Let’s Reimagine School!

Dr. Roxanne Giampapa, Director of the Pinewood American International School, explores pivotal issues in education today and proposes a new education model, one that involves consequential shifts in how we teach and how we learn.

Why is it important to reimagine schools?

Simply put, schools have been unhurried in the race to evolve. Just imagine your doctor telling you he has not learned any new medical knowledge since his university education 35 years ago. No doubt you would change doctors immediately. Yet, this is how many schools operate today—with classrooms set up similar to those a century ago and school leaders who have placed little emphasis on the growth and development of teachers. The result is a notable gap between students’ and teachers’ approaches to knowledge and learning. This incites students to characterize schools as irrelevant, boring and lacking in 21st century skills development. As a school Director, therefore, I have a responsibility to reimagine the school experience for our students and teachers.

Can you describe the challenges inherent in reimagining the school experience?

To answer this, I paradoxically travel back to John Dewey, the prophetic 19th century educational philosopher, who believed that school is a social institution and the teacher must be a partner, not an authoritarian, in the learning process. I agree. Applied to the practice of reimaging schools, this translates to a high level of reciprocity between students and teachers and it assumes that both are learners. Fast-forward 120 years, however, and we see a notable disruption in the student-teacher partnership and teacher-as-learner concept that are so central to great schools. Our students are digital natives while the majority of our teachers are digital immigrants who must adapt—and this isn’t always easy to do. Yet, adapting must be a priority. As Palfry and Gasser explain in Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives, we must face the fact that our students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.

Can you provide some examples of what you mean by digital natives vs. digital immigrants?

Of course. For today’s students, knowledge is open, collaborative and accessible, often from the bottom up and frequently presented in multimedia. For today’s adults, knowledge is individually owned, comes from the top down, that is, by experts, and generally is presented as text. Adults want to do things step-by-step, one thing at a time; younger generations want to multi-task. We want learning to be serious; they want learning to be fun. We focus on deferred rewards ‘it will help you later; they want ‘just-in-time’ learning that is relevant. We see knowledge as static; they view it as malleable. We see schools as a place to learn; they see the world as a place to learn.

How do we prepare our teachers for this new paradigm?

Here’s a frightening thought. I read somewhere that teachers are no longer necessary for learning to take place. I certainly don’t agree. However, I also read somewhere that the act of teaching doesn’t presuppose that learning is happening. This bears some truth. So, one of the best ways for teachers to be effective with today’s students is for them to engage in the very same technology-based, collaborative and creative learning opportunities that they must be providing to their students. As evidenced in practice at Pinewood, this approach ensures that learning is happening by positioning teachers as valued learners. There is a wealth of opportunities out there to accomplish this, including MOOCs (massive open online courses) from the likes of MIT and Columbia, the micro-credentialing movement, Khan Academy, webinar platforms, online professional learning communities, app schools and other open educational resources to stimulate the student-teacher partnership.

Can you provide a pragmatic example of what a reimagined school experience might look like for students?

Yes, allow me to do so by posing a question. Which school would you want your child to attend? School A teaches the fundamentals of rate-time-distance to students. As a demonstration of learning, students participate in a competition to design simple sponge ball launchers using CADD technology. Once built, student teams line up outside and the school principal agrees to drive by at a prescribed speed while students deploy their ball launchers to earn points for hitting the principal’s car. Compare this to School B, who also teaches the fundamental concepts of rate-time-distance, and then asks students to demonstrate understanding by completing exercises in the textbook and taking a written test.

It seems evident that we want our children to be in schools that generate excitement around learning, as does School A. This is what I mean by reimagining the school experience. We rigorously teach sciences, mathematics, literature, history, arts, and languages, but not as an end. Rather, this fundamental knowledge becomes the tools for creating, for inventing, for doing. The School A example so elegantly illuminates several big shifts that Pinewood is currently implementing in the process of reimagining the school experience; namely, the shift from knowing to doing, from the individual to the team, from consumption of information to construction of meaning and from high stakes testing to high value demonstrations of learning.

What realistic steps can schools, public or private, take to make the move towards reimagining their schools?

There are many consequential steps that schools can take within the context of a traditional curriculum and with little financial burden to increase student engagement and preparedness for the future. Here are four that can be taken swiftly, if done so intentionally, by schools.

BYOD or Bring Your Own Device. We have more technology in the palm of our hand than that used to put a man on the moon. So, let’s increase access to technology without increasing costs by allowing students to bring their personal mobile devices to school. It’s time we stop banning technology at school and start teaching digital citizenship there. BYOD is an authentic learning milieu to accomplish this modern charge.

20% Time or Genius Hour. The idea comes from Google’s policy where employees may use 20% of their work time for the development of their own interests. It has been a wildly successful concept in the business world and in education. So, give students a few hours per week to channel their very own passions while teachers serve as guides and partners for them. If you’re not convinced, watch or read anything by Sir Ken Robinson or Daniel Pink. I assure you, you’ll be a convert.

Project-Based Learning. PBL is an important educational delivery system because it takes the curriculum beyond the textbook. It asks students to use knowledge to create original solutions and new ideas. Great schools take this further by creating cultures of performance by requiring public presentation and defense of students’ works. This approach is academically challenging, uses any school curriculum and encourages the development of the 4Cs – critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity. Need I say more?

Growth Mindset. Schools must create an environment for students to develop what Stanford’s Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset. This requires that we leave behind the outmoded dogma that intelligence is fixed and that some kids are good at math, for example, and others are not. Teachers and students who understand that intelligence can be developed through hard work, effort and trying new strategies will approach learning with more engagement and success.

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