Sunday, September 30, 2018

Research and Development: Lessons from a School Visit

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” lead-facilitator. 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 post, 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.

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