|By Tara García Mathewson
Ten years ago, Courtney Dickinson wanted to create an innovative public school. She had a teaching degree and while she never got a job as a teacher, she had a lot of ideas about how schools should operate. Massachusetts has an innovation school law that Dickinson thought laid out a clear path to her dream, only she couldn’t find a school district to partner with. Eventually she had to admit defeat.
“I think that idealism really smacked up against reality for me,” Dickinson said.
Her school, Acera, The Massachusetts School of Science, Creativity and Leadership, gives students early, deep exposure to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) topics; they focus on problem-solving and creative thinking across the curriculum; they work to develop their emotional intelligence rather than just academic skills; every child gets an independent learning plan; ability-based math blocks do away with age-based grade levels for part of the day; report cards are entirely narrative to keep kids from focusing on letter grades.
“The goal has always been: let’s prove that this works,” Dickinson said. With 10 years of anecdotal evidence about how these school design choices help students thrive intellectually and socially, Dickinson wants to turn her attention back to public schools.
After leading a handful of conferences and workshops for public school teachers over the last couple years, Acera is in the first year of a three-year, whole-school partnership with the Joseph G. Pyne Arts Magnet School in Lowell.
While Acera serves 130 students in kindergarten through ninth grade at the steep price of $26,400 for elementary school and $28,300 for middle school, with limited financial aid offered, Lowell Public Schools is a large, urban district serving almost 14,500 students, 71 percent of whom are considered high needs. But despite their vastly different student populations, the two schools share similar educational philosophies.
Led by Wendy Crocker-Roberge since 2011, Pyne Arts is already one of Lowell’s more progressive schools. Its teachers have been focused on project-based learning for a few years now and they have been a part of the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, experimenting with ways to move away from standardized tests as the primary way to assess student achievement.
The partnership with Acera builds on this work, expanding Pyne Arts’ project-based learning efforts, increasing their focus on STEM topics and leaning into the idea that school success is about more than just test scores.
In establishing an outreach arm called AceraEI, Dickinson and her team boiled down the school’s priorities into three big buckets: leadership and emotional intelligence, sciences and innovation, and creativity and systems thinking. Across those three areas, they identified 10 “tools to transform schools” that Dickinson believes any public school can use, based on education research more broadly, her experience at Acera and her team’s expertise in public education. Lowell chose three to focus on through this partnership. (Acera raised outside funding to support the work, making their support free to Pyne Arts.)
So far, Crocker-Roberge finds Acera’s instructional approach to be “highly transferrable.” While schools in Lowell are held accountable based on how their students perform on state tests and they have to teach state-mandated standards, Crocker-Roberge said it hasn’t been a stretch to tie lesson and project ideas from Acera back into the Pyne Arts curriculum map. A major challenge has been navigating administrative red tape to get the right permissions and materials students need to complete their projects.
“Everything in the public world has 10 more steps,” Crocker-Roberge said.
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Karen Barry knew that mental health was a problem for Ph.D. students at her institution. In her role as graduate research coordinator at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, Australia, she had spoken with many students over the years who had confided in her, sharing personal stories about their struggles with stress, depression, and anxiety. But for Barry—who is also a senior lecturer in plant biology—the problem came into full focus a few years ago when a student who was a leader of the graduate student body visited her office feeling stressed and overwhelmed. “Everyone else is coming to me and telling me they’re stressed,” the Ph.D. student—a scientist—told Barry. “What can I do to help the students around me?”
Student learning communities are curricular programs designed by faculty and instructional design staff working together with a group of students. These students (known as “the cohort”) take a shared set of courses that are usually connected by a common theme or overarching set of questions or learning outcomes – a key feature of inquiry-based learning.
Any educational institution such as a school or college or university is, by definition, a learning community. However, in a traditional program of study, the courses students take often seem not to have any relationship to each other.
The learning activities and content from one course are usually designed by a faculty member independent of the learning activities and content of courses taught by other faculty, even within the same program. This puts the onus of figuring out how to link the theories and principles from one course to the other almost entirely on the students.
While some highly self-motivated students are able to make these connections, others are less able to do so. At best, students who are not able to make the cross-course connections are not able to maximize their learning experience, and at worse, students may feel frustrated and underperform academically or even drop out of school.
Connecting different theories and principles across courses is very important because that is where higher order learning occurs and it is the heart of academic inquiry. It is in the analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of different bodies of knowledge that higher learning takes place.
It is for these reasons that student learning communities have started to become more popular on college campuses.
One of the chief goals of a student learning community is to help integrate education across courses; for instance, by having students address the big questions or grand themes that extend beyond a single course. These programs require students to take two or more linked courses as a cohort and then work closely with their cohort peers and with their professors.
These courses may be within the same discipline or from different disciplines.
Arts or humanities courses may be linked with the social sciences or STEM disciplines.
Student learning communities at Loyola Marymount University and Ohio University are among those showing how institutions are helping students explore different cultures, genders, and worldviews, thus improving their intercultural competencies and understanding of human rights and equality issues.
Other student learning communities may use service learning or leadership or undergraduate research as vehicles to cultivate deeper learning experiences. They may integrate intercultural studies with service learning in the community or with study abroad learning opportunities.
This type of field-based experiential learning allows students to engage in more authentic and meaningful inquiry by applying what they are learning in the classroom to real-world situations.
Rather than waiting until after they graduate to work on these types of problems, students start working on them from the start of their college experience.
When student learning communities are designed properly, learning is inherently more authentic, experiential, integrative, self-regulating, and inquiry-based.
Student learning communities represent a shift away from isolated, disconnected learning to more social, connected learning.
John Dewey defined a democracy as an associated way of living, and in the spirit of Dewey, these communities represent a more participatory and inquiry-based way to cultivate deeper and higher-order levels of learning.
Patrick Blessinger is the founder and executive director of the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association and an adjunct associate professor of education at St John’s University in New York City. He is co-editor with John M. Carfora of the Inquiry-Based Learning book series.