P A R T F O U R
CAN SKILLS, DEEPER LEARNING CRACK THE STATUS QUO?
SCOTTSVILLE — The feel of sixth-grade social studies last fall at the Allen County Intermediate Center was definitely not “textbook.”
Teachers introduced a new unit where local history and regional economic development took center stage for students. Their premise was that opening imaginations to the future — plus a major creative burst of cardboard art — would drive teams of 11-year-olds to suggest new enterprises that could enhance local pride and nurture community life, complete with imaginative makeshift prototypes.
Academic standards usually yield generic lessons and faraway references. Teachers here reconceived the opening chunk of sixth-grade content as a set of active, team-focused, hands-on explorations closely tied to the local community and its economic challenges.
The experience sparked proposals for a train depot museum, a livestock market, a shopping mall, and other ventures that would honor local culture and boost economic and social opportunities. Students proposed a drive-in theater complete with an extensive snack bar, a photo booth and a supersized abominable snowman statue. The drive-in and train depot became the themes of a pair of Christmas parade floats representing the school and pulled up South Court Street by a tractor.
The plunge into more engaging and relevant student learning and incorporating skills like collaboration and communication made a strong impression.
“It’s amazing because we get a voice. It makes us think about that we can make a change in the county,” said Ay’Den Grainger, part of the group of five students researching and creating the prototype for the drive-in theater.
The drive-in was appealing because it could draw people of all ages, explained Henry Harper. He said it is also needed. The nearest drive-in screen is 25 miles away in Franklin. The closest movie theater is further — in Bowling Green.
Gracie Chandler said that the unique assignment motivated her classmates in interesting ways: “It’s about how to overcome challenges, identify problems, and get stuff done.” She liked doing creative work in teams.
Allen County teachers were among 255 across Kentucky who participated in free project-based learning training ahead of this school year. Turning academic standards into hands-on, student-driven investigations is part of a three-year state grant to promote achievement and skills for adult success through relevant, engaging student work.
FOURTH GRADE STUDENTS at Allen County Intermediate work on a project that involved mapping, geometry and habitat content as they planned what community services would need to be restored after a natural catastrophe.
Veteran sixth-grade teacher Amanda Minix joined the training based on enthusiasm from district and school leaders. “I was really skeptical when they told us about the training,” she recalled. “After 22 years, I know that we tend to jump on bandwagons, so I thought this was something else that would come and go.” Putting the approach into action made her an enthusiast.
“As we got started with this unit, I saw how this could work,” Minix added. She said students became more eager to be at school, behavior issues declined, classroom conversations were more focused, and adults and students alike saw how the learning could fuel success beyond school.
STATE GRANT AIMS TO SPREAD ‘VIBRANT’ LEARNING
State officials expect the number of teachers involved in the project-based learning training to grow significantly this summer. Regional sessions are planned. All eight regional education cooperatives have added staff to actively coach and support educators in active learning experiences.
The push toward new classroom approaches is key to the state education department’s United We Learn strategic plan, drafted in 2021 following meetings with educators, students, families, and business leaders across the state. It calls for delivering more vibrant learning experiences for students, creating innovation in assessment, and establishing greater collaboration between educators and communities.
Pandemic shutdowns in 2020 and 2021 fueled wide reflection about the outcomes of students’ learning experiences and the need to produce results beyond a narrow focus on multiple-choice and short-answer state tests, educators said.
“There’s been a growing feeling that it’s time to move toward the systems kids need to have to be prepared for life,” said Robb Smith, now the statewide director of deeper learning for the Kentucky Association of Educational Cooperatives and a retired superintendent. The co-ops combined to win a $24.5 million three-year grant to support deeper learning experiences. Of 171 Kentucky school districts, 167 joined the effort.
“We want to build stronger partnerships with business people, families, and citizens — we have a responsibility to meet the needs of our communities,” Smith said.
More engaging and relevant learning experiences have been expanding steadily.
In 2010, district-level and community involvement to engage all students in more active learning led the University of Kentucky College of Education to start its Next Generation Leadership Academy for school teams seeking new approaches. In the 12 years since, the academies have involved about 1,200 educators from 75 districts.
Lawmakers in 2012 enacted innovation provisions allowing districts and schools to implement programs to improve student learning and achievement. The state education department created an innovation division to work with interested districts and expand personalized learning.
In the fall of 2021, the state education department launched its Local Laboratories of Learning to collaborate with school districts in a network of community projects to redefine essential student outcomes, overhaul teaching and learning, and explore assessment and accountability alternatives.
Seven districts joined the first year. (Allen, Jefferson, Fleming, Shelby, Logan, and Johnson counties, along with the Frankfort independent district.) Six more joined in the spring of 2022. (Boone, Bullitt, Lawrence, and Greenup counties, as well as Berea and Corbin.) Five more districts joined last fall. (Carter, Floyd, Washington, Rowan, and LaRue counties.)
More broadly, 43 Kentucky districts have become part of the state’s Innovative Learning Network, a professional learning outreach effort to offer technical assistance and support on deeper learning efforts.
“The demand is there from communities — they recognize the importance of skills for lifelong learning well beyond education,” said Sarah Snipes, innovative strategies manager at the state education department. “In schools and in communities, people know that we need something different for students.”
The demand is there from communities — they recognize the importance of skills for lifelong learning well beyond education. … People know that we need something different for students.
— Sarah Snipes, Kentucky Department of Education
The state’s assistance is designed to combine community understanding with education system changes to assure wide and lasting input and support. Snipes said that deeper learning changes mark a big shift for schools.
“What makes the work of last two years look different is seeing community collaboration mobilize and take hold differently,” Snipes said. “Educators and community representatives see themselves making something together and see that come alive in classrooms.”
“Making sure everyone is at the table has been really powerful,” added Travis Hamby, superintendent of the Allen County district, part of the first cohort involved in the Local Laboratories of Learning program. Wide community input helped Allen County’s educators define larger goals for students — expectations that spelled out the need for all students to become resilient learners, creative problem solvers, accountable collaborators and more. “We got what the community said they want,” Hamby said.
“It comes back to why we all got into education to begin with — to make a difference with students and create engaging activities. Learning is about curiosity and asking questions,” Hamby said. “To go down this path, we recognize that we had lost some of that. But when you start talking about the possibilities of engaging with kids in the learning process, and building up everyone’s skills and passions, that resonates with people.”
SIGNIFICANT CHALLENGES AWAIT
As interested administrators and a team of deeper learning coaches nurture growing interest in schools, educators who have been at the forefront of such programs point to the need for policy changes and new approaches.
Some challenging areas where educators say new approaches will be vital:
> Redefining assessment and accountability. State tests focus on multiple-choice and short-answer questions in single content areas. Meanwhile, an accountability system that classifies schools based on that narrow snapshot reinforces test-driven teaching and learning. Can state leaders find measures and a system that will not only permit — but measure and recognize — well-rounded students who can produce and explain meaningful work?
> Addressing professional preparation. Rigid certification and training rules classify teachers as subject- and grade-level specialists, with teacher prep programs necessarily following that mold. How can current and prospective teachers become strong designers of powerful learning experiences? How do preparation programs train teachers to cover teamwork, presentation skills, and interdisciplinary content?
> Coordinating succession and team building. Dynamic school environments are often the product of maverick or charismatic individual leaders. How can schools and districts develop teams of skilled educators and administrators prepared to build upon stronger learning experiences and innovation successes?
> Garnering solid legislative support. The budding emphasis on developing durable skills and student engagement clearly connects to labor market and economic development needs. How does the education system work with legislative champions to assure statutory and regulatory support for significant changes in student learning and testing?
> Sharpening outreach and communication. Public schools are deeply wrapped in tradition. How do schools, districts and the larger system coordinate and succeed in reframing needs and solutions to win public support and involve citizens, family members, business leaders, and others as advocates?
“What will be needed is an attractive alternative that’s easily understood by educators and the community,” said Justin Bathon, associate professor and chair of the educational leadership studies department at UK.
Bathon has faced the challenges of moving beyond the status quo as a co-founder of the STEAM Academy high school in Lexington, a designer of UK’s deeper learning academy, a developer of school leaders, and a public school parent.
“Over the last 25 years, we’ve told everyone that education means a deeply measurable, simplified thing,” he said. “It’s difficult to ask a system under pressure and that doesn’t have resources make this kind of major shift.”
Over the last 25 years, we’ve told everyone that education means a deeply measurable, simplified thing. It’s difficult to make a system under pressure and that doesn’t have resources make this kind of major shift.
— Justin Bathon, University of Kentucky College of Education
His experience with the STEAM Academy, a partnership with the Fayette County school district, involved a mix of challenges. “It can be hard to hold the ground you have achieved,” Bathon said. “We almost need to define a new type of school as living in a different category for district and board choices to be different. Right now, there is no category for schools that have broken the mold where we’ve provided long-term supports to be sustainably different.”
Carmen Coleman, director of deeper learning for the Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative in Shelbyville, said that the growing interest in what students need to be successful as adults opens big possibilities. “We’ve got an opportunity with forces coming together that we haven’t had, so it’s a really important moment in time.”
Coleman was previously chief academic officer of the state’s largest school district, implementing Jefferson County’s Backpack of Success Skills program beginning in 2018. She also worked with Bathon at UK and was superintendent of one of the state’s original Districts of Innovation.
Achieving a more meaningful school experience will require changing the power of test scores in the public’s mind and in educators’ careers, Coleman said.
“The districts that we are working with all want to do something differently — they see the need for change and a different kind of student experience for successful futures. There’s no argument about the need,” she said.
As local schools move toward more rigorous and relevant learning, the requirements and routines of the education system are due for a makeover, Coleman said.
“We are getting what the system is designed to produce, and we need drastic changes on that front,” Coleman said. “Teaching is so focused on individual standards. People lose jobs over state test scores. And the teachers most inexperienced are just trying to survive. People are understandably nervous about doing anything away from the norm.”
STUDENT OUTCOMES, VOICES ILLUMINATE NEEDS
While standardized tests or course-taking indicate how many students are “proficient” or “ready” by graduation day, the data fail to register how students fare in actual settings. After a decade of deeper learning efforts, however, many recent graduates are eager to reflect on the impact of school experiences.
As a senior at Fern Creek High School in Louisville in the spring of 2019, Keilen Frazier was in the first group of Jefferson County students to make a presentation explaining how high school learning and achievements equipped him to move forward.
Learning defenses, where students present to a panel of teachers and community members, are a component of district’s Backpack of Success Skills program as students leave elementary, middle and high school.
Frazier was an early fan the district’s move to provide students challenging experiences, reflect on their work, and practice skills beyond academic recall.
“A lot of seniors, I think, aren’t ready to graduate,” Frazier explained in a 2019 interview. “In their head, they think they are, but deep down inside they know they aren’t. They just want to get out even though they don’t know what they’re getting out into. I feel like the Backpack really does help us center ourselves to figure out what we’re going to do next — that next chapter. I wish we had something like this our freshman year.”
Weeks before graduating, Frazier said many students see standardized tests as a poor measure of what matters for success. “The Backpack gives you more opportunity to show what you do than standardized testing. I struggled academically my freshman year,” he explained. “I do better when I can actually do things. I’ve learned more outside the building than I have inside.”
IN A 2019 PHOTO, FERN CREEK HIGH senior Keilen Frazier was among the first group of Jefferson County high school students to make a presentation about how classwork and experiences demonstrated command of skills like critical thinking, collaboration and leadership. Now a photojournalism major at Western Kentucky University, he said the experience in Jefferson County was good preparation for college and succeeding in internships.
Now a photojournalism major at Western Kentucky University, Frazier said he still appreciates the changes he saw in his final years in Jefferson County. The emphasis on presentations defending one’s work turned out to be common in many college assignments. He also liked that students could gain recognition for acquiring skills beyond their classwork through extracurricular activities and team competitions. In college, he has focused on landing a series of internships to gain a professional edge beyond college.
“Leadership can translate to any organization,” Frazier said in a recent interview. “Understanding how to work together, knowing what’s expected, and how to move things forward — that’s how things work in classes, in student organizations, in teams, and on the job. You’ve got to know how to solve problems and get to the end zone, which is what the Backpack program is about.”
Frazier said schools need to build students’ opportunities and abilities to work together, solve problems, and communicate.
Jaley Adkins, preparing for early graduation after her third year at the University of Louisville, said that the opportunity to do original research and be involved in hands-on projects at Belfry High School in Pike County were enormous advantages in college and as she focuses on postgraduate programs.
During her senior year of high school, Adkins and a classmate earned a spot at the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair in California.
In short, their project examined whether extracts of natural products — including kudzu flowers picked from vines growing on a hill beside the school parking lot — could capture gold or silver nanoparticles from an acid compound and possibly replace commonly used chemical solutions in medicine. (Gold and silver nanoparticles are adept at bonding with cancer cells, making them a tool for locating cancer cells in MRIs, for example, or delivering highly targeted treatments.)
IN A 2020 PHOTO, BELFRY HIGH seniors Jaley Adkins, left, Madison Slone, and teacher Haridas Chandran discussed the students’ research testing whether kudzu extract can capture gold or silver nanoparticles potentially useful in cancer diagnosis. Adkins, now a student at the University of Louisville, said her in-depth high school learning experience inspired ongoing interest in medical research.
The experience connected Adkins with U of L. Her research has continued there, leading to plans for graduate school and a doctorate in pharmaceutical chemistry and engineering.
“Based on my experience at Belfry, teachers and schools trying to make learning more engaging is easily one of the most beneficial things that can be done for students,” Adkins said in a recent interview. “Without teachers like Doc, I would not be where I am today. Making learning more engaging truly brings students into it and makes them feel like they are playing an active part in their learning.”
Haridas “Doc” Chandran, the Belfry High science and engineering teacher and leader of the school’s STEAM lab, said in a 2020 interview that one of his first discoveries as a teacher was that schoolwork was deeply disconnected from adult life and local realities.
“The education the kids received was not related to the workforce and the economy we have, which was going down. I thought I should motivate these kids to go beyond what they might normally know — the 21st century workforce is not the thing they had 30 years ago.” Drones, 3-D printers, and investigations into medicine, construction and energy became focal points.
“I just mentor — give them directions,” Chandran said. “They take that initiative and do it by themselves. If something happens, they come and ask me. It’s research, understand, and complete the work. That’s the learning process.”
Adkins said that engaging challenges are essential to producing motivated students.
“I think schools should step up to help students find their passions sooner,” Adkins said. “Too often now, schools are focused on teaching for exams, not teaching for love. That is what happens when there is applied learning. Like me, students can find what they love through these applied experiences.”
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TOP PHOTO: Sixth grade students at Allen County Intermediate Center add details to a cardboard model of their proposed drive-in theater, complete with cotton to suggest an all-season entertainment destination.
M A Y 2 0 2 3
4. MAKING STRONGER OUTCOMES MAINSTREAM
Rethinking the system The state education department’s interest in learning experiences and assessment innovation is about more than a new approach for some classrooms. A quick look at the planning and issues involved:
United We Learn The state’s strategic plan priorities are now in the hands of a 68-member United We Learn Council, looking at recommendations and next steps in each of the three priorities. The main web page about its plan includes explanation, information about the new council which met for the first time in November, and various ways the state is focusing on skills, learning experiences, and more meaningful outcomes.
Commissioner’s take Education Commissioner Jason Glass co-authored a blog post in September about assessment and accountability changes, noting the state’s resources to study new approaches under a grant from the federal education department. “A compelling argument can be made that what is currently measured on a machine-scored standardized test gives us a reductive view of student capabilities,” Glass writes with Doannie Tran, a consultant who is also a facilitator for the United We Learn project. Views from Glass on deeper learning were also the subject of a Kentucky Teacher article in December.
Accountability evolution Kentucky is not alone in emerging from the pandemic with an appetite to rethink student learning. KnowledgeWorks, a Cincinnati-based group focused on personalized learning reports that “the massive disruption to instruction fueled a new urgency to rethink the potential of assessments to drive better teaching and learning.” The group and partners published a summary of discussions around new approaches to state assessment and accountability. The piece explains issues and offers updates on several examples. KnowledgeWorks is one of the partner organizations involved in Kentucky’s United We Learn efforts.
Meaningful college diplomas K-12 school systems are not alone in pursing stronger outcomes. Kentucky’s Council on Postsecondary Education also launched a Graduate Profile effort that recognized 10 key workforce skills. CPE pulled together representatives from the state’s four-year public colleges and four of the KCTCS campuses to analyze learning outcomes.
Training blitz Free PBL 101 Summer Regional Conferences for K-12 public school educators will be held starting in June in all of the state’s regions and online through partnerships with school districts and educational cooperatives. Beyond speakers and teacher presentations, the conferences offer an intensive three-day PBL 101 Workshop from PBLWorks. Use the link above for dates and details.
This special report on durable skills and deeper learning showcases emerging issues and school efforts to better connect school work and adult success.
ABOUT THE SERIES
1. RETHINKING NECESSARY SKILLS & ENGAGING EXPERIENCES to better prepare students for challenges to learn, work, and thrive beyond high school.
2. UPDATING OUTCOMES FOR STUDENTS with local graduate profiles, greater student voice, and new connections to employers and communities.
3. RENEWING PROFESSIONAL POSSIBILITIES as educators explore creative options for learning experiences and personalized connections that spark student interest.
THIS STORY: 4. MAKING STRONGER PERFORMANCE MAINSTREAM by expanding engaging and effective learning environments to replace outdated approaches and preparation.
SCHOOLS FEATURED IN THIS STORY
ALLEN COUNTY INTERMEDIATE
ENROLLMENT: 700 in 4-6
64% eligible for free/reduced price meals
FERN CREEK HIGH
ENROLLMENT: 1,725 in 9-12
68% eligible for free/reduced price meals
ENROLLMENT: 520 in 9-12
55% eligible for free/reduced price meals
ONE MORE THING
THE DISCUSSION CONTINUES
Kentucky’s work toward a more meaningful diploma was recently the focus of a podcast about deeper learning and stronger student outcomes hosted by a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a retired school administrator from Canada.
A December episode of the Free Range Humans with Jan Mehta and Rod Allen podcast focused on the United We Learn effort as the duo visited Kentucky. The hosts reflect on discussions with Lu Young, a former superintendent and chair of the State Board of Education, Justin Bathon of UK, Commissioner Glass, and Caleb Bates, a recent student now on the state education department staff.
Commissioner Glass was also a podcast guest on the fourth episode in June 2021, entitled How to Build Systems for Deeper Learning.