Looking for an innovation model for your school? Try asking students

Two Chicago schools find looking to students a very freeing experience

How do you combat student engagement problems and encourage students to take an interest in their own learning? For many schools the answer seems to be some variation of personalized learning, as interpreted by school administrators or outside curriculum savants. For two Chicago-area schools, however, the solution came down to asking students: How do you want to learn?

LeViis Haney and Karen Breo, the Chicago-area principals in question, recently spoke about their experiences in reshaping school culture at a panel during the ASU GSV Summit in San Diego, a conference that brings education investors and philanthropists together with educators and ed-tech entrepreneurs. The panel, centered on how schools can go about choosing an innovation model for themselves, brought together a handful of school leaders who had taken part in pilot programs from LEAP Innovations, an organization which helps facilitate that process.

A few years ago, Haney, the principal of Joseph Lovett Elementary School, noticed a school culture of stagnation. Students learned at their desks, typically from worksheets given to them by teachers who were disengaged with students and the teaching process. “We were experiencing very low levels of engagement and it manifested itself in a lot of data points that were not conducive to teaching and learning,” he said. “We knew we had to do something to change the culture. What would create a fun environment for kids?”

One of the first things they looked at was what school looked like from a student’s point of view, something that initially proved challenging. “This was difficult for us,” Haney said. “Sometimes we think totally different from what’s actually happening.”

For one thing, the exercise taught them that sitting in a single spot for long periods of time was agitating for students and teachers alike. Haney said his school took a risk and decided to move away from a distinctly passive learning model and let students learn wherever they felt most comfortable — in the hallways, small groups, the library. Now, as part of the school day, students might receive individual assignments from teachers via Google Classroom and can take their devices anywhere they want to complete them.

Shifting the school’s instructional model and professional development — even in relatively small ways — was not something Haney’s school was able to do for free. They received a $30,000 grant, which Haney said was critical for helping teachers and admin teams work together to determine their school’s problems, design supports for students, and test them. And if those supports don’t work? The school needs to be willing — and financially able — to rework them so that they do, Haney said. “We wouldn’t have been able to do what we did, or change things nearly as quickly, without that money,” he said. “We want our student so succeed on tests and those sorts of things, but what are we really in this for is we want students to learn. We have to be willing to think outside the box, and not be afraid to take a risk.”

Karin Breo, principal at Chicago International Charter School, Irving Park, had a similar challenge with engagement. Her school’s students were some of the top performers in the area; students regularly scored well on standardized tests and the school experienced few discipline problems. “Kids are very compliant,” she said of her school. “They wanted to do what the teachers told them, and they’re very task oriented.” But they also struggled with connecting to the material they were learning in a meaningful way.

To shake things up, Breo’s staff performed an empathy activity as part of the Summer Design Program coordinated by Leap Innovations. Administrators interviewed parents and teachers, and teachers in turn interviewed students on how they felt about school. “Across the board, [students’] overall answer was they wanted to be able to move,” Breo said. Younger kids fantasized about jet packs that would carry them far away from their desks.

This year, the school has listened, making changes to the way third and fourth grade students learn. The process started by asking those students more questions about how and where they learn best, as well as putting a greater focus on helping them understand why they’re learning a particular concept or subject.

“That mindshift of trying to take them away from being so task-oriented was a mindshift for all of us as educators in the building,” Breo said, adding that the exploratory process was a helpful experience, if a little out of their comfort zone. “We’re all kind of Type A. We wish someone could give us something and just roll it out. But it’s been really fun to be innovative and to try different things to make sure we’re iterating for the students and that they’re responding.”

The full panel discussion is available to stream online.

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