Friday, April 4, 2014

RoadTripEDU: Discovering Innovation in California's Bay Area

This week I had the pleasure of traveling to the San Francisco area on the hunt for innovations in education. This trip was organized by my Head of School, Dan McKenna  @_danmckenna_ and included one of our classroom teachers, Caity Schmeltkopf @cschmeltekopf. Our goal- to find out how schools known as leaders in educational innovation, are creating transformative learning opportunities for children, incorporating 21st century skills, and facilitating school culture that embraces innovative practice.

We visited 4 schools: The Alt School, Hillbrook School, Marin Country Day School and San Domenico School.

Out of the 4, The Alt School was probably the most innovative. They are a very young, non-traditional program for elementary students but are expanding to middle school. They have created a personalized approach and utilize cutting edge technology and analytics to create an efficient system of measuring student achievement, organizing learning plans and curating resources. Their model is not for everyone and they may go through various iterations until they have a formula that they can effectively replicate. I'm so glad there are people out there pushing the limits and trying new things in education. They are employing very talented industry people to leverage the latest technology in unique ways within an educational space.

The Hillbrook School is on a beautiful, multi-building campus. Hillbrook is an Apple Distinguished Campus and technology integration includes a 1:1 ipad program and shared Macbooks. The technology runs in the background as a tool for doing the important work that focuses on authentic learning experiences, collaboration and high levels of critical thinking. eBackback helps them manage their digital workflow. Their learning spaces are open, flexible and include great outdoor learning areas, a woodshop, maker space, and an fantastic athletic facility. Students in Christina Pak's 7th grade history class were working on a sustainability project in collaborative groups. Students had to come up with a solution to a problem faced by China, tie it to one of the ancient philosophies as well as to a body system such as the respiratory, circulatory or skeletal system. A big event this week is a group of middle school students heading to China! *Side note- They have chickens!

Outside of the art room and tinkering space at
 Marin Country Day School. What a beautiful
learning environment!
Like Hillbrook, Marin Country Day School is a sprawling and beautiful campus. Technology in infused into their academic program and is used in very intentional ways as a tool for learning and not as a primary focus. Students as early as kindergarten are learning the basics of programing using Bee-Bots. Plans are underway for a Minecraft class in Middle School with authentic projects such as working with Lower School teachers to create games that teach core content to younger students. MCDS has a tinkering space, art rooms for different age groups, grade level gardens (which supply food for the cafeteria), individual music studios equipped with Macs and GarageBand software, a black box theater, outdoor gymnastics area that can be enclosed in bad weather, and a multi-level library/research building. Many smaller breakout spaces across campus provide alternative work and small group collaboration areas for students, parents and faculty. The library stacks are on casters which allows them to be moved easily for various event needs. The Head of School, Lucinda Lee Katz is inspirational and sets high expectations for faculty and students. She facilitates a culture of innovation by placing a high priority on risk taking and professional development. To paraphrase, she says learning is messy and some teachers have difficulty with this. They need to get comfortable with the messiness of the process. *Another side note- They have chickens AND an outdoor pizza oven! I love California!

The final school we visited was San Domenico, a pre-k through 12th grade campus. Unfortunately we did not get to see learning in action but had a great visit with the Director of Technology, Brad Lakritz. One of my take-away's from our visit with Brad is that unlike the opinion held by many secondary teachers, he feels that there is no need for students to have a laptop. He thinks everything they need to do can be done right from their iPad. He has some external keyboards for typing long papers but he says very few kids come check them out. Students are adapting quite well to using their ipads and the mobility and flexibility they offer make them a better 1:1 choice for their program goals. San Domenico is also an Apple Distinguished Campus and has great faculty support for technology integration. Each division has a teacher who is also a technology facilitator. Their role is to support technology integration within their division. Digital Citizenship is a priority at San Domenico and they have recently have become Digital Citizenship Certified and are a Common Sense Signature School. Professional development is key to their successful technology integration and is a priority for the campus. They are hosting the iTeach conference this June.

Some of the big ideas that I saw consistently between these schools include:
  1. Seamless integration of technology that blends into the background. The content and processes are the primary focus
  2. Functional space and aesthetics are intentionally planned and are an important part of the learning environment
  3. Program balance and a focus on the whole child, development of personal interests
  4. Systems thinking, community and connections beyond one's self 
  5. Differentiation, personalization and individualization of learning opportunities
  6. Authentic learning, real-world connections, project-based learning
  7. Learning focused at higher levels of cognition- Analysis, Evaluation, Synthesis
  8. Professional development is a priority
  9. Importance of parent partnerships
  10. Risk-taking, boundary pushing, failure is expected and necessary in order to innovate
As we discussed our trip on the way home I felt pretty good about the things we observed and where we are in our program development. It was very affirming that we are already incorporating many of the same big ideas that are happening at some of the most innovative schools in the country. Now I'm ready to check out the east coast!