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Rethinking High School: What Do Students Need?

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Students at the MC2 STEM High School in Cleveland don’t sit through lectures all day. They learn through projects, like designing and building above-ground gardens, calculating the powers of a comic book superhero or constructing a recording studio to record a song.

The school is one of a growing number of high schools nationwide that focus on “project-based learning,” an approach that principal Feowyn MacKinnon says aims to “get kids building things, thinking things and solving problems,” not passively sitting in class. The goal, she said, is to have students master difficult academic material, while also learning skills for the real world and how to solve problems throughout life.

“We try to convince kids that they’re not in actual classes but just figuring things out,” MacKinnon told reporters at the Education Writers Association’s National Seminar at Georgetown University last month. (Watch a video replay of the session here.)

Project-based learning and another key part of the MC2 STEM mission – mastery- or competency-based grading – were the main topics covered by MacKinnon and other panelists at the discussion on rethinking high schools.

Applying Knowledge

Joining MacKinnon were: Denise Cameron, a junior at the school; Kristin Cuilla, the senior director of partnerships and communication of the New Tech Network; and Bob Wise, the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education.

Wise, the former West Virginia governor whose nonprofit organization works to change high schools, said that simply teaching students math and English lessons isn’t enough in the world of today. There’s far more material to learn than 20 years ago, Wise said, as the internet has multiplied research and information-sharing. Search engines like Google also place that knowledge just a few keystrokes away, so it is less important than before to learn and memorize facts.

“It is still important to having good core academic content,” Wise said. “But more important is the ability to do something with it, to apply it.”

That requires more “student-centered” or “personalized” learning, he said, that engages each student and challenges them at their own level of understanding – rather than lectures for all to absorb.

“Forty seats all pointed forward is not project-based learning, nor is it personalized learning,” Wise said. “It’s not only about reading and math proficiency, but it’s about the ability to think … to work collaboratively … across disciplines.”

The New Tech Network, which mixes learning on computers with constant projects, is a major practitioner of project-based learning. Cuilla said that 200 schools in 28 states have adopted some form of the New Tech model.

She pointed to students in Arkadelphia, Ark., as an example of how the model works. Teachers there had students compete in an Arkansas Tech University competition to design temporary housing for the homeless as a way of teaching math, design, teamwork and other skills. Students produced one of the top entries, a small, insulated shelter that sleeps two.

“You can imagine the level of engagement that students have in learning all of the math and science, which is far more difficult than they might learn if I just sat and lectured at them as a teacher,” Cuilla said. “They do far more than we would have asked. They are so much more engaged and the retention is so much higher.”

‘We Actually Built It’

Cameron, the junior class president at MC2 STEM, agreed, saying she loves hands-on projects where she can create things.

“Most kids drop out because [they say] ‘I’m failing’ or ‘classes are boring,’ ” Cameron said. “This school is a great solution.”

Designing and building above-ground gardens, she said, was a highlight for her. “We actually built it … engineered it … cut it,” she said. “We were using tools.”

MC2 STEM also has a “mastery” grading system, in which students don’t receive normal grades, but are graded as “incomplete” until they show they fully understand certain skills. Others call the varying forms of this growing approach “competency-based” education.

MacKinnon said teachers constantly test and monitor students to make sure they fully understand material and are not just relying on other students in their group. She said that if students don’t quite grasp the material, teachers will incorporate it again into future projects to reinforce it. Or teachers can pull students aside for tutoring without having to stop the project.

Substance, Not Flash

But panelists warned reporters and others to watch carefully for programs that just tuck a few lessons into flashy projects.

Projects can’t start with a fun project and have learning fit into them, MacKinnon said. Her staff plans 10-week projects that involve multiple subject areas and that start from the content standards. Projects are then created specifically to teach the material.

She has a slightly easier time with that than most school leaders. Students at MC2 STEM spend freshman year in classrooms at the Great Lakes Science Center, Cleveland’s science museum, which MacKinnon describes as “a built-in field trip.”

Sophomore classes are at headquarters of General Electric’s lighting division in an inner-ring suburb. The final two years are on the campus of Cleveland State University.

Cuilla said you don’t need such unorthodox sites for project-based learning to work, so long as academic content is rigorous and students can see real-world uses for the material. Students also have to do most of the discovery themselves, or learn from outsiders.

“The more you see students engaging with one another and with experts in the field and reaching out, the closer you’re getting to what high-quality project-based learning is,” Cuilla said.

The model also requires a shift in the mindset of the school – not just an add-on – that might spark opposition from teachers and parents, who might view it as a fad that will pass.

“This is comprehensive school change,” Cuilla said, urging people to make sure the public understands the goals, which are not always reflected in standardized test results.

She and Wise also noted that teachers and principals often hesitate to throw out old models to use innovative approaches, as if some rule barred them from doing that.

MacKinnon, though, said that district leaders who believe in the model and will back it make all the difference.

“Eventually this is going to look like the right thing,” she said.