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Engaged Students and Experiential Learning: Study.com Speaks to Diana Laufenberg at the Science Leadership Academy

Feb 10, 2011

Diana Laufenberg is a high school teacher at Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy (SLA), a public magnet school that emphasizes project-based learning, research and inquiry. She recently gave a talk at the Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) conference, a forum that includes big thinkers in all areas of knowledge production, and agreed to elaborate on her ideas about learning and education with Study.com.

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By Megan Driscoll

Diana Laufenberg

Study.com: What inspired you to become a teacher?

Diana Laufenberg: I've always been a very helpful person, and it seemed to be something that allowed me to indulge myself in being in a helping profession, but also get to wallow around in the world of ideas. It's a decadent lifestyle where your whole existence is basically about learning and knowledge and ideas.

Between the idea of being in a helping profession and really just learning as your job, teaching just seemed like a good fit for me. But I also had extraordinary teachers when I was young in this little farm town, many of who are still teaching there.

Study.com: In your recent TED talk, you spoke about the evolution of the availability of information - in your grandparents' generation it was a scarcity, passed from teacher to student in the classroom, but now it is all around us. In what ways do you think public elementary and secondary education has responded to this change, and how do you think the education system could improve its response?

DL: I think education has been struggling a lot to respond to the change. The previous model of education had a significant amount of control over the information that kids had access to, and in doing so, could really control the classroom environment in a very specific way - you had predictable outcomes because you knew what the inputs were going to be. I think we're now in a space where you can have kids doing a lot more individually motivated investigation, and so you don't always have the same outcomes. That's uncomfortable to people because we are a bit consumed by the idea of standardized outcomes.

Something that I think that we could do to shift in that direction is think about our work less related to the idea of producing exact replicas of the same kids with the same exact set of skills, and more understanding that you can differentiate, individualize and accept a wide range of products that demonstrate skill and mastery. Rather than 60 kids in my history classes giving me back 60 identical projects, I can get 60 individual interpretations of information with different creative minds put to the task of accomplishing the goal.

I think we need to do more of that, but it's uncomfortable for people who have been in an educational environment where control was one of the most relied-upon mechanisms in the room, and when you let go of some of that, it's unsettling.

Study.com: So the best way to respond to information being available to students is to open up and allow their creativity to guide their learning?

DL: Yes, giving students more options for demonstrating their knowledge is one thing that we could do. I give kids a broad goal: You need to demonstrate that you're able to do this or that you have learned this information. You can go about showing me how you've done that in a variety of different formats, whatever suits you. I have kids who do original artwork, kids who produce videos, kids who do more traditional writing pieces, who all demonstrate the same learning endeavor, but go about producing their work in a different format.

I think we have an immense capability to do that right now and let students get at learning in a more individualized way, but you have to give something up to get that, and that tension, I think, is where a lot of the trouble comes in.

Study.com: In your early years of teaching, you were able to reach students with experiential learning. Can you talk more about what that means, and how it can be applied in the classroom?

DL: The way I think about experiential learning really covers a wide range. For example, every quarter I have my American History kids do something in their communities that I consider related to practicing citizenship. In the first quarter, they go to their polling place. In the second quarter, they attend a public meeting. The third quarter, they do volunteer work and the fourth quarter, they can choose whatever they want to. I want them to go out and experience the world for themselves.

We can talk at kids a lot. We can tell them things, but until they actually put their feet to the ground, walk through the polling place themselves, sit in a public meeting and know what that is for themselves, they don't really conceptualize it very well. Allowing kids the actual experience of it, going to the city council meeting, sitting through a court case, those then become much more rich, meaningful learning opportunities.

Experiential learning, for me, also means taking kids outside. One of the programs that we run here through an outside organization called Grand Canyon Youth is to take 10 Philadelphia kids to the southwest over spring break, where they partner with a group of students out in Flagstaff, Arizona. We go on a collaborative river trip and hike through the Grand Canyon. It runs the gamut from real experiences in their communities and doing actual work to getting outside their comfort zone of physical spaces and looking at the learning that is possible there as well.

Study.com: You've also talked about different ways in which you've used technology to engage students in active learning. How do you see the role of new technologies developing in the classroom, particularly in the context of the new prevalence of information?

DL: Here's one example of why having access to technology creates a whole different experience in a learning environment: Prior to being in a one-to-one laptop situation or having ready access to technology, I tried to work with my students to analyze primary source documents. That's a big deal for me, having them look at the historical artifacts with their own eyes, make their own interpretations, analyze, evaluate on their own, not looking only to the secondary sources for the interpretation, but letting them do it themselves, practice the role of the historian.

Without the access to technology, I had to be the one to sort through which primary source documents they were looking at and what type. As a teacher I controlled the sorting and finding of information, and then they were left to do the analysis. Now, when we have to search out primary source documents on a particular issue, I can take my 60 U.S. History students, give them a common tag on Del.icio.us or Diigo, and say, 'We need to find primary source documents related to FDR's New Deal. We're trying to answer this question, and we need evidence toward that goal.'

You send them into the National Archives, and you can come out with 60 different resources that the other students can then use as a pool of information from which to analyze and evaluate, rather than the teacher being the one to do the work of the search and the decision making about which one of those sources best suits the purpose. It's all on the student to take on the active role in that relationship. It really shifts how kids interact with the information when they're the ones who aren't just passively accepting what the teacher hands to them, but actively seeking out the information on their own.

Study.com What other technologies do you use for active learning?

DL: We use Moodle as a platform for online learning. That's our resource where all of our classes that meet in real time also have a digital space where we interact outside of class.

We also use Google Docs for sharing papers for peer edits, and students use a whole host of storytelling tools like iMovie and podcasting. In my senior class, we recently started using different flowcharting tools like LucidChart and mind mapping software like MindMeister. We use Del.icio.us a lot.

There's a long list, but basically, it's whatever tool serves the purpose. We don't look for reasons to use the tool. We look at the learning goal and then see what's out there that allows us to meet that.

Study.com: Many schools are still struggling to implement new tools, pointing to budgetary issues as the culprit. How do public education can overcome this hurdle?

DL: I used to teach in Arizona, which is one of the most underfunded educational systems in all of America, and we made it a priority to build our educational technology infrastructure in my school. For a school of 700 kids, we had over 100 machines that kids could access on a daily basis, and I could get into the lab with my classroom of kids once or twice a week when I needed to. It just depends on what your priority is and where you are choosing to spend your dollars.

Also, many of the kids have a lot of technologies that can be used on their mobile devices, but we spend a lot of time trying to eradicate those devices from our learning environments. So rather than leverage what is coming in with the kids, we shut that off and then say we can't afford to provide it.

It's a complicated question, and we're kind of in a moment of shift and change where the way that people think about it has to shift and change as well. So money is a factor, but you definitely have to think about what it is you're trying to accomplish and then push as hard as you can in that direction. That's what we did in Arizona. We had a goal of what we were trying to get to, and we made that a funding priority over and above other things.

Ms. Laufenberg

Study.com: You've also criticized standardized tests and 'the culture of one right answer.' The issue of student assessment is a big one right now in education, particularly with the current administration's effort to turn around underperforming schools. Do you think that it's possible to measure the quality of education from an administrator's perspective, and if so, what methods do you feel would be more effective?

DL: I think that part of the problem is that we assume that if a kid does well on the test, then we've done our job. I realize that the standardized tests aren't going away, but it can't be the end goal for measuring whether or not student have gotten what they need to out of the educational system.

In addition, we currently assess on the cheap. Both Richard Rothstein and Daniel Koretz have written about this issue, and they both speak to the flawed nature of the types of assessments that we're using right now. They're being used incorrectly, and they're not being developed so they give us the potentially more rich data that we could get.

So, there are a few problems there. It isn't that all standardized testing is inherently bad. But we've kind of shifted the conversation so that's all we're talking about as if that is the end goal of learning. It is not. The students that I have do fine on the tests, and the students I had in Arizona did fine on the tests, but we've rarely talked about testing, and we didn't test very much. We did a lot of project-based learning. We did a lot of critical analysis, critical thinking and a ton of writing.

What I have found to be true is that if you are teaching a rich, engaging, project-based learning, inquiry-driven curriculum, the kids will test just fine. They won't max out the test and have the best scores in the city, but they will do well enough to pass and score well on the test. More importantly, they leave being able to collaborate, present, inquire and research, a whole different and exciting set of skills that I think that kids need to be successful in a 21st century world.

Study.com: Is there another way besides standardized testing that one could measure those desirable education outcomes to help ensure that students in any school in the country would have a chance of achieving them?

DL: Absolutely. But the problem is that it's very, very expensive.

I think that people need to visit schools. If you want to know if a school is working or not, walk into it. But that's expensive. Measuring whether or not a school is doing well beyond just the test scores requires manpower, and we currently aren't funding those kinds of accountability measures. We're funding the production of materials, remediation materials, programs that cost millions of dollars, but we're not spending time going into schools and saying, 'This is what is working, and this is what is not.'

There used to be, when I was in Kansas - I taught in Kansas from 1997 to 2000 - a different form of evaluation there of schools. You were on a five-year cycle where you took a look at what was going well in your school and what was not, and you set school-based goals. Then a team would come through every five years to look at your documentation about the different professional development that you were offering, the different interventions you were making and the different programs that were available.

They actually came to your school for a visit for a day or two to look at your evidence, speak with students and speak with faculty. Then you would set new goals from where you were. I found that to be an incredibly relevant, local and meaningful way of approaching the situation, but it's expensive. So, if we wanted to do assessment in a different way, we would have to also accept that measuring what we value sometimes is messy and not standardized, but also expensive or more expensive than we want to pay for right now.

Study.com: You currently teach at the Science Leadership Academy, an unusual public high school in Philadelphia. Can you tell our readers more about the history and mission of SLA, and what makes the school stand out?

DL: SLA was started five years ago by Chris Lehmann and a founding crew of teachers in a partnership between the School District of Philadelphia and The Franklin Institute. It is inquiry-driven, project-based high school focused on 21st Century learning. We are focused around five core values and have a unified pedagogical approach to learning. The big questions that guide what we're about include: 'How do we learn? What can we create? What does it mean to lead?' Our five core values are inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection. All of the teachers, for our large projects, use a common rubric to assess project quality using those five categories.

In the tenth and eleventh grades, all of our students have outside placements in internships in order to gain experiential learning. There are currently about 250 kids in roughly 175 different placements around the city doing work in hospitals, university offices, businesses, etc.

We are a small high school, with only 500 students. We take in about 125 students a year. We are special admit, so we do select our students, but not just based on test scores or grades. All of our students that are in attendance here come in for an interview and sit down with a faculty member and a student to run through a series of interview questions to get at whether or not they want to be part of a project-based learning environment because project-based learning is a ton of work.

This year, we interviewed almost 1,000 kids for our upcoming 125 slots. Although restrictive in the number of kids we can serve, we pride ourselves in the fact that we pull kids from all the different zip codes in the city and are really a citywide admissions space.

Study.com: Do you think that SLA and schools like it could serve as models for American public education, and if so, what would that look like?

DL: I'm currently working with a small group of people within the school to come up with a series of conversations and questions that a community needs to answer when trying to build a program like SLA, rather than saying, 'If you take these Legos and assemble them in this way, you will get SLA.' It isn't going to work like that - SLA works because it is particularly responsive to the community in which it is built.

The way a school develops will depend a lot on what its community values and what community partners are available to invest with the school. However, we do believe that there are some standard conversations that need to take place. For example, all schools don't need to have our core values, but they need to have some. And if they're going to be project-based, it's a really good idea to have a common language about evaluation and a common rubric to assess learning so the kids aren't gaming the system and trying to figure out what this teacher wants versus this teacher versus this teacher.

But I don't think that sending out a blueprint of this and saying 'this is how you get to be SLA' works because it really needs to be an investment of the stakeholders in the local communities that are developing the programs. They need to have a series of conversations to build a program that is relative to the space in which they're teaching and learning.

Study.com: If you could implement any reform to the education system, what would it be?

DL: My caveat to this question is that what I wish that we were talking about in education was a lot more nuanced than we are. An urban educational system has different challenges and needs than a suburban one or a rural one. I grew up in small town Wisconsin where there was one school. There was no school choice, you just went to your school because that was the one you could go to. It didn't make sense to talk about going to a different school when your school wasn't performing well, since there's no other school to go to. Some of the national education policies (like No Child Left Behind) make sense for urban settings, but do not make sense outside the urban setting.

So when we discuss reform, we need a more nuanced conversation to talk regionally about what people need. We're also talking about reforms that would have to be implemented in places where we have such differentials of funding. You can't go from spending $5,000 a student in Arizona to $10,000 in Philadelphia to $20,000 in upstate New York and then say we're going to implement the same reform and have the same outcome.

But what I will say as my answer is that the one thing that I have always believed would be most influential is in early elementary education. People try to fix high school in high school, but you can't. By the time you receive your ninth graders, if they are four to five years behind in their reading levels, you're doing triage. You're not fixing anything, you're just trying to give kids enough education so that when they leave, they can function. But you're not fixing the underlying problem.

What I see as something that could be most beneficial is to get K-3 class sizes in all American schools under 15 students. For the first four years that students are trying to learn how to read and learn basic math, they should be in very small classroom settings with a lot of attention from individual teachers who can use multiple methods of assessment to get at where they need help, remediate very young and have enough time to really work with them. Kindergarten classes over 30, which I was seeing in Arizona, aren't going to get us there.

Study.com: Finally, I'd like to give you the opportunity to share anything you'd like about contemporary public education, SLA and your personal teaching philosophy.

DL: The response that I've gotten since the TED talk has been kind of interesting. Teachers often talk to other teachers about teaching, and it gets a little bit echo-y in the chamber.

But the audience that I spoke to in D.C. on that day, and much of the audience that was reached by the TED talk, were non-teachers and non-educators. I think that people are ready to move. I feel as though we're going to max out this standardization push in the next year or two, and then things are going to start swinging in the other direction. I don't think it's going to happen fast, and I don't think it's going to look all that pretty, but people are tired of standardization. This weekend, The New York Times ran a piece on re-implementing play in a child's life because we have eradicated those spaces for children, and it's not leading us in the direction that we want to go.

So I am hopeful that more and more teachers in their own communities will start speaking outside the teaching profession. They can reach people who have children in the system, but are also in the business community and in organizations and talk to them about the potential of kids to do more than bubble in a test.

If that's all we're getting out of it, we're not getting near enough, because kids are capable of amazing things. We're just not asking enough or allowing the teaching profession to run with it where they can because we want it standardized, we want it locked down and we want it measured in the most un-engaging and stultifying way.

That's my two cents.

View Diana Laufenberg's TED talk on learning from mistakes.

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