As with all of the work involved in bringing learner-centered education to life, there is no distinct endpoint but rather a series of both incremental and radical changes that we create to improve our learners’ educational experiences.
Salisbury Township School District
How is it that the past two years feel like a momentary flash and an eon at the same time? Based on my own experiences and conversations with friends and colleagues, the pandemic has warped and distorted our sense of time and reality.
One thing it has brought into sharp focus, however, is the interconnectedness we all share and need in order to thrive. How our decisions affect the world and how the world affects our decisions has become radically clear. Though I would have preferred something other than the repeated gut-punch of this pandemic to bring this newfound clarity, I appreciate that it’s helped me and others apply a systems perspective to life and, particularly, to education.
What is systems thinking, though? It wasn’t born in the pandemic. In fact, it’s probably something you’ve heard about many times before as it’s become a buzzy concept in education and the broader zeitgeist. Although the phrase carries some cultural cache, there is substance to it, and immense value in applying it.
Systems thinking can be understood as discovering and studying the processes and structures that connect and change various aspects of life as we know them. In the context of education, systems thinking can be applied to better understand everything from the achievement gap to pedagogical innovations, helping illuminate influential factors that might have otherwise gone ignored.
In the case of understanding and supporting an individual learner, systems thinking involves considering all the factors that influence their learning and growth, not just the classroom-specific activities we hope will increase both. Through a systems perspective, we can no longer look at schools and classrooms as isolated learning environments, siloed off from the broader community. Learning happens everywhere, all the time, and considering the connections across contexts, is essential to creating more meaningful learning for our students.
With this systems mindset, my focus this school year has been on finding ways to connect my classroom to the wider world and to the topics that learners care about and that impact us all. I’ve been looking for ways to integrate social connection and community into the classroom, to build bridges across stakeholders—with learners’ perspectives consistently being present at the proverbial table. Over time, and with some trial and error, my colleagues and I have worked in our learner-centered pilot program to develop a number of practices that have helped learners expand their reach and thinking beyond the classroom, connecting them to their broader learning ecosystem.
Of the many changes we’ve experimented with this year, there are four that stand out as being the most effective for connecting our classrooms to the outside world, and one that we’re currently developing and very excited about. These four effective strategies include 1) the development of a competency-based curriculum with project proposals, 2) a time set aside each week for learners to share anything they want with the whole group, 3) a system that allows learners to choose their class schedule for the day, and 4) student-researched and -selected field trips. The fifth and final strategy currently in development is the creation of a community liaison role.
I’ve been looking for ways to integrate social connection and community into the classroom, to build bridges across stakeholders—with learners’ perspectives consistently being present at the proverbial table.
Salisbury Township School District
1. Competency-Based Curriculum and Project Proposals
Our competency-based curriculum with project proposals has been a game-changer in allowing learners to demonstrate their learning in various ways. Before explaining how this has helped open up our classrooms, it’s important to understand our curriculum design.
To create this system, we first identified our 6th through 8th-grade state standards in the subject areas of science, math, language arts, and social studies. Then, we turned these learning targets into “I can…” statements and organized them on Canvas LMS to make them accessible and digestible for middle-grade learners. With access to these learning targets, learners can choose how they want to demonstrate mastery of each one, with as little or as much help from the adults in the room as needed or desired. The last important piece of our competency-based curriculum is the use of a project proposal template, which allows learners to think through long-term, multi-step projects, connect them to learning targets, and consult with a teacher for final approval. Ultimately, what this system gives us is the flexibility to work with learners to adapt their learning experience to fit with their goals and interests without disregarding the core competencies needed in each school subject.
Because the curriculum is endlessly adaptable, learners are able and eager to find ways to demonstrate mastery through projects that have a real impact on their lives and the lives of others. For example, we have had students interested in graphic design develop t-shirts for our program that were sold for the purpose of fundraising for school supplies. This experience allowed them to develop their written and verbal communication skills as they worked with classmates, teachers, school administrators, and employees at the printing company. The flexibility of a competency-based curriculum, as well as the supporting structure of project proposals, is what allows our learners to create projects that excite them and that have an impact that extends beyond that of conventional schoolwork.
2. Thursday Sharing
The history of Islam, the significance of copper in modern life, the introduction of an alternate reality game (ARG), and common and uncommon phobias—these are just a handful of the many presentation topics our learners have chosen to share with their classmates.
Every Thursday morning, we utilize the cafeteria for whole-group sharing where, with the help of a large-screen projector and microphone, learners share topics of interest with approximately 70 of their classmates, as well as four or five adults.
Even beyond noting the courage it takes for a learner to present something of personal interest to that many peers, I wanted to highlight our Thursday Sharing practice because of the ways in which it allows learners to connect with their peers and make connections between their interests and their daily experience in school. To sign up to present something, learners share the idea with a teacher, get it approved, and then complete a Google Form that adds them to our running list of presentations. Topics can include anything appropriate for the school setting, whether or not it is in any way related to their school subjects. This Thursday Sharing has become something all of us, students and teachers alike, look forward to every week, and it’s allowed us to broaden what we think about and do in school.
3. Choice Blocks
In the past, we’ve experimented with learners completing their own agendas for the day. However, as our program has grown to include a wider variety of activities in multiple locations, some with limited capacity, we’ve evolved our agenda-setting practice to allow learners to sign up for a variety of activities happening throughout the program. Choice Blocks are what we call these periods of time in which learners sign up for specific activities.
Learners can sign up to work collaboratively with classmates, independently, or be part of our daily lecture series, in which teachers help learners develop some of the key background knowledge they need to use their independent work time most effectively. Like our competency-based curriculum, this is another component of our program that provides learners with the flexibility they need to make choices regarding when and how they will connect their learning to the broader community. For example, learners have used this time to write, record, and publish podcasts and articles that are shared school-wide and beyond.
This practice of selecting choice blocks occurs each morning. During this time, learners check their communication streams (i.e., Google Classroom, Canvas, and email), review their goals for the day, and finally, decide on how they will use their choice blocks that day. We have set our room capacities to 25, so learners can sign up for any open room. To avoid the additional expenses of scheduling software, we’ve created a Google Sheet with protected ranges and data validation, so each learner is only able to edit their schedule.
While learners are conducting their morning routine, we also review with learners which lecture series lessons will be occurring that day. Our lecture series rotates across subjects. For example, one day we might have a science lesson followed by a social studies lesson, and the next day we would have math followed by language arts.
4. Field Trip Planning
Our newest strategy for connecting our classrooms to the broader learning ecosystem is through the development of a field trip planning protocol that allows learners to identify high-interest destinations they would like to visit. Beyond simply considering where they would like to go, we’ve developed a system that allows learners to take ownership of the entire process.
The process begins with a planning checklist learners can access and make copies of to use whenever they would like to start planning a field trip. This checklist includes everything from planning lunches to communicating with site vendors to coordinate activities for the day. As part of this planning, learners also conduct research, such as surveying their classmates, to see which locations are most of interest. Lastly, learners collaborate with at least one teacher to identify potential curriculum connections. This collaborative process cultivates greater opportunities for field trips to be used as academic enrichment, though we also believe in the inherent value of engaging, enlightening field trips in cases where there are no direct connections to the curriculum.
As with most things in life, the pandemic has temporarily postponed our progress in making these plans a reality; however, we’re excited to go to our local aquarium as soon as it’s feasible. Most importantly, this approach to field trip planning has given learners more opportunities to consider what educational opportunities there are outside of the school setting and turn that brainstorming into a plan for the future.
5. Utilizing a Community Liaison
Our program is always evolving to improve the learner experience, and the next phase in this development is the creation of a community liaison role or even an entire liaison team composed of both educators and learners.
As we seek to make more connections between our classrooms and community, we’ve realized the importance of designating these responsibilities to someone who is the point of contact between community members and school-based stakeholders. Our plan is to have someone already involved in the program take on community liaison duties. In this role, this individual or group of individuals will be able to help us expand our impact in our community and bring more of the community into classroom-based learning experiences.
The past two years have reminded all of us about the interconnectedness of all aspects of life and, in the context of education, it’s helped me and many others realize the importance of integrating all of these aspects into the learning experience.
Salisbury Township School District
The past two years have reminded all of us about the interconnectedness of all aspects of life and, in the context of education, it’s helped me and many others realize the importance of integrating all of these aspects into the learning experience. This stands in stark contrast to the conventional classroom model, which operates as a silo of subject-specific learning. In these classrooms, students are told to apply what they’re learning beyond the classroom walls but are rarely given actual opportunities to do so. In our pilot program, we’re using these strategies to help break down those walls and create opportunities for our learners to feel empowered by their reach and connected to their local and global communities.
As you can see with the example of the community liaison role, our journey is still in progress. By opening up our classrooms to the wider world, there are endless possibilities for how we can cultivate engaging opportunities for learners in their learning ecosystem. As with all of the work involved in bringing learner-centered education to life, there is no distinct endpoint but rather a series of both incremental and radical changes that we create to improve our learners’ educational experiences. I hope these strategies serve as inspiration to anyone else interested in this journey of bringing their learners’ worlds into the classroom and bringing their learners out into the world.