What Makes Learning Relevant?

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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 https://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.  

What Makes Learning Relevant?

Have you ever wanted to learn something new that required you to find your own path forward? What do you remember about it? Did learning seem like a chore, or were you on a mission of prime importance?   

All of us like exploring a topic of personal interest. Depending on how we learn, we steer ourselves towards experiences or facts and particulars that promise to create new skills or insights that will enable us to apply our new-found knowledge in an action of some sort or reach a new understanding. Through a series of fits and starts, trial and error, and incremental successes, we reach our target. 

EdVisions would call this relevant connected learning‒learning that matters to the individual and occurs in the current context of one’s life. The reward for learning springs from within, driven by the learner’s want or need to know or do something of personal value. The learner accesses the resources at one’s disposal and relies on the community that surrounds him or her for support. We do this all the time as adults. Why would we not promote this kind of learner-driven approach with our students? 

If schools were more learner-driven, we would see students as designers of their academic journey. Students’ passions, strengths, and needs would be woven into a tapestry-like path, a map, if you will, that reflects their culture and their community. Rather than directing the process, teachers would serve as guides, much like a coach leads a team.

What would an E-12 learning environment such as this look like compared to traditional models for schooling? Would we see an increase in student motivation and ownership in a learner-driven environment? Would students become critical thinkers? Problem solvers? Collaborators? Do students have what it takes to set goals and manage their time if given more say in what and how they study? Do they have the kind of drive and discipline in and outside of the school walls that it would take to self-direct their learning? A growing number of educators believe that with the right kind of support, students can, even at a young age. 

It makes sense when you think about it. The traditional school model is designed for compliance, built around a set of external rewards for mastering academic content prescribed by textbook companies, policymakers, and teachers. Relevant connected learning, on the other hand, is built around intrinsic rewards and motivation. The premise is simple. The more schools empower students to see themselves as creators and caretakers of their intellectual and social development, the more students will develop essential competencies and skills they can take with them when they graduate. Inherent qualities of mind will evolve, the kind that sets students up for a life of self-directed learning for work, personal pleasure, and for helping to make the world a better place for themselves and others.    

Relevant connected learning can start in small ways in elementary school and gradually extend and expand in middle and high school until students are the prime drivers. Giving students guided choices, promoting exploration, and allowing flexibility can go a long way in making students feel empowered rather than striving for mere compliance in order to please the teacher and their parents. Project-based learning, problem-based learning, and theme-based learning offer a few ways to think about organizing learning to make it more organic, more fluid, and thus, more personal.

So how does a school start to make learning more relevant and connected for students when so much of what we know and understand about formal education is bound by tradition, feels prescribed by others, and in many cases, seems dictated by sheer functionality? 

One way is to have a clear action plan, a strategy for how to start small and build upward and outward over time. In the Midwest School Transformation Project (MSTP), EdVisions is supporting schools on the journey to transform traditional models to those that are more learner-driven and has designed a continuum for Relevant Connected Learning. The continuum shows how schools can progress from organizations being the masters of learning to students driving their own learning. It requires a process, and it takes time. Years, in fact. MTSP Coaches are working with each school to develop and refine action plans that will support their vision. A few schools are getting out ahead, making good use of the support afforded them, and several stand out.

At Riverview Elementary in Farmington, Minnesota, a P-5 school of 800 students, the staff has set their sights on empowering students more. According to Kim Grengs, principal at Riverview, at present, they see themselves as more teacher-centered on the relevant and connected learning continuum. One of the many questions they keep asking themselves is, “How can we take what we do as teachers and make it more learner-centered?” Professional development is helping them answer this question. 

Riverview Elementary students

“We have had to ask, what does learner-centred really look like at different levels?” says Grengs. “Kindergartners can manage choice, but it looks different than it does for a fifth-grader.” In their work, it has become apparent that focusing on the whole child is a critical part of the process. For years they have monitored academic data, but now they are taking a broader view. A key component to becoming more learner-centered is making sure the learner’s social and emotional needs are met. So while the staff is constructing a competency-based model through which students will eventually demonstrate mastery of certain academic skills, they’re articulating social and emotional competencies as well. Once competencies are fully identified, benchmarks will be determined, along with matching assessments. The end goal is for students to eventually progress at their own pace. 

But there are several challenges, one being doing less. “There is a temptation,” says Grengs, “to try to do too much.” They’ve had to ask, does everything a child needs to know be measured? A second challenge is the traditional graded structure that runs through most of the school. “The traditional graded structure doesn’t lend itself to the continuum as much,” admits Grengs. “When you think about how a child develops, competencies are not grade-dependent. So we are having to decide when to assess and when to report out the competencies.” 

However, a portion of Riverview is organized in multi-age classrooms. Roughly 120 students learn in a separate community of a 1-2 grade, a 3-4 grade, and a grade 5 classroom. There, says, Grengs, students progress more along the lines of a true continuum. The multi-age classrooms also incorporate project-based learning in a grade 1-5 structure in which students at any age learn the same standards but at different developmental levels. 

As Riverview changes, they have committed to bringing their community along. “As we think about the whole child, we think about the relationship, not just with the student but with the parents, too,” states Grengs. “We want to connect more parents with our school. We revamped our mission, and we want parents to know why we are making the changes.” A newly-formed parent ambassador group is helping them get the word out.     

The Rochester Area Learning Center in Rochester, Minnesota is approaching relevant, connected learning a bit differently. As an alternative high school with about 400 students in their day school, recovery school, and night school overall, they too are seeking to empower students more. They are starting with their day school, in which approximately 150 students are enrolled. There the staff is moving away from learning being time-bound and limited to the classroom environment to creating a setting in which learning starts with “big questions” created by the students themselves. From there the goal is for the teacher to support students on their individual paths. 

Rochester ALC students

According to principal Tim Limberg, their process has begun with identifying learning targets for students. From there the intention is for students to create individual learning plans around the targets. Already two days a week students have a “choice day” where they decide where’ll they’ll work and what they’ll work on. This gradual release of autonomy is working for many students for whom the traditional setting was not a good match.

Participation in the MSTP has meant changes for staff as well. “Staff,” says Limberg, “have really been open to the changes required to create pathways for more personalized learning.” They’ve put structures in place to support students in a more flexible environment. Eventually, they’d like to offer an array of classes for students to select from based on their interests and learning styles. A pilot effort will occur this year, much like a J-term. If it goes well, they’d like to see the model repeated multiple times a year. 

Their work with EdVisions, says Limberg, has been transformative for their school, including the professional development it has afforded. “It has allowed us to go places we always wanted to go but never thought we could do it. Now we are.” The coaching model employed by EdVisions has been instrumental. “It’s great to have a different set of eyes and ears come into your program. We’re still pretty early in the journey, still learning, but we are really pleased with our progress thus far.” Though the project has been underway for only a short time, Limberg says, “You can create barriers if you overthink it [transformation]. You have to be willing to make it up as you go. It’s hard work. Sooner or later you’ve just got to jump and know a net will appear while you figure it out as you build trust and community.”  

Another school in the beginning stages of creating more relevant connected learning by participating the MSTP is Nawayee Center School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which specializes in experiential education from an indigenous perspective for grades 7-12. Approximately 45 students are enrolled. Nawayee Center School seeks to use project-based learning to connect students to their world. 

Nawayee Center School students and staff

According to Joe Rice, the school’s Executive Director, project-based learning is the ideal vessel for student-centered learning. “It provides lots of encouragement and support around discovery. Students aren’t just learning about a thing; they are learning about themselves, how to access their own power, and how to use it.” When asked about what they hope to achieve being part of the MSTP, he notes, “We want to build a curriculum rooted in ancient culture. Ancient wisdom shows us how to live on this planet. It has been perfected, has been made more complete through trial and error. Things that work were kept and refined as other things were discarded. Using ancient wisdom as the basis for the curriculum offers a way to get kids thinking at a deeper level in regard to indigenous life and how they see the world.” 

The vision at Nawayee Center School is for kids to create and dream in concert with problem-solving and the curriculum. As in any school, Rice and his staff want kids to know there’s nothing they can’t do, that they can survive and thrive in any situation they find themselves in on the road to becoming a productive member of a family and a community. “It’s about kids learning to be adaptable,” he says. “Kids will remember the things that are important to them. Using their brain in a way that honors their heart multiplies the learning experience in endless ways. The result is students using their minds in the most effective, most coherent ways possible.”

With nearly 90 percent of their students being from Native American cultures, Nawayee has a special curricular emphasis on native culture. The program has used theme-based learning with success and hopes to build upon it and expand its use. For example, the school just finished a round of visiting seven sacred sites over a five-day period over multiple weeks. Fridays are used by Nawayee as a day for experiential learning, usually outside of the school, making such experiential learning possible. Several other recent themes used art as the vehicle to deepening cultural connections, one being a “water is life” theme that centered around using artwork to connect students with the indigenous view of the sacred nature of water. The purpose of the theme was to teach students how to live in a way that ensures every living creature has access to safe, clean water. Another recent excursion included a trip to the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) where students spent the day on a scavenger hunt, locating various artifacts and visual representations in MIAs vast collection that depict an indigenous world view. 

Learning goals in the theme-based Friday excursions also include relationship and community building, all part of a healthy initiative at Nawayee which seeks to attend to four key parts of a student’s life – the mind, spirit, body, and soul. Relationship building is an overriding element in their professional development for staff along with this emphasis on the whole student. “Focusing only on the mind,” says Rice, “creates imbalance. We need to feed all four – mind, spirit, body, and soul – to ensure good health.” Rice emphasized his point by sharing a quote from Albert Einstein: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Nawayee wants to focus on the gift. 

Some key take-aways from these three schools engaged in a transformation come to mind.

  1. It’s not just about academics. Meeting the social and emotional needs of students must be part of the school equation. Relationships need to be cultivated and protected – between students, between staff and students, and between parents and the school. Schools need to be prepared to support students who may need additional help in forming a healthy understanding of self and the ability to interact successfully with others. 
  1. Being self-directed is a learned skill. We can’t assume students come to school ready to create and master their own learning plan. As with developing expertise in any area, managing one’s personal affairs is learned over time. A scaffolded approach is needed to build individual capacity over time.
  1. Structure matters. How we allocate time and organize space in schools can make or break efforts to put students in the driver’s seat. Traditional structures like schedules, grades, and course requirements inhibit innovative approaches. Schools that want to transformation themselves have to create ways to break out of those structures. It pays to start small.
  1. Mindset is critical. If we want learning to be relevant and connected, teachers’, students’, and parents’ mindsets need to shift. Teachers shouldn’t work harder than students. Traditional models program teachers to feel they need to be in charge, which inadvertently discourages, even disables students from taking responsibility. Teachers need to provide students with a framework for learning that positions students to embrace a different way of doing school and navigate their own path forward.   

From design and delivery to purpose and context, learning that is relevant and connected has many facets. It is going to look different for each student. A good entry point is project-based or problem-based learning as well as competency-based learning.  All foster the kinds of skills that require design and analysis while students develop knowledge, skills, and dispositions in a way that works for them. Pace and location must be allowed to be variables, serving as the true test as to whether students really are picking up the mantle to their learning.  

Where would you place your practice or your school on EdVisions’ Relevant Connected Learning Continuum? Here are some key questions to consider: What purpose drives your school curriculum? And who designs learning? Such questions may not have an easy answer, or the answers may be cloudy. But to move from an organization driven by external demands to one that is more learner-driven, educators must be honest about who orchestrates learning. Is it strictly the teacher, or do students have a role in the design process?