The process of moving an educational innovation from a good idea to widespread effective implementation is far from straightforward, and no one has a magic formula for doing it. The William T. Grant and Spencer Foundations, with help from the Forum for Youth Investment, have created a community composed of grantees in the federal Investing in Innovation (i3) program to share ideas and best practices. Our Success for All program participates in this community. In this space, I, in partnership with the Forum for Youth Investment, highlight observations from the experiences of i3 grantees other than our own, in an attempt to share the thinking and experience of colleagues out on the front lines of evidence-based reform.
This blog is based on an interview between the Forum for Youth Investment and lead staff from the Center for 21st Century Skills at EDUCATION CONNECTION about their i3-funded project, which involves the implementation of a technology-enhanced blended learning STEM curriculum. The exchange, however, does not focus on teacher practice. Instead it is about the challenges and possibilities associated with changing beliefs about teaching and learning and shifting long-standing system norms defining “the classroom” and other tradition-bound paradigms.
Focus on Changing Beliefs, Not Just Practices
The Center for 21st Century Skills at EDUCATION CONNECTION is focused on equipping students with the creativity and technical expertise to compete in a global economy. Part of their work, and in particular their i3 project, involves redefining traditional assumptions about classrooms and teaching. They have designed a 12-course high school Academy that takes a blended learning approach to STEM education, where students leverage technology to extend learning beyond the four walls of the classroom. The model creates a non-traditional, student-centered environment that redefines learning from seat time with teacher-centric instruction to flexible and adaptive use of time. Not everyone thinks the approach makes sense. For some, the idea of students being in charge of their own learning, combined with a concurrent loss of teacher control, is uncomfortable at best. Jonathan Costa, Director of School and Program Services at EDUCATION CONNECTION, talks about this challenge. “Changing peoples’ beliefs is extraordinarily difficult and labor intensive. People have to feel this model is the future.” He also happens to think it is worth the time it takes to change thinking. “Getting on the right side of history before the center of gravity on the issue has shifted is hard. The good news is that once you do it, you don’t have to go back.” In several schools in Connecticut where the model is being implemented, they have begun to see that kind of philosophical shift.
Allow Multiple Entry Points
Because their model is not always easily accessible for teachers and administrators, the Center offers different ways for schools to get involved. For example, some schools may not want to take on the full 12-course Academy, but might be willing to test out some blended learning approaches on a unit-by-unit or course-by-course basis. Currently, EDUCATION CONNECTION is working with the CT State Department of Education to put the state’s new model algebra curriculum into Moodle, an open-source web platform. “We are still in pilot mode, but anticipate a lot of interest,” says Director of the Center for 21st Century Skills, Frank LaBanca. “We see it as an on-ramp; if they see kids engaged and interested, maybe they will be ready to go to the next level. We are encouraging people to interact with us on a smaller scale at first so they can see the value and then hopefully will be convinced to go big.”
Be Patient but Ready to Move Fast
In Connecticut, as in every state across the country, massive changes are afoot in education. This makes it difficult to anticipate or plan for a fixed timeline. Innovators need to be patient and persistent but willing to move quickly when opportunities arise. Costa points out, “We have had a lot of traction with our approach to digitally based STEM education, but we are currently tacking into the wind. Connecticut is caught up in implementing the Common Core, doubling down on accountability testing, and building a teacher evaluation model that is still grounded on analog instructional assumptions. In that environment it is challenging to introduce innovation that is student-focused, digital rather than print, and requires a bit of a leap of faith. But once we get in the door, we have to be ready to move quickly to get the innovation up and running and demonstrating results.” The Center continues to pursue public and private STEM funding and to pursue rigorous evaluations so they will be ready to move quickly when opportunities arise. This is challenging with a small staff and limited time and resources, but being ready to respond to emerging opportunities is important.
Don’t Forget the Students
“We are in this for the students, but kids can also be our best advocates,” comments LaBanca. “The work they are doing in our i3 STEM curriculum modules would blow you away. The sophistication of what they are learning, the skills they are developing, and the way they can present that to others speaks volumes.” The Center showcases student learning whenever possible to make the case for why a blended learning approach that pushes the bounds of the traditional classroom is worthwhile. They focus on promoting student engagement and self-direction and coach teachers to figure out when to facilitate, when to let students flounder, and when to intervene. Students help to make the case for the approach, not only to teachers, but to administrators and others with influence over funding and district policy.