Thinking Outside of the Classroom, Part II: Lessons Learned | New Visions for Public Schools

Thinking Outside of the Classroom, Part II: Lessons Learned

New Visions Charter High Schools network is in the process of reforming education. It's evident that traditional, teacher-directed high schooling does little to bridge the achievement gap or to prepare urban youth to be "career and college ready."  (See this report by Sir Ken Robinson on the need for breaking down the 'factory model' of schooling. Also see this research by the New Media Consortium on preparing a global workforce.)

We believe that Challenge Based Learning provides a framework to do both. CBL, as we are defining it, is an experience through which students apply conceptual understandings to real world situations and then submit the products of their problem-solving to authentic audiences, not limited to an audience of their peers.

For example, in our 9th grade economics class, students were challenged to research economic systems via case studies and then make recommendations toward creating an ideal economy in the United States directly to President Obama.  Having President Obama and White House officials as the audience for the work inspired students to take the challenge very seriously.  Upon hearing the assignment, students in Luke Bolton's class at the New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math and Science collectively gasped.  "WE are going to write to HIM?  Like as in send a letter to him in Washington D.C.?" was one student's response.  Another said, "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  See?  I already had the address memorized!"

There is little research in existence around CBL.  This is both frustrating and fantastic because it means New Visions is trailblazing.  In the words of Michelle Brochu, our lead instructional specialist, "we are building the bridge as we walk across it." What's exciting is that CBL offers a depth beyond that of tried-and-true Buck Institute-type models of project based learning.  It takes teaching and learning to a level that supersedes the classroom. If done well, CBL can tear down the walls between school and life that have been erected by the traditional public system of education.  In Lower House (freshman and sophomore year), teachers propose challenges to students.  The hope is that by the time our students get to Upper House (junior and senior year), they will create, research, solve, implement and present on challenges they've identified on their own.

What We're Learning

In year one, our most authentic and worthwhile challenges were housed in end-of-trimester anchor projects like "How Can We Green Our Campus?" that tied multiple subject areas together.  This year, in an attempt to make the curriculum more fully challenge-based, our instructional specialists pushed subject area teachers to introduce challenges across all three trimesters.  Challenges like "determine whether school water fountains are safe to use and share findings with school leadership," in living environment were authored by our team of coaches and implemented by our charter school teachers to varying degrees.

The classroom data that our team collected Trimester One (Fall, 2012) surfaced the need for a more consistent and explicit way to align the challenges to the curricula.  Reflecting on the these challenges led us to adopt a new, clearer Challenge Based Learning curriculum template based on the work being done at Apple, where the term was coined.  While Apple's brand of CBL promotes individual, stand-alone challenges, we are painting the entire core charter curriculum as CBL.

Thus, Trimester Two (Winter, 2012-13) challenges, initially authored by our coaches, have been revised and re-imagined by our wonderfully creative teachers at recent content area retreats.  Our algebra team,  for instance, used their content standards to author such challenges as Create the Perfect Jump Shot.  Our 10th grade English Language Arts team is challenging students to write a sci-fi short story that poses and solves a social problem, engage in peer review, then submit to the Harriet Beecher Stowe Student Prize for Excellence in Writing to Advance Social Justice. These challenges get us much closer to the model by being integral to the courses, as opposed to being a supplement or afterthought.

What We Hypothesize

1.  For Trimester Two, we will see stronger unit level challenges.  This should result in a higher level of student engagement in the classroom and a deeper level of content knowledge because the challenges inherently empower student voice (supported by textual evidence), validate student thinking by creating authentic audiences for their work, and connect students to the local and global community for direct application of understandings.

2.  Classroom practice will shift from being largely teacher-centered to largely student-centered, as the challenges will only be successful if the kids are in the driver's seat.  This may present as pair work, triad work, quad work or independent work.  Students will be internalizing the challenges, figuring out what they need to understand in order to complete the challenges and then working to master those understandings so they can be applied to the challenge.  Students will be reading, writing, speaking, and listening their way through every stage of every challenge in every course. 

3.  And finally, CBL in our second trimester should look like college and career readiness in action.  Yes, our students need to pass the New York State Regents exams.  But we know that test prep is not a type of instruction that resonates with students.  Successful CBL experiences should adequately prepare students to pass exams while providing them with deep conceptual understandings and the skills to think critically. 

This is an opportunity to push our students to analyze, synthesize, and draw conclusions.  Test scores are not the driving factor.  Thinking skills are.

Kami Lewis Levin is a lead instructional specialist for New Visions charter schools.  She oversees core content curriculum development and instruction across the New Visions Charter High Schools network.