opinion

The Innovation Experiment: How Do We Know These New Learning Models Work?

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Blended learning. Personalized learning. Competency- and project-based learning. All of these terms can easily be written off as buzzwords in education. Skeptics say that there is very little data to support the idea that these new models are better than traditional models. And they’re right – there is a real dearth of data that we can point to that fully captures what those of us on the ground know about what is working for our students. But the fact that there is little data should not be a proof-point that these models don’t work. It just means that many of us struggle to operate simultaneously inside and outside of a system that was only built to test content-knowledge in a very standardized way. We have to adhere to state accountability measures, but we also need to be better at developing instruments and processes that truly capture all the “other stuff” that really makes innovative models better positioned to prepare students for real and lasting success.

For the last twelve years, we have been hard at work designing, testing, refining, and iterating our project-based learning model at Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. And for us, and all of the other educators on the bleeding edge of school innovation, we have continued to champion the importance of embracing a broader definition of student success than what has been handed to us by state and national policy. While we believe that it is essential for all students to be proficient in math, literacy, and the sciences, we believe that that is not enough. Students also need a rich set of social and cognitive skills that span beyond any given discipline.

In the life of our schools, we have seen the powerful way that our students through project-based learning have embraced deeper learning outcomes, and exhibited the habits of effective critical thinking, collaboration, and personal character. However, our evidence that this is working is only found in anecdotes and in the quality of student work.

In searching for ways to measure what we see developing in our students, we have embraced a scientific approach to school assessment as we search for the data we need to prove our hypotheses.

So for Two Rivers, it looks something like this…

1. Ask a Question

Two Rivers was founded on the principle that we need to embrace a broader definition of student success than what has been handed to us by state and national policy. In addition to being proficient in math, literacy, and the sciences, we believe students need well-developed social and cognitive skills to be successful in life. The question we had to ask ourselves as educators was, “how do we create a model that allows students to develop social and cognitive skills that span beyond any given discipline?”

2. Do Your Research

Two Rivers is a parent-founded charter school, meaning we needed to find a model that accomplished our goals while providing our community with a school that met their needs.Two Rivers examined the research behind project-based learning and designed our model around the theoretical base and the history of successful practice at EL Education to go above and beyond the standard definition of student success, provide students with an environment where learning is a joyful experience, and make parents feel confident that their children would gain important skills.

3. Construct a Hypothesis

Through our school model, students experience hands-on interdisciplinary learning through projects, or expeditions, as we call them, that each last 10 to 12 weeks and require students to tackle real world problems that don’t have easy paths to solutions or one right answer.

For example, our students do an expedition on slavery in which they visit the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site to learn about the history of slavery, and are tasked with connecting that history to today’s society through a narrative monologue or poem.

Our hypothesis: If we provide the experiences for students to collaborate, take ownership of their education, and find joy in the subjects they are studying, then they will be more engaged in school and learn vital social and cognitive skills—like problem-solving and teamwork—in addition to core competencies.

4. Test your Hypothesis

Because our model is not focused solely on traditional measures of student success, we needed to develop our own set of standards to define and assess students’ development of critical thinking and problem solving skills.

Critical thinking and problem solving, as we define it, comprise the set of non-discipline specific cognitive skills people use to analyze vast amounts of information and creatively solve problems. We broke those skills down into these five core components:

  • Schema Development: The ability to learn vast amounts of information and organize it in ways that are useful for understanding
  • Metacognition and Evaluation: The ability to think critically about what one is doing and evaluate many potential choices
  • Effective Reasoning: The ability to create claims and support them with logical evidence
  • Problem Solving: The ability to identify the key questions in a problem, develop possible paths to a solution, and follow through with a solution
  • Creativity and Innovation: The ability to formulate new ideas that are useful within a particular context

In addition to displaying these skills through their project work, students also prepare a collection of their best work to be shared during student-led portfolio presentations. This allows them not only to take ownership of their learning, but also to think critically about the work that they’ve done as they assess what should be included in their portfolio.

5. Assess Your Model

As we look to measure the performance of our model, we look both to traditional measures of success, like PARCC scores, but are also developing our own assessment tools—short problem-based tasks—to measure our students’ critical thinking and problem solving.

Outperforming the citywide average for percent of students in grades three through eight proficient on the PARCC assessments, 16 percent more of our students scored in proficient range on the English Language Arts assessment and 10 percent more of our students scored proficient on the math assessment. While this performance demonstrates that our model works on many levels, these test scores alone are not good enough measures for our students. As an educator who has been at Two Rivers from the beginning, I’ve seen tremendous successes among students not reflected in test scores.

The student project on the history of slavery is a perfect example. Through that task, students are challenged to apply historical context to current events, express their thoughts through performance art, and face some of the complicated realities of how that history affects society today.

One of our students in particular really took to that project. As a student who qualified for free and reduced lunch and dealt with numerous learning difficulties, he could have easily been lost in a traditional setting. But because he was engaged in a project that brought history alive for him, his intelligence and interest in the subject shined through.

6. Communicate your Results

Just like any experiment, your results shouldn’t live in a vacuum. The most important part of exploring innovative ideas is sharing your successes (and failures) with your peers so that your ideas can be duplicated, built upon and customized to work in other environments. As an educator, I care about improving the learning process not only for my students, but for others across the education system as well. That’s why I’m participating in the #NGLCchat.

Jeff Heyck-Williams (@jheyckwilliams) is the director of curriculum and instruction for Two Rivers Public Charter School. He’ll be participating in the #NGLCchat on August 11th at 7pm ET discussing the Next Generation Learning Challenges’ (NGLC) Measures that Matter Most report.

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