Oct 11, 2018

Creating the Schools We Need

An Interview With EDspaces 2018 Keynote Speakers: Chris Lehmann and Diana Laufenberg

Education innovators Chris Lehmann and Diana Laufenberg share their vision for creating learning institutions where all members of the community — students, teachers, and administrators alike — see themselves as active learners.

What is “inquiry-based learning” and how does it differ from traditional teaching and learning?

Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) is predicated on the idea that learning starts with curiosity and uses that curiosity to intentionally build experiences honoring student ideas, questions and wonderings. The teacher creates space for student ideas, questions and wonderings to grow utilizing a wide range of curricular materials (video, graphs, maps, images, etc.). Students do the heavy lifting of learning; requiring development of questioning and investigating skills. When a school values inquiry, students become arbiters of their own learning experience.

IBL differs from a traditional approach in several key ways. Valuing inquiry requires for a more collaborative learning experience between all members of the learning environment. Teachers model and coach more than direct while students wield more choice and voice in their learning. Reflection is a key component of this process as the members of the learning community are in a constant cycle of reflection about their own learning, what has happened, why it happened and what they might do differently next time. Assessments in this learning approach are more relevant and authentic, asking not only what the student knows, but what can the student do with what they know.

It’s also important to recognize that IBL is also about the entire process of learning. Often, when people talk about project-based learning, we can see teaching that is still overly didactic until the moment students work on the assessment. When we talk about IBL, we can talk about all parts of the learning process — from the way we start with powerful questions to how we create artifacts of our own learning.

How does this method translate into student achievement?

Student achievement in this method is a richer product than a letter or a number. Inquiry allows students to evidence their learning in a way that relevant and authentic, connecting to a student’s interests and curiosity. The difference in achievement is related to intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivations for performance. IBL asks students to approach learning from a place of internal motivation and then model and coach them through a pathway to produce evidence of that learning. IBL classrooms may use a robust system of formative assessments to gauge understanding and progress, but the end moment for demonstrating that the student has learned the concepts is the ability to produce something new, unique and relevant with their cumulative learning experience.

IBL learning also can help student develop many skills beyond what is measured through traditional metrics. IBL helps students develop critical thinking skills, they learn to seek out and evaluate information from multiple sources, they often can learn more powerful collaborative skills, and students who learn in an IBL school learn to present their ideas in powerful ways.

What are the most important qualities of a modern classroom or school?

— Values Inquiry
— Celebrates Student Voice and Choice
— Offers authentic learning experiences
— Understands the need for flexibility
— Standardizes little
— Reflects upon the work often
— Emphasizes the process as much as the outcome
When it comes to space, what enhances and inhibits learning?

In the end, we learn in multiple modalities, and learning spaces need to reflect that. The ability for classes to be able to transform their space to facilitate small group to large group to individual work and back again is so important.

It’s important to note that some of the most amazing learning spaces are found in some of the most challenged buildings. We often see amazing new facilities that look shiny, but don’t facilitate learning as well as classrooms with donated bean bag chairs and tables. That isn’t to condone the inequity we see in learning spaces across this country, but it is to point out how we need to be deeply intentional when we design spaces - no matter what our budget.

How can technology help run a school not just better, but altogether differently?

The question to always start with when considering technology and learning is: How do we ensure that it's the technology that serves the learning and not the other way around? Technology is extremely powerful and seductive in its promises to education. A school needs a sound mission and vision to base their educational decisions off which then dictates the use of technology. The first step is to consider how does the school define high quality learning experiences and then how can technology serve that definition. Interesting technological applications include ideas about more flexibly using time and space to work with students — robust scheduling systems can allow for more options that flex to timely needs for learning.

Additionally, these powerful tools can elevate student work from tri-fold boards to industry level video productions, taking their work out of the realm of ‘kid’ work to the level of professional. Technology can make the work the students engage in, relevant now, not just after they graduate. Technology is fodder — fodder for any number of avenues that push the boundaries of relevance and authenticity for learners. The key is to use the inquiry process to keep asking hard questions about how technology serves learning and then reflect on practices to refine for better outcomes. This is a process, that I suspect we will be engaged in as learning communities for the foreseeable future.

How are learning spaces being redefined?

Sadly, in most spaces, they aren’t. Or they aren’t in meaningful ways. We’re seeing more ways that people think learning can be redefined by creating “blended” learning or “personalized” learning, but we’re not seeing enough people reconsider what it means that learning spaces are now important because they are the places we come together.

There are some very hopeful things happening, though. When you look at the work that folks like Bob Dillon and David Jakes and Karina Ruiz and Trung Le are doing to help people rethink how pedagogy must drive learning space design, you can see how people are thinking deeply about how active, IBL learning must change learning spaces.

How can educators promote active learning?

Well, they can read Zac and Chris’ book — Building School 2.0: How to Create the Schools We Need — it’s a wonderful book to stimulate a lot of the questions we think educators need to ask to create active learning environments!

Beyond that, a wonderful lens is to always keep in mind “Less us, more them.” The more educators can create the conditions where they don’t have to own the front of the classroom, but spend their time listening to students as they tackle deep questions and serving to guide, prompt, and scaffold.

It’s important to remember that this isn’t “let the kids do what they want….” Creating the conditions for active, inquiry-driven learning requires incredible planning and forethought. Using tools like essential questions and backwards design allow teachers to put in the hard work of planning for a student-centered classroom.

What changes can be made in schools to make them more student directed, modern and responsive to current needs?

Schools need to revisit their common practices to evaluate the possibilities for innovation and change. Many schools want to change but are not creating conditions for such change to occur. A commitment to redefining mission and vision to align with a more student directed focus is a start. From there, schools need to implement a series of specific and scaffolded actions that help teachers move instructional practice toward more modern methods with authentic and original evidence of student learning. These action steps may include a shift in professional development, master schedule, interview questions, and human resources recruitment. We often think of the changes that need to happen as only those related to the classroom, but much of the change is related to the system shaping the space around the classroom.

At the very core of the issue is a basic commitment to the notion that schools are human spaces, committed to creating responsive, relevant and caring learning environments for all people in those systems. From there, the rest of it can begin.

What is the impact of these changes on space?

The impact on space can be huge once we consider what is best for humans. Schools that have tiny windows that let in almost no natural light are not optimal for humans to spend a full day. Schools often fail to consider that students may need flexible spaces outside the confinement of a classroom in which to work at times. Kids are scheduled into ‘learning boxes’ and then move from one ‘learning box’ to the other throughout the day… this is not necessarily the most humane or optimal scenario for learning to occur.

Thinking about schools as human spaces, designed to provoke curiosity and creativity is a bold shift for many school systems in the U.S. When this is a priority, the innovation and engagement that we aspire to achieve with students is possible. When students and teachers need to try to be innovative and inspire engagement despite poor learning spaces, we are not delivering on the best possible outcomes for our students. Light, space, flexibility and flow of space all matter immensely in shaping a compelling learning environment.

What steps do we need to take to prepare students for the workforce of the future?

We need to stop thinking that this isn’t our job. The classrooms we hope to see are ones that understand that the goals of schooling are to help our students become the fully engaged and active citizens that our society so desperately needs. When we understand that “worker” is a subset of “citizen,” we change what we value. The ability to be economically independent is a powerful part of being a fully realized citizen, but we need our students to make powerful decisions about their activism, their purchasing choices, the impact their lives have on our planet, the way they live as parents, partners, neighbors. The kind of learning that encourages deep, critical thinking and helps students tap into their own agency will help us help students to become those fully aware citizens, and that kind of agility of mind will help them navigate a changing economic landscape as well.

Chris Lehmann is the founding principal and CEO of the Science Leadership Academy, Chris Lehmann leads the strategic network of three progressive science and technology schools in Philadelphia, PA. A pioneer of the School 2.0 movement internationally, the Academy is an inquiry-driven, project-based, 1:1 laptop school and was recognized by Ladies Home Journal as one of the Ten Most Amazing Schools in the U.S., an Apple Distinguished School from 2009 through 2013, and it is the Dell Computing Center of Excellence for Technology in Education. Chris is co-author of Building School 2.0: How to Create the Schools We Need, co-editor of What School Leaders Need to Know about Digital Technologies and Social Media, the author of the education blog Practical Theory.

Diana Laufenberg was a secondary social studies teacher for 16 years most recently at the Science Leadership Academy. Her practice has deep roots in real-world, experiential education. Prior to her work in Philadelphia, she was an active member of the teaching community in Flagstaff, AZ where she was named Technology Teacher of the Year for Arizona and a member of the Governor's Master Teacher Corps. In 2013, she partnered with Lehmann to start Inquiry Schools as Executive Director of the non-profit, working to create and support student-centered, project-based learning environments.

Diana Laufenberg and Chris Lehmann are Keynote Speakers at EDspaces 2018 on Thursday, November 8, 2018 at 9:30 am at the Tampa Convention Center.

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