Friday, November 30, 2012

Flipped Classrooms and Broken Silos

The Needham Education Foundation (NEF) recently held a symposium entitled Flipped Classrooms and Broken Silos:  Education Trends in Needham and Beyond.  Speakers from Olin College, MIT, and education technology entrepreneurs from Classroom Window and edX shared their ideas and vision with an enthusiastic audience of parents, teachers, and community members.  The following excerpt is from my introductory comments about a new interdisciplinary initiative funded by the NEF.

We are taking small steps to re-envision the middle and high school experience and perhaps break down some of the traditional silos of content and departmental curriculum that are typical of American schools.  Most secondary schools, and Needham’s are no exception, are organized into departments: math, English, foreign language, and social science. Teachers are assigned classes and even identified by the state as highly qualified in a given subject or discipline. At the secondary level we routinely refer to teachers by their subject:  He is a biology teacher; she is an art teacher. I recall one faculty lounge comment about a new teacher who was referred to simply:  “Oh, he’s a Math.”

The problem is this:  The world is not so compartmentalized and departmentalized.  We work and play in a world where communicating, thinking, presenting, and innovating requires the integration of our knowledge, perspectives, and skills. Our lives are interdisciplinary and interconnected, and we should provide similar opportunities for our students and not isolate their learning. We need to lead students to a place where the curriculum silos and walls we have established can begin to melt away into appropriate interdisciplinary experiences so they can see relationships, increase understanding, synthesize information, apply concepts, and enjoy the beauty and the challenge of an increasingly dynamic and complex world.  Fortunately for our students, Needham’s teachers are experts in their disciplines and they radiate a passion for creative learning and discovery.

I happen to be a recovering high school English teacher.  Long ago in Los Angeles where I taught, I recall one of my students muttering under his breath about not understanding why I didn’t teach Huckleberry Finn at the same time as the History teacher was teaching the Civil War.  “Why,” he asked, “Can’t we learn about these things together?  It’d make more sense, you know.”

Years later at another school we developed an American Studies course, a combined American literature and U.S. history class where the teachers could discuss Twain’s Huck and Jim in the context of slavery and abolition.  Students made clear connections between the two subjects and discussed significant themes like justice, poverty, war, peace, and prosperity all through the eyes of historical and literary heroes.  They developed a deep understanding and appreciation of our nation’s story.  They came away connected to the content in a way that is natural, engaging, and empowering.  That’s just the kind of learning we should strive for!

In Needham we are working toward a vision of just that kind of learning for all students.  At Pollard we have introduced an engineering and design course that incorporates science, technology, and math.  We are allowing students to explore scientific and engineering concepts and principles in ways that stimulate their minds, imagination, and curiosity.  We have introduced a Chinese culture course that integrates basic language skills with Chinese history, lifestyle, and traditions.  At the high school a new African-American studies course blends history, politics, literature, and more into a rich opportunity to study, debate, and engage.

And now with an extraordinary financial commitment from our NEF partners, the high school is embarking on an ambitious and multi-year effort to create a unique and pioneering interdisciplinary program for 12th graders—Integrated Senior Studies:  The Greater Boston Project.

NEF and high school leaders have collaborated to develop an innovative course that pulls together three teachers from three academic disciplines: English, social studies, and math, to provide students the opportunity to study specific periods in Boston’s history to investigate how individuals and groups perceived the world around them and how they worked to affect change.  Beginning next school year they will look at propaganda in pre-Revolutionary times, analyze population demographics during Antebellum, and recreate a town meeting during Urban Renewal.  Students will connect academic disciplines and knowledge in projects that will require them to read primary historical sources, build mathematical models, and hone presentation skills.  By learning across three disciplines they will immerse themselves in their learning and prepare themselves for advanced academics and problem solving in college and beyond. Consistent with the district’s core value of citizenship, students in the course will investigate a unique problem associated with the City of Boston and pursue possible solutions to complex urban problems.  The teachers will work together with the students and model the sort of learning, service, and collaboration we value and aspire to scale up in the years to come. 

The NEF’s commitment allows us to jumpstart principal Jonathan Pizzi’s desire to enrich the high school program of studies with creative, innovative, and interdisciplinary academic courses, especially in the senior year when students often languish and are ready and equipped to pursue their learning in new ways, in ways that propel them to adulthood.

For more information about the high school's new initiative or to learn about and contribute to the NEF:

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