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

Assorted Electronics on table

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!

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

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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Limited Course Capacity

We’re sorry to inform you that we have reached capacity for several of our Semester 1 and Trimester 1 courses. You’ll notice when attempting to enroll students in our Student Learning Portal that some courses are unavailable. While we are no longer accepting new enrollments for these courses at this time, many courses continue to remain open for enrollment.

With many students across the state 100% remote, demand for our online courses is greater than ever before. Because every course we offer is taught by a Michigan-certified teacher, this high volume of enrollments has created capacity issues for our teachers who provide each and every student with individual feedback.

While the Michigan Virtual team anticipated and planned for significant increases in student enrollments this Fall, the increased demand we’ve experienced has been unprecedented. As a result, we are taking steps to hire even more part-and full-time teachers to support larger numbers of student enrollments for Semester 2 as well as for Trimester 2 and 3. 

For schools that still need online learning options this year, please fill out the form at the bottom of our virtual pathways page to meet with someone to discuss other solutions. While some of our teacher-led courses are full, we may still have the capacity to help you in upcoming terms or can discuss timing to implement a whole-school or collaborative program in which local teachers from your school/district use our online course content to teach students. We also have free course content and resources available for you to use.

We know this is an incredibly stressful time for all, and we’re sorry if the courses you’re looking for are unavailable. We never want to turn away a student who wants to learn from us. Our top concern, however, is student success, and we have a policy to not take on additional enrollments if we cannot guarantee that all students will have a quality online learning experience. 

We appreciate your patience and understanding as we navigate the unusually high volume of enrollments we are receiving.