3. Iowa BIG: A community conversation about the knowledge and skills young people need to become engaged and successful members of the community as adults was linked with an initiative to send 60 community leaders back to school alongside learners over a four-month period. Through this experience, the community leaders realized that most learners were disengaged in school. Partitioning content into discrete subjects and courses made the learning boring and the teaching hard. Meanwhile, the work learners did in school had little connection to real-world problems, careers, and citizenship. Then came the founding of Iowa BIG, a high school learning experience sponsored by four local districts that enables learners to earn core credits by doing authentic projects.
The typical day of an Iowa BIG learner is half conventional and half learner-centered. For part of the day—either the morning or the afternoon—learners attend their local high schools. Then for the other half of the day, they go to an Iowa BIG site for real-world learning experiences. The model works with partner companies and organizations across Cedar Rapids to conceptualize projects learners might complete. Learners then work with partners to co-design interdisciplinary projects that both align with the academic and life goals of the learner, as well as the business or nonprofit needs of the partner. Projects might include creating museum exhibits, helping optimize processes at a hospital, hydroponic farming, or developing a messaging campaign for an animal shelter.
4. Village High School: The Village diverges markedly from standard approaches to high school education. Its learners receive all of their core academic content–English, history, social studies, and math–through mastery-based online courses. This format eliminates the need for scheduled class times and allows learners to progress at their own pace and test out of modules that they already have expertise in. Online courses at Village High School create time and capacity for the most learner-centered features of its model: its array of in-person electives.
Often team-taught and generally in-person, these courses are inspired by teachers’ and learners’ own passions. They cover myriad different topics, often in an interdisciplinary format: from Adulting 101, Renewable Energy, and Beekeeping to Comparative Religions and International Relations. Many electives take advantage of the Village’s flexible format. For an elective on ceramics, learners spend an entire day every week working on ceramics projects; and one physical education elective takes learners out into the Colorado Rockies for hiking and rock climbing. The grading model in electives is also different–closer to a workplace evaluation than to conventional points earned on assignments and tests. Learners and teachers sit down together to discuss learners’ progress and work, and decide on a grade together.
5. Embark Education: Miguel Gonzalez, a career educator, launched Embark Education in 2019 out of a coffee shop and a bike shop in North Denver, CO. His goal was to create a learner-centered model at the intersection of authentic experiences and relationships. That goal translated into a private, tuition-free micro-school serving approximately 50 sixth- through eighth-grade learners. Embark’s two businesses, Pinwheel Coffee and Framework Cycles, enable learners to engage in projects that integrate academics with real-world questions. For example, while working on the practical skill of crafting the perfect cappuccino under the guidance of adult baristas, learners investigate the differing mathematical ratios of ingredients present in a latte versus a cappuccino, and the chemistry behind the extraction of caffeine from coffee beans.
These integrated “shop projects’’ include a combination of direct instruction within the three core academic disciplines (math, science, and humanities); personalized learner exploration; and practical work within the bike and coffee shops. They enable learners to master foundational academic skills while simultaneously experiencing the application of these skills in the world beyond the classroom. Learners’ projects for the businesses must contribute to the success of the businesses. For example, learners don’t work on problems that the businesses have already solved, such as having learners apply math and science to reinvent the latte. Instead, Embark’s leaders look for opportunities that leverage the unique advantage of having learners’ on site to make the businesses better than what they could do alone.
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