Dr. Harry Fensom became the interim superintendent of White Mountains Regional School District in rural New Hampshire at a time when the district was designated failing and morale was low. He had two choices: focus on the symptoms (test scores) or dig a little deeper.
In the end he did a bit of both, throwing together some measures to quickly raise test scores and inject some pride back into the district, but also listening to teachers who said there’s more to learning than doing well on standardized tests. That plea prompted White Mountains educators and administrators to implement a Critical Skills Program that uses collaborative problem-based learning. All teachers and administrators districtwide took the training.
“I think it has paid off,” Fensom said. “We do see critical skill strategies being used throughout the district. Our administrators do have a good understanding of them from the trainings.”
Administrators took the same course as teachers so they’d not only know what to look for in the classroom, but have a common vocabulary to discuss it.
“If we don’t monitor it we shouldn’t require it,” Fensom said.
The district collaboratively developed a set of critical skills, habits and dispositions students should have when they graduate from White Mountains. Some of those include critical thinking, collaboration and problem solving skills, along with curiosity, optimism, zest, gratitude, grit, social intelligence and self-reflection. While many districts profess to want those same qualities in students, most still only monitor test scores. Fensom believes that by training administrators along with teachers, the whole culture of the district has changed.
“As things become somewhat institutionalized and comfortable with the strategies, there’s an ease that develops, and that’s really when a program takes off,” Fensom said. Five years into the experience, teachers and administrators alike are pushing for more training to address aspects of the approach that have been slower to develop.
Rather than using a challenging problem as the vehicle for learning, many educators misunderstood the idea and were creating an experience that came after the lesson. White Mountains administrators are continually supporting and coaching teachers to define how the challenges connect to standards and the defined learning objectives. Often times that means starting with the desired standards and working backwards to create a challenge question that doesn’t have one answer, but will inspire discussion after students research and analyze and present.
“We make assumptions about learning and they’re not always true,” Fensom said. “We talk about problem solving, but we fail to really demonstrate a model for problem solving.” Creating space for authentic problem solving and recognizing when it is happening is another area White Mountains administrators identified for further growth.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
In a training over the summer, administrators worked with problem-based learning coach Maura Hart, from the Antioch Center For School Renewal, to define what critical thinking and problem solving look like -- the first step to identifying it in the classroom.
“They’re struggling with the idea that they are evaluators, while recognizing that coaching happens from a non-evaluative standpoint,” Hart said.
The district is committed to building on its approach and knows that teachers will need time to make the transition. Administrators are trying to support teachers to push beyond their comfort zones and take risks. They're also fully aware of teachers' evaluation needs. To walk this line, administrators wanted to identify types of student behavior that would indicate work at the highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
“In looking at what students are doing, it also provides the administrators the ability to collect data on whether students are actually getting to where we want them to be,” Hart said. “It’s evaluative of the program and whether it’s working.”
Hart identified some behaviors that indicate a well-run problem-based classroom:
- Student are asking other students questions.
- Students are brainstorming and identifying tools they can use to achieve their goal.
- Students are dividing up work based on skill level and strengths, or based on where they want to learn themselves.
- Student answers are accurate.
- Students are going into depth on the project the teacher laid out.
Hart says these behaviors, among others, give an observer insight into a child’s metacognition and demonstrate where that student is on the progression of problem solving and critical thinking skill development.
Often times those non-cognitive skills are interstitial, showing up in how students organize themselves to complete the work. It’s not like content, which can be taught, because students build these skills through practice.
“When they figure out this stuff, they end up using very important communication and problem-solving skills,” Hart said.
Teachers can encourage problem solving and critical thinking by designing learning experiences that address the standards, but are ambiguous and loose enough in structure that kids have to figure out how to accomplish the task on their own. If a child is told exactly what elements to include, who to work with, and how to divide up his time, then he isn’t learning any of the process skills along the way. And, while not every student will successfully complete every challenge, all this work is taking place in a safe learning community that gives students multiple chances to show growth.
What should administrators be looking for in the teacher of a collaborative problem-based classroom? Hart said in this kind of environment teachers should never directly answer a question if possible. Instead they can respond to student questions with their own questions, pushing the student to reflect, think deeper or find the information for himself. Observers can also look for how much students are interacting with each other, instead of with the teacher. It’s a continuum from all-eyes-on-teacher, to all students engaging with one another about the problem.
CHANGE TAKES TIME AND EFFORT
Educators in White Mountains are excited by the changes they are seeing in their students and the energy for teaching showing up in the classroom. It hasn’t been easy, but the district has shown a long-term commitment to the process that’s slowly yielding results.
“Our teachers have done a nice job of getting their feet wet and trying some pieces out,” said Michael Cronin, principal of Whitefield K-8 school. He doesn't expect to see every element in every lesson, but he expects to see them trying out different pieces. A big part of his job is to help teachers set goals for themselves and work with them through the awkward, uncomfortable moments that come with trying something new.
Hart applauds White Mountains administrators for their coaching approach to leadership. She draws an analogy to student learning. No teacher would expect a student to hear a lesson one time and then go and perform perfectly on a very high-stakes exam. And yet that’s what a lot of professional development for teachers looks like, unless a teacher has consistent coaching to work through issues as they arise.
“The average teacher moves into an awkward stage and then doesn’t have time to move through it,” Hart said. Just like students, teachers need time to reflect, tinker, modify and try again.