Editor's Notebook: School of the Future World Summit

Last month, an impressive assemblage of educators and policy wonks from around the globe gathered at Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Washington to discuss secondary education reform. Unlike the National Educational Computing Conference the week before, where Microsoft released two K–12 software apps, the World Summit wasn’t a news-making event. But it certainly offered a lot of food for thought. Here are some highlights.

  • Forget the future — what do students want from schools today? Taking up this question were four hyper-articulate teenagers representing www.TakingITGlobal.org, an online community that claims 75,000 student members. Although the teens hailed from different countries — India, New Zealand, Uzbekistan, and the United States — they shared remarkably similar visions for their ideal learning environment: one-on-one time with their teachers; the ability to manage their own learning; hands-on activities in and out of the classroom; and teachers serving as facilitators, not omniscient lecturers. “It’s important for us to see teachers are learning with their students,†said Cherrie Kong, 19, from New Zealand. “It’s no longer ‘them’ and ‘us.’†Sound familiar?
  • Theory is one thing, practice is another. Thus, an audience member from Philadelphia’s School of the Future, the high-tech dream school opening for business in 2006, posed this question: “We’re in the process of getting the curriculum together and creating a flexible one-to-one learning environment... It’s a quantum leap for educators. What can you suggest as professional development activities we can do to help staff become facilitators, not lecturers? We’re struggling with this.†Some ideas the teens offered: developing leadership training that teachers and students would take in tandem and rolling out professional development conducted by students or recent grads.
  • We have seen the future, and it’s in Australia. Tim Fitzgerald, principal of Fitzroy High School in Melbourne — which in 2001 was charged by Australia’s Minister of Education to “explore and develop innovation‗ described how the school structures teaching and learning.
  • Students are organized into teams of 100 that are supported by eight to nine teachers. Each team is broken into smaller groups of 17 that meet for 25 minutes at the start — and 15 minutes at the end — of each day. These clusters are led by teacher advisers who develop, with input from kids and their families, personal learning plans for each pupil.
  • Each team gets six work spaces: one double room, two single classrooms, a seminar room, a technology “pod,†and a locker area. According to Fitzgerald, 80 percent of students’ time at school is spent in this geographical area.
  • FHS holds three teaching sessions per day, with each session running 85 minutes. Faculty can tweak this schedule on a flexible basis according to team needs.
  • All teachers use laptops supplied by the state. The student-to-computer ratio is 2:1 — no computer labs — and there’s full wireless capacity.
  • Teachers are given 85 minutes per week to plan instruction and reflect on practice. They’re also on the hook to engage in an action-research project each year based on student achievement data.
  • Why do students have trouble grasping new concepts? The problem may be tied, paradoxically, to teachers’ expertise, according to University of Washington professor and How Students Learn author John Bransford. “If you know your content well, you get further away from the experience of a novice,†said Bransford, which is why he says it’s vital for educators to have “pedagogical content knowledge†— the ability to know how to teach particular content (as opposed to knowing the content cold or just knowing the principles of teaching). One way to develop these skills, Bransford says, is to recruit colleagues from other fields and students to help with course design. In other words, novices can make experts smarter.
  • New product alert:www.TakingITGlobal.org, known for fostering informal learning experiences, is going formal. Over the next three years, with the help of Microsoft, it will be developing curriculum activities aligned with the TIG site. “An arts teacher might use our global gallery…to teach about different varieties of art and to have students critique artwork,†TakingITGlobal cofounder Micahel Furdyk said via e-mail after the conference. In social studies, Furdyk said “Students learning about a specific country might use our site to read dozens of blogs written by youth from that country to gain a new perspective in their learning.†Look for an initial batch of activities — free of charge for the first year — at www.tiged.org in September.
  • “A lot of our tests make us look way dumber than we are.†This zinger came from John Bransford, who thinks the problem with traditional assessments is that they involve “sequestered problem solving†instead of measuring how prepared students are to learn new concepts.
  • Call it a behavioral study: Scads of conference attendees were spotted using their laptops to check e-mail or surf the Web during the sessions. (At least they weren’t doing needlepoint, as one of my colleagues observed at a recent IBM event). At lunch there were several possible explanations bandied about. Theory No. 1: Just like the digital kids of today, adults are able to successfully multitask. Theory No. 2: Having access while someone’s speaking can have advantages — for example, pulling up a speaker’s Web site and following along as he or she is talking. Theory No. 3: The bar for engagement is higher than ever these days. Lectures and passive learning often don’t cut it any more, just as they don’t in K–12 classrooms. Theory No. 4: We all suffer, in one way or another, from modern-day attention deficit disorder. I’m leaning towards No. 4.

The School of the Future World Summit 2005 was held July 5–8 in Redmond, Washington.