Focusing on the Fundamental Purpose of School

“Learning Has No Boundaries. Every Student. Every Classroom. Every Day.” This mantra is the guiding focus in the Kiski Area School District. How does a district transform to become singularly focused on student learning while transforming just about every facet of the school environment, schedule, and attitudes that have dominated our educational landscape?

In 2015, the Kiski Area School District hired a superintendent, Dr. Timothy Scott, who believed that learning is not just something for our students. Guided by the work of Richard DuFour, he implemented structures to support growth and learning for everyone—both students and adults—that are embedded in the work we do each day. This approach to education requires an adherence to the paradigm:

                                         

  “The fundamental purpose of school is learning, not teaching.”

 

A Simple Equation with a Complex Solution

When you stop and think about the simplistic nature of this statement, its truth becomes both apparent and scary. It is apparent because learning is the measure against which all systems, schools, teachers, and students are evaluated. All the teaching strategies, pedagogical autonomy, and lesson planning, traditionally done in isolation, won’t change that fundamental truth.

Traditional schools have been built on improving teaching methodology; this leads to improvements in learning, but is not the end game. The change mindset necessary to make the role of successful teaching secondary to improving learning outcomes is difficult to instill. It often requires those teachers who have excelled in the traditional setting to change the most.  

Teachers are now required to work interdependently by aligning curriculum to standards, sharing teaching methods, creating common assessments, and identifying students by name and need who require extension or intervention opportunities. What does this mean for our teachers? It means that every teacher is responsible for the learning of every student. The talk of "my" student has been replaced with "our" student.

The Importance of Changing with the Times

The word “change” brings with it an inherent fear in the world of education because when the process begins, people have the false expectation that change is clean and the process is linear. However, as Frederick Douglass said long ago, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” As educators and adults, we need to own the fact the world is changing and education not only has to change with it, it sometimes has to anticipate the needs of students and create change ahead of it.  

Recent estimates suggest 65% to 85% of our students will be employed in jobs that don’t yet exist. Traditional schools and their mindsets were successful in preparing students for traditional jobs, which were stratified according to straightforward standards of achievement in schools. Many of those boundaries have been blurred or completely removed when you consider the premium placed on teamwork and the outside-the-box thinking needed not only for the jobs of today, but for those of tomorrow.

Applying a Change Mindset to Technology Implementation

This change mindset led Kiski Area to pursue a unique opportunity that came about in the 2016–2017 school year. Our district began a methodical, multi-year transition to Google for Education during the 2012 school year, to ensure the Infrastructure was in place for the rapid build up of devices and influx of bandwidth to accommodate a comprehensive G Suite implementation.

As our district immersed into the world of Google, we created a position entitled Supervisor of Technology Integration and Support. This role requires wearing two hats—that of a teacher and that of an administrator. It involves serving as a technology coach, a person who instructs teachers on the successful implementation of technology following the SAMR Model to ensure the tools are being used to enhance instruction rather than simply acting as a substitute.  As a corollary function of the position, the Supervisor of Technology Integration and Support also meets regularly with Program Manager Peter Logli of the Google for Education Team. 

Through that relationship our district was able to showcase some of our G Suite-inspired activities/classes, and we were invited to host a Google Leadership Symposium in the Spring of 2017. This Symposium brought together more than 100 educators from Western and Central Pennsylvania to discuss best practices and implementation of G Suite. Participating students also enjoyed the opportunity to spend a day at the Google Office in Pittsburgh where they could explore career opportunities within the world of Google.  

Shortly after the Symposium, Kiski Area School District received an invitation from Google to apply to become a Google Reference District and we were accepted in April 2017. The impact this has had on our district has been profound. Our district is part of the “Trusted Tester” group, which means we get access to new functionalities within G Suite while they are being tested and provide feedback that helps to shape the future of G Suite. We have mentored several districts from within our state and region on their journey to implementing G Suite. This interaction serves both as a reminder to keep challenging ourselves to look for new learning opportunities and a reinforcement of our role as leaders in the field of technological implementation in education.

Using New Technology to Enrich Our Curriculum: A Veterans Website Project at Kiski

A specific example of how we have rethought education of previous generations to meet the needs of the current generation is using technology to grow and shape what appear to be unrelated problems in a real-world setting. Biographies have long been a part of the educational landscape for good reason; they require learning in research skills as well as the obvious writing skills. But how would a traditional assignment such as this look if we made the biography contemporary rather than traditional?   

Here’s how three teachers worked together to bring this concept to life: as then-Department Chairperson for Social Studies, I joined with Jim Christie, Modern World History teacher, and Holly Jacobs, AP English teacher, to collaborate through our district partnership with the Create Lab of Carnegie Mellon University on inspiring students to create a living, breathing, and lasting project to honor the veterans who served our local communities.

Most school districts have memorials for veterans within their geographic boundaries and our district is no exception. We assembled photos of our memorials using a special device called a Gigapan, on loan from the Alle Kiski Best Practices Collaborative, to allow students to create a Veterans Website dedicated to the stories of these local heroes. The site is wholly developed and maintained by students. They make suggestions for improving the site and brainstorm ways we can reach out to community members regarding family members and their stories. 

Cross-curricular opportunities to read novels in English class that are set in historical situations further enhance the realistic nature of this entire project; we paired reading the novel The Things They Carried in English class while studying the Vietnam War in history. The entire initiative started with a simple biography but has been transformed into a modern, real-world, problem-solving, teamwork-based student testament to those who have served in our military. This example shows what can happen when the power of G Suite is combined with the transformation of an educational culture. 

We are proud of our accomplishments so far at Kiski Area and cannot wait to learn from others as part of our experience at the Model Schools Conference. Over 30 years ago, Richard DuFour started building a new mindset based upon the proposition learning is the fundamental purpose of education, and at the Kiski Area School District, we are taking strides to ensure that message lives on through the transformation of our culture and the successful implementation of technology for the benefit of student learning. Learning Has No Boundaries. Every Student. Every Classroom. Every Day.


Join my Kiski Area School District colleagues, along with 5,000 of your peers and thought leaders from ICLE, at the 26th Annual Model Schools Conference, June 24–27 in Orlando. You’ll be inspired by innovative strategies for strengthening your school or district’s teaching and leadership practices, and will take away an action plan for positive change.