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The challenge of “thinking outside of the box” while existing inside the box

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In education as in other sectors, there exists this buzz phrase – “thinking outside the box.” While so commonly used, Highlander and its Fuse Architect partner schools have experienced that this phrase may not be as simple a concept as it sounds.

From the start of the Fuse Architect program, Highlander and NMEF have challenged partner schools and their design teams to “think outside of the box” in approaching their design challenges. Whether it is how one school approaches their student feedback system, another rethinks their 9thgrade student experience, or others develop their new PTECH programs or maker spaces, Highlander has encouraged them to think beyond how they would typically create these experiences and truly identify and clarify the underlying problems they are trying to address.

Through immersion in the design thinking philosophy and with ongoing support from the Highlander team, Highlander envisioned that Fuse Architect partner schools would be ready with a complete plan to address their design challenges by June 2017 – the end of the first phase of the project. Yet following Design Day, progress back at the schools was slow going when trying to “think outside the box”.

Key questions emerge

Underlying this springtime planning, key philosophical questions surfaced as design teams set upon their task of developing their action plans to address their design challenges:

  1. How can these school design teams picture what’s outside the traditional school model box when teachers, students, and administrators are trained to exist within it?
  2. How can design teams envision, let alone enact, something that exists outside of what they may know?
  3. How can design team participants think outside of the box while they are so busy teaching and learning everyday within it?

Envisioning the world outside of the box is a key step in moving outside of it.  

As design teams have discovered, there are no easy answers to the questions above. Asking students to move to a mastery-based system and undo all of their years of how they operate at school is not an easy process. Asking teachers and administrators to push beyond how they may have been educated to incorporate student voice and authentic student participation in decision-making can seem time consuming, uncomfortable, or inefficient at times. Asking students, teachers, and administrators to build time to understand and address the core challenges their schools face is truly hard work, especially in the midst of an ongoing school year. Narrowing the scope of the need addressed by the design challenge so that it is manageable and on target is truly a challenge.

Based on feedback from Highlander and the Fuse Architect schools after the first phase, thinking outside of the box takes time; however, it also takes dedicated planning and clear communication. It takes follow up in order to keep all parties engaged and empowered for the work they did during the fall and into this spring. While Highlander has encouraged thinking beyond the typical constraints of the traditional school system to develop a more student-centered, mastery-based, or personalized systems, the constraints of the teaching and learning systems in which the design challenges are addressed are real. Yet despite these challenges, thinking outside the box and envisioning a more student-centered experience is slowly taking shape in the schools. An example from Central Falls High School is shared below:

Central Falls High School Instructional Rounds

The Central Falls Flash Academy ninth grade team is working toward building strong instructional models in their classrooms in which students are engaged and have more choice over what and how they learn, as well as the pace at which they learn. In order to build investment and engagement, the team is workingindividuallyon specific indicators of the personalized learning walkthrough tooland collectively to align priorities and develop feedback loops for the team to support each other and for students to provide input and opportunities for improvement.

One such feedback mechanism is a system of instructional rounds the team established to observe one another’s classrooms and make recommendations based on the presenting teacher’s goals. The presenting teacher identifies their priority indicators from the walkthrough tool, then the Educational Strategy Specialist maps these indicators to potential “look fors” on a document such as the one linked here. Each member of the team takes low-inference notes that are specific and non-judgmental. Then, during the team meeting at the end of the day, the team transfers their notes to post-its, organizes them into patterns, articulates pattern statements, and makes recommendations for the presenting teacher.

Students also have the opportunity to provide open-ended feedback on the prioritized indicators through a google form based on their own observations (example here). In addition, small groups of students are invited to the last portion of the team debrief at the end of the day to share thoughts and opportunities for continuous improvement.

To learn more about the Fuse Architect project, updates, and partnerships, see all blogs in this series!

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The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) is a non-biased organization that exists to expand Michigan’s ability to support new learning models, engage in active research to inform new policies in online and blended learning, and strengthen the state’s infrastructures for sharing best practices. MVLRI works with all online learning environments to develop the best practices for the industry as a whole.

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