Improving education from the ground up

Improving education from the ground up
July 24, 2019
Erik Ketcherside

This fall, nearly 100 third and fourth grade students in the Kyrene School District in Phoenix, Arizona, will experience the start of a school year different from any other. They will be the first student body of a new program that combines their two grade levels in an innovative learning space at Kyrene de las Manitas Elementary School.

The program is the product of a collaboration between the district and ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, titled “Imagine the Possibilities.” The resulting design was approved by the Kyrene governing board in February to meet two district goals:

  • Engage students in a dynamic learning environment that promotes academic excellence and prepares them to be innovators and leaders of tomorrow.
  • Deploy educators in nontraditional ways by creating new roles and staffing structures that will attract and retain high-quality staff and reinvigorate the teaching profession.

First day of school

The school-within-a-school won’t be named until after classes begin Aug. 1. The plan is to let the students have a role in the naming. When they come into the space they’ll be welcomed by two teacher-leaders, called teacher executive designers, and a teaching faculty of six: three lead teachers from the district who also serve as mentors to three resident MLFTC teacher candidates. The six instructors, all of them full time, will work in cross-disciplinary teams led by the lead teachers and distributed across the two grade levels in flexible configurations that optimize large and small-group learning.

A similar team teaching model is being used in all of MLFTC’s Professional Pathways (student teaching) placements this year, but the Kyrene program is the first opportunity to implement the concept using all of the experienced teachers and the resident teacher candidates on a faculty in teams.

A new approach in a new space

The physical design of the program space was also created for flexibility. It comprises areas for collaboration around tech stations; areas for lecture, activities and performances; a hands-on lab; a configurable gathering space with modular furnishings; and a room for quiet reflection. In the center is a makerspace equipped with computers, a 3D printer and programmable mini-robots.

Mary Brown is the lead TED for the program. A veteran teacher of grades 2, 3 and 4 in Tucson, Brown served as an English language arts coach and worked in the systems of support office in the Kyrene district while her children attended school there. Before accepting the TED role, Brown was working with schools across the U.S., supporting teachers and administrators in implementing best teaching practices across grade levels.

Brown says the new program’s shared space and curriculum were designed with team-based learning in mind. “In addition to state-of-the-art technology and creative uses of the classroom where students can build, perform and experiment with hands-on activities,” Brown says, “we will also encourage and facilitate discussion, collaboration and healthy debate.”

Brown says those skills of cooperation and relationship-building through tasks are critical for future leaders. “Our students will not only question themselves and their current understandings, but question their peers, fostering a growth mindset and perseverance in navigating the inquiry process.” Read an interview with Mary Brown


Learning content in a real-world context

The curriculum Brown and the faculty are creating will incorporate extensive project-based learning; structured experiences in which a student learns content as needed while working on a project over an extended period of time. According to a framework created by the nonprofit PBLWorks, high-quality PBL meets six criteria:

  • Students learn deeply, think critically and strive for excellence.
  • Students work on projects that are meaningful and relevant to their culture, their lives and their future.
  • Students’ work is publicly displayed, discussed and critiqued.
  • Students collaborate with other students in person or online and/or receive guidance from adult mentors and experts.
  • Students use a project management process that enables them to proceed effectively from project initiation to completion.
  • Students reflect on their work and their learning throughout the project.

While project-based learning is frequently found in specialized magnet and charter schools and in classes for gifted students, the Kyrene concept offers the benefits of PBL to all students by incorporating it throughout the curriculum. Students from anywhere in the district were invited to apply for the program, and the resulting inaugural class is diverse, including gifted and special needs students and a range of ethnicities

Starting with a blank sheet

Kyrene Superintendent Jan Vesely says the project began with a 2016 conversation she had with Carole Basile, who had just started as dean of Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. “Carole posed the question to me, what is your biggest worry or concern for education,” Vesely recalls. “I said, being responsive to the needs of our learners and inviting back a workforce that wants to choose education as a career. We have to do something different, to re-do what we think, believe and how we act and behave in a school environment. We began talking about reinventing school, and out of that conversation came the possibility of creating a design that we can launch in Kyrene, but that impacts and affects education as a whole.”

The Kyrene district began working with an MLFTC design team to answer the question, If we took down everything we think we know about school, how would we redesign learning experiences for students?

“Many educators work to embed active learning experiences into their classrooms,” MLFTC Design Strategist Lisa Wyatt says. “But they are often working to fit new ways of learning into an old model. The structures of school — bells, scripted curriculum, instructional minutes, standardized testing — can all get in the way. Teachers know how to create dynamic learning experiences; they just need fewer barriers in place to make those experiences achievable.”

Proof of concepts

Basile, says the Kyrene de las Manitas project “... is an opportunity for us to demonstrate several of the innovations our research has led to: the way we prepare our teachers and deploy them to work in teams alongside professionals, teachers as leaders, project-based learning.

“This is an example of how the best of our initiatives can be realized in one place because of the depth of our relationship with the Kyrene district,” Basile says. “For our college, this is an all-in project in which our resources and research come together in an inclusive way, which is why we exist.”