Tag Archives: educational innovation

Learning through play: A conversation about Quest to Learn

As part of a series focused on the evolution of schools and organizations working to improve education, this post explores the work of the Institute of Play and of Quest to Learn, a public 6-12 school opened by the Institute in collaboration with the NYC Department of Education in 2009. To learn more about how their work has evolved we talked with Arana Shapiro, Director of Programs, Schools, and Partnership at the Institute of Play and an original member of the Quest to Learn design team.

Can schools be reimagined to incorporate the highly engaging and effective aspects of gaming in order to help students learn? The Institute of Play was created in 2007 in order develop a school model that incorporated the gaming approach to the classroom setting. In 2009, the Institute opened Quest to Learn in collaboration with the New York City Department of Education. As the school puts it on its website, “Quest to Learn re-imagines school as one node in an ecology of learning that extends beyond the four walls of an institution and engages kids in ways that are exciting, empowering and culturally relevant.” Central to that “re-imagining” is the idea that with curricula organized more like games, student engagement would improve. As the school describes it, “games are designed to create a compelling complex problem space or world, which players come to understand through self-directed exploration. They are scaffolded to deliver just-in-time learning and to use data to help players understand how they are doing, what they need to work on and where to go next.”

The focus on games grew out of a concern with research showing a link between increases in high school drop out rates and declines in engagement as students transition between elementary and middle school. “Our question was,” Shapiro explained, “can we take the principles that make games engaging spaces and turn them into a school space, therefore engaging kids in school in a way they haven’t in the past?” The Institute of Play’s design team then began exploring the elements of games that make them so appealing. The team noted that games present a complex challenge or problem to solve and were focused on a single goal. Then, they saw that feedback to the participant was ongoing and immediate. Also, participants step into an immersive space and take on a role. Learning happens because participants are required to apply what they know to whatever problem they are trying to solve or whatever role they have taken on. According to Shapiro, “Our learning model is presenting students with complex and challenging problems that they don’t know how they’re going to solve, and then developing curriculum that leads students through a series of experiences that help them develop the skills and expertise that help them solve the problems.” Students are expected to move through the curriculum as they would move through a game.

The team also believed that in addition to preparing students to meet required standards, their gaming approach could foster skills that students need in order to succeed in life but that aren’t usually addressed in school. “At Quest, we outlined a set of competencies that we want kids to know in order to compete, but more importantly we believe there are skills that kids can learn, like complex problem solving, communication, systems thinking, and digital media tool use, that are equally important.”

The school’s experiences in the 7 years since it opened makes clear both the intense interest in gaming as a form of learning as well as the challenges of focusing an entire school on such a new approach. On the one hand, the school has been the subject of a number of stories and articles and gets frequent requests for visitors. On the other hand, the school has faced a number of challenges that new schools often face.  For example, the school is trying to re-imagine learning while occupying the same kinds of classrooms that have been around for years. In Quest to Learn’s case, flexibility is further limited by the fact that the school occupies one floor of a public school with six other schools operating in it as well.

Furthermore, despite the interest in games, students, parents, and educators all have different ideas about what the games should be and how they should be used for learning. For example, one misconception has been that the school would be high-tech and focus on video games. In fact, the school doesn’t use technology any more than a normal school would. In short, in order to be successful, all stakeholders need to be engaged and that requires an emphasis on helping all members come to a common understanding of what the school is trying to do.

Teacher education has presented another challenge, as most schools of education are not focused on the Institute’s vision of progressive education. In many ways, the Institute’s philosophy is more consistent with play-based models for early education, but it is less familiar for many teachers at the middle and high school levels. As a consequence, the team at the Institute of Play found that teachers often needed to be introduced to an entirely different model for education and considerable focus on professional development was required.

At the same time, the experiences of the Institute and the school have contributed to a robust professional development program. The school’s unique approach to learning has attracted the interest of teachers and leaders who want to know more about how to bring this approach to learning to their own schools. As a result, the Institute has developed a professional development program that stands alone from the school. That program includes 3-day workshops for teachers and an online community to help keep participants connected. These workshops are now in schools on Long Island, Westchester, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Chicago, North Carolina, and Michigan. In short, rather than trying to scale a gaming approach to learning by developing a network of Quest to Learn Schools, the team has found that working directly with teachers may provide a better avenue for expanding their approach.

 

 

Learning from successful education reforms in Ontario

class-roomIn 2003, the Ontario government began to focus on issues of educational improvement. The government instituted a series of reforms that have proven incredibly successful, with elementary achievement results rising from 54% in 2003 to 72% of elementary students performing at or above the provincial standard in in reading, writing and mathematics in 2014, and high school graduation rates rising from 68% to 84% in the same amount of time. This past summer I spoke with Mary Jean Gallagher, Ontario’s Chief Student Achievement Officer and Assistant Deputy Minister of the Student Achievement Division, and Richard Franz, Director of Research, Evaluation & Capacity Building, for the Student Achievement Division, to learn more about their experiences with this reform effort thus far, and their plans for the future. As this conversation was so informative, we have decided to post it in two parts. Here, in part one, Gallagher and Franz share some of their thinking on aspects of the Ontario reform effort that have been essential to its success.

Bringing educators into policymaking realm

In 2008, Gallagher was the leader (Director of Education) of Canada’s southernmost school district when she was selected for her new position at the Ontario Ministry of Education (MOE). This position – Chief Student Achievement Officer and Assistant Deputy Minister of the Student Achievement Division– was envisioned as an innovation. While MOE officials were typically promoted from public service positions, Gallagher’s experience was in schools, as a teacher, a principal, superintendent, and Director of one of Ontario’s 72 school districts. With the creation of this Division and position, and the hiring of Gallagher, the MOE demonstrated that it valued the expertise of educators. This went along with the MOE’s renewed emphasis on valuing the work of educators, particularly in positions that focused on student achievement. At that time, the MOE wanted to ensure that all of their work was based on valuing educators—seeing improved learning as a result of improved teaching.

With this new effort to bring educators into the policymaking realm, the MOE also made sure that approximately two-thirds of staff within the Student Achievement Division was comprised of practicing educators who had already proved themselves to be strong instructional leaders. In order to do this they created new positions in which practitioners, such as teachers and school leaders, could work for up to three years with the MOE. The theory behind this model was that working closely with “front-line” educators would build the capacity of both those who worked in the field, as well as those who worked in the central offices. Franz pointed out that working with educators on the creation of new policy helps the MOE officials by providing perspective on how such policy might “land” in schools. Additionally, once those educators complete their temporary positions in the MOE offices and return to their schools, they arrive with more knowledge and understanding of how such policies were developed and created. This new “blended” model builds appreciation in both spheres. As Gallagher and Franz explained, this effort helps create alignment between goals, priorities, methodologies and implementation, and over the past 13 years it has proven a “formula for wonderful results.”

Maintaining a limited number of goals

Gallagher and Franz also attributed Ontario’s success to the MOE’s narrow focus on a limited number of educational goals, specifically increasing student achievement, closing educational gaps, and increasing confidence in public education. As Gallagher and Franz explained, these are the goals that everyone working in the Ontario education system can recite, as well as the targets associated with them. By focusing closely on a limited number of goals they have seen a huge difference in their ability to keep focused on what is important.

In addition to knowing these goals, educators have become increasingly aware of the ways in which they can measure improvement and identify success as they work to achieve them. This allows teachers to develop an understanding of their own efficacy and agency, which, as Gallagher and Franz noted, excites and motivates educators. Ontario’s focus on province-wide testing standards in literacy and numeracy, and a set curriculum, has promoted clarity about what students are expected to know, understand, and be able to do.

Using data and assessments to test the system, not individuals

Starting in the mid-1990s, Ontario’s government began implementing a set of tests based on Ontario’s Curriculum Expectations and Standard of Achievement for grades 3 and 6 in reading, writing, and math, as well as in grades 9 (math) & 10 (literacy). As Gallagher explained, Ontario holds very high standards for their students. Student work is identified as level 1, 2, 3, 4, and the provincial standard of success is level 3 (the equivalent of a letter grade of B), which is higher than what is expected on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Ontario’s assessment organization is an arms-length organization of the government, funded by the MOE but separate from it with its own board of directors. This organization has become, over time—an opportunity for professional learning as well, as teams of educators are assembled to devise test items and mark assessments over the summer months. As a result, teachers become well versed in the standards and measurement of performance and thereby build their own assessment literacy.

Gallagher and Franz note that these assessments are not standardized, and are not proprietary. Instead, they are criterion referenced assessments of the curriculum. The tests are used to gather information about the degree to which the students are able to demonstrate what they have learned from the curriculum. As a result, Ontario’s teachers feel less pressure to “teach to the test”; instead, the teachers are teaching to a curriculum they approve of and which teachers have had a hand in developing. The overall sense is that the tests are used to assess the entire educational system, rather than individual teachers and students. This collective focus also encourages teachers to work collaboratively and use assessment for learning for student achievement efforts.

Ontario has also moved to a common data system across the province as well. Starting in the late 1990s, the government created a tracking system in which all students were assigned an ID number. This allows the MOE to track individual school’s assessments of student performance, and compare those results to province-wide results. The ID number is also now being used to track students from early childhood education through to college (or apprenticeships). As Gallagher and Franz noted, this ID number is not linked to student names, but is used to analyze trends and patterns to understand what is happening system-wide.

Collaborative Inquiry

Teachers in Ontario regularly work together to analyze student work and plan new instructional strategies. These practices are articulated in an assessment policy called “Growing Success” and have been put into practice through a collaborative inquiry model of professional learning. Professional learning through collaborative inquiry has been so successful that it has replaced the old model of professional learning in which teachers were corralled in “banquet hall style” training sessions, where experts presented and teachers broke out into workshops. As Franz explained, “We assume that teachers come now with a certain level of skill, and we work with teachers on how to use a collaborative inquiry approach to examine student work, thinking about how to move students, and making that the object of their inquiry.”

How have classrooms changed?

As Gallagher explained, one of the things that everyone has learned is that the ideal classroom is less about teaching strategies and more about teacher thinking and behavior. This process starts in the assessment domain, with deep teacher knowledge of the students, the curriculum, and the learning goals. Then, the teachers can utilize any of the strategies they might have in their “backpack,” to help the students progress. Generally, in an ideal classroom one might see high levels of engagement, individual and group work, and differentiation; however, there is no particular reliance on any specific strategies or programs throughout the period. The aim is to allow teachers the space to try out their own strategies, and to develop their ideas through collaborative discussion with other teachers. This way, teachers feel accountable to one another and the classroom becomes a “de-privatized” place.

What Gallagher and Franz have noticed is that there is a trend of more inquiry-based learning in classroom. While there are some concerns about how much curricular content there is to learn, there is an increase in student-led learning, focusing on problem solving and creative work. In the following audio excerpt, Gallagher describes a recent visit to a kindergarten classroom where the teachers allowed students to lead an extended study of trees:

Be on the look-out for part two of this post, in which we focus on how Ontario plans to move ahead with an expanded reform agenda.

Deirdre Faughey

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#EFF13: A Twitter Chat on Educational Innovation

14592653118_dde584e697_oAs I scan the Internet and Twitter for news to share with out IEN readers, I notice a growing number of twitter chats emerging on education topics. We have also attempted our own Twitter chats, such as our recent effort using #WhatsnewAERA during a symposium we conducted last month at the American Educational Researcher Association Conference (#AERA15). These conversation threads take many forms – they can be enrichment opportunities for students, networking opportunities, or virtual “coffee-klaches” on high-interest educational topics. They can also bring together the online followers of live events. Now that these threads can be collected on one platform (such as on Storify.com), or searched for by using the hashtag as a search term on Twitter, readers might find that they can access some new information and get a sense of what was discussed at these in-person events; however, reading all of the threads can be a headache. Becoming Twitter-literate might be a new skill we all need to develop, but for now I thought I’d share my own attempt to make sense of a Twitter chat that seems relevant to IEN.

This week, I spent some time reading a Twitter chat hosted by an organization called Education Fast Forward, a not-for-profit organization that aims to develop a “global movement of teachers, students, leaders and policy makers who understand education’s challenges well and will support each other in tackling them.” This organization hosts live, international “debates” in which prominent voices in education come together with the aid of high-speed Internet technology. This debate, titled “Rethinking How We Learn,” was held on May 7th and included an in-person panel discussion and audience in Norway, but additional speakers joined from remote locations using video conferencing. Then, the entire event was broadcast live on the Education Fast Forward website (a recording will be made available soon). Those watching on their own personal computers were encouraged to maintain a simultaneous conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #EFF13.

The conversation began with a familiar question that served as a foundation for all that followed: “What is the purpose of education?” Howard Rheingold (@hrheingold) suggested that technology be used to help us rethink how we teach. The focus at the start was on how students learn together, learning how to learn, and asking questions. Commenters on Twitter pointed out that learning, and the education system, seem to be “in collision” with one another. Concern was quickly directed to teachers and teacher education, with calls for teachers to be empowered to innovate. Here, Andreas Schliecher (@SchleicherEDU) claimed that teachers in Asian countries are more open to collaboration and innovation. Gavin Dykes (@gavindk) argued that innovation might not require a change in education legislation, but more risk-taking and less conservatism. On Twitter, many expressed their concern that teachers who might want to innovate are presented with an accountability roadblock: can we innovate in this worldwide, high-stakes accountability context?

Schleicher argued that “everyone likes innovation except for their own children,” a point that made it clear that the #EFF13 debate up to that point had been less about what innovation might look like – what changes might need to be made and why – and perhaps too focused on what was wrong with the current systems. Some on Twitter called for innovative teachers to be rewarded, which led to speculation about what innovation would look like and how it would be recognized. Howard Rheinhold’s suggestion to use voice feedback in response to student work was retweeted several times on Twitter, with May Britt (@baadsto) recommending Evernote for its ability to record voice memos directly on documents. At this point Greg Foley (@GregmFoley) began to wonder what was so wrong with the “conventional” education system of the 20th century? After all, it provided the foundation for innovation as well.

When the example of coding was offered as a movement that relied mainly on those who are self-taught, I began to think about the stunning lack of diversity that the discipline of coding has become known for. At the same time, it became clear that diversity was not part of this conversation on educational innovation – in fact, the Twitter conversation here was among a pretty homogenous group. The connection between innovation and privilege was made by an undergraduate student from Australia, Olivia Hill (@ohill8) who said “I would also like to acknowledge my privilege as a student who is white, cis-, middle class and able #EFF13.” Another interesting comment was shared on Twitter by @CoRe2dot0, from Germany. Unfortunately, it was not taken up by the others on the chat: “Maybe one shld differ between disruptive and sustaining innovations”?

We will continue to try to follow and learn from Twitter chats on the topic of educational innovation around the world as they happen.

Deirdre Faughey

For recent news on educational innovation around the world:

Latin America’s big education innovation | Miami Herald Miami Herald http://buff.ly/1PR8qku

Quality education, innovation & research the key – The Times of India http://buff.ly/1c0jq1A

Saudi’s education strategy aligned with innovation agenda – Zawya http://buff.ly/1c0jHkY

What Drives Innovation in Education Publishing (and What Doesn’t) | Digital Book World http://buff.ly/1FnLlnU

Education World: Educational Innovation Is a Team Effort, Expert Says http://buff.ly/1c0krXa

Education and innovation in Europe | #MITIDE | SiliconANGLE http://buff.ly/1HnorfR

Educational Innovation Around The World (Revisited)

Last month IEN hosted a symposium on educational innovation around the world, featuring commentary papers from and a discussion about innovation in:

In addition to slides from the framing introduction and the presentations, Deirdre Faughey and an online audience shared notes and questions from the session which can be found at #Whatsnewaera on Twitter.

The discussion highlighted for me several key questions about innovation in different contexts that we need to continue to address:

What’s really “new” and what difference does it make? 

The discussion emphasized that rather than a property of a particular idea or practice innovations make possible more productive and beneficial activities and outcomes in a particular context. In that sense, ideas and practices that may already be in use or may be well known in one context may lead to new developments and improved outcomes in another context.

What innovations are worth spreading?

Not every “new” development is worth pursuing. However, ideas and practices worth spreading includes those that create new opportunities to address problems, achieve existing goals, or pursue productive but previously unimagined directions and activities. In education, in particular, valuable innovations are those that transform the “instructional core,” changing the relationship between students, teachers and content in ways that lead to advances in learning.

What strategies can support the spread and productive use of educational innovations?

The session highlighted a number of different approaches to spreading and deepening innovation that are linked to particular contexts:

  • Start work on developing innovations “at the margins” of the educational system, where there may be fewer requirements and less attention; demonstrate success; and build demand for spread (as in developing peer-tutoring in rural schools in Mexico)
  • Build (and build on) regional clusters and other means of organizing “like-minded” schools and organizations that can incubate innovations that meet their particular needs (as in Singapore)
  • Leverage existing networks and infrastructure (as in efforts in Africa to take advantage of work to build networks focused on health and use of health data)
  • “Occupy” existing structures and re-direct resources (as in Mexico where success of tutoring networks created demands for using professional development resources in new ways and helped to put those involved in developing tutoring networks into central roles in the education system)
  • Use the central structures and resources to seed and reward local and regional innovations; to identify those of broad relevance; and to incorporate selected local innovations into central policy-making and support (as in the “Centralized decentralization” approach in Singapore)
  • Foster conditions that support innovation at the school/community level; the regional/cluster level; and the national level (as in Finland’s efforts to support high levels of professionalism among teachers; coherent but flexible expectations for learning; adaptive leadership; and productive networks and partnerships)

These different approaches, however, have strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, starting at the margins, for example, can be labeled and stigmatized as only appropriate for students, teachers, and schools in those schools. On the other hand, centralizing and systematizing local innovations can reduce flexibility and adaptiveness and limit the local ownership that may have been central to the innovation’s value. Further, while promoting the use of partnerships, clusters, and networks can facilitate spread to some individuals and groups, others are still likely to be left out. As a consequence, questions of whether and when to scale innovations and how to link work at the margins/work at the center and work across networks and clusters have to be addressed.

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While the session made clear that developing productive educational innovations is challenging in any context, it also demonstrated the possibilities for innovation under a wide range of conditions.

Ultimately, the session suggested that innovation cannot be a goal in and of itself. Rather than trying to create new solutions to old problems, the promise of innovation lies in finding new problems, opportunities, and possibilities for advancing learning of students, educators and systems.

Thanks to all those who have contributed to the discussion so far. We welcome further conversation and look forward to hearing more about the work on educational innovation underway in many different contexts.

Thomas Hatch