What’s right about schooling?
Too much of school these days is relegated to a relentless focus on raising test scores. Too little of school is dedicated to creative and inquisitive pursuits. Too much of “schooling” is about learning what someone else has decided young people must know and be able to do—what factoids must be crammed into their brains. Or worse – schooling and learning have become almost synonymous with high scores on a test. Creativity, critical thinking and communication skills have taken a backseat to our obsession with testing, compliance and accountability. There is nothing wrong with a data-driven school, but the data cannot just be about what reading and math quartile 3rd graders are in. Learning is more than numbers on a test.
I was fuming about all that is wrong with “education reform” today until I walked into the NuVu Studio on a snow day last month — note that it is not called “school.”
NuVu describes itself this way:
NuVu is an innovation center for middle and high school students whose pedagogy is based on the studio model and geared around multi-disciplinary, collaborative projects. NuVu nurtures creative problem solving, collaboration, and presentation skills, all critical for student success.
It’s tag line is “innovative education for the future.”
NuVu feels like a mini-version of MIT’s Media Lab, but for younger people. As the founder/director, Saeed Arida, explained to me “NuVu is really for young people for whom the traditional school model has failed.” NuVu doesn’t believe in traditional classes and classrooms. Students work in large studio spaces. There is a main office which is divided with glass walls so that students and adults always see one another. 3-D printers line one wall. Mannequins are grouped in the entrance inviting fashion design projects.
A more traditional wood shop with work benches and various cutting tools has a separate entrance and an actual door, but again the walls are mostly glass. Coaches work with students in small groups and introduce them to a variety of open ended problems. There are no traditional subjects like math or history, science or art. Students use a method called the “studio model” or “design thinking.” In this model one learns “to navigate the messiness of the creative process, from inception to completion.” Classes are not segmented into hour long blocks; instead, students spend at least two weeks, daily from 9am-3pm, re-imagining solutions to complex questions such as: How to redesign school breakfast or lunch? One student, who has gained some notoriety on NuVu’s web site and vimeos, works diligently to improve access for students who are physically challenged and in wheelchairs.
How does the studio actually work? Here is NuVu’s own description:
Students are provided with access to outside resources – leading thinkers and experts – to whom they present their framework and receive feedback. Students document their process and progress, continually reviewing it with the Coach. They set parameters, synthesize, and continue refining, refining, refining. NuVu trains students to apply multiple perspectives to challenge and refine ideas over and over again until it becomes a natural learning process. All of this is documented through individual student portfolios. [This is in lieu of traditional grades].
Here is a graphic from NuVu that describes the student’s processes.
I found it such a relief to return to discussions about real assessment of student work instead of just tests. NuVu describes its assessment system as follows:
A portfolio serves as a compilation of student work done at NuVu over the course of the term, semester or full year and is meant to show the student’s growth over time and development of key academic and life skills (creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, research, quantitative reasoning and analysis). Each NuVu student is provided with their own online profile on NuVu’s online platform where they document and present their work. At frequent periods during the term, NuVu’s team works with the student to assess how far the student has developed since the beginning of the term. The portfolio-based assessment helps make learning and assessment relevant to students’ lives.
Perhaps all trends in education are cyclical. Portfolio assessment was widely implemented in the late 80s and 90s. In fact, when I was co-directing Fenway High School from 1984-1998, we spent a great deal of our professional time as faculty developing a portfolio assessment system. As state tests (such as MCAS in Massachusetts) began to consume more and more of educators’ attention, it became more difficult to focus on developing the criteria for measuring student mastery as well as the myriad ways of assessing that mastery. We didn’t feel that the ideas that Ted Sizer had developed in his now seminal Horace books (Horace’s Compromise, Horace’s School, Horace’s Hope) were irrelevant, but we found it increasingly difficult to find the time to develop and implement deep and challenging portfolio experiences, especially in the face of high stakes testing. Many educators began to retreat from developing curriculum and assessments that aligned with students’ own passion as the pressure to produce good student scores on tests increased. We knew that our students were still learning some important basic skills; nevertheless, the trade off between test scores and engaging curriculum has had negative repercussions. Personalized learning and competency-based teaching and learning have almost become “boutique terms” only available to those who can pay for it in private independent schools or for those in highly specialized schools.
At Boston Arts Academy, which I founded in 1998, as state testing was gaining momentum, the school has managed to keep some portfolio assessment at the center of learning for students. This means that test preparation for the MCAS may be sacrificed in favor of more time, for instance, developing senior grant projects which require students to use both their artistic and academic skills to solve a community based problem. Students research a range of issues in which they want to make a difference such as fighting homelessness, aiding children of incarcerated parents, increasing arts programs in schools, confronting body image issues in teens, and providing access to the arts for deaf and hard of hearing students. In their proposals students describe how they will address their chosen issue. Even if a student’s specific project is not chosen by a panel of judges for funding, students report that this year-long, multi-disciplinary experience often carries them into college and career, and they even find themselves returning to the project many years later. This is what it means to educate for and with passion. That is what NuVu is doing, too.
This kind of learning happens only in isolated pockets around the country. NuVu now must charge tuition to be solvent. They have found it difficult to work with public school districts that can’t figure out how to “fit” the studio model into the constraints of credits, grades and state regulations. All sorts of rationales are given: it is too expensive; students won’t learn the basics; students won’t do well on tests; teachers can’t teach this way, and the list goes on and on. Yet, we have exciting examples across the country of schools that do just this. Big Picture Project and its MET (http://metcenter.org) schools view students as passionate competent learners who deserve to have some choice in their approach to learning. High Tech High in San Diego (http://hightechhigh.org) shares much of the same philosophy as NuVu about how schools and studio models might overlap.
I want to see more schools inviting students to approach their education passionately and creatively. Risk taking and “mucking about” with ideas in the company of adults who take students seriously might actually give us another window into effective teaching and learning. Studio thinking, design thinking, maker spaces, fab labs – all these catch phrases don’t just belong in higher education institutes like MIT or in Innovation Labs at Harvard. They belong in our public K-12 school with our students who are desperate for engaging and personalized learning.