The Midwest School Transformation Project is a three-year project that will provide up to 15 schools across Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota with individualized support to transform education to more student-centered learning models. For more on the project visit http://edvisions.org/the-edvision/mstp/ and stay tuned for further articles on the project by our insightful writer, Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro!
Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota. She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota. She retired in 2017.
Hope + Inspiration = Transformation
Transforming schools as we know them is hard work. But at a time when traditional systems often fall short of meeting the needs of today’s students’, it’s hard to ignore calls for new ways to inspire learning and engage kids in meaningful ways. And the clock is ticking. The world students will grow up in is projected to change much faster than ours did. How are schools adapting in order to stay relevant to the times?
In EdVision’s Midwest School Transformation Project (MSTP), 11 schools in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota have accepted the challenge to become something different. Driven by a desire to accommodate the way students learn in the context of their immediate lives, these educators are willing to put much of what they know and understand about teaching and learning into question and open themselves to new strategies.
At a minimum, participation in the MSTP, like all innovative endeavors, will require changes in practice. It’s important to note, however, the MSTP is not about school change, nor is it about school improvement. As the name indicates, it’s about transformation – remodelling and reshaping schools, in this case from being mostly teacher-centered to being learner-centered.
On the agenda: Empower student and teacher voice to motivate and inspire. Remove rigid structures to open up new avenues for teaching and learning. Develop shared vision, plan well, and create systems to facilitate the work at hand. Build trust.
So begins the journey.
But first things first. You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you are starting. At the onset of the project, which occurred this past spring, EdVisions asked the MSTP schools to identify the root causes that make them more teacher-centered than learner-centered. The results were surprising. More than any other factor, participants listed the school’s vision and the beliefs and values of the staff, students, and community as the reason these schools said they are not more learner-centered. It wasn’t money; it wasn’t for lack of resources. Although participants mentioned these and various structural aspects, people’s way of thinking about school and their perceptions regarding the ability of students and staff came up most often.
Looking forward, when asking participants what the main inhibitors are to their school becoming more learner-centered, vision, values, and beliefs surfaced again. They view the mindsets of students and staff as being in their way. Sure, they mentioned curriculum and instruction and tangibles like space, time, and regulations but far less so.
Though a small sample, the MSTP schools’ responses to the important questions surrounding barriers to school transformation suggest something important that can serve as a lesson for any school seeking to transform itself. When asked what prevents them from being more innovative, schools often point the finger at external factors, but more substantial barriers may, in fact, stem from within.
This should not surprise us. We humans are wired to stick to what we know. In evolutionary terms, if you were a hunter or a gatherer on the plains during the Paleolithic period, you stayed close to camp and hightailed it back to safety in the presence of threat. This is how you survived. Even in our more advanced intellectual state (think 2019), we typically play it safe. If new information doesn’t jive with what we know, we view it as a possible threat. It’s called confirmation bias, the tendency to favor information that aligns with our beliefs. Even data that can be verified may seem like fiction to us if we don’t agree with its overall premise.
The problem, according to Dr. Shahram Heshmat at Psychology Today is that “Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it. Confirmation bias suggests that we don’t perceive circumstances objectively. We pick out those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices. Thus we may become prisoners of our assumptions.”¹ Perhaps this is why schools have changed so little in the last century. Certain assumptions about what schools should look and feel like as well as what should be taught and how prevails in the minds and attitudes of the public as well as educators, making us blind to possibility.
Confirmation bias makes it hard to change individually and even harder as an organization. How many times is someone with a good idea told all the reasons why it can’t be done? “We’ve always done it this way…” seems to be the prevailing mantra, yet there are plenty of others. Or how about our current state of political affairs in America? How many people dial in to news channels that tell them what they want to hear versus what may be factual?
The good news is that the people in the MSTP also listed a set of assets to counter the inhibitors. Any guesses as to what was most often cited? Human capital. Yes. The same people who may possess limiting beliefs are the ones whom they believe will carry the work forward. This notion that the same people perceived as barriers will provide the solution signifies hope. Again, a small sample, but the responses of the MSTP schools suggests people can be inspired to challenge their assumptions and step into a space where it may not feel safe at first. They are willing to let transformation become personal.
At the heart of the MSTP is the need to anchor the work in matters of substance. Planning will center on four themes developed by EdVisions, serving as the basis for the project’s theory of action. Articulated in the form of continuums, each will guide schools in understanding their current state and charting a path forward.
On the Teacher Empowerment and Leadership continuum, schools will focus on moving from traditional decision-making approaches that tend to be more directive (e.g., principal or single administrator making decisions) to a model where staff make collective decisions and hold themselves accountable. The Student Agency and Empowerment continuum focuses on students developing self-efficacy, purpose, ownership, motivation, engagement, choice, and voice – all key components to building a truly learner-driven school environment. A third continuum concentrates on the learning program itself. Relevant Connected Learning asks schools to think about where learning occurs and at what pace, which is not uncommon for schools to talk about, but extends the dialogue much further into purpose and delivery, as well as who designs learning. In a learner-centered approach, all of these things change. Of course, how learning is measured must adjust to the changes put forth by the other three continuums. Authentic Assessment is about changing how we measure students’ progress. Through all of history, assessment has been limited to measure what students have learned. But in a learner-centered school, assessment is learning, something that is part of the overall experience for a student rather than an exercise tacked on at the end.
As schools embark on new initiatives, tradition tends to collide with even the best of intentions. Skeptics come out of the woodwork and cast doubt in the minds of those who’ve stepped forward to make changes. Even the most committed pioneers may be tempted to retreat. But this need not be the case. Schools can prevent the past from eclipsing ambition by looking for ways to say yes to new ideas and making sure everyone has a voice right from the start. And they can travel with an experienced guide.
There to help participants in the MSTP are 16 coaches, people who’ve been leading school transformation, in some cases for decades. Coaching isn’t about telling. It’s about facilitating conversation so that practice evolves in a way that doesn’t become so overwhelming people throw up their hands and revert to old behaviors. The MSTP coaches have identified six components to guide their work (briefly summarized below) that will resonate with any school seeking to transform itself:
- Vision – creating a bold, collective commitment
- Purpose – identifying a compelling why and articulating a common purpose
- Action Plan – embedding new strategies and building capacity
- Resources – connecting experiences and adapting to student needs
- Skills – embracing a growth-mindset and taking risks
- Trust – empowerment, collaboration, and shared accountability
Now that the coaching team is more deeply engaged with the educators within these unique schools, according to Julene Oxton, Director of School Transformation and Development at EdVisions, “evidence of ownership in their learning journey as adults, is popping up out of the ‘top-down’ managerial system. This shift in teachers owning their school’s transformation to student-centered environments is refreshing! I’m noticing people working collaboratively and voicing their ideas and perspectives. As this culture of collective efficacy, courage, and common focus is fostered, great things will start to happen with and for the kids in these schools!”
Are you satisfied with your learning program, or is your school ready for transformation? There are some simple ways to start the conversation. Here are some questions to ask your team members:
- Is your school more teacher-centered or student-centered?
- If it’s more teacher-centered, why? What are the root causes?
- What are your school’s inhibitors in transforming itself?
- What are your school’s assets?
If you’re on the path to something new and different but it has stalled, maybe the conversation starts with your school’s vision:
- Is your school’s vision one of change or transformation?
- Is it clear? Does anyone care about it?
- Is it time for a refresh? Who should be involved?
No matter how you entertain the notion of school transformation, don’t let your beliefs limit your practice. Find out more about confirmation bias in this article. Also, consider how EdVisions can support you and your school in the important conversation that lies ahead.