Retooling school

Trends in primary and secondary education

Written by Karen Long

In the 21st century, blackboards have turned into whiteboards — or even Smart boards. Glowing screens float throughout today’s classrooms. As we enter the information age, today’s educators are even tinkering under the hood with long-held assumptions of education, components as fundamental as the kind of homework students are completing after school, or what their report cards look like.

But even as teachers and administrators experiment with creative ways to integrate technology into primary and secondary education, they’re also taking special care to nurture soft skills, develop the whole child and prepare students to take their place as upstanding citizens in the community.

The flipped classroom

Throughout living memory the time-honored classroom template has dictated a teacher lecturing at the front of the room, then assigning problems for students to solve on their own at home.

Nathan Washer, the incoming head of school at Collegiate, explains a new concept that is growing in popularity called blended instruction. “I had a teacher at my old school who actually videotaped herself providing the instruction. That was the homework students watched at home: the videotaped instruction.”

The teacher wanted the students to focus on solving problems and mastering new skills while she was there in the classroom to give them individual attention.

“There’s a lot to be said for that flip,” Washer says, “because — we even as adults know — we learn best by doing, by getting our hands dirty or actually solving problems.”

“In order to be the most effective educators in the age of information, we have to act like we’re educators in the age of information, and not act like educators who rely on an industrial model.” — Chris English, head of school, The Independent School

Dr. Alicia Thompson, USD 259 superintendent, says blended instruction is something the district is embracing. “That’s just the wave of the future and I think we’re headed in that direction. Next year all of our high schools will have access to a computer all day — one-to-one.”

Having technology at a student’s fingertips opens up a world of “virtual tours of different careers, or kids having opportunities to learn from another classroom across the country, so we are exploring all those types of things here in the next year.”

Grading the grade cards

Another relic of the industrial age is the report card with its familiar rows of letters A through F. According to an article titled “Will Letter Grades Survive?” on the website Edutopia, Laura McKenna writes, “The old models of student assessment are out of step with the needs of the 21st-century workplace and society, with their emphasis on hard-to-measure skills such as creativity, problem solving, persistence, and collaboration.”

Earlier this spring USD 259 announced their plan to phase out the traditional report card and replace it with something called standards-based grading, beginning this fall with K–5 students.

“What we know is that grades can sometimes be subjective,” says Superintendent Thompson. “(Standards-based grading) takes us deeper into what kids know and what they don’t know, and it helps teachers then be able to craft lessons right at the space where the student has that level of confusion.”

It’s always been an open secret who the “easy” teachers are vs. the “hard” teachers. An A in one class might not mean the same as an A in the classroom right next door. Thompson says the new grading system will be more fair and consistent. It will implement a scale or rubric going into more detail about what the child already knows and where they need more help, ensuring they’re being evaluated on actual knowledge and skills.

Developing the whole child

All the educators interviewed for this article agreed that a holistic focus on building character, soft skills and conscientious citizens is a continuing movement.

“In a world where you can get an answer to pretty much anything by clicking on your phone, it’s not about necessary content knowledge anymore,” says Washer, “it’s about how you use that knowledge. We need to teach our students about creativity, about collaborating with others … I know that’s something I’m going to be emphasizing at Collegiate.”

Mark Templin, principal of Andover eCademy, says his school is reinventing itself to bring even more of these holistic elements into their virtual and blended model, as part of the Kansans Can School Redesign Project.

“We are writing a lot of our own curriculum now,” Templin says. “We’re moving to a model where most of our courses are designed from the ground floor by our teachers. And so, as we do that, we can use a lot more of the Kansas redesign principles in all of our courses.”

At Trinity Academy, Principal Jaime Hutchinson says that, while they value technology and integration, what’s most important is their teachers’ skill at reaching students: “We value the authentic, individual connection and power in relationships as we teach the students who attend Trinity.”

Better basketball shorts

When Jean Garvey founded The Independent School in 1980, “She said she wanted a school where teachers and students and parents understood what it meant to be fiscally responsible and entrepreneurial in their thinking,” says the new head of school, Chris English.

Almost 40 years later, everyone else is playing catch up.

“Entrepreneurship is probably one of the biggest buzzwords in education right now,” continues English. “Teaching kids to think as entrepreneurs, teaching them to think like innovators.”

He uses the example of Reema Moussa, a participant in Youth Entrepreneurs at The Independent School, who was a top winner at the Entrepreneurship Expo U.S. Nationals, where she pitched HoopHers, basketball shorts designed specifically for girls.

What’s really important, English explains, is the human-centered design model behind the basketball shorts — not asking “Where’s the market?” or “How do I make money?” but “How do I solve a problem?” And then following that up with empathy to understand how it affects a 14-year old girl, who already has issues with body image and self-esteem.

Education and the law

Calvin Rider has a unique perspective on education as an attorney with Fleeson, Gooing, Coulson & Kitch. He’s part of a team specializing in education law, among other things. He’s keeping a close eye on a series of transgender discrimination lawsuits winding their way through the court system, addressing the use of bathrooms and locker rooms. He says the U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing oral arguments in October of this year to determine whether or not the word “sex” in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 encompasses “gender identity,” “transgender status” or discrimination based on an individual’s sexual orientation.

Across the nation there are also requests from parents to allow the use of medical marijuana, CBD oil and essential oils in the classroom. Rider says this raises complex questions: “First, are the substances legal or not? Are they going to be allowed or not? And if they are allowed, when do you administer them, who administers them?”

Another interesting area is schools — including Kansas schools — amending their non-discrimination policies this year to cover genetic information. For example, refusing to hire a teacher because they’re predisposed to a particular genetic disease would be illegal, as well as discriminating against a student based on that type of sensitive information.

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