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How ‘something so simple’ can transform education

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A small Catholic school in Honolulu, Hawaii, has discovered the transformative power of putting students in charge of their own learning.

Cathedral Catholic Academy, which serves just over 100 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, has adopted a mission to personalize instruction for each child. Students can progress through a project-based, blended-learning curriculum at their own pace, with teachers serving as advisors and facilitators. The students can choose for themselves what types of projects they will create to demonstrate their learning.

After only a year of using this approach, students have taken “a huge leap forward,” said Principal Michael Pa‘ekukui. Grades have improved and students are more invested in their education.

“They want to be here,” Pa‘ekukui said. “The whole attitude has shifted. It’s incredible to see how something so simple can transform a school.”

The shift may be simple in concept, but it has taken a lot of work to implement—including a bold decision by Pa‘ekukui early on that ensured 100-percent buy-in from his staff.

The ‘engine driving change’

Cathedral has a proud, 80-year history, along with a tradition of mixing the old and the new. Learning ancient Hawaiian customs is deeply embedded in the school’s culture, yet it’s often the first school in the area to innovate, such as when it moved to an extended-year calendar.

But enrollment has been steadily declining in recent years and school leaders knew they needed to do something dramatic to reverse this trend.

“We’ve been discussing how we can improve for the last five years,” Pa‘ekukui said.

Through a partnership with School Improvement Network, Cathedral teachers and administrators have been watching videos of exemplary instruction, which served as a launching point for discussions about the evolving nature of 21st-century teaching and learning. This practice helped Pa‘ekukui and his staff develop a vision for how to provide deeper, richer learning experiences for students by adopting a more personalized, student-centered approach to instruction.

The school’s partnership with School Improvement Network “was the combustion engine driving change,” he said.

In talking with company representatives, Pa‘ekukui learned that School Improvement Network was rolling out a new personalized learning platform, Edivate Learn, that combines online content and assessment with features designed to help teachers differentiate their instruction, such as tools to create individualized learning paths for each child.

Having found a technology platform to support its new vision for learning, Cathedral was ready to move forward with its plan.

Preparing for the shift

Pa‘ekukui knew the transformation to a student-centered approach to learning would not be easy. Ceding control to students requires a “big shift” in teachers’ mindset, he noted.

To ensure that his staff supported these changes, he collaborated with the diocese to rewrite teachers’ job descriptions and asked them to reapply for their positions. According to the new descriptions, teachers were called “21st century facilitator-educators.” Those who weren’t ready for the shift were encouraged to find employment elsewhere.

“We were very transparent throughout the process,” Pa‘ekukui said.

As he anticipated, Pa‘ekukui lost a few staff members—but those who reapplied to teach at Cathedral were committed to the school’s new vision.

During professional learning time, Pa‘ekukui had his staff watch videos of student-centered instruction from the Edivate Learn library, then followed this with rich discussions about what they saw in the videos and how it could be applied in their own classrooms. He also took them to visit other schools where personalized learning was occurring.

“I think the best way for teachers to learn is to observe how others are teaching,” he said.

School Improvement Network also sent professional learning consultants to the school several times during the year to work with the staff, observing and discussing their practices.

Giving students a choice

Because this was Cathedral’s first year in adopting a more student-centered method of instruction, Pa‘ekukui allowed his teachers to integrate this approach at their own pace.

While some took it farther than others, the characteristics that were common to all classrooms included the use of formative assessments to check for understanding; shifting some of the learning online and allowing students to proceed at their own pace; and giving students a choice in how they could demonstrate their knowledge through creative projects.

For instance, in his own classroom—Pa‘ekukui teaches sixth-grade English in addition to serving as principal—students read the novel Peter and the Starcatchers, then worked in groups on projects they devised themselves to showcase their understanding of the book. One group created a movie trailer, while another painted a giant, three-part mural depicting the book’s beginning, middle, and end.

Using the Edivate Learn platform, Pa‘ekukui is able to assess his students’ vocabulary and grammar skills, then assigned “playlists” of video clips and other digital content to help close their gaps in understanding. “It has made me a better teacher,” he said of the software.

Students in grades 6-8 are given a Dell laptop for classroom use, while the classrooms in grades K-5 have laptop centers for students to use in completing digital work. The school also has iPads for use in the earlier grades.

‘Incredible gains’

In the first year of the school’s new focus, the percentage of students with a straight “A” average increased from 10 percent to nearly a third. “We’ve seen some incredible gains,” Pa‘ekukui said.

What’s more, students are now excited to come to school because they are getting to do what they want to do and are helping to design the curriculum. This is bringing out their creativity as well.

Kona Minchew, a seventh grader this past year, has really thrived in the new environment. Where she used to struggle before, this year she made the principal’s list every quarter.

“I think it has helped me to get more ‘real-world’ experience, rather than (learning from) a paper or a book,” she said. “Learning for yourself is easier than someone teaching you.”

Pa‘ekukui concluded: “I don’t see students holding back anymore. They’re jumping out of their seats, proposing projects. … Giving them that freedom has been incredible.”

Dennis Pierce is a freelance writer who has been reporting on technology in education for more than 17 years. Dennis can be reached at denniswpierce@gmail.com.

This article was sponsored by School Improvement Network and not written by the EdSurge editorial staff.
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