Igniting Learning at the Making Community Connections Charter School

April 1, 2014 by

This is the first of a two-part series about Making Community Connections Charter School. Click here for Part 2.

“As a learner, I grew in the way a fire would if you sprayed gasoline on it.” – From a student’s graduation portfoliomc2

That’s what Making Community Connections Charter School (MC2) is all about –creating dynamic learners. At MC2, serving grades 7-12 in Manchester, New Hampshire, it feels like they wiped the slate clean of all the traditional ideas of what makes a school and started to design the school from scratch.  It’s deeply student-centered in its design and operations.  Its theory of change is built upon a deep understanding and appreciation of adolescent development, motivation, and learning sciences. MC2 is a model that will work for any student. At its center, it is designed around the kids who are educationally challenged (about 35% of MC2 students are classified as having special education needs), have already had a tough time in life by age 14, who have felt betrayed by the adults in their lives, and are drawing from their own reservoirs of stubborn hope that things can get better.

This case study on MC2 is broken into two parts. The first is on the design principles and the theory of action driving the school. The second is on how students progress and the implications for teachers.

Design Principles

Every conversation with Kim Carter, founder of MC2 and director of its non-profit partner organization QED Foundation, has sparkled with powerful insights.  She has been incredibly generous in sharing what seems to be her never-ending body of knowledge and insights.  Even with my awareness of the depth of her expertise, I was still surprised by the design of MC2.  It reminded me that it is not just about what we know, but how we creatively put it all together into learning experiences that are meaningful for students. Or in competency ed speak – it’s not just what you know, but how you apply it.

The design principles start with what students need in order to learn, firmly based on the 2001 National Research Council’s How People Learn report. The four principles are:

  • Learner-centered: Paying attention to what learners bring to the educational setting (knowledge, skills, attitudes, beliefs, language ability, cultural background); need for meaningfulness
  • Knowledge-centered: Moving beyond engagement to focus on understanding; emphasis on sense-making
  • Assessment-centered: Using formative assessments designed to show where students are in the “developmental corridor” of understanding, from informal to formal thinking
  • Community-centered: Developing norms for classroom and school, aspiring to be “accomplished novices;” connecting to experts outside school; family is a key environment for learning

Theory of Action: Motivation, Maturity and Metacognition

MC2’s design is built upon a foundation of adolescent development, motivation science and what we know about how we learn. In a student’s first years at the school, the emphasis is on helping them to mature as people and as learners with a deeper understanding of themselves, how they learn and what it takes to be an effective learner.  Whereas discussions about school reform often start with standards, curriculum and instruction, MC2 starts with how students learn, focusing on motivation, maturity (demonstrating the habits of mind and being) and metacognition. If you don’t understand and value this, the rest of the school design can be confusing. And if you do value it, does it start to make you wonder how we address motivation, maturation and metacognition in our traditional systems?

MC2 starts with the J Curve, an understanding that learning requires certain “habits of being, habits of mind.” The J Curve assumes that there is a greater investment upfront in helping students build their habits and gain maturity that will at some point lead to a much steeper trajectory of learning, i.e., an acceleration of learning.  This raises an enormous question: How should we think about expected rates of learning if we can only measure academic gains and not gains in habits and maturity?

MC2/QED Foundation has done an extraordinary job of creating rubrics that help teachers and students focus conversations about how students are progressing on each habit.  There are three foundational habits: Self-Direction, Ownership and Community (described by Carter as “where you give and get help”).  Habits of being include Character, Quality Work, Global Citizenship, Collaboration and Curiosity and Wonder. Habits of mind are Critical Thinking, Creative Thinking, Decision Making, Information Technology, Management, Organization, Leadership, Problem Solving and Communication. You’ll notice that there are many more habits than you see in most schools. They are also more specific than I’ve seen in any other school. MC2 has made sure that the rubrics are concrete enough that students and teachers can use them to reflect and discuss whether specific behaviors or events are evidence of how students are progressing.

The most important and most difficult issue about habits isn’t which ones, how many or the rubrics. It’s the question about how children and youth-serving institutions like school can actually support maturation and the development of these skills.  The habits are core to MC2’s design; thus, there are a number of different ways that students are able to strengthen their habits and be recognized for their growth:

  • Advisories have very clear functions and responsibilities. Students learn about themselves in a community and learn to manage their learning. Advisories are a chance to continually expand on what is expected to be learned by setting the daily goals for working on habits, and reviewing the schedule for the day.
  • End of Day is a reflective practice for students, who write 200 words at the end of every day about how they did on their goals.
  • A mix of Learning Opportunities, including studios and internships, provide plenty of opportunity for students to practice their habits. Learning Studios build off the elements of project-based learning. Students can choose from different studios based on essential questions, such as What Is Play? or What Does It Mean to Be Human? An intentional instructional design starts with small projects or tasks, and then expands into opportunities for students to design application projects around their interests. .  The end-of-day reflection helps them capture their daily productivity and challenges. Learning Studios culminate with students’ presentation of their projects in authentic contexts and for audiences beyond their Studio group. Internships start with students researching careers, writing resumes, and participating in site interviews. As students mature so do their responsibilities in their internships. Treks are field experiences designed to engage students’ sense of curiosity and wonder (one of the habits) providing students opportunities to develop skills and apply learning in settings that are meaningful to them. (Remember, NH has a strong Extended Learning Opportunity policy the enables students to build competencies outside of the classroom.)
  • Four Phases, each with a gateway experience that includes a portfolio and presentation, are designed for students to reflect on where they started, where they have come, and what they have learned along the way. (More on phases below).

The result is that MC2 is helping students develop the intrinsic motivation and ability to self-assess what they need to do to be able to tackle learning challenges.

We often talk about student agency or student voice and choice in competency education, but we don’t talk about what it really means to help students who may not be as mature as their classmates, may have been traumatized and easily triggered by situations, or may find a disconnect with their family culture around the role of children. In order to create a culture that allows students to mature and build agency, MC2 is constantly reinforcing the school culture by valuing “relationships first” and making the culture explicit through a number of catch phrases used repeatedly throughout the day, including:

  • Let’s make it work
  • Make good choices, get more choices; make poor choices, get fewer choices
  • Leverage strengths to address areas of challenge
  • Model up, model down
  • We are a laboratory of democratic practice
  • You are a good learner, and here’s how I know….
  • What makes you say that?
  • Beware of the Dip (from Seth Godin’s The Dip, referring to the place when things get hard and you have to push through rather than quit).

“Everything starts with relationships,” Carter said. “The kids learn that they have to have agency within relationships. We expect our students to ask ‘Who says?’ and ‘What makes you say that?’ so that they build their own understanding and learn how to give productive feedback and advocate for themselves.”

Metacognition is a constant part of the learning process at MC2. Transparency means that students understand the four steps of the learning cycle (concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation) and that it is in the context of the 4MAT instructional framework that builds on meaning, concepts, skills and adaptations. They also have plenty of opportunity to reflect, “How do I learn best?

As students build their competency in the different habits of work, demonstrating the knowledge, skills, dispositions and the necessary maturity, they prepare portfolios and a presentation in order to pass through gateways onto the next phase.  I’ll write about this in tomorrow’s post.

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