“In a world where young people exercise
personal choice over matters as trivial as the
ring tones of their cellphone, or as far
reaching as the learning pathways they
pursue, denying them opportunities for active
involvement in important learning and
assessment decisions is likely to promote
Absolum et al., 2009, page 8
In October 2017, I was Austin bound to peek in the doors of four schools with reputations for offering ‘disruptive’ education, inclusive education, or high academic achievement. In my introductory blog, I summarised the schools I was to visit: two private schools offering an alternative entrepreneurial approach KoSchool (Middle and High School) and Acton Academy (Elementary, Middle and High School); along with Magnolia Montessori for All , a public Elementary School created to address the achievement inequities experienced by some children; and LASA East Austin, a selective public magnet high school for liberal arts, science, and mathematics.
Four key themes emerged from my visits — how schools viewed:
- learner agency (assessment and reporting)
- the role of $ money — private versus public
- physical environments and the connection to teaching pedagogy.
Interpretations of inclusivity
I really wanted to see how the schools I visited viewed inclusivity, particularly in a city that had obvious racial tensions. I wanted to know how these schools addressed the needs of their priority learners and strove to improve outcomes for them. Magnolia Montessori for All was the most explicit in promoting inclusivity of students. They openly state in their school name and vision that their school was created to serve all members of society and, as a result, their student ethnicity is more diverse than in most schools in Austin (40% Hispanic, 30% white, 20% African American). To support their purpose, Magnolia Montessori for All use Panarama, a set of social and emotional competencies to focus on the development of their students’ self-regulation (Conscious Discipline), and they see this as a key reason that they outperform other public schools academically. The emotional and social well-being of students was promoted in various ways, such as the careful organisation of students’ learning to ensure consistent and calm routines. Pets were also housed in every classroom, and these provided students with emotional comfort and a sense of responsibility.
In contrast to Magnolia Montessori for All was LASA, a public Magnet school whose school population is dominated by white gifted and talented students (White 52.48%, Latino 19.56%, African American 2.02%, Asian 19.48% and Native American .08%). Their focus of inclusivity was interpreted as a need to support the wellbeing of individual students because they recognised the strain put on them through high academic expectations. All students were required to study at a grade level higher than their age level, and the students had no choice in the subjects studied. They offered support in the form of three different counsellors — Academic counsellors (initial concerns; time management, scheduling etc), and Wellness Counsellors, who are licensed professional therapists (for more serious issues), or students are referred outside of the school for support.
Interpretations of learner agency
Learner agency was a term used by all of the Austin schools we visited. Their interpretations of what that looked like varied considerably.
KoSchool students lived and breathed learner agency through individual goal setting, which moved far beyond a tokenistic attempt. They focused on the use of the Socratic method of dialogue in their Socratic Humanities class. Students led their own investigations, dialogue, and evaluation of the dialogue without teacher facilitation. The high level of engagement of the students was astounding to say the least. Watching 30 students fully engaged in discussing Confucius, redefined my expectations of ‘perceptive understanding’ for Level 3 English assessments back in New Zealand. While teacher facilitation occurred in the junior class, by the time the students were in the senior school, they were autonomous in their ability to lead themselves.
LASA offered a varied approach to teaching pedagogy. Some classes were chalk and talk with the teacher as the expert. The rationale for this was that students would experience this style of learning at college. They also offered Inquiry-based learning to support learner agency. Initially, all students completed Signature courses, a 90-minute semester long engineering/physics class, where they were supported to work collaboratively to complete an impossible task. The focus was on learner agency and making social and emotional connections with their peers.
Acton Academy, like KoSchool, reinforced learner agency through individualised goal setting, which drove their curriculum. Students would take complete responsibility for the completion of learning activities. There were very high expectations of what needed to be achieved for each stage of the ‘Hero’s journey’, but the students decided how often and when they worked through these expectations (using programmes such as Khan Academy, Spelling City, DuoLingo, etc.,).
At Magnolia Montessori for All, learner agency was interpreted as giving students choice in the activity trays they selected for completion of tasks. Each classroom had its own garden, which the students were responsible for tending. In years 1–3, there was an individual learning focus to build an understanding of fundamentals (literacy and numeracy) and in years 3–6 learning occurred collaboratively.
KoSchool, LASA and Acton Academy all made strong connections with community to engage the students in their areas of interest. Business contacts were utilised, particularly for STEM interests. This was also reflected in the choice of teachers at LASA who were often highly successful in their STEM or Humanities fields, then retrained as teachers. Their expertise was used to connect the students with ‘real life application’. Acton Academy, in its entrepreneurial approach to learning, culminated with market days where students had designed, created, and marketed products, which were then sold to the school community. Learning celebrations were also an important milestone in their curriculum. The leadership and teachers at Acton Academy also believe that learning is to be shared with others; led by the students themselves. It made traditional parent-teacher interviews look archaic and irrelevant.
Both Acton Academy and KoSchool offered multi-leveled classrooms for their students. This provided the opportunity for growing leadership, socialisation of methods of working (e.g., Socratic dialogue) on a daily basis. In both of these schools, there was a clear message that learning was neither linear nor hierarchical. Their programmes supported the notion that there are not certain knowledge or skills sets for each age level. Learning was viewed as an evolving concept that occurred at different rates, in different areas, for each student. Each child was treated as an individual and could work at their own pace.
Connections with whānau (family) were highly valued at Acton Academy and KoSchool. Parents were encouraged to read and reflect on a number of titles before applying for a place for their child at Acton Academy. Once their child won a place at the Academy, parenting sessions were held regularly to support parent learning and to support the learner agency approach to education that their children were experiencing. This was a true community approach to learner agency. All stakeholders, students, whānau, business community, and teachers were genuinely unified in their pursuit of students leading their learning.
Assessment and reporting
One of the things I was curious about was what these approaches to learner agency meant for reporting on students’ achievement. While parents sent their children to school to experience a ‘different’ way of learning, and with an expectation that their child’s individual needs and interests would be nurtured, I wanted to know how this was balanced by reporting on assessments. As a secondary teacher I was keen to understand how these ideals sat with the expectations that their children were ‘learning’ and that this learning was measured accurately, especially if they had expectations that their children would go on to college.
Magnolia Montessori for All, who were proud to demonstrate that their students achieved higher than most public schools, used traditional assessment methods for reporting to parents. As noted, LASA supported inquiry learning for part of their students’ learning but Stacia Crescenzi (principal) noted that “Some parents really struggle with the reporting of the inquiry learning, therefore grades are what are reported”. KoSchool is not currently accredited and they view other disruptive education schools as losing their level of innovation by becoming accredited as they are then compelled to adhere to state requirements. Michael Ko (principal) is confident in that “Colleges don’t care where the students come from. [KoSchool does] SATs (Scholastic Aptitude Test) and ACTs (American College Test), which is what the colleges want. Our students do well on these”. They satisfied their parents’ interest in academic rigour by such means as the types of texts the students were studying (Confucius). Acton Academy reported on their students’ achievement on their ‘Hero’s journey’ and how well they had met their own goals, as well as the Academy’s expectations and their scores on various programmes (such as Khan Academy). Celebrations of learning occurred regularly to demonstrate to parents and the community what they had been working on in the semester (as well as other community events such as market days).
The report from staff at ‘disruptive’ schools and some parents I spoke to personally, was that parents were nervous, especially initially, whether their children would achieve at a school that viewed education differently. These concerns were usually alleviated by seeing their children enjoy learning through a sense of belonging at the school. They could see their child’s progress academically, even if it was not reported in a traditional manner with test scores. Perhaps not surprising, many of these parents were entrepreneurial themselves and, therefore, valued a ‘disruptive’ approach to education.
The role of $ money — does it make a difference?
So, is it all about the money? Both KoSchool ($17k per year) and Acton Academy ($10K per year) are private schools. From my vantage point, I’m not convinced the $ was the key differential for the experiences of these students. The view of what education should look like and who should drive a student’s learning were far more powerful determinants of inclusivity and student agency. Public schools, such as Magnolia Montessori for Al,l achieved success through a focus on the social and emotional needs of their students, much like the private school, KoSchool. By focusing on the building blocks of independence, and the capabilities these students need for their futures, these schools have made the students the focus rather than traditional subject-based learning.
Physical Environments and teaching pedagogy
One of my initial foci for visiting these schools was to note how their physical environments shaped their pedagogical approach. I reside in Christchurch and innovative learning spaces are a hot topic of discussion for any school approaching a rebuild/renewal.
Schools like Acton Academy looked and felt different from traditional schools. Their physical environments were open spaces with various multi-purpose spaces. Despite being the most expensive school to attend, KoSchool did not offer the most modern buildings. The classrooms were relatively small, devoid of any fancy furniture or breakout spaces like those being designed in New Zealand innovative learning environments. It was the view of what education looked like that shaped their pedagogy, not the furniture.
In fact, the public school, Magnolia Montessori for All , offered the most novel approach to their classroom buildings. The school was designed by an urban architect who created a series of buildings that looked like warm, inviting houses, rather than sterile classrooms. This was a deliberate act to further their purpose of providing an environment that supported the social and emotional needs of their students.
While I found it fascinating to see these key themes played out in each of these schools, I was always thinking about how these ideas could support improved practice in New Zealand. In my next blog, Texan approaches to learning — NZ applications, I draw on my experiences in Austin to make recommendations for a New Zealand context for both primary and secondary sectors.