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The Ideal Learning Environment

By Kim Rieffannacht, Ed.D.

As schools transform into places where learners are developing skills that are useful in the information age, we realize that the learning environment need to look and feel. That environment is not created overnight and may look differently based on the facilitators, leaders, learners and community needs.  The philosophy that all learners needs should be met every hour of every day is not a canned program or set of resources, but instead a process where stakeholders need to work together to create systems that help learners succeed at an individual level. Each learner should experience several things including: learning at his or her level, the ability to leverage his or her learning style, the opportunity to learn skill and content of high interest to him or her, the understanding of relevance of what he or she is learning, a feeling of being challenged, a feeling of being successful and the desire to return tomorrow (Crawford & Scott, 2017).  These, for many, seem like lofty goals, but they are all characteristics of an ideal learning environment and have become possible with the infusion of technology into instructional best practices.

The cornerstone of the ideal learning environment is learners working at their own rate and level.  If a learner has not mastered a prerequisite skill, it is very difficult for him or her to be successful at the next level.  When individual needs are not at the forefront and groups of students are moved through material as a collective, skills are often missed or not mastered.  Young people working on what they need provides them an opportunity to work independently and a place where they can find success by truly showing mastery. Their own rate brings up the necessity to mention that teachers need to facilitate growth, success and the rate of the learner’s progress.  It was stated at a recent conference session I attended, that the rate of many teenage learners is non-existent.  That is when facilitation, monitoring progress, placing supports in where necessary and ensuring there is a successful progression through skills and concepts becomes critical. A child’s pace may also differ, depending on the topic or skill. There is a delicate balance that needs to be found.  Teachers can do this when they take the time to get to know each learner, how they learn best and their pace of learning.

Just as every learner works at a different rate, each learner’s most effective way of retaining information or mastering skills is different.  There are three types of learning styles that are most prominent: kinesthetic, auditory and visual.  There is a necessity to have an intentional conversation with teachers and learners about what each of these learning styles are and an increased awareness of how both learners and teachers acquire new information. It is helpful for a teacher to understand how they learn best to ensure that they are offering learners different pathways based on their best learning style, and opportunities to grow in their weaker styles. Learners need to be aware of their learning style so they can make choices that allow them to learn in the most meaningful way possible. This is information that will help learners walk through the rest of their life.

In as much as learners thrive in different styles of learning, there is also a need for learners to have a high interest in what they are learning.  This may not happen every hour of everyday for every learner; however, as a system and as educators we can work to put more voice and choice into a learner’s day.  Increasing education’s direct connect to learners will help increase interest and in turn motivation. The mastery of standards can be demonstrated in an number of ways.  Learners should be encouraged to think critically and develop create solutions to problems that interest them. We talk about the individual learner choice, but we also have to connect learners and teach them skill of communication and collaboration within these creative solutions. Creative solutions to real world problems and giving learners choice is a natural way to promote relevance of learning to young people. Taking the standards, content and skills that need covered, and creating relevant pathways for learners to follow is a critical step in creating the ideal learning environment.  Much of what is learned can be applied quickly.

The ideal learning environment, just as with any environment, will have a culture and a feel to it.  The environment, interactions and activities should challenge learners by encouraging them to master skills, push the traditional classroom limits and solve problems that are typically not explored in a classroom.  Learners should have multiple opportunities to feel success and demonstrate their mastery of content.  These opportunities should help learners connect with their content and find the motivation that creates the desire to return the next day.  These feelings do not happen overnight, or as a result of one or two things.  Powerful intrinsic motivation is created in a new system that embraces each learner’s need with supportive teachers who intentionally design instruction around learner interests, style and rate of learning.

Everyone has experienced a time when they have been truly engaged in a task or material.  That feeling is what we want to create for learners on a more consistent basis.  Learners should want to come back to school each day, for reasons that are more than social.  Teachers desire to get to know the young people coming into their room and provide opportunities that meet individual needs.  These environments do exist and are possible.  Stakeholders need to work together to maximize resources, support learning environments and facilitate learning for each individual.

References:

Crawford, P. & Scott, J. (2017). The Total Leader Embraces Mass Customized Learning: Module1 [PowerPoint Slides].

The Flip Side of I do, We do, You do

By: Kim Rieffannacht, Ed.D.

I do, we do, and then you do is a pattern of instruction that has been around for many years.  The teacher demonstrates or does the task, explains the content or models the skill.  Then the class and teacher work together through the task at hand and finally, the learner completes independent practice or work.  This model has been a part of industrial age teaching for generations.  It has taken slightly different forms, but the pattern has remained true. I do. We do. You do. I do. We do. You do.

This pattern, as with the days of assembly line production and mastering skills for a repetitive job is fading.  It is being replaced with a new pattern: You do, we do and if necessary I will do before starting at You do again. Meaning the learner attempts the tasks, explores the content or works to master the skill first.  After their attempts, collaboration and group effort may be necessary with a facilitator’s support to reach mastery, we do.  Finally, if there is an absolute need the facilitator demonstrates only what is needed to promote continued growth toward the goal.

Engagement is a key to either of these patterns of instruction. Research shows us that if learners are engaged in their learning experiences, they will have more ownership.  Ownership of work leads to greater learner agency and true mastery of content.  When a buyer purchases a house, makes improvements on their own and sees a direct return in equity, this is called sweat equity. Learners need to put effort in and build equity in their learning.  As most of us have experienced, if we put the effort in to make or understand a concept, we feel a deeper connection to it.  Just as if a new item or toy is earned as opposed to just handed to a child, it has greater value or meaning.

When discussing this model as a tool in an instructional toolbox, many wonder what is the teacher’s role in this learning activity. Their role is that of a facilitator. A facilitator is a person who guides the learners through the exploration and application of skills.  This takes many forms and often depends on the group of learners and the activity at hand. Facilitators coach, support, provide resources, set expectations and guide learners to the place where they find the ah-ha and master a new skill and content.  In a truly customized environment a facilitator will also design opportunities for learners to explore content that will meet their specific needs such as learning style, career goals, interests and pace of learning.   Independence is a large portion of this model, but there is also a great amount of responsibility on all those involved in the process.

Facilitators are given a great amount of responsibility to monitor learner’s progress and ensure they have what they need to be successful.  In education as a whole, group success rates have often driven the success rate of a lesson, school or district. For many years Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) was the number to reach and educators got very nervous as that number approached 100 percent proficient or advanced. High standards and goals for achievement are critical and necessary, but all children are different.  Not every child can meet the same high standard, but they can meet a high standard that is appropriate for them.  This requires dedication, teaching and awareness of individual needs at a greater level. Setting, facilitating, assessing, monitoring, adjusting, instruction and so many more details goes into the execution of this model.

The real benefit and reason for utilizing a model like this is it mirrors real life at a greater level.  Life is filled with problems, situations and choices that do not come with a scaffolded model or mini lesson before them to help prepare you. As humans we need to have the ability to problem solve, see beyond what is directly in front of us, think through options critically, find creative solutions and realize potential consequences of actions.  This happens in everyday life. People utilize their functional knowledge of finances, traffic patterns, their health, and how the world works to make thousands of decisions within a day. These decisions are often simple but can become complex when interwoven into the fabric of a set of experiences, emotions and interpersonal interactions.

There is a skill set our learners need to be successful problem solvers and decision makers.   They need to understand how to obtain reliable information, utilize that information and make informed decisions that take into consideration future implications. They need to be able to think outside the box and utilize what they know and information they find to create solutions to old and new problems. It is no longer enough to memorize information and reiterate it on a test, these learners need to be able to shift into being creators of content, not just consumers.  Simply put, they will be required to apply what they have learned.  This does not happen in isolation, there needs to be collaboration and communication at the classroom, school, local and global level where appropriate.  Seeking resources beyond what is right in front of the learner is a powerful skill. Put it all together and learners need to be able have critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creative reasoning skills. These are the skills that 21st Century employers desire in new recruits more than anything.

Make no mistake, this model is full of learning, responsibility and growth, for both learner and teacher! It is time to give the ownership of learning to the learner and allow them to effectively utilize the knowledge that is so easily available to them.  Let’s allow them the opportunity to develop the skills that will serve them well as they develop into the leaders of tomorrow.

Students vs Learners

by: Kimberlie B. Rieffannacht, Ed.D.

Abraham Joshua Herschel said, “Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.”  Speech and vocabulary have an impact.  They impact daily interactions. They impact attitude. They impact action. They impact heart. They impact life.

Words are the vessel for communication and give humanity the ability to connect on many levels. Each child that enters a school on a given morning is bombarded by words.  They may get a “hello” from a staff member, a “what’s new?” from a friend or a question from a teacher.  In addition, they have words that may not be spoken, but written.  School lobbies are covered with encouraging sayings, school-wide awards, expectations posters and so many other inspirational words to send a message to those entering. All of these words flow into the child and shapes what decisions they make throughout the day and beyond.

In the world of education it is often said that students need one adult to invest in them, to make a difference in their life.  We often reflect whether we have been or are that adult for a child.  Investing into that child means taking the time to have that conversation with a child, showing the child that they are important through your actions and speaking life into that child through encouraging words.  How children are spoken to and how they perceive that speech impacts them a great deal. If a child is spoken to as if they are less than adequate, they will begin to believe they are less than adequate.  Likewise, if a child is empowered to succeed, they will begin to think they can accomplish anything.

One of the areas where the Huntingdon Area School District has begun to change their speech and vocabulary is beginning to call our young people learners.  What was wrong with the word student?  The answer to that question, which I have begun to hear more often, is nothing.  There is nothing wrong with the word student.  So, that begs the question, then why change it to learners?  Simply put, we understand that words have power and we want to instill the idea that all children are learners and they will be learners for all of their days.

Being a student implies a fixed time frame; a child is a student while enrolled in a school. Learner is who they are, they can, and hopefully will, always be learning. Student implies learning has to happen within a school.  A learner can learn anytime, anywhere and at any pace.  Student implies that they are receiving information and repeating it.  A learner is someone who truly learns skills and information and can do something with it.  A student is playing the game of school to receive a grade on a report.  A learner is interacting with content and producing a solution to a problem or a new approach to a project that has a greater impact in the long run.  A student uses what is provided to them, while a learner seeks new and creative resources.  A student at times can be a person in a desk getting information.  A learner is an individual who is seeking out content, adapting in an ever changing world and finding new ways to approach new and old problems. A student’s mindset is unknown and often limited.  A learner has a growth mindset and realizes they may not have it mastered yet, but that is okay!

This shift in vocabulary is to benefit all those working in or out of our educational system.  This term learner, can help shape how things are presented in the classroom, how they as young people approach problems and how they interact with the world.  A real life example comes to mind. My family has a half moon shaped tent for the little ones at the beach or pool.  We just purchased it and had no problem setting it up, however, putting it back in the bag proved to be very difficult with the directions provided. If I were a student I would have probably given up, gotten mad and probably thrown it out, and that was tempting.  As a learner, I got out my smart phone, searched Youtube and was able to put my tent away with the help of a video posted by a man from Colorado.  This is a very simple example to illustrate that we want to take these young people beyond being students into being learners. We want them to solve problems, learn from mistakes and have perseverance.

Could a student do all of those things listed above? Sure, however, it is more likely that a learner will rise to the occasion.  Student is an industrial-age term, where students were instructed the same way, no matter who they were as an individual.  We live in an information-age, where learning is individual, constant and cannot stop. We want to prepare each and every Huntingdon Area School District Learner to be ready for this ever changing world.  The job market will look radically different when the class of 2030 (our current Kindergarten learners) graduates.  We don’t know what those jobs are going to look like, but we do know some of the skills needed to compete for them.  These learners need to be adaptable, be able to communicate, be able to think critically, be creative and navigate their future.  

Coming back to what Abraham Joshua Herschel said, “Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.”  We want our young people to be learners, so that is how we are going to refer to them.  Those working in the district are not trying to be sneaky or say that student is a “bad” term.  We want it to start with the speech and end with them becoming lifelong learners.

Hiring Through a Vision

By: Kim Rieffannacht, Ed.D.

Hiring is one of the most, if not the most, important things a district can do.  Personnel are the greatest resource and investment within a school district. People create the community, build relationships with learners and work tirelessly to meet their needs on a daily basis. This and so much more creates a desperate need around the hiring process, to find the right person to complete a team when a vacancy is created. The great question is how do you know who Mr. or Ms. Right is for the particular position?  Is there any way to know?

There are fair hiring practices and regulations in place to minimize discrimination and it is critical to live within those limits; however, there is much more to the process of hiring.  Often we find there are two or more equally qualified candidates willing to fill a position; who is the right choice?  There is a great deal of research and conversation around this topic in education and many other professional fields.  Philosophies of interviewing and hiring change frequently, and perhaps that is because there is no really good way to discern if a person is right for a position in just a few short interactions in an artificial environment.

Hiring is not generally a unilateral decision, but rather one undertaken by a committee and over several rounds of interviews.  Data is collected, opinions about the interview are discussed and ultimately a decision is reached. A hiring committee is critical because one perspective cannot see or pick up on everything the candidate is communicating.  Communication goes beyond answers to questions and reaches into body language, tone, inflection and word choice. When a committee decides there is no candidate that fits the bill it is equally, if not more, difficult as many seemingly qualified candidates. There is always a level and sense of gambling when making a hiring decision.  

One of the greatest tools a hiring committee can have as they enter an interview process is a clear vision of where their team is going.  This should shape the entire interview process.  Here in Huntingdon we are working towards developing a Mass Customized Learning (MCL) model of education.  We are in our infancy; however, we know this is the vision, the goal, and we working towards identifying team members that will work to move that vision forward.  This creates a purpose around the process and a shared understanding of not only the importance of the vision, but also the importance of hiring for the team that is working toward fulfilling that vision. This is often overlooked in the hiring process, but a concise vision is powerful throughout the process.

Vision is powerful for the interview committee to have, but it is equally as powerful to understand candidates will not come in understanding the vision.  Most candidates interviewing will not have an understanding of what the district’s vision is; however, as a committee, the interviewers need to look for someone with a growth mindset that can become a contributor to the vision.  A successful candidate will be able to adopt the vision and begin making decisions that further the vision in a short amount of time. That being said, the power of the vision should come through the interview to the candidate and help him or her decide if that district is a right fit for them, as much as the committee is trying to find the right fit.

Vision should not be a secret.  It should not be hidden under a bush.  A vision needs to shine through the people within an organization.  There needs to be action surrounding the vision. This is the guiding force for major decisions, including hiring.  If vision is not shining through those in the organization and being used as a guiding force for decision making, I dare say it may not be an effective vision, or a vision at all.  Henry Ford said, “A vision without execution is just a hallucination.”

The win happens when you find the person that fits, and over time it becomes even more apparent that they were the best choice for that position.  As mentioned above, the personnel within a district are the greatest resource.  As the hiring process unfolds, committees need to understand, as much as possible, how the candidate will fit into the current team.  Internally committee needs to ask them self if they see the candidate being able to handle the learning curve that is ahead and if they will make valuable contributions to the learning environment.

This process is not easy and it is not for the faint of heart.  It is easy to become discouraged with the process.  This business is a people business, that means sometimes people’s lives require a change.  Each reason for leaving is different and important for the individual.  Having honest conversations and creating the best interview process possible should always be the goal when hiring a new team member.  An established team is at times a luxury within a school district; however, each hiring process is an opportunity to bring a fresh new perspective to a team. The leadership and committee need to have the attitude of opportunity when entering this process.

Leading Baby Steps Toward MCL

by: Kim Rieffannacht, Ed.D.

“What we are doing now is not working.  It is time to try something new.” There is nothing better for a school leader to hear in a small meeting where the discussion of change was on the agenda.  This learning facilitator was facing a new building administrator, rumors of grade-level changes, a possible scheduling overhaul and a complete reworking of how instruction was viewed; AND she was okay with it! She recognized that the current system and mode of instruction is not meeting her learners’ needs.  Along with her team, she saw the need to take the next steps is making their environment, in this case a grade-level, a place where the entire focus was on the learner.

This is one of the first baby steps when beginning to walk down an Mass Customized Learning (MCL) journey, the conversation. The conversation that our learners are more important than our adult convenience.  The conversation that allows for all members of the team, learning facilitators and leaders, to ask hard questions and realize that it is okay not to have the answers. The excitement of the ability to meet each learner’s needs, combined with the anxiety of an unknown creates a contagious almost frenzy around the conversation.

What question do you answer first? The answer to that will be different for each learning environment or district and to be quite honest during this meeting, the reality was there was only one concrete answer. There is a need to make a change. Not having all the answers and allowing the them to form over time is not always easy for a leader. As a leader what can be done to keep the team moving one baby step at a time?

First, keep the conversation alive using the terminology that illustrates what each person’s role is. Learner for the students, learning facilitator for teachers and leaders for administration better illustrate each role and how they should carry out their duties.  Students number one priority is to learn, they are the learners, teacher no longer disseminate information, but rather facilitate the learning process, and school administrators are no longer focus on management, but instead lead the charge.  These are important culture shifts and distinctions that need to become a part of everyday conversation.  It will take time, but this list is truly how each member of the learning environment needs to view themselves in order for the MCL journey to be successful.

Second, as a leader, it is okay not to have all the answers.  This is a difficult shift for some and is necessary when moving from the management style of administration to leadership.  A leader is one member of a team, who may have added influence and responsibility; however, they cannot have all the answers.  It has been said many times that more heads are better than one. Decisions related to moving forward with MCL need to be made as a result of a team discussion, research, thoughts and ideas. This shift in philosophy cannot happen overnight and cannot be dictated from the top down.

Finally, when starting out the mindset for the entire staff needs to be addressed.  Working through the book Mindset by Carol Dweck is a good jumping off point.  The learning environment needs to be filled with learning facilitators that believe that all learners can grow and succeed.  This also begins with the leader.  Modeling this is critical and can happen through conversations about seemingly hopeless situations, how professional development opportunities are executed, staff meetings are presented and evaluations are approached.  It is the leader’s responsibility to set the tone for this mindset within the learning environment.  

The MCL journey is a path that is more about the process and constant evaluation and change, than it is about arriving at a completed goal.  Component of the learning environment may be very customized, while others still fall in a traditional model.  There is not right or wrong way to approach this process; however, there is an undeniable need to make a change to meet this generation’s unique learning needs at all phases of development.

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