Sunday, September 30, 2018

Research and Development: Lessons from a School Visit- Part 1

In earlier blog posts, I wrote about school visits I took part in for my new (part-time) position as an ES “Design, Creativity, Innovation” teacher. The other 50% of my role this year, as I also mentioned, was to be a part of my school’s Research and Development (R&D) team. In this blog post, I outline what I see as the purpose of this team and touch upon our first research assignment- a visit to several interesting schools/organizations in the Southwest of the United States. In this blog series, I reflect on the schools, the organization and the student management system we learned about, and what I found to be interesting and applicable to a school in search of a brighter future for tomorrow’s citizens and leaders. The choice to not identify the schools or individuals by their name is intentional.

In this first part, I reflect on five areas I found compelling:
  • Balancing “Learning Progressive” and “Highly Effective”;
  • SEL (Social-Emotional Learning);
  • Design-Thinking Process;
  • PBL (Project-Based Learning) and Transdisciplinary “Teaching”; and,
  • Teacher Training
I hope you enjoy. If you're not interested in learning about the Research and Development team or the rationale for our visit, feel free to skip to "The Learning" section.

Background: The R&D Team’s Purpose

Our Research and Development team is composed of six educators in non-management positions as its core. Two educators from each division, we each applied for and/or were asked to join the team. As a task force, our goal is to propose a plan for a five-week “personalized learning experience” for all students from kindergarten to grade ten to take place at the conclusion of the current academic year. Our first task was to travel to California and find out about “innovative schools” which are “highly effective” and “learning progressive”.

In order to make sure we are on the same page (that is, you, the reader, and myself…), it is necessary to begin with defining these loaded, and often misunderstood terms:

  • Personalized Learning- “…a diverse variety of educational programs, learning experiences, instructional approaches, and academic-support strategies that are intended to address the distinct learning needs, interests, aspirations, or cultural backgrounds of individual students.” (indentation is my own) (
  • Innovative schools- Simply stated, these are schools that approach education from a perspective that is different than the current one offers. According to, such schools share four characteristics:
    • Their view of the children: Students are seen as unique individuals rather than groups, and are educated accordingly
    • They are connected with the outside world: Schools that create relationships with local and global organizations and tap into local talent, and ones that create a connection between what students learn and the outside world of work
    • What students learn: The curriculum is delivered in a manner that encourages critical and creative thinking
    • The learning space: the design of the learning spaces is creative. It includes varied seating arrangements that are flexible- easily and quickly changed to include a variety of teaching and learning spaces, seating arrangements, etc. 
  • Highly effective- According to the book (and guide!) Personalized Learning in a PLC at Work (co-written by my current Head of School who initiates and is leading the change I am a part of), such schools “…are schools that receive accolades for their achievement under traditional measures of success”, and have “… a guaranteed and viable curriculum for core disciplinary knowledge, and their students consistently are able to master the curriculum” (p.14) (indentation is mine). In short, these are schools that have an organized curriculum that measures students progress and refers to common external means of assessment (such as MAP, SAT, IB exams, and other standardized assessments) to compare and consistently prove that their students are successful.
  • Learning progressive- In the same book, such schools are defined as, “… amazingly innovative, the student projects and products are workplace and future relevant. The focus of these schools is almost entirely based on learner interests and learner choice… These schools often work in nontraditional structures and outside the framework of traditional standards and assessment.” (p.15) (indentation is mine).
One can easily see the potential collision between the idea of being both “highly effective” and “learning progressive.” The question I immediately asked was, “Can schools abide by the pressure of implementing standards and consistently score high on external assessments, while at the same time allow for student voice, choice, and teach for deep learning (much more than is required on standardized assessments)?” The path to answering this question begins on our trip to California…

The Visits

We traveled to California to visit schools in the San Francisco and San Diego areas. We chose and requested to visit a mix of public and independent schools- from a school that picks and chooses its students based on IQ scores (and other criteria), to a school that until a few years seemed to have been a dumping ground for its district’s most struggling students (and teachers). In addition, we also made appointments with a representative from YouTube (AKA “The Second Most Common Search Engine [After Google]" and an incredible source of knowledge and a master of personalized content), a local College of Education professor, and a learning management system that tracks student progress and suggests paths for a variety of career options. Our plans were ambitious, but we enthusiastically planned our exciting professional learning journey, and joined administrators, teachers, and students for a short while to learn about their experiences and perspectives.

The Learning

Ambitious it was indeed… Puting in 100% effort and concentration at 11 schools/ organizations/ individuals over the course of five days was not easy. Together with the car ride and evening synthesis and reflection sessions, we were absolutely exhausted at the end of each day. I should definitely write something about the dos and don'ts of planning a school visit…
So… here are some of my own personal learning points and takeaways; ones that might be useful as we think about how we can thoughtfully begin an organized transformation in our school.

1. Balancing “Learning Progressive” and “Highly Effective”: 

Most of the schools we visited had come up with some wonderfully creative ways to approach instruction: from the use of PBLs, through using a Design-Thinking process as a pillar, to a wood workshop- type environment; from an impressive emphasis on relationships and community to creating and embracing strong and meaningful connections with outside organization. I was impressed! However, when we discussed these schools’ written and taught curriculum, vertical and horizontal alignment or their use of standards, we found that few of them used standards, had documented and articulated curriculum, etc.
In the context of balancing the two, one Head of School (public- where they had to use and follow standards), however, discussed the need to bend the rules a bit in order to be able to do “Great things.”
Takeaway: One cannot come at the expense of the other. In order to create an environment that is both learning progressive AND highly effective, it is important to not let standards dictate teaching and learning, and to think outside of the box and take risks in order to make progress in the learning progressive aspect. Also, a slow and well-thought-out change is the way to go.

2. SEL (Social-Emotional Learning):

The emphasis on creating strong relationships and building a tight community has been one of the most common elements we witnessed in the schools we visited. A variety of systems were put in place to create strong relationships between teachers, administrators, parents, the local community, and sometimes with like-minded schools around the world. One school created its own “SEL Institute” where new teachers are required to attend while another had teachers pay home visits to all new students. In these schools, we saw a very special relationship between all those involved- a sense of genuine care and interest, one that is relaxed and free-spirited. One of the schools’ directors sees such connections as the foundation upon which the school stands on. He emphasized the idea of “Go slow to go fast”- take your time to plan and create deep and meaningful connections. Once you established them, they will allow the rest to take place better and faster.

Takeaway: It is impossible to emphasize enough the importance of building and maintaining strong relationships throughout the school community. Whatever experience we decide to create, we will need to make sure we plan carefully and allow ample time for all members of the community to get to know, trust and appreciate one another.

3. Design-Thinking Process: 

One iteration of the Design-Thinking process or another was evident in every school we visited! Some schools chose to adopt an existing DT model (such as the d.School at Stanford) while others came up with their own version. Some included it as part of their project-based learning approach, another sees it as the school’s pedagogy, and yet another elevated the process into one of two of the school’s core beliefs (together with SEL). In whichever iteration we saw, the Empathy step received a lot of attention. It seems to serve as a natural bridge between the embrace of positive relationships within the schools and outside them.
We asked one of the teachers who joined us for lunch for some tips for personalizing learning. In order to get a better understanding of what we are interested in knowing, he went on a questioning spree until his supervisor jokingly apologized for his “Design-Thinking communication style”. The teacher seemed to understand the process so well and to practice it so naturally, that I have no doubt we would have received excellent answers from him (if we only had the time…)

Takeaway: The Design-Thinking process, and especially the emphasis on the Empathy step, has seen a serious comeback, this time into the K-12 educational world. Getting Smart explains, “The rationale behind design thinking centers on a pedagogy aimed at creating and facilitating future innovators and breakthrough thinkers. It is about creating creative and collaborative workflows engineered to tackle big projects and prototyping to discover new solutions.” I truly believe that solving problems through the lens of design thinking allows students to empathize with the “other”, and go through a clear process of problem-solving that capitalizes on important skills and dispositions such as thinking, self-management, collaboration, and more. Since I am already seeing the benefits of DT in my own practice, I will definitely push for an understanding and inclusion of the process in our personalized learning experience.

4. PBL (Project-Based Learning) and Transdisciplinary “Teaching”: 

The use of PBL as an instructional methodology was evident in many schools throughout our visit. Here again, there have been differences in the way it was viewed and implemented. Some schools used PBL sporadically throughout the curriculum, while others designed their entire curriculum around PBLs. What I also enjoyed seeing was the way projects naturally integrated concepts and skills from a variety of disciplines. One administrator shared that one of the ES design projects about mythological creatures included work about literature and English, history, biology, mathematics, 3D printing, and more. It also included many “soft skills,” such as imagination and creativity, or critical thinking and problem-solving. It seemed as if the authentic connections to different disciplines were limited to the teachers’ imagination.
Another interesting observation was the way teachers collaborated. In one school, teachers’ workspaces were situated in the hallway. That way, teachers from different departments could talk, socialize and collaborate. At the same time, students could come and talk to a teacher, while a colleague could be eavesdropping and offering curricular connections and clarifications.

Takeaway: I believe that PBL and Transdisciplinary teaching go hand-in-hand due to the multifaceted and open-ended nature of projects. In order to properly create meaningful and Transdisciplinary projects that become vertically- and horizontally- articulated, teachers much have a clear understanding of what PBLs are, how to create ones, etc., and be given sufficient time to collaborate on the creation of units that fit their particular setting. The personalized learning experience we will be designing is very likely to be project-based and Transdisciplinary. We will need to ensure teachers are on board (both in terms of understanding and collaboration), and that projects are varied, engaging, relevant and meaningful to both students and teachers.

5. Teacher Training: 

Most of the schools we visited had very creative ideas that required all members of the community to be on the same page in terms of understanding, accepting, and practicing the school’s philosophy. In order to do that, schools spent many hours to educate and train their staff and parent communities. One of the administrators explained that to properly expect new teachers to fully understand and be able to practice in the spirit of the school’s philosophy would take up to three years! Teacher retention of more than 3-5 years is something most international schools do not have the privilege of having…

Takeaway: There is no doubt we will need to ensure teachers get trained before they embark on a still-unknown adventure. This being said, we have to remember that the lessons learned from these schools’ experiences together with the “go slow to go fast” philosophy, will force us to start small- otherwise our team will be the only ones who have an idea of what’s happening and where it is that we may be going…

All of the points above had a very strong effect on my understanding of “learning progressive”: what it is, how it is implemented, and most important- how it relates to my first takeaway- finding the balance between “Learning Progressive” and “Highly Effective”. I hope these takeaways make sense, and that you can somehow reflect on (and act upon) your own personal and school’s practice.

In the next blog post, I will continue to reflect and write about the next five big takeaways from the trip:
  • Inquiry and Student Agency (free vs. structured inquiry approach)
  • Teacher vs. Student Passions
  • The Environment as a Teacher
  • Change as the Constant
  • Program Sustainability

So stay tuned...

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please do not hesitate to leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Passion Projects: Design Your Own Version (Part 2)

In the first part of this series, I discussed general information about starting your own individualized learning project for your students. I included a rationale, suggested some first steps, and shared a presentation you could adapt to your needs and share with colleagues or parents. It included everything from what Genius Hour is, to a suggested timeline, research and design frameworks, to inspirational videos and more.

In this second part of the series, I will share the details, or the “behind the scenes” of designing your own Genius hour.

Finding the Time:

At my school, we dedicate one hour four times a week to something we call "I/E" (Intervention/ Extension). This is a time when students with heavy learning needs are pulled out of the classroom and are given additional instruction in the areas they need ("Intervention"), while those who stay behind get challenged in different areas at a higher level ("Extension"). The only rule we had to follow was that we were not to teach them any new curriculum-related material (so that struggling students don't miss it). After spending months differentiating instruction to small groups based on student needs, I felt like it was not a satisfying experience- neither for me nor for my students. I/E time was a perfect place to experiment with my Passion Project idea.

Finding the time is an important first step because the way you structure your project time will depend on how often and how long you can, or are willing to, allow your students to work on their projects. For me, about one hour, 4 days a week has been perfect.

45 minutes a day, four times per week, is one way to organize the schedule 

Creating a Timeline:

Depending on the time you have each day/week for this work, as well as the number of weeks you can afford running it, your project timeline would look differently. I recommend allotting one week on both ends for introduction and presentations/reflections, sufficient time for research, and ample time for product ideation, creation, feedback, and improvement:

  • Week 1: Introduction: The process/product/presentation, and the supporting documents.
  • Week 2: Choose a project and get it approved
  • Weeks 3-4: Intense research time
  • Week 5: Finish research and start prototyping (product)
  • Week 6-8: Work on products (including giving and receiving feedback) and the Process Presentation
  • Week 9: Work on presentations, present and reflect

The Project:

Depending on students' ages, abilities, and experience with self-directed learning, as well as your experience, and material- and human- resources, you will need to make a decision about what to expect of students, and which types of projects would be “acceptable”. This is important because expecting students (at any age) who have never learned how to take notes on their own to be engaged in research for extended periods of time might be a recipe for failure; expecting students to learn how to compose music on the trombone without actually having one is impossible; and creating a stop-motion animation without having cameras simply cannot happen. Think carefully about all these elements before you approve any project idea!

Another important aspect of the types of inquiries and projects students engage in and create, has to do with the idea of Empathy, and with training students to think beyond themselves. I found Don Wettrick's 'Rule of Thirds' to be an excellent way to explain to students which types of projects are acceptable. According to Don, in order for a project to be approved, there are three basic questions students must consider and answer positively to. If any of the questions are answered negatively, the project is not approved. As simple as that.
Don Wettrick's 'Rule of Thirds' 
I initially tailored this to my own needs because I felt that since it was my students' first time doing a Passion Project. I kept the first two questions as-is, and modified the third. I asked them to simply be conscious about who would benefit from their project (including themselves) and to try to expand it so that others could benefit from it as well. I was happy to realize that emphasizing this point resulted in several students choosing projects that benefitted more than just themselves. As a general rule of thumb, for a second project, I make the third point a requirement.


If you are doing this project for the first time (for you or for a particular group), I would recommend you start with individual projects. Once students have gone through the process, and had the chance to explore their own passions and to research and create, and you gathered sufficient information about what they can and cannot do on their own, you may want to consider letting students work in pairs or trios, according to shared passions and interests.

The Platform:

It is important to make it easy for students to find the information they need quickly. This saves valuable time. You can choose to host the information and handouts you will be sharing with students in different places and ways. I chose to go digital and to create one central location for students to find all the information they'll need- guidelines, inspirational videos, research notes documents, presentation examples, etc. The platform I chose was the new Google Sites (although the new Google Sites is easier to work with, unfortunately, it does not allow for page/site template creation, which makes it difficult to keep all documents in one place. Next time around, I will definitely go with the old Google Site!)
The Passion Project Website is hosted on (the new) Google Sites 

What to Include:

I chose to have all the information in one central location and share it with students. Deciding to share all the information at once was a conscious decision, as I wanted this to be my students' "central command"- a place where they know they must visit in order to find out what to do, how to do it, what comes up next, what they already did, etc. Here are some of the pages I decided to include in order to guide and scaffold student learning:

  • Understanding what Passion Project is: Before students start thinking about and working on their projects, they must show an understanding of what this project time is. They should be able to answer basic questions after a teacher's introduction, watching videos, and class discussions.
  • Getting inspired and guided to find their passions and interests: To inspire students, I used different videos about where ideas come from, what is creativity, what projects other students have done, etc. I also created worksheets for them to brainstorm what they are passionate about, what they do in their free time, etc. 
  • Deciding on topics to inquire into and products to create: After brainstorming and sharing project ideas (it's very important to share!), students begin narrowing their topics to find what they would like to learn about and what they would like to create. Learning (research), creating (product), and sharing (presentations) were three requirements.
  • Narrowing their topic to something quantitative and achievable: Once students have a pretty good idea of what they would like to learn and create, I make them take it home and work with their parents to focus their topics into one specific statement, such as "I would like to design my own t-shirt", "I want to learn more about Norse Myths", etc. Sharing with their parents is important because I want their parents to understand what this project is and to be a part of the support team, and because I want the students to take this step very seriously.
  • Submitting a Proposal: Once I had discussions with each student about what they would like to learn about and what they would like to create, they are ready to submit a proposal. In their proposals, I ask them to tell me why they are passionate about the topic, what they already know, what questions they have, do a bit of research ("pre-search"), and propose what their product is going to be. Assuming students have a good project idea, when it is the first time they are doing it, I almost always make them revise their proposals, re-think different aspects of it, and come back with more passion and determination. 
  • Researching: This is an extremely important aspect of the project, and it needs to be taught very carefully based on students age, reading levels, prior experience with reading/note taking/synthesizing, and stamina (See "Choosing a Research Framework" below). (anything from asking questions about their topic to taking notes, synthesizing, etc.)
  • Creating a product: 
    • Choosing a Design-Thinking process: An important ingredient of this project is students' creation of a product. In order for students to create a quality product, choose a Design-Thinking process. A DT process allows designers to create a high-quality product through a repeated process of ideation, creation, and iteration. If your students have never worked with a DT process before, make sure you spend some time explaining each step and emphasizing its value. Here are a few of the design-thinking processes I found schools to be using. Feel free to choose one that fits your needs, and play around with it!
    • Remember and Consider: In students' Passion Project Proposals, they indicated what product they will create as a result of their learning. There are two important things you need to do here:
      • Make sure you have the materials before they begin working on their products.
      • Consider early prototyping (see above). What often happens is that students spend a lot of time on their research, give themselves very little time to work on a product. With little time to spare, they realize they don't have enough time to complete it. Creating their product early, getting feedback and revising it (sometimes again and again) to ensure it is high quality is very important, and sometimes results in an adjustment of the overall project. For example, I had a student who wanted to write a book about Norse Myths. She did a lot of research. At some point, I asked her to create a prototype chapter, so we see how it goes. She started writing the chapter, needed to do additional research, and two weeks have passed. We realized she won't be able to finish an entire book, so we adjusted her project to be a "published story about a Norse Myth". She finished and edited it, and met with her mentor, and received her illustrations from an older student I matched her with, just in time before presentations. Had she waited until she completely finished researching, she would have had no product at all...
  • Creating a Process Presentation: An important requirement for this project is sharing it with the rest of the world. In order to do that, I ask students to choose their medium of presentation, but give them guidelines as to what they must include in their presentation: 
    • the project they chose; 
    • the reason they chose it; 
    • the questions they had; 
    • important things they found out; and, 
    • their product.

I hope this post provided you with more ideas to think about and tools to plan your own personalized learning project. In the third (and final) part of this blog series, I will be getting into the details of designing a passion project. Elements such as which research framework and design-thinking process to use, how to guide, support and monitor students’ work and progress, and more!

Thank you for taking the time to read through this long and detailed post. I hope you found is useful. As usual, if you have any further questions or would like to share ideas that work (or didn’t work…) for you, please reach out by commenting here or on twitter (@EduRonen). This is a learning community, and the idea of a “destination” is only an illusion!

Reflections on "The Best PD Ever!" Part 2- ISB's Futures Academy

This is the second in my school visits blog post series. If you would like to read about the trip's purpose, objectives, and other background information, as well as about what I learned about Design at the International School of Beijing, please visit this blog post.

*** Disclaimer: These five days of school visits have been extremely busy, interesting and intense few days, and I have no doubt I did not get the full picture of the history, present, and plans for the future of each of the programs I observed and conversed about. If you notice and inaccuracy, I apologize and would appreciate if you could contact me so that I can represent these hard-working educators and their work more accurately.

  Image result for future's academy beijing

The Futures Academy at the International School of Beijing

On both school visit days, we met with Kelsey Giroux (@Kels_Giroux), who graciously and skillfully took us through the past, present, and future of ISB’s Futures Academy. The Future’s Academy first started as a Middle School program for students in grades 7 and 8, and later on was expanded, yet in a somewhat different direction, to the High School (grades 9 and 10). One of the things I appreciated most about ISB educators has been their openness about the processes and the products of the innovative programs- their successes, but also their struggles. I am proud to b
e a part of a global community of innovative and forward-thinking educators!

Middle School Future’s Academy (“FA”)


  • 2013-2014- Startup year. Documentation and preparation. No students were admitted to the program. 
  • 2014-2015- Program begins with grade 7 students.
  • 2015-2016- Program expands to grade 8, and includes about 70 students (40 in grade 7, and 30 in grade 8) 
  • 2016-2017- 80 students in MS FA (A HS FA program is offered for grade 9 students) 
  • 2017-2018- 85 students in MS FA (HS program rolls up to grade 10). 
  • 2018-2019- Enrollment projected to be approximately 80 students (HS program will shift into three interdisciplinary courses) 

Program Overview:

  • Purpose: the MS FA was designed to address the school’s strategic initiatives 
  • Pedagogical Focus: Initially, Project Based Learning. It then morphed into broader approaches (inquiry, design-thinking, etc.) 
  • Service: Offered to grades 7 and 8. Capacity is at 88 (44 students in each grade level). 
  • Funding: Comes out of school or FA budget.
  • Subject integration: Humanities (ELA & SS), science, math, and Mandarin. Later on, integration with Mandarin was dropped, and there was a more flexible integration that varied in each project. 
  • Curriculum Writing: Projects were designed by the facilitators in the first year, and continued as the program evolved.
  • Standards: Similar to the entire school, Common Core Math, Common Core ELA, NGSS for Science, C3 for Social Studies. The FA program addressed the same standards as non-FA students did. 
  • 21st Century Skills: Each project includes at least two “L21” skills. These are included in assessment and reporting as well. 
  • Design-Thinking: All projects are anchored around ISB’s design-thinking process 
  • Project Based Learning: 
  • Facilitators: Six full-time facilitators total (2 Humanities, 2 Math/Science, 1 Math Specialist, 1 Learning Support/ EAL) 
  • Documentation: Students’ Process Journals: 
    • Online 
    • Sheets to work on specific skills/ areas 

    Special Projects: “Ignite” Weeks

    Throughout the year, MS FA students are working on special projects aimed to “ignite a spark in each student and inspire their passions within and beyond Futures Academy”. This is done outside of the FA curriculum in three different one-week projects (I call them "sessions" here). These projects are chunked as follows:

    Session #1: MAKE IT 
    • The focus is on building and creating). 
    • Example student-initiated projects would be upcycling, designing fidgeters, fashion, and cooking.
    Session #2: EXPRESS IT 
    • The focus on communication/arts. 
    • Example projects: Custome design, designing and sewing one's own flag
    Session #3: PERSONALIZE IT 
    • More free choice- students get to design their own projects.

    The Ignite Project facilitators created a short but comprehensive project planner to ensure project facilitator think about all the necessary elements: 
    • Guiding question 
    • Focus area (L21) 
    • Skill focus 
    • Voice and choice 
    • Planning- how to incorporate the ISB design process 
    • Logistics- supplies or space 
    • Max number of students 
    FA's Sample Project Planner

    Important Takeaways- MS Futures Academy:

    • The Futures Academy is a parallel program to the “regular” MS path. It is important to plan and articulate well how the programs are similar and different, and to ensure communication is ongoing and open, and that there are proper understanding and support for the creation of the program from all stakeholders 
    • Not all students are passionate in the same way. It is difficult for some students to come up with passions. Some kids benefit from more guided choices while others work very well with less guidance. 
    • Student-driven learning is not something kids know innately. They need to be prepared from an early age.