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STEM School – 1st Year Reflection

June 11, 2013

STEM School Chattanooga… how did you get here?  About a year ago, STEM School Chattanooga was an idea much more so than a reality.  The building for the school was under construction in an old warehouse on the backside of a community college business training facility with funds for the construction still in limbo.  A student lottery had been completed in where students signed up to attend the school with no more information on what it would be beyond a three paragraph description on the county’s website.  There was a forward-thinking grant filled with incredibly challenging requirements and an unending list of benchmarks.  A small group of teachers was hired to tackle this challenge, but professional development funds for training these teachers was limited to none.  And, of course, there was me.  A principal from a traditional school system, with a background and degree in engineering, and a fervor for changing school but stuck in public school systems that were focused on archaic and rigid practices dominated by standardized testing punishment or recognition.  Needless to say, the glass could easily have been more than half empty.  But it was a perfect situation.

STEM School Chattanooga had one extremely and important piece going for it. Chattanooga business people get it.  Parents get it.  Educators get it.  Schools are behind and disconnected from what happens outside the walls of their buildings.  Not because teachers want that, but because there is a disconnect between understanding what is wanted outside the walls and what is required inside the walls. Chattanooga knew there was a disconnect and it valued making that connection so much so that creating a school to work towards breaking down these barriers was a priority.

We began our school not with a focus on deciding what we needed to achieve based on what educators knew already (testing), but with a focus on figuring out what was needed outside the walls of our building and bringing that in to what we do.  A mission statement was developed to focus our work towards bridging that gap.  Three clear tenets became clear and evident in our pursuit of designing the students’ priorities – critical thinking, collaboration, and innovation.  If our students could leave with skills in critical thinking as defined by accessing, using, and applying information, if they knew how to work collaboratively which involves knowing when you need to be independent and when you need to be together, and if they could create and design without having to be told what to do, we knew our students would be successful beyond the walls of our school.  These tenets may not have been the perfect three, but they were as close to what we heard over and over leading up to the opening of the school last August and again throughout our time with all our stakeholders across the year.

With these as our key tenets, it then became evident that the one unrelenting and clear concept throughout the grant was for students to be involved in project and/or problem based learning activities.  However, this approach to learning is not very well developed in our country, especially in the southeast region.  So our first priority was to figure out how to design units of study that could focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) concepts across our curriculum.  This design process was neither easy nor quick.  We had found some people who had implemented PBL (project based learning) work in singular courses, but to do it across the entire school seemed overly optimistic and at times impossible.  Creating and implementing these PBL units across the school took the majority of our time in planning and developing our school curricula.  However, it was vital to our success as a school for us to make these units our foundation for implementing STEM and our three key tenets.

Along the same lines, it was increasingly clear that since our students would have access to 1-to-1 technology, it would be easy to use the student iPads as fancy notebooks.  Yet, if we expected our students to innovate, we needed to do so as well. So we created a lead teacher position from our teaching staff and focused the lead teacher on finding ways to effectively use the iPad to the greatest extent possible in promoting student critical thinking, collaboration, and innovation.  What came of this focus was a tremendous paradigm shift in the culture of school.  No longer was technology something that was used for teachers to spice up lessons and try to make their lessons more attractive, but instead, technology in the hands of the students empowered the students.  The reason… the focus was on how the students could use the technology to build their critical thinking skills, collaborate with others in a professional and purposeful manner, and develop and create innovative ideas and products.  1-to-1 technology became a lever by which we were able to transform school from a teacher directed and centered environment to a student owned and initiated workplace.

It all sounds great, right?  Maybe, but it certainly was or is not easy.  There was a problem with this new established mission, creating curriculum around STEM PBL work, and using technology as a student owned initiative.  The problem was two fold – teachers were not comfortable with students having control and students wanted to be told exactly what to do.  You would think that teachers would want students to be self-directed.  That is true, but only within the confines of what the teacher wants the student to do.  Actually allowing students to make decisions is not something teachers have much, if any, comfort level in doing.  “Our students are not responsible enough to make their own choices” seemed to be a common statement.  Yet for all the teachers discomfort, the students were even more resistant.  Students wanted the following: one, teachers to tell them exactly what to do; two, students then regurgitate those exact items back to the teacher; finally, three, give the student a high grade for regurgitating well. The idea that students should develop, create, test out, fail, and re-do was more foreign to students than teachers.

It turns out that if you have a decent vision (i.e. we want students to think critically, collaborate, and innovate) and if you can create a culture where failure is not an end point but a part of the process, you will see a change in thinking.  It took about a half of the year, but by midyear, the majority of students began to understand that this school was not about traditional schooling – listen to information, repeat the information, move on – but about thinking.  Failure became an opportunity, not an endpoint.

As for teachers, they still like to be in control.  However, they like it even more when students are able to overcome obstacles, talk about learning instead of completing, and when students do work at a level beyond the teacher’s expectation.  Control means nothing to a teacher when they see student improvement, pride, and grit.

Here were some unintended good consequences of our work this year.  One, our students read and wrote… a lot.  When you allow the mobile device to become integral in where students find and seek out information, it turns out that reading, writing, and speaking happen organically.  We did not create a literacy school plan, yet I believe that student literacy improvement happened more here this year than any school I have ever seen.  That was a result of the combination of 1-to-1 technology and a focus on critical thinking, collaboration, and innovation.  Two, observation and evaluation focused on what students were doing, not teachers.  In the end, it matters what our students can do.  Whats better – 20 students watching a teacher or 20 students collaborating, seeking information, writing, discussing, creating, editing, etc.?  We denote the answer should be obvious (the 2nd part!). Lastly, and most importantly, the third unintended consequence was on how we would measure student success.  On the last day of school this year, the teachers wrote out five key tenets for instructional practices we should see at STEM School Chattanooga.  The one that stands out the most: quality work trumps quantity of work.  Quality work, quality products are the goal.  Quality is not easy to come by, easy to assess, quick to do, and without failure.  Quality cannot be defined by who got more questions correct on a mediocre assessment.  That merely helps to determine who has a minimum proficiency of content.  Getting all the questions correct on a mediocre assessment does not make a student advanced, it makes the student really really really mediocre.  Quality work, however, is the ultimate pinnacle for defining student success and that a student truly can show advanced skills.

At the end of this year, I am most proud of how far we have come.  We still have a long, long way to go.  We have not arrived and are just starting to really understand what it means to help students be critical thinkers, collaborators, and innovators who create and produce quality work.  Though we don’t have it figured out, we at least feel like we are going in a worthwhile and needed direction.

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