Inspired Springdale to Personalize: Witonski explained that there were several forces at work leading them to personalization. First, they wanted to make sure they were fully preparing their students for life after high school. They wanted to reach beyond the basic requirements for graduation. Second, with half of their student body learning English and needing help to fully build up their strength in the academic use of English, they needed a model that would ensure every student was fully engaged and able to get the support he or she needed.

Witonski said, “We were doing a great job for most students, but there is a population we need to seek out new approaches to reach and help build a wider set of skills. We began by looking at the most important ingredients for what students needed to be ready for college and careers. We wanted to make sure they had all the tools in their toolbelt to be successful. From there, we looked at what a structure could look like that would help them build those skills.” (more…)

What’s New in Competency Education (September 26)

September 26, 2014 by

You’ll find updates about competency education in K12 and in higher education below.Screen Shot 2014-08-30 at 7.22.41 AM

K12

  • Achieve has released a Student Assessment Inventory, a tool district leaders can use to take stock of their assessments and assessment strategy, and do so from a student perspective.
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