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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 7, 2010

Schools' shift in learning culture needs you

By Christine Sorensen

At the February 2010 meeting of the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in his keynote address that what we need in education is transformational change, not just tinkering with the status quo.

Business as usual is not an adequate response to the challenges we face. He discussed the obligation we have to teach all children and the realities of global competition, noting that the education models of the past will not prepare our children for future success.

The skills needed by our young people, whether they plan to enter college or begin a career immediately after high school, are essentially the same. A certain level of literacy, numeracy, critical thinking, and ability to communicate and work with others is necessary for success in either path.

What Secretary Duncan and many others are calling for in their demands for transformation is changing the very culture of schooling to a learning community that enables student success. Such a learning environment exhibits some key characteristics:

• Collective responsibility. The leaders and the teachers provide support for one another, care for all the students in the school, and believe in collective accountability for the outcomes of their work.

• Community engagement. These schools are places that build connections with the community, with parents, businesses, and community leaders, and use their expertise and time to support the learners.

• Common core curriculum. College and career readiness is built on access for all learners to a deep, rich curriculum focused on the core knowledge and skills necessary for success in life.

• Project- and performance-based teaching and assessment. These schools provide real-world projects to engage students in learning and assess whether students have met objectives.

• Opportunities for collaboration. Learning communities build in time and opportunities for students and teachers to collaborate with each other to accomplish meaningful activities.

• Encouragement of inquiry, critical thinking, creativity and risk-taking. Learning cultures encourage approaches to thinking and acting based on questioning, hypothesizing, examination of evidence, and trying new approaches.

In Hawai'i, there are schools and programs where many of these characteristics already exist. Senior Projects, Community Quest, New Tech High and AVID are just a few examples where transformation in practices is occurring.

High schools throughout the state are encouraging students to complete Senior Projects. While each school's program may vary, common characteristics include engaging students in research, job shadowing, reporting on their experiences and new learning, and presenting these findings before a panel of judges. Such projects engage students in the world outside school and require them to demonstrate their learning through performance rather than paper-and-pencil tests.

The Career Quest Learning Center at Kailua High School, like the Senior Project, is career-focused and designed to help students prepare for college and career success. Career Quest provides students with opportunities to participate in internships at selected work sites in combination with rigorous and relevant instruction in the classroom. The success of Community Quest depends on strong partnerships with many businesses and agencies, effective teacher instruction and leadership, and supportive parents.

On the Waianae Coast, Nänäkuli High and Intermediate and Waianae High schools have joined the New Technology Network that uses one-to-one computing and problem-based learning to engage students in acquiring 21st-century skills. Students work in teams on projects, much like teams of professionals, whether they are checking soil and water samples as part of their environmental science course, or using algebraic expressions and chemical reactions to develop a sustainable fuel for a fictitious oil company.

AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) is a program designed to help underachieving middle and high school students prepare for and commit to improvement and preparation for college. AVID offers a rigorous program of instruction in academic "survival skills" and college-level entry skills. The AVID program teaches students how to study, read for content, take notes and manage time.

Currently, 44 secondary and 29 elementary schools in Hawai'i are using AVID. Successful implementation is not easy. It takes the collaborative efforts of teachers, counselors, curriculum coordinators and administrators. One example of AVID's success is James Campbell High School, where for the past four years 100 percent of AVID students have enrolled in college. Statewide, 79 percent of the 2009 AVID graduates were accepted to four-year colleges.

We should be encouraged by these examples of transformation in our schools. But we cannot be complacent. We all must find ways to support such transformation so that our children experience rich educational opportunities in learning communities focused on their success.

Christine Sorensen is dean of the College of Education at the University of Hawai'i-Mänoa.