Episode 2: The learning approach in your new school

Every part of a school from the building, to the devices deployed, to the furniture purchased should work towards the goal of improving learning. Therefore, before we explore the many components to think about in your new school, we dig into what the learning approach will be for students. This episode features Tom Vander Ark from Getting Smart, and education leader Michelle Zimmerman from Renton Prep.

Louka Parry
Tom Vander Ark - Getting Smart
Michelle Zimmerman - Renton Prep


LOUKA PARRY: Launching a new school is one of the most inspiring challenges an educator can take on. The Flagship Schools podcast by Microsoft gives you 20-minute injections of practical ideas to help make this always exciting and sometimes terrifying job easier.

My name is Louka Parry. In our second episode we'll consider what kind of learning approach should we be deploying in our new school.

Even before we jump into bricks and mortar, technology or other physical and easily tangible things that we can change, what ultimately do we want the experiences to be for students and staff that are working in this space?

In this episode we'll hear from leaders who are really dedicating their time into looking at the future of learning and which learning approaches we can use to set up students to be successful.

We'll start by speaking with Tom Vander Ark.

TOM VANDER ARK: I'm Tom Vander Ark with Getting Smart. We're a Seattle based learning design firm. We help people design new schools and transform existing schools, mostly in K-12 but some early learning and some post-secondary.

LOUKA PARRY: We'll also speak with a fantastic educator that's based in a school in the United States, Michelle Zimmerman.

MICHELLE ZIMMERMAN: Hi. My name is Michelle Zimmerman, and I've been an educator since 2009 in middle and high school. And prior to that, I worked with elementary and early childhood education.

I'm currently working in STEM and interdisciplinary work where I'm bringing the arts in and English language arts. So, rather than actually calling it STEM, I like to talk about interdisciplinary learning.

LOUKA PARRY: Let's get into it.

Thanks for joining us, Tom. Let's just start with a pretty big question really. Why does learning even need to change?

TOM VANDER ARK: The schools that we have do what they were designed to do about 120 years ago, but they're not very relevant to the new economic landscape.

So, we think there's a new set of skills that are super important today and tomorrow. I think they include design skills, entrepreneurship and social/emotional learning, learning about yourself and how to read social situations and how to collaborate on diverse teams to deliver value.

LOUKA PARRY: I mean, there's so many different aspects of learning that I've spoken about, project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, social/emotional learning. It can be quite overwhelming. If you were to try to summarize what the best learning looks like today, how would you put that to educators, to people in society?

TOM VANDER ARK: I guess first of all, a team needs to decide what kind of school it is they want to create. And we've been in a couple thousand schools, and every good school has what Larry Rosenstock calls a "common intellectual mission." They have a framework that is quite specific to a group of students that they want to serve and a set of learning experiences that they want to deliver on.

So, you start there, and with those two things in mind, then I think you get more specific about what powerful learning experiences look like. In most schools that's today a combination of personalized learning and project-based learning, quick skill development sprints and then extended, often community connected challenges that are often big and complicated and integrated and end with a public product.

LOUKA PARRY: So, say, if I was building a school or thinking of building a school in a new community, why is it important that we think about learning at the beginning of that process and not just kind of tack it on at the end once we have the buildings and everything else in place?

TOM VANDER ARK: Yeah, well, it's really critical. I think I learned this first at High Tech High shortly after they were opened. What you experience there and at other good schools is a profound sense of coherence, that everything works together for students and teachers, that there's an intention about the learning experience, and that we call that a learning model. And then around that learning model is a school model where structure systems, schedules, staffing patterns, all support that learning model.

So, there's layers of intentionality that make powerful learning common and it creates the ability to sustain powerful learning experiences across a long-time learning journey.

LOUKA PARRY: Tom also spoke about the evolving role of educators and how rather than just being instructors of learning, the notion of being architects of learning or designers is becoming far more common.

TOM VANDER ARK: It's interesting that people are thinking differently about the role of teachers these days. Some new schools call them learning experience designers, which is a really active role in designing learning experiences. Others, I was on the phone with Lindsay, California today. They call their teachers learning facilitators. And in those roles, there is more of a polished set of lesson plans and common practices.

The key today is we think twofold. It's creating role and goal clarity for teachers, being really clear about what the job looks like, and then secondly, it's trying to create a generative rather than repressive system, a system that learns top-down and bottom-up and inside-out.

And when you create role and goal clarity and a generative system, you've created confidence and contribution. And that's what we think we're shooting for, teachers that feel confident about the role that they can play and know how and when they can contribute to making not just students smarter but systems smarter.

LOUKA PARRY: I also spoke with Michelle Zimmerman, who gave her school-based insights about what good learning looks like.

MICHELLE ZIMMERMAN: The best learning in schools today looks like human connection. And rather than thinking about it as distinct and separate age groups of these are 12-year olds, these are six-year olds, these are 13-year olds, thinking about at the progression of who we are as humans and what type of development approaches that we can take or how kids interact with other kids, not just same age peers but how they interact with people who are younger and older than them.

We know in the real world there are very few instances where kids are going to only be able to interact with their same-age peers. Same with us as adults in the workforce. We know we're going to be working with people much younger, much older, and with varied experiences. And in some ways, education has done a disservice to kids by only placing them in same-age peer groups.

So, beyond that, we want to start thinking about what we want kids to be able to do in the future as adults, in society, in work, in their families and homes, and that should guide our learning.

So, having that long-term goal and looking at what our future society may look like, what tools they'll have to interact with, what conflicts may arise, to try and work backwards, almost like backward planning, to figure out what that learning can look like for them to help prepare them.

That could come in the form of tools that they use, it could come in the form of social/emotional learning, it could come in the form of experiences. And by experiences, I mean hands-on experiences in the classroom, but I also mean experiences that happen outside of the walls of the classroom, whether it's through something like Skype or whether it's literally getting off campus and going on field trips.

LOUKA PARRY: And in your experience, what do you think some of the most important elements are of great learning?

MICHELLE ZIMMERMAN: I would say some of the most important elements are learning through experience, whether that is considered interdisciplinary, performance-based approaches, things that kids are practicing communication. But it's also really at the essence looking at who we are as humans.

In an age where we have more and more artificial intelligence that's developing, whether it's machine learning cognitive systems, robotics, there are certain things that those technologies can do and may replace some of the basic processes humans can do. But there are things that we have the capacity to do, that our brains are wired for, like the transfer of learning, like creating and seeing things between the lines that machines aren't good at, at this point. And if we have the ability to do that, those are things that as educators we need to encourage and develop in humans.

LOUKA PARRY: Where do you think we should start, Michelle, in terms of the learning approach? What kind of elements should we be thinking about?

MICHELLE ZIMMERMAN: It sounds a little bit counterintuitive being in education that I wouldn't start with the academic content. We know that people can be absolutely brilliant and use that brilliance to destruct or to wreak havoc. We know that people can use their own personality and characteristics of manipulation to move people to do things that are absolutely fantastic for society and social justice. But on the flip side of that, those same characteristics can cause destruction and devastation.

So, before I even touched on the academic content, I would want to know how we can help develop the way that people understand empathy and look outwards.

So much of education is looking inwards at whether it's a textbook or a screen or an assessment or how we compare ourselves to some other person at some level of academic achievement. And we know by looking around the world that in some ways that can lead to a competition that excels innovation and ideas, but in other ways sometimes the pressure can lead to a feeling of hopelessness and the point where people will wonder if they even have a reason to live. We don't want that for our future societies or now.

So, before we even go any farther of looking at what content do we want to teach or what tools do we want to use, we want to know first of all how we can develop people who actually care about the outcome or output of whatever they do.

LOUKA PARRY: Great. And so, how might we talk with students so they can be active participants in their learning and ask really good questions?

MICHELLE ZIMMERMAN: When I talk with my students, I say, it doesn't matter if you choose to be a researcher or if you choose to go into the medical profession, if you want to be an artist or a parent who stays at home with their children. By knowing how to ask essential questions and effective questions, it will help put you on a course of discovery and understanding and looking at the world in a different way.

If you isolate yourself and say, well, I just need to wait till someone asks me the question and repeat it, you miss out on the opportunity to engage with other people and to challenge your own thinking.

I would also figure out ways to help children learn to intentionally look for counter examples. And by that, I mean we easily think about something that feels comfortable to us and what we know and what we have experienced, but we may not as easily look for something that challenges our own ideas or opinions.

The more we have technology, the easier it is to access information. But at the same time, it's easy to access things that we agree with ourselves and say, well, that must be true, because I agree with that or I feel that or it's all the feel. But when we don't question our assumptions, we can get to a place where we're cocooned into this massive amount of information and never look outward about how someone else is feeling or what they're experiencing or going through, whether that's positive or negative.

And unless we consider those things in building an education system, morals and empathy and ethics, we're not going to really fully do the most benefit to our society as a whole. Only then can we start taking the academic content and saying what pieces do we need to build onto so that they can learn and grow and have a foundation to innovate.

At the same time, I believe it's really still important for kids to memorize some content. We know from neuroscience that if you're trying to juggle too many things at once, you're not able to devote enough cognitive energy to be able to come up with something innovative, because you're just barely trying to grasp this piece of information and how does this make sense. But if you have some base of knowledge and some things memorized, then you can say, with this information I have, I can take this other piece of information that may seem different or similar, put them together and create something new.

LOUKA PARRY: Of course one of the things that we talk a lot about in education is the curriculum. And so, I asked both Tom and Michelle for their insights on this. And in some ways, their answers were rather surprising.

TOM VANDER ARK: Don't think about the curriculum, let's back up and talk about what would a graduate of your system look like and what would they know and be able to do, and let's have a community conversation about that.

And we've seen in hundreds of circumstances around America and around the world where you have the community conversation and you say, how has the world changed, and as a result, what should young people know and be able to do, and then what kinds of experiences might contribute to those knowledge skills and dispositions, that those conversations always result in a really beautiful and powerful and localized way of describing what graduates should know and be able to do.

Once you've done that, then you can begin to sequence out a set of learning experiences, and then you can talk about the role of teachers and how you want to support them. But it really does start with a graduate profile.

LOUKA PARRY: It's an interesting concept, this graduate profile, and it's something that Michelle also shared in terms of her perspective on the role of curriculum, and particularly in choosing a curriculum that works for your community and your school.

MICHELLE ZIMMERMAN: Curriculum is an interesting conversation. I've talked to people across the world about how they would define the word curriculum. I started doing this with our teachers at the school because I started hearing not only parents but students saying, well, what curriculum do you use?

And usually, the answer they wanted was the publisher, an academic publisher that had a series of textbooks. And it's easy to consider that because you usually think about handing a textbook to a student and saying, this is our curriculum, we're learning this, this is the test that you will receive at the end, and it's so easy to think that that's the final definition.

But what I'm actually hoping to hear from people is that curriculum is the sum total of the experiences of learning that children or young people or adults go through to help form their understanding and the way of looking at the world.

So, at our school we have our teachers go through three weeks of professional development, not only understanding what curriculum means but why we have developed this series of learning experiences in the way we have.

We do still use books, but we don't only use books. We want them to have curriculum experiences that include going on field trips. And it's not just about getting out of the classroom or having free time, it's about directly helping the kids make a transfer between something in the real world and some academic content, whether it's science, where it's English language arts, where it's something with engineering and looking at a bridge, whether it's looking at environment and ecology. We have a river behind our school where we have a salmon run, and looking at some of the Pacific coastal tribes in the Northwest and the value of salmon to them. So, you can bring in social studies and other content based in that real-world experience. That is part of curriculum.

We also know that curriculum is a sequence of learning that helps people to fill in gaps that they may have. So, it doesn't just become floaty and whenever you want to do something, do something. We have a guide. And the guide that we use is the Core Knowledge Sequence. It does from early childhood through 8th grade in the United States for that level.

And what it does is it gives an outline of by first grade your student should be able to do this, they should know these topics in English language arts, they should know how to spell these words, for example, they should cover these topics in science, for all the different subject areas.

And then from there, we want teachers to be able to have the flexibility to look at that content, look at the experiences that are happening in the real world, and merge those together.

That's very different from what a lot of schools do with curriculum, because it is more secure to say a textbook publisher has a series of textbooks, if you follow that progression and sequence and cover it, you know that you've covered the content. But the downside of that is it doesn't allow for the flexibility that can happen in the moment when a child asks a question that may be investigating something they experienced or maybe a trauma that happened in the world or an actual disaster where you could bring in those elements of physics and science and say what happens with ecology or global studies or first responders. Those can all become really dynamic learning experiences where the topics become relevant and you're still covering the information, but in a different way.

So, we want our teachers to have the flexibility of knowing that they've got a guide, a path, and a progression, but they can rearrange the order and they can draw on tools that exist, whether they're production and creativity tools, things like OneNote that help them to collaborate with other students, to bring information in, things that they can report out and share the information through social media with other kids their age or other teachers.

And those pieces become part of the progression and series of learning, because it doesn't just cover the content, it covers ways that kids can use tools and have them modeled using those tools for something that has an authentic audience or an end goal and purpose.

LOUKA PARRY: It's not surprising, of course, that Tom agrees with Michelle here in terms of us needing to move well beyond content.

TOM VANDER ARK: Yeah, we are in a world where knowledge transferred is almost free and ubiquitous. It's so easy to learn content that I focus almost entirely on skills and dispositions. That doesn't mean that content knowledge isn't important. I have a lot of friends that certainly prioritize that. But I do think in terms of a learning model, that we can push content out, we can give young people access to content resources and spend the valuable time that we have with them in developing skills and mindsets. And it's really those skills and mindsets that will allow them to contribute to the idea economy.

LOUKA PARRY: And to successfully maximize the idea economy, we need to deliver personalized learning to every single student in our care.

TOM VANDER ARK: When I think about personalized learning, there's three things that drive it for me. And it's standards and interests and opportunity.

So, standards mean, what should a student learn next? So, given all that we know about learning progressions and frameworks behind particular disciplines, there's a next best skill to learn in mathematics or in writing or in problem-solving.

But there's also the learner. What interests the learner? What's going to fuel motivation?

And then finally, the opportunity. That's place-based learning. What's the unique opportunity to learn in this place and time? What's happening today that won't be there tomorrow?

And a learning experience designer understands those three attributes and helps a learner co-create a set of experiences that are best based on standard interests and opportunity.

LOUKA PARRY: What would you say about the way that school leaders and people building schools should structure their day? Because the way that we spend our time obviously is one of the most powerful things we have.

TOM VANDER ARK: It is. And if we really want to personalize learning and encourage every student to progress as they demonstrate mastery, that suggests that every learner has a unique schedule. And that's both students and adults.

And that's obviously very complicated. And new schools like Purdue, Polytech in Indianapolis are actually using spreadsheets to build individual staff and student schedules every single week. And in the very near future, there'll be widely used machine learning tools that will help educators construct unique schedules for both staff and students.

LOUKA PARRY: So, that can seem a little overwhelming, the idea of every student having a personalized approach. What kind of other general comments would you make around the structure of a day in the life of a student? How many lines of lessons should there be, the duration of lessons? What have you seen in your work across schools?

TOM VANDER ARK: Well, it's key both in terms of time and space to have big, flexible blocks. So I think that's the rule of thumb in thinking both about schedules and facilities. You may construct it as a seven or eight period day, but with easily combinable blocks that could be two or three hours long.

What's critical is that several times a term, young people need to take on big, extended challenges, and that requires big, extended periods of time, and it also requires easily configurable, large spaces.

LOUKA PARRY: And, of course, I had to ask them both what their insights would be, what pieces of tangible advice would they give to education leaders undertaking this exciting new journey.

TOM VANDER ARK: Keep it simple. Create a powerful but simple intellectual framework, number one. And then number two, iterate. Know that you're going to create a series of temporary agreements that allow your school community to iterate and innovate over time.

MICHELLE ZIMMERMAN: I would say three key pieces of advice, starting a new school. One, be open to things that you've never considered before. It's easy to see the way that we've done things before and think that you have to stay in that pattern. But be open to look for something new or a different way of approaching it.

Two, have flexibility. If you're not flexible, when things go wrong, it can feel like the world is over. By having flexibility, you know that you can still persist, that you can adjust things and change in different ways and still keep going. And in those flexible moments you may stumble on something that you would have never considered before.

And the third was to keep an optimistic mindset. When you're starting something new, you will encounter more challenges than you ever imagined. But being optimistic brings you back to saying, what's the whole point of doing this anyway? It's for the kids. It's for our society for the future. Are these kids worth us being uncomfortable? And that optimism comes from, yes, they are completely worth it.

LOUKA PARRY: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Flagship Schools podcast.

This was episode two in a ten-episode series, which looks at different areas we should consider when we are transforming schools or building new ones.

For more information, log onto Microsoft.com/education, and join the movement of educators and leaders that are helping learners to achieve more.


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