Most Likely to Succeed

I just saw a showing of the education documentary Most Likely to Succeed, and it was incredible. The movie discusses the history and future of K-12 education. Back in the day, the purpose of schools was to create obedient factory workers, but in today’s society, what we really want is a workforce of innovative individuals.

The documentary takes a closer look at the unorthodox teaching methods of High Tech High, a San Diego high school whose principles are “personalization, adult world connection, common intellectual mission, and teacher as designer.” High Tech High emphasizes cross-discipline, project-based learning and focuses on developing students’ soft skills in addition to content knowledge for their projects.

When I was watching the film, I noticed a few similarities between High Tech High and Mission Hill, a middle school in Boston that I also really like. For one, both schools offer teachers autonomy in the classroom. Rather than teaching straight from a list of educational standards, teachers have full power over what topics they teach and how they teach them. Teachers can teach what they’re passionate about and cater their teaching style to their students. High Tech High and Mission Hill treat teachers as professionals who are capable of educating students without someone telling them exactly what to teach.

A second similarity I found was the innovative approach to assessments. Instead of your standard multiple choice, short answer exams, both of these schools have a project showcase at the end of each term. Mission Hill calls them portfolio presentations, and High Tech High calls them project exhibitions. What I think makes this form of assessment so much more effective is the “publicness” of the project showcases. If students know that their parents, their friends’ parents, and other people in the community are going to see their projects, they are more incentivized to do their absolute best on their projects. They also see direct applications of everything they learn because they’re using that knowledge for their projects.

Lastly, and possibly most importantly, both schools have environments that recognize that students are humans, too. Students have hopes and dreams, as well as insecurities and uncertainties. Educators at these schools understand their role in developing each student as a whole human being rather than just a data point on a graph.

Just some other thoughts about the documentary…

In part because of the autonomy given to teachers, teaching positions at High Tech High are highly coveted. The school receives about 1,800 applications per year, and about 20-25 are offered jobs. It makes me wonder what type of training and/or experiences prepares people to be successful teachers at High Tech High. I was really inspired by the teachers featured in the documentary, and I would be interested in learning how to reach that level of comfort with working with students and leading a project-based classroom.

Because so much time is spent on projects at High Tech High, students don’t cover the same breadth of topics compared to students at traditional schools. This fact, in addition to the lack of report cards, worries a lot of parents, who went through traditional schooling. Parents are worried that their kids won’t score well on standardized tests, and as a result won’t get into good colleges and get good jobs. Personally, I think this is a valid concern and one that I think could be addressed by changing the way college admissions works. I understand that that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon, but I still think it’s interesting to think about. Graduates from High Tech High are better prepared for working in teams and taking on projects in life, but it’s unfortunate that parents still worry about their kids’ chances of scoring well enough on standardized exams to get admitted to prestigious colleges.

MIT’s motto is “Mens et Manus,” which means “mind and hand.” So obviously we value the idea of learning by doing. However, a large portion of my classes are still taught through lectures. In fact, a friend of mine brought up the fact that the freshman chemistry class has absolutely no lab component to it. I understand that there must be some sort of balance between learning background knowledge and doing hands-on learning, but how do you determine that balance? Also, I would be interested in discovering more about how content knowledge is woven into project-based learning, if not through lectures.

Overall, Most Likely to Succeed was an outstanding documentary, and I highly recommend you watch it if you haven’t already!

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Structure and Innovation in American Schools

I wrote the following essay for my education class, and I thought I would share it with you 🙂

The education system is responsible for making sure that the next generation of children has the skills necessary to contribute to an ever-changing society. In the early 1900s, the factory model of teaching students “assembly-line” style may have fulfilled the goal of creating blue collar workers; however, our educational goals have dramatically changed since then (Bransford 132). Today we expect students to “understand the current state of their knowledge and to build on it, improve it, and make decisions in the face of uncertainty” (Bransford 132). However, our schools still bear an alarming resemblance to the factory model, which quite frankly is not ideal. Society would benefit greatly from education reform that revamped the structure of American schools and more specifically the teaching methods employed. If I could teach at any school, I would choose a school similar to Mission Hill, whose priorities include developing the child as a whole and supporting teachers as professionals. The learning environment in which I would like to teach is largely determined by the expected roles of and opportunities for students and teachers in the school.

In the documentary A Year at Mission Hill, a teacher describes her students’ growth: “The whole child is improving—not just one piece here, one piece there.” One of the values that matters most to me is maintaining a holistic view of children. Students are much more than a test grade or a project grade, and in order to help them maximize their learning, we need to treat them as human beings who have hopes, dreams, and worries of their own. In his essay “From Bureaucracy to Profession,” Jal Mehta addresses the affective dimension of good teaching. Teachers must develop a “warm but demanding rapport with students” to help them succeed. It is the teacher’s responsibility to invest time and effort into cultivating meaningful relationships with students. As one Mission Hill teacher says, “You have to know your students to teach them well. When you know them so well, you naturally become their advocate.” When parents realize the teacher’s personal investment in the success of the child, they are more likely to support and trust the teacher.

The supportive community of adults and children is part of what makes Mission Hill so successful. Parents, teachers, and children are all expected to serve as active and responsible members of the learning community. Parents are invited to events at the school, and they are given the chance to meet their children’s classmates. In reality, some parents are not as invested in their children’s education. For these students, it becomes even more important for them to know that their teachers and classmates are there to support them. If they know that their classroom is a safe, welcoming space, students are more likely to open up in school and thus are more prepared to learn and grow.

Mission Hill’s attitude toward assessments also reflects the school’s commitment to celebrating the progress and growth of students. Teachers take the time to sit down with each student and discuss where the student stands with regards to the material. They pinpoint areas the student has improved in as well as areas in which the student still needs work. Receiving direct feedback from teachers allows students to receive the attention and support they deserve. Students also practice assessing their own progress, which is important for developing metacognition. For summative assessments, Mission Hill employs a portfolio system. Throughout the term, students collect their work in a portfolio, and at the end of the term, they go through and review all their work for that term. Each student is responsible for preparing a two-hour presentation of their portfolio for their teachers, parents, and special guests. This type of capstone project requires students to put together a body of work and to know the material well enough to defend it in front of their audience. Both students and teachers get valuable feedback during the interactive component of the presentation. In addition, the capstone project serves as a celebration of the student’s work, which helps promote an excitement for learning in a way that standardized testing cannot. It is also interesting to note that in the Committee of N activity, both teams decided to use their mulligan on the assessment design element and chose to adopt portfolio-based assessments for their schools.

One reason for the success of portfolio-based assessments is that students are given the freedom to select the topics for many of their projects. When students feel responsible for choosing the direction of their education, they are more likely to feel invested in learning the material. Teachers at Mission Hill trust their students and allow them to make decisions regarding their education. In the beginning of the year, students gather around to discuss expectations for the school year both in regards to classroom policies and topics included in the curriculum. In addition to giving students a voice in planning, student choice can also be incorporated into science and math education. As mentioned in Polman and Pea’s essay “Transformative Communication as a Cultural Tool for Guiding Inquiry Science,” transformative communication showcases the ideal balance between student ownership of projects and teacher control. Students are given the freedom to investigate their own research questions and analysis techniques, but teachers remain on the sidelines, guiding them in the right direction if the students go astray. Because students are in the driver seat, they care more deeply about the project, and they become more confident in their own capabilities as scientific researchers. Similarly, in Ruth Kelleher’s second grade class in Waterloo, Iowa, students design their own mathematics games (Hildebrandt 191). The students take pride in creating games that are fun and challenging, and when asked about their favorite part about their games, 80 percent said that they enjoyed making up the games themselves.

Another way to excite students about learning new concepts is to give them problems that require use of those concepts. I wholeheartedly agree with the Mission Hill teacher who said, “Academics don’t exist in a vacuum.” Students need to be reminded that the knowledge they are learning has real-world applications. At Mission Hill, students “learn the landscape,” a term coined by James Greeno. Rather than going through a list of standards and teaching them one by one, activities are structured so that students learn material as they need it. One of the science teachers designed a unit around furniture construction, and one of the skills his students practiced and mastered was making measurements. This activity allowed students to understand the relevance and importance of knowing how to make accurate measurements. Another teacher had her students simulate a bakery. Not only did her students bake, but they also practiced their mathematics skills when handling monetary transactions with customers. Students also had the opportunity to practice their interpersonal skills when interacting with customers and fellow employees.

The idea of simulating a bakery was actually inspired by a classroom visit to the bakery. As one teacher notes, “Work is always happening even though we are in school.” Mission Hill finds opportunities to allow students to speak to professionals about their work. The “World of Work” project not only made older students aware of potential careers, but it also brought in people from the outside community, including Northeastern University students and people in the workforce. Students learned how to ask questions to get information and how to ask people to share their stories. By learning more about the individuals in their communities, students realize that they are part of a community that extends beyond the scope of their school.

The task of recruiting community members to dedicate time to working with students and the broader task of developing innovative ways to transform students from novices to experts are not easy tasks. However, the best teachers are ones who accomplish both of these tasks and more. At Mission Hill, teachers explain how much they value the freedom to carry out their own lesson plans. It is because they have this freedom to explore different teaching strategies that Mission Hill teachers are able to continually improve and come up with innovative solutions for the classroom. Teachers are often depicted as people whose job it is to simply implement other people’s ideas. However, as John Dewey said, teachers should be treated as professionals who are capable of taking “intellectual initiative.” Teachers can maximize their effectiveness by having opportunities to develop their own lesson plans and curriculum that cater to their own students. Furthermore, teachers should be given the option of leading professional development for themselves. At Mission Hill, teachers discuss their current problems during faculty meetings, and at the beginning and end of each year, all the teachers go on a retreat, where they prepare and debrief the year. Teachers often share different strategies with each other that work and do not work, which helps accumulate the overall knowledge base.

Another way to develop the knowledge base is through jugyokenkyu, a Japanese practice that involves a teacher teaching a lesson in front of students, other teachers, and at least one university observer (Green). Each public lesson offers an opportunity to test out a new hypothesis, a new idea on how to help children learn. The discussion following the lesson allows the observer and teachers to reflect on how successful the hypothesis was. In addition to improving the knowledge base, having teachers assess each other is beneficial both for the teacher being observed and the teacher conducting the observations. The teacher being observed can receive feedback on what she is doing correctly and what she can do better, and the teacher observing can come up with new ideas for her own teaching as well as identify potential flaws in her own teaching style. Beginning teachers especially benefit from receiving training from master teachers within their schools. By reflecting on areas in which they themselves could improve, Mission Hill’s mentor teachers show student teachers how to identify where their own individual growth is needed. The teachers at Mission Hill are not perfect. They make mistakes. However, what makes a difference is that Mission Hill teachers treat their mistakes as learning opportunities and continue to improve all the time.

I want to work in a school that treats teachers as professionals because only then will teachers have the freedom to experiment with and design their own curriculum and lesson plans for the students. I want to work with teachers who value a holistic approach to child development and who let students guide the direction of their own education. I want to work with students who feel supported by teachers at school and who believe that they can learn anything. Most of all, I want to work in a school that places its core values above everything else, even if that means straying away from the cookie cutter mold put in place by external forces. I want to work in a school, like Mission Hill, that can set our students up for success in the modern era.

Works Cited

Bransford, John. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, D.C.: National Academy, 2000. Print.

Green, Elizabeth. “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?” The New York Times. The New York Times, 26 July 2014. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.

Hildebrandt, Carolyn. “Developing Mathematical Unders Tanding through Invented Games.” Teaching Children Mathematics 5.3 (1998): 191. Print.

Mehta, Jal. “From Bureaucracy to Profession: Remaking the Educational Sector for the Twenty-First Century.” Harvard Educational Review 83.3 (2013): 463-88. Web.

A Year at Mission Hill. Dir. Tom Valens and Amy Valens. Prod. Sam Chaltain. N.p., 2013. Web.