Elementary School Principal's Blog

From Two Experts, Important Findings

Posted on November 8, 2009

by Dr. Edna Hussey on November 8, 2009

While your children have been involved in many rich experiences this week (and every week), their teachers have been benefitting from meetings with educational consultants -- Dr. Nina Buchanan and Dr. Tony Wagner.  Dr. Buchanan recently retired from UH-Hilo where she pioneered online learning at the university. She is an educational psychologist and has considerable expertise in inquiry as a learning approach. She consults with several Hawaii schools, and I invited her to spend Tuesday and Wednesday in our elementary classrooms to learn first-hand how we approach inquiry as a way of learning with our students. Dr. Wagner, besides authoring several books on education, including his recent The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don't Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need--And What We Can do About It, has served as Co-Director of the Change Leadership Group (CLG) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education since its inception in 2000. He is also on the faculty of the Executive Leadership Program for Educators, a joint initiative of Harvard's Graduate School of Education, Business School, and Kennedy School of Government. Dr. Wagner was on campus Thursday and met with various constituent groups of Mid-Pacific. What did we learn as a preschool and elementary school from both visits?

One of the most important reasons I had arranged for both consultants was to understand whether our instructional approaches with children were educationally sound, developmentally appropriate, and consistent with 21st century expectations. As a faculty, we're aware of current practices through our professional reading and participation in workshops. We also spend a good deal of our time talking about how we teach and assess students. But it's important to get a qualified outside expert to give us feedback. 

Dr. Buchanan spent all of Tuesday and Wednesday observing teacher and students in nearly every elementary classroom (she's well aware of our Reggio-inspired preschool and had nothing but glowing comments, but she spent more time in the K-5 classrooms).  During the Wednesday debriefing with faculty, she immediately commended them their initiative and forward-thinking approaches. She described your children's teachers as bright, intelligent, articulate, motivated, and very thoughtful in their teaching. She marveled at the communication among teachers, especially the lunch meetings which teachers attend to share strategies and ask for feedback on a teaching unit. These meetings are also study group sessions during which time we've been discussing a book we've been reading as a faculty, Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles In Action, co-authored by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels.

She assessed that many teachers have successfully helped students to think more critically about many different kinds of texts. Students are developing deeper, richer questions about their learning because they've also been immersed in reading, going on more excursions, and listening to field experts.  Students are at the crossroads, needing guidance on focusing on particular questions to further research and develop into a project. Dr. Buchanan offered several resources to help teachers help students to move further on their inquiries. The teachers and I will be reviewing these resources, which incorporate more technology, and try out some in the classroom.  She will be helpful to us by providing feedback on our implementation.

The purpose of Dr. Wagner's visit to MPI was to make the case for educational change, not only at MPI but at all schools across the nation. On Thursday, Dr. Wagner began the day at MPI meeting PS-12 faculty, Board members, and other administrators at President Rice's home for continental breakfast.  Soon after, all three principals embarked on a "learning walk" with Dr. Wagner to classrooms from each of the school levels. We limited our learning walk to four classrooms selected by the principals -- one in the elementary, one in middle school, and two in the high school. Together we looked for evidence of intellectual rigor and quality student engagement, then discussed our findings. He encouraged Dr. Priester, Grace Cruz, and I to take learning walks throughout the school year as the means for collecting data for a schoolwide collaborative inquiry on how to improve instructional practices and provide engaging learning experiences for all students at MPI. 

Mid-morning he met with nine high school juniors and seniors, half of whom had come through the elementary school as Epiphany School students.  He asked them about effective teachers they had and what "effective learning" looked like. The high school students described effective learning as hands-on, more project-based, and certainly not being lectured at.

Dr. Wagner met with representatives from various constituent groups -- parents, faculty, staff, alumni, and Board members -- during an informal lunch to engage in conversation about educational change.  Questions included college expectations, standardized testing, grades, school schedules, and many thoughtful comments from participants about their views regarding teaching and learning.

At the end of the school, faculty from all school levels gathered in Bakken auditorium to hear his presentation and to learn about his findings from classroom observations and meetings with students and other school community representatives.  His slide presentation was essentially the same as the presentation to parents on Tuesday evening, an HAIS-sponsored even to all parents of independent schools. He explained that the current focus on learning as getting correct answers, isolated and discipline-specific courses, an extrinsic reward system based on grades, and standardized testing no longer meets 21st century demands. He described 21st century learning goals as "competencies" for lifelong learning -- intellectual rigor as figuring out the right questions and how to solve these problems, working in teams, taking more pride in intrinsic rewards, more content integration across disciplines, and assessment via projects, portfolios, and exhibitions of learning. 

He described this "Net" generation as having more access to greater amounts of information, being able to multitask in a multi-media world, learning more from their peers than adults, and wanting to make a difference in the world through meaningful work.  Dr. Wagner proposed teaching students to develop "habits of mind" by weighing the credibility of information, being aware of varying viewpoints, seeing connections and cause and effect, speculating on possibilities, and assessing the personal and social value of what's being learned. 

During his presentation, he shared observations from the learning walk with the principals, his meeting with high school students, and lunch conversation with constituents.  He also mentioned that the best example of learning he had witnessed (and this was also confirmed by all three principals) was in an elementary school classroom where teams of students engaged in rousing discussion about an image of a bird whose gutted belly revealed trash consumed from the ocean. The students kept a journal of questions and noted what they had learned. These first and second graders had an opinion, were passionate about the topic, and were inspired to take the next steps. (You can read about this visit by going to Donna Revard's blog.) This classroom represented similar quality learning experiences in many of our preschool and elementary rooms. Wagner encouraged other teachers to take note. Imagine a full 15-year education at Mid-Pacific Institute, beginning with preschool, where students experience intellectual rigor and are fully engaged in their learning! Your children would most certainly make a difference in the world!

Our next steps as a school?  These are plans that need to be further explored and researched by the administration and faculty.  We are moving in the right direction, supported by our Schools-of-the-Future initiative, educational research, and feedback from qualified educational consultants.  I'll continue to keep you informed about our plans. As parents, you have a real and vested interest in your child's education. 

For our children,

Edna L. Hussey