Friday, January 23, I had the opportunity to visit the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. While this was my second time in the building (because SLA hosted EdCamp Philly last year), this visit was very different. Courses were in session, and my group was able to observe classes and talk with students and teachers.
SLA offers students a unique inquiry based learning environment. This approach is often dismissed by educators concerned with “covering” the necessary material. However, the extreme pride each student exhibited in their classwork makes evident the power of inquiry based learning.
“This isn’t compulsory education.”
Let’s address the elephant in the room.
SLA is part of the Philadelphia School District, but it is a magnet school. Students apply and are screened prior to admission. During the school day, students sit on window ledges in the hallway, use their cell phones, meet in the commons area, and there isn’t a hall monitor in sight. Why? These students know their placement in this school relies on their ability to work hard and respect the learning environment. This school is a privilege, not a right.
Some may view this as the ultimate road block. But can’t we aim to make our organizations places students would choose to attend? Here are a few elements that stood out during my visit.
Ethic of Care
“Do students fail?” I asked one teacher we spoke with. “Yes,” he said, “but they have to really be trying to fail. We want them to succeed. It’s about the ethic of care.”
This is the perfect starting point. It does not require revised curriculum, team planning, or massive purchases. It is just about teachers remembering why they chose to teach – for the kids. It’s not about us versus them. It’s not about “this is the way it’s always been.” It’s about reaching the youth who will one day run our nation.
Where are all the textbooks?
I am opposed to textbooks. All textbooks: hardback and digital. In my mind, it does not make sense to teach students to rely on one particular text to acquire information. Locating and evaluating resources should be part of the learning experience, especially at the secondary level, because that is an authentic experience. Whether a student ends up on Wall Street or at the local general store, they are not going to find the answer to their company’s problem in a one-stop-shop textbook.
I’m a realist. I recognize that not all schools are one-to-one and relying on technology to teach research skills is not always an option. But as a realist, I recognize that this IS the way our students need to learn and as educational leaders I think we should make it a priority to help get them there.
When you speak to students and teachers at SLA, they often reference their Core Values. I asked a student about applying to the school, and her response began, “One of the Core Values here is presentation, so…” While speaking to a teacher, I heard, “Collaboration is one of our Core Values, so we teach students the skills they need to collaborate successfully.” (I could write another whole post on that comment alone. Stay tuned). In School Leadership 101 you learn about establishing and maintaining a vision. This is something SLA is doing perfectly.
Other things I loved
Some of the classrooms were completely void of ceiling tiles and an entire floor of the building was blocked off because the renovations were not complete. This building was not state of the art, but their environment is. Positivity is evident.
Paperless. Teacher desks, when they existed, were not covered with paper or worksheets. They rely on cloud based documents and digital learning environments to manage workflow.
Each grade level has a theme and corresponding essential questions. Teachers design units based on the theme and student inquiry further drives the instruction.