I will make several reports from Presbyterian Day School and the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence in Memphis; I visited for a day yesterday and will be back the week after Thanksgiving. We talk about revolutionary changes and evolutionary changes and sometimes those terms take on the meaning of time: rapid vs tepid. This is not the case in terms of PDS. The changes taking place in the learning environment here are not radically fast; they have been building over a period of years. But what I saw yesterday, while not completely unique, appears to me to be a supremely welcome example of a revolution in American education. I will do my best to summarize, but over the longer term you will want to tap directly into the great educators of PDS and the Martin Institute. Full disclosure: The Martin Institute helped defray some of the costs of this trip, but that only shows how much this group is committed to educational innovation both within and outside of their own walls.
First some background. Lee Burns has been Head at PDS for 13 years, and just about everyone I spoke with yesterday points to him as both a visionary and incredibly humble educator and leader. Lee says, “change comes slowly, but we are building an ethos and culture of growth, of teachers as life-long learners. We pose provocative questions to ourselves as a community on subjects both within and outside of the specific field of education.” PDS is a preK-6 boys school with 630 students an encompassing mission in raising “boys to become good men.” They have made a significant commitment to the greater Memphis community through both the work of the Martin Institute (more on that program in my next post) and other avenues of engagement, including a very strong scholars program of financial aid funded by generous school donors.
Susan Droke, Assistant Head for Academic Affairs who “meets with teachers to actualize the vision in the classroom” has joined Lee in the academic leadership for 12 years. “Teachers come to me when they want to try something. When we have an idea, we research it, but we don’t talk it to death.” Lee laid out their overarching vision questions: “Can we provide a customized learning journey for each student? Can we create a curriculum every day to match just what each student needs?”
Starting several years ago, Susan and others tackled this question and started working on a completely new learning flow for the school. She and others visited Stanford and innovative schools in New York and Silicon Valley, and over the last few years most of the PDS faculty have attended Harvard’s Project Zero program. They started from that zero mindset, wrapping the program around essential through-lines to which every bit of curriculum is mapped. They have tossed out curriculum that no longer is deemed critical; they use very few textbooks any more. Susan’s essential question now in every class and every teacher is “not what you are teaching but what is the learning outcome today for both the student and the teacher.”
They started with 5th grade math, and now have expanded down to 1st grade and across to reading. Soon this will percolate to all grade levels and across most subjects. I will try to describe how it works; if it is not clear it is my fault, not theirs, and you should just get on a plane and come see it for yourself. I will use the example of the 5th grade math course, which was built by Susan, CIO Cathy Kyle, and math teacher Windy May. Windy: “If one of my students has already mastered order of operations, why should his class time be wasted on that when he is ready for a more advanced concept that day?” The team “reviewed and curated hundreds of different math activities related to different skills” and created a digital resource base of activities and projects for a broad range of basic and accelerated skills. Understanding that students learn in different ways, the activities and projects cover a variety of learning pathways.
The course is built around an eight-day unit structure; the year is broken up into a series of these eight-day parcels. The students have a Haiku portal with all of the units and all the materials and expectations available to them at all times. The start of each unit is a video podcast that the students watch at home before the start of the unit, which gives them an overview and context. Of course they can watch it as many times as they like, and they come to Day One already knowing where they are going and the basic relevance of the unit. The first three days are then spent on instruction in largely flipped mode. Short assessments reflect on how each student is progressing with the material. After three days each student can opt to take a test to assess mastery of the unit. Those who pass at a high level can then spend the next four days in either individual or group projects to explore math-related topics of their choice in what they call a Guided Challenge. Windy meets with each of the students to help design their Challenge, including an assessment of the learning the student has set out to learn. The Challenges may include math at a levels up to what is traditionally assumed to be a 9th grade level.
Students that do not choose to take the test or do not pass with a high score then enter a “learning circuit”, and this is where the PDS model becomes truly revolutionary. The circuit reminds me of a strength program designed for a varsity athletic program. Learning coaches at each station approach the unit material from a variety of different viewpoints and approaches that “target instruction to the particular skills that each individual needs.” At the end of these four days, the students take the assessment test. The goal is for each student to master each unit, through whatever means works best for them. The progress of each student is tracked “to help us chart the progression of each student.”
There are a number of novel stops in the learning circuit, but none more so than the new Learning Studio, an open room about 50 feet on a side, where, when I visited, groups of students were splayed on bean bag chairs, working in groups at barstools and on a variety of flex furniture, plugged in on individual computers linked to off-site tutors, and working problems together on an idea wall. Three learning coaches roamed, answering questions and providing guidance, but this is clearly a student-owned learning space unlike anything I have seen yet on my journey. The adults are not there just to assist the project work; they are also wired into a sophisticated set of tracking programs so they can quantitatively assess how each student is progressing through their work, be it a Guided Challenge or a circuit training, in both math and reading. They are able to see via multiple data inputs how well a student is tracking in his learning, and why. With the data available they are able to assess and help much like a learning specialist or cognitive psychologist would, except in real time, every day, for every student. At one end of the room two students worked an advanced division problem on the idea wall; two others worked on a math jigsaw puzzle; others were working with pencil and paper on a set of worksheets; two students talked via Skype and headphones to offsite tutors; others read into their computers to a program that allows the teacher/coaches to assess a wide range of reading and comprehension skills. Two boys high-fived when they solved the puzzle, and asked for more. Teachers can book time in the Learning Studio for a whole class, or small groups can come down as part of Challenges or circuit work. Feedback is real-time and specific to each individual learning need, be it advanced or highly supportive. PDS is ramping up the Studio as both students and adults get in the groove, and next year they will be able to nearly double the student throughput without increasing staffing.
I had lunch with some of the folks who have designed this whole program. They brag that their students revel in finding a flaw in a worksheet or a challenge problem; there are rewards for those who find mistakes and point them out to the teachers. The students are actively engaged in building the program and already PDS is seeing achievement improvements in both math and reading, both at the higher and lower ends of the scale. They are doing exactly what a great athletic coach or learning specialist does: “breaking it down”. They are building that level of objective data reduction and feedback loop into every class, every day. It reminded me of watching John Herman, the best volleyball coach in the history of California high school sports, working with his players, breaking down the small stuff that is the difference between winning and losing, the athletes never hearing they had “failed” a drill. They just do it again after seeing it in a different way or practicing with a different approach, until they get it right. And when they do, they have it right for a long time, not until the next skill comes along.
When I get back to Memphis after Thanksgiving I will be spending time with other programs at PDS and the Martin Institute; this is enough for now. I expect PDS to formally roll out training for other educators in this new customized learning approach soon. Much of it appears to me highly exportable and transferable. Some is dependent on access to technology, but there is a great deal that is only dependent on a pencil, paper, and teachers willing to learn and adapt. Goodness knows students don’t need to be urged into this kind of adaptive, energizing, engaging, and successful learning.