Philosophy empowers students to decide what, how to learn

NWA Democrat-Gazette/FLIP PUTTHOFF Teacher Becca Braun teaches a lesson on fractions Tuesda to her third-grade class at Reagan Elementary School in Rogers. Braun traveled to New Zealand with Reagan Principal Laura Quillen and other Northwest Arkansas educators.

Some Northwest Arkansas schools have adopted methods inspired by what local educators observed during a trip overseas.

It was this time a year ago when a group consisting mostly of school administrators and teachers from Benton and Washington counties returned from a week touring schools in Auckland, New Zealand.

Trip Takers

School districts and schools that sent teachers and administrators to New Zealand in October 2017:

  • Bentonville School District
  • Fayetteville School District
  • Haas Hall Academy
  • Rogers School District
  • Siloam Springs School District
  • Springdale School District
  • The Thaden School

Source: Staff Report

The trip was part of a two-year project to create a network of innovative educators in Arkansas willing to transform their schools into student-focused, modern learning environments, according to Denise Airola, director of the Office of Innovation for Education at the University of Arkansas.

The catalyst for accelerating this work was the trip to New Zealand, a country leading the way in student-centered, future-focused learning, Airola said. About three dozen people representing six Northwest Arkansas school districts and one private school were invited on the trip, which was paid for by the Walton Family Foundation.

Kim Davis, a senior program officer at the foundation, said the educators are working to change their schools and communities by regularly coming together to share insights, successes and challenges.

"It's inspiring to see educators from different districts and sectors share the work they are doing to provide learning environments where instructors work together to co-teach different subjects or explore online learning systems experienced in New Zealand that gauge student progress in real time," Davis said.

Student agency

Northwest Arkansas educators said New Zealand schools embrace certain philosophies and approaches they want to emphasize here.

One is the idea of "student agency," giving students power to decide what to learn and how to learn it, with guidance from a teacher.

"Our goal is to help kids understand their interests and become excited about learning for the sake of learning, and then challenge them to be creators instead of just receivers of information," said Annette Freeman, principal of George Elementary School in Springdale.

As an example, Freeman mentioned a second-grader who decided students needed to learn more about fire safety. The girl and her classmates produced a video.

"The kids designed a set, they made their own props. They researched fire safety. They researched safe ways to get out of a building," Freeman said.

The only thing their teacher did was edit the video, a skill the children didn't have but are learning, she said.

"The overall theme is student agency, letting students see they can be independent, they can do hard things, and a challenge should be celebrated," Freeman said.

Local principals reported before they went on the New Zealand trip, students had very little choice in what or how they were learning, according to Airola.

The educators "saw something very different in New Zealand, so now they believe students must be part of what they're learning," Airola said. "Their next steps are to continue to try to expand toward this. They're changing instruction as a result of it."

Emphasizing the qualities good learners possess is another takeaway.

Cindy Dewey, principal of Bentonville's Willowbrook Elementary School, said the school has landed on five key learner qualities: self-control, empathy, positive attitude, perseverance and problem-solver.

Dewey told the School Board earlier this year Willowbrook would design lesson plans around each of those qualities so kids truly understand what they mean. Students will be asked to identify which qualities they used to complete certain projects and tasks.

"We can't assume children understand these; they have to be taught," Dewey said. "The words will be embedded in the students' daily learning, and the students will identify those learner qualities. This gives students a sense of being in control of their own learning, which is one of our big focuses at Willowbrook."

Lines of learning

In Becca Braun's third-grade classroom at Reagan Elementary School in Rogers a row of cabinet doors displays a math "line of learning." The math skills students are expected to learn are posted on large, colorful signs in order of complexity.

Each student is represented on the line with a picture. As they master the skills, their picture moves down the line.

"In New Zealand we saw a lot of examples of clear progressions in a certain standard, and the kids being able to track their progress through a skill or standard," said Laura Quillen, principal at Reagan.

American schools generally are good at telling students what the goal is for a particular lesson and what they must do to achieve that goal, but what comes beyond that lesson is not explained, she said.

"A line of learning is kind of a progressive path in a standard," she said. "So we have kindergarten kids taking a piece of writing and being able to go to this line of learning and put their work against other examples and say where they are. They can very well articulate what they need to do to get better."

Braun, who went on the New Zealand trip, said she started doing lines of learning last school year.

"I've seen a really big difference in how quickly the students progress because they know exactly what the expectations are," Braun said.

Something that stuck with her from the trip was New Zealand doesn't have standardized testing to the extent America does. Braun said that empowers teachers to slow down and go into depth with their lessons. It convinced her of the need to go slowly as well with her students as much as possible, she said.

Afternoon block

Matt Morningstar, principal of Fayetteville's Holt Middle School, said educators must adapt to a changing world. His school is trying some different things based on the commitment to personalized learning commonly seen in New Zealand.

Holt this year has instituted what's called an "afternoon block" on Wednesday and Thursday. The bells shut off at 11 a.m. and the rest of the day is about personalized learning, where students get instruction tailored to their individual needs. Students also have some freedom to move around the building, Morningstar said.

"The school models we saw in New Zealand were completely on this afternoon block model," he said.

There is an achievement gap showing students in poverty and those with disabilities are performing poorly in relation to other students. The traditional model of education isn't working for everyone, Morningstar said.

"So we need to start tweaking something," he said. "We've been trying to perfect different ways of crafting a lesson for 28 kids. That's not personalized. It's time to start putting the learner at the center. We saw some people attempting that in New Zealand. That's pretty motivating."

Morningstar admitted change makes him nervous, but he's encouraged by what he's seen from the steps Holt has taken. The Arkansas Department of Education has encouraged this kind of innovation, he said.

Airola also said it takes courage for educators to try something new.

"I think we accomplished that goal of getting people outside their normal thinking. Now we have them actually acting on it," she said.

NW News on 10/28/2018