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Grow what you need: From subject- to skills-based education


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  • Lisa Irish/Arizona Education News Service

Students Creating A Sundial With Timbers Donated To The School By A State Representative. Photo Courtesy Coyote Springs Elementary School

How is Coyote Springs Elementary School in Humboldt Unified School District preparing their students for the future?

By moving from traditional, subject-based, teacher-led, stand-and-deliver instruction to skills-based, student-focused, project-based experiential learning.

Grow what you need: From subject- to skills-based education SubjectSkillsBasedEdChart

Chart courtesy of Coyote Springs Elementary School

“We’re doing this to prepare students for a rapidly changing world by identifying what those competencies are beyond content knowledge,” said Dan Streeter, superintendent of Humboldt Unified School District.

The 21st Century Learning concept these Prescott Valley educators have implemented for the past four years builds on the standards by adapting curriculum and instruction, providing teacher training and creating positive, engaging learning environments where students develop skills valued by employers – critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity – to master key content and themes.

“The students are going to be able to go out and adapt to the world, and it’s not going to be a one-time adaptation,” Streeter said. “It’s something they’re going to be constantly doing to keep up with the pace of change.”

Student engagement has increased with the hands-on learning that incorporates real-world skills, said Dr. Alison Conant, a National Board Certified Teacher at Coyote Springs Elementary.

What does 21st Century Learning look like?

Grow what you need: From subject- to skills-based education FrameworkForLearningThe classroom might be empty for a while, because students are out in the habitat with their teacher determining how much water is in their water harvesting system, said Pamela Clark, a National Board Certified Teacher at Coyote Springs Elementary.

“They were doing some collaborating trying to decide did they need to replant, do they need to harvest, what could they keep going for that time of the year,” Clark said.

When students can learn from “an expert who is a master gardener and who can tell them the ins and outs of what they do every day that makes a difference,” said Candice Blakely-Stump, principal of Coyote Springs Elementary. “Those are the types of experiences that students remember.”

Grow what you need: From subject- to skills-based education CoyoteSpringsHabitatHP3

Students learning in the habitat at Coyote Springs Elementary School. Photos courtesy of Humboldt Unified School District

Then students put those lessons into practice by harvesting rainwater coming off the gutter system at their school using barrels they found leftover in a storage shed at the district office, Blakely-Stump said.

Their plan captured rain coming off the gutter at the school, which had been flooding into the building because of the lay of the land, Blakely-Stump said.

“Our students solved many problems and were authentically engaged in that,” Blakely-Stump said.

The shift to 21st Century Learning has also increased teacher retention at the school, Conant said.

“Last year was the first year I had teachers who had been teaching in the profession and new graduates calling me saying I know the work you guys are doing, I want to come and work at your school,” Blakely-Stump said. “We’re attracting and retaining highly qualified teachers, because they know this is what’s best for kids.”

Why shift gears?

Parents saw changes in the community and felt they needed to respond, said Poppy Keegan, a librarian at the school and a parent of students who attend Coyote Springs Elementary.

Grow what you need: From subject- to skills-based education Wright-Flight

A Coyote Springs Elementary student takes part in the Wright Flight program. Photo courtesy of Coyote Springs Elementary School

“We wanted to develop a signature program in our school that would incorporate what Coyote Springs students already were, but then bring these other things that employers are looking for now and in the future,” Keegan said.

At first, the strategic committee considered 4-H, agribusiness and farm-to-table type programs that would make use of the school’s habitat – a garden that provides students plenty of hands-on learning and activities, Keegan said.

“We thought, well, we need to go beyond that to other venues and ideas so we started doing research on other programs and that’s where we found 21st Century Education, which we thought could bring it all together and draw in all the students,” Keegan said.

When local business leaders were asked about the skills their employees need now, they all mentioned the Four Cs: communication, critical thinking, collaboration and creativity, Keegan said.

These findings were in line with a survey of 768 managers done by the American Management Association in 2012 that showed organizations assess potential employees’ competence in the Four Cs when hiring and measure performance in them as part of annual reviews, Keegan said.

“This study showed that employers strongly agreed that they need these four competencies, and that when they’re hiring new employees they’re looking for all of these competencies,” Keegan said.

Business leaders were then asked whether those skills and competencies will become more or less important over the next three to five years.

“Overwhelmingly, the Four Cs become way more important as we go along,” Keegan said. “It’s not just having that technical skill, although that’s important, you need to be a problem solver and a go getter.”

How is it different?

Before the shift, students were learning in an isolated manner through “the classic stand and deliver instruction,” Blakely-Stump said.

During the shift, some ideas didn’t yield the desired results and they were left behind.

Grow what you need: From subject- to skills-based education AnimalPSA1000

Fourth-graders concerned about animals created, scripted, wrote the music, filmed and edited a public service announcement that ran on a local cable television station. Photo courtesy Coyote Springs Elementary School

“Instead of making our learning authentic and real world, we were trying to make the real world come into our classroom, and it just didn’t work,” Blakely-Stump said.

After identifying what would better prepare students, the community was brought in to help, Blakely-Stump said.

“We have created a lot of partnerships within our community with colleges, with businesses, even with churches to be able to support this work, because as we all know, it cannot be done in isolation,” Blakely-Stump said. “It truly does take a village. When you bring the community in, then that enhances all that learning opportunity.”

Fifth-graders had the opportunity to get into the cockpit of a plane and fly through the Wright Flight program, said Conant.

“They also learned about navigation skills and aviation history, but most importantly, they learned about the importance of setting goals to help them accomplish the next steps,” Conant said.

The school has partnered with Yavapai College’s career and technical education center so students can go in and learn about robotics, 3-D printing and sustainable careers in these fields, Conant said.

Grow what you need: From subject- to skills-based education NativeAmericanMuseumStudentDwelling

Fourth-graders studying Native American History designed a museum. Photo courtesy Coyote Springs Elementary School

Conant’s fourth-graders studying Native American history last year wanted to do something different, so they designed a museum.

“The kids studied, researched and they actually created the structures that these people lived in, they created the pottery pieces, and we put together a docent program,” Conant said.

The students invited the local museums to come to visit, Conant said.

“Because of this, our local Sharlot Hall Museum is now implementing a student docent program because they saw what our students were able to do,” Conant said.

Fourth graders concerned about animals created, scripted, wrote the music, filmed and edited a public service announcement that ran on a local cable television station, Conant said.

Students often are out learning in the habitat, which students designed in collaboration with an architect/engineer, Clark said. Sometimes they’re working on science and math, other times it’s poetry and social studies, Conant said.

When a state representative came to the school, students and educators talked about their water-harvesting, the habitat and what we wanted to do in the 21st Century Education, Clark said.

Grow what you need: From subject- to skills-based education SunDial1000

Students creating a sundial with timbers donated to the school by a state representative. Photo courtesy Coyote Springs Elementary School

The state representative donated some timbers to the school and the students did some research and decided to use them to create a working sundial, Clark said.

“The kids have worked on the process in cooperation with North Star, and they’ve got everything functioning,” Clark said.

Students are also working at the nearby Watson Lake, Clark said.

“They’re trying to help out and see if we can re-introduce trout to this lake,” Clark said. “Plus, they’ve got an ecosystem going on in the classroom where they’re trying to create one to follow through.”

What was the transition like?

Coyote Springs began implementing their vision of 21st Century learning about four years ago.

“Let me tell you, it is not something that happens overnight,” Blakely-Stump said. “It takes many years to go through this. We’re very early on in this process.”

Video: Shift Happens?

Grow what you need: From subject- to skills-based education IWonderWall

An I wonder wall at Coyote Springs Elementary School.

A key part of the transition was a “genius hour” or an “I wonder hour” where students can investigate anything that they are wondering about, Clark said.

“We guide them, but it’s all very purposeful and it’s very meaningful to them,” Conant said.

Older students and younger students often collaborate, Conant said.

“I’d like to think the walls in our schools have been kind of broken down,” Conant said. “There’s a lot of organized chaos and there’s a lot of real purposeful chatter happening inside and outside of our building.”

For example, when kindergartners studied the pumpkin, grew them and talked about the cycle of growth, “but they weren’t satisfied,” Conant said.

“They wanted to measure, they wanted to weigh, they even wrote books, and this is kindergarten,” Conant said. “They also created this wonderful Seussical-style experience when they collaborated with the higher level students and created these characters – two different types of animals, did research and figured out how to put them inside that train that they created.”

Seeing five-year-olds present to an adult about their animal, the work they did and what they created was amazing, Blakely-Stump said.

“For our kids, it’s now the norm for them to get in front of an audience and present information,” Blakely-Stump said.

Grow what you need: From subject- to skills-based education pumpkin-2-girls-table

Kindergartners demonstrating their pumpkin project. Photo courtesy Coyote Springs Elementary School

All the adults and students at the school are now finding ways to collaborate, Blakely-Stump said.

“Every stakeholder in our building is part of our 21st Century concept,” Conant said. “We have our cafeteria staff teaching our kids about composting and teaching about recycling.”

“They’re critically thinking, and they’re solving problems that they never before thought they could imagine,” Blakely-Stump said. “We have transformed learning and teaching at our school.”

It takes time, support and professional development to help teachers master this instructional style and develop curriculum that has the standards at the core, said Conant, who has been teaching for almost 20 years.

Grow what you need: From subject- to skills-based education GirlsAtWatsonLake

Coyote Springs Elementary students trying to determine if trout can be reintroduced to Watson Lake. Photo courtesy Coyote Springs Elementary School

“I’ll be honest with you, this has not been a comfortable, easy journey. It has not always been popular with everyone,” said Clark, who has been an educator for 30 years.

To make it all come together, educators incorporate Jay McTighe’s  backwards design, Tony Wagner’s work and some John Dewey constructionivist thought process, Conant said.

Educators prime focus is making sure students are working at the appropriate level, Streeter said.

“If we’re aiming for standards the state of Arizona sets we’re doing our kids a disservice,” Streeter said. “We should be looking to work at a higher level.”

District administration needs to give educators the freedom to develop what works, and keep test scores in perspective, Streeter said.

Grow what you need: From subject- to skills-based education Boys-In-Classroom-With-Fish

Students in classroom near their ecosystem. Photo courtesy Coyote Springs Elementary School

“I’ll use my own two kids as examples – a fifth grader and a seventh grader – their greatest educational experiences were not tied to the results of the AzMERIT,” Streeter said. “It was the aerospace challenge that they did where they had to solve a lunar module issue and it was the Wright Flight program.”

Blakely-Stump said they see students take their knowledge and put it to work in the community.

In a recent IEP meeting, a mother was in tears talking about the growth she has seen her daughter make through these experiences, Blakely-Stump said.

“This work excites me so much about what we’re doing preparing our students,” Clark said.

Video: The Four C’s: Making 21st Century Education Happen