New Brain Research Partnerships, Design Thinking Lead the Charge at St. Andrews, Potomac

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New Brain Research Partnerships, Design Thinking Lead the Charge at St. Andrews, Potomac

One of the predominant themes of this journey has been that if a school wants to increase the rate of innovation, either out of desire or necessity (or both), they create a structure, name it, provide resources, and give it a charge. This post is about a school that is doing just that, out of a desire to enhance learning for their students and the need to compete effectively in a tough market. After spending a morning at St. Andrew’s Episcopal in Potomac, MD, my money is on them. They have a powerful vision and some great faculty leaders working on research-based learning improvements and building design thinking into the entire curriculum. Interested? Read on.

Five years ago SAES was a 6-12 school until they merged with a small elementary, and now they are grades PS-12 with 510 students. The greater Washington DC area is highly competitive for independent schools, and some of those with whom SAES competes for students have huge international reputations and stellar facilities. I spent much of the morning with Glenn Whitman, Dean of Studies and Director of the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (another title you probably don’t have at your school). The first part of this report will be about this exciting new Center, followed by concrete examples of how SAES is already incorporating the ideas of transformative teaching into the classroom today.

Over the last several years, SAES had 100% of their faculty involved in the All Kinds of Minds training, which forced them to think about brain research, its impact on learning, and to develop a shared and integrated language. SAES partnered with the Neuroeducation program at Johns Hopkins University to establish the CTTL with the goals of bringing accesses to cutting edge research to the SAES faculty, creating a public/private forum for advancing teaching and learning, and engaging closely with Teach for America in the DC area. Glenn: “This is really a brain research-focused effort. If you are not using this knowledge and research, it is hard to see how you can see yourself as serving the needs of 21st Century learning. The CTTL is a game-changer for SAES. We let our families know the value that we are adding with these new teaching and learning strategies.”

The CTTL framework for improvement involves a cycle of:
• Observing patterns regarding each students’ engagement
• Neurodevelopmental analysis regarding the strengths and weakness of each student
• Changed teaching and learning strategies that focus on conversations and reflection that demystify the learning process
• Assessment of learning improvements
I could go on for pages about the CTTL, but better to refer you to their website; make sure to go through the blogs on this site. I would really recommend taking a look if you or your school are interested in leveraging current brain research and its impact on good teaching and learning.

Glenn (who is pretty much a force of nature, I think) says that to be an educator today, one has to be smarter, more agile, willing to change, and have a vastly enhanced growth mindset relative to even just a few years ago. Professional development is “the responsibility of every member of the faculty”. In order to track PD, SAES has acquired an online system called FOLIO, which was created by ed-tech guru Tim Fish and others at the McDonogh School. I had a quick look; it tracks goals, products of PD, feedback from supervisors, and more. It looks like a great tool for a school to use if they are intentional about getting faculty all moving through PD which is aligned to all-school visions. As we have seen at other schools that are making these same advances, SAES allocates increased PD days (at least 10/year), and encourages faculty to get out and visit other schools. Their department heads are responsible for all grade levels and for leading curriculum design and development.

I spent some time with the principals of the Intermediate and Upper Schools, both new this year, so they are just getting their feet wet. They are focusing on new assessment rubrics with the help of the Center. The Upper School foreign language department is leading the way (more on that later), and in 5th grade, they say the “students don’t even know when they are taking a test, because it comes when they are playing a game”. “We are not forcing change, but we completely encourage a growth mindset that results in change. We need to give our adults the tools to change; we can’t set expectations if we have not provided the tools. That means that it will take some time, probably 3-5 years until full adoption of a very different teaching approach.” The faculty is excited about the partnership with Teach for America as more seasoned teachers get to mentor young teachers and pass along their knowledge and passion. “We want to provide leadership opportunities for our teachers. Not everyone wants or gets to be a department chair, but this kind of mentoring is a very real leadership experience and provides real PD by getting faculty to reflect on their own practices.”

I met with three all-school department chairs, and here are some great examples of real program evolution:

Visual Arts: Course work focuses on developing empathy in students by understanding that everything they see in the art world comes through the lens of someone else’s point of view. They ask students to take risks, even if that means not getting what you want out of a final project. They are asking the question, “How do teachers facilitate informed risk?” The arts and Spanish teachers are collaborating to teach the parts of the body by having students do self-portraits in the cubist style, and accessing art at the Museum of Barcelona on the web.
Foreign Languages: The curriculum is about “learning to do. We don’t describe anything in terms of grammar or vocabulary but in terms of each of us as a social being, in how we negotiate, interact, and resonate with other people.” They have built assessment rubrics for the students to present multi-day demonstrations of proficiency. The students vastly prefer these “because they understand the validity of the assessment. If they get a B it is because they did not communicate as well as they would have liked, not because they failed to conjugate a verb correctly.” The rubrics are not subjective; they reflect best practices of international standards, and the students know and actually help design the assessment process.

SAES is creating an entire PreK-12 framework and common language of teaching design thinking skills. This is the outcome of a multi-year process they have developed on how to integrate design in all classes. One of the active members of this effort, Chuck James, brought experience with the Carnegie Institute and NASA in technology design and innovation, and is working to focus classroom work on “true learning, not re-learning what everyone else has already learned.” They have developed specific goals for this integration across all grade levels and are getting ready to roll it out. Example: in the English department they are taking on the subject of “book as a design object”, asking the question “what is a book” beyond just the writing. They have a “Race and Culture” course that links to overseas partnerships in South Africa, and are developing an art-science-design program.

Finally, we wrapped back to the foundation of their focus, which is the cutting edge work in brain research that reinforces why we need to transform teaching. Glenn says that modern neuroscience helps us understand how to create and enhance student engagement and performance, and this will be a big part of the workshop training that they offer. Some of that engagement comes through designing authentic assessment tools, which students understand, and through which, students see themselves as “able agents of their own learning”.

I was really excited for SAES when I left. Schools that want to visibly increase their value proposition do something bold to plant their flag higher up the hill, which is what SAES is doing by creating these partnerships and providing research-based training to both the public and private sector. They will monitor and measure over time in the best sense of a lab school, but in a more traditional, large school setting. Keep an eye out for their workshop offerings and check out the CTTL website and blogs.

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