What Does True Interdisciplinary and Student-Driven Learning Look Like?

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If the sky’s the limit, what do we really want our students to look like? What do we want learning itself to look like? And what does a real cross-content curriculum look like?

Few educators and schools are given the chance to pour over these questions and then apply their ideas and build a middle school program that adheres to the values they’ve identified from the ground up. At Prestwick STEM Academy, I’ve helped our team take advantage of the autonomy we’ve been granted to formulate a set of values that ground our innovative spirit. Together we’ve designed a replicable strategy for embedding unique, creative, and rigorous learning experiences across disciplines.

A distinct advantage we’ve had at Prestwick is the time to really familiarize ourselves with the Rigor/Relevance Framework. We’ve been using this in our district for four years under the leadership of our superintendent, Dr. Lowell Strike, and now we’ve gotten skilled at applying it.

The Process of Developing a Set of Core Values

I’m the one who opened our campus. When I did that, I’d never been a principal, though I had been a teacher in the district. I’d also been a part of the visioning committee that came up with the design for our building. Before we could really settle on a design, we had to figure out what learning could look like. What goes into real collaboration? Persistence, adaptability, and a solution-focused mindset, plus service-mindedness. What kind of learning environment is going to best foster their development in students? We took this question with us when we went out to other schools to see who was doing innovative things and what buildings fostered collaborative learning.

The vision for a learning space we developed is so specifically designed for group interaction, it actually works against you if you don’t want to collaborate. There are no isolated desks. We only have flex seating and tables. The walls are made of glass. There’s no place to hide or isolate yourself. We know that kids like to sit on comfy furniture so we have a lot of that. They’re used to playing games to get better at things, so we thought about places that were as friendly to learning as game areas are. They are given lots of choices and options. You can’t silo kids because that’s not building their adaptability.

All of our class products have to embody our core values, and I look for the traits in the teachers that I hire. We share a lot of space, so we have to be adaptable, extremely collaborative, and like-minded in our values.

“How Can We Make Learning Connected?”

Our response to the challenge of connecting learning is our main learning spaces, which we call houses. Each house can hold about 130 students from the same grade. The middle space is open and forms a hub for the four traditional classrooms surrounding it which are formed by collapsible walls that can be moved or taken down. This area is visible through glass walls. The classrooms themselves are built to support content areas, and there are breakouts used for pulling two to three students at a time in closely. The house is one central place where students can come and feel like family. We consider them a family unit, and we want to build that same sense of collaboration and unity that happens in a family.

Each grade’s core content is hubbed out of the house and is designed to be interrelated. The space itself has given us a chance to imagine what’s possible in terms of creating simultaneous instruction. We don’t run a bell schedule; we manage our time, and that really changes how we choose to spend it. There’s a lot of flex in the schedule. The chances to make instruction more student-centered really multiply when teachers are collaborating and when kids’ motivation levels are high.

Releasing Some of the Controls

When we came to our new building, we talked to teachers a lot about the unique part of this learning experience. Part of it is STEM-related, and part is about helping develop problem-solving kids. If you want true problem-solvers, you can’t set all the criteria or you’re just not going to get interesting student work. For instance, in the tech class, they used to just build a spreadsheet or a PowerPoint, but there was no relevant, practical, or very rigorous application. Now we have teachers asking students, “How do you want to show me that you know this?” The kids have the choice, and they create results that have far surpassed what we thought they would.

Hiring Teachers Who Want to Go Out on a Limb

Since our district was fluent in the Rigor/Relevance Framework, we’ve had a good language to use when teachers come up with new ideas—which they often do in this kind of environment. If anything, I have to slow my teachers down a bit. I’m very much a risk-analysis person. And I’ve learned to really follow the lead of my teachers. As long as it’s good for kids, I give them license to try it. I have to trust their professionalism while also relying on tools like the Rigor/Relevance Framework to make things measurable and identify out the holes in the project. Denise from ICLE has really helped us realize what small things we could do to move lessons, projects, and instruction up the continuum. I offer teachers the freedom to generate ideas as well as time to plan.

How Are We Deepening the Application of Tech Into Subject Area Learning?

This is a hard question to tackle, but we are making progress. Blogging, coding, creating video, inserting graphics—those kinds of things become integral to learning products that demonstrate competency and mastery. Coding is essential because they’re writing their own code sequence to build a historical website from scratch using the correct font, the right images, graphing, and presentations of data. Tech should really serve as a tool for learning. What we’re focusing on is how can they can use tech skillfully to really demonstrate conceptual mastery of the content.

Morphing Into a New Instructional Reality Takes a Little Time

It’s taken us a little while to get used to the possibilities in what we’re doing. When we started, the mindset was, “I’m teaching this and you’re teaching that, and our kids will rotate through our instructional settings.” There was not a shared planning session but only a sprinkling in of shared content.

Now we have teachers requesting to come in over the summer and figure out what kind of thematic learning can happen that involves clear articulation of skills, knowledge, and outcomes. We want to evolve into instructional planning where multiple core teachers are coming together in real flex-space learning, addressing some of our persistent challenges like how kids who need more and kids who need less can really work together without adults imposing solutions.

What Have We Done to Overcome Challenges and Come Together?

I think schools are like mini-communities where each has its own culture. Becoming a true collaborator takes time, and teachers need committed time to build authentic learning experiences. They need to be rewarded for trying new things even if it doesn’t go well the first time because persistence is essential and risk-taking is as important for them as it is for kids. State testing is still here, and it can be hard to get teachers to step away from traditional methods that have gotten them test results in the past.

So the big challenge has really been navigating mindsets. How do I teach in an environment that doesn’t mirror the ones I learned in or have seen? How do I bounce around between learning spaces? What if I can’t build a word wall? Many teachers are used to being familiar in a physical comfort zone as well as in their planning and instruction. Some teachers want to hold tight to their own scope and sequence, but I’m really asking: What are the connections that can be made to another subject? Make one connection, then make two, then extend from there.

We’ve also had to retrain ourselves in the kinds of language we use. We’ve figured out that if we say something like, “Well, at my old school…” that has an entirely different ring and stance to it than, “My concerns come from this experience…” or “I’ve had experience using this and I like it because…” or “This is important to me because…”

We’ve also found that reading books together helps build our common language. The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan helped us talk about what educational value we can add to each student no matter who they are. Passionate Learners: How to Engage and Empower Your Students by Pernille Ripp helped us think about culturally relevant learning for students and helping students to be innovators in their learning.

Outcomes That Excite, Empower, and Affirm

The biggest thing I see that speaks to the success of our model is the sheer passion for learning that’s exploded in our students. Yes, our test scores have improved, but it’s really this passion for engaging and learning that speaks loudest. You can walk in the building and see kids working anywhere. They feel free in this space and even jokingly say, “It’s like working at the mall!” We have kids who are wondering if they’re going to learn this way at the high school, now that they notice how amazing school can be. Our middle school kids are teaching our younger kids things on a daily basis. These kids are just fired up to make connections, collaborate, and be a part of changing what school can be.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


Join the team from Prestwick STEM Academy along with ICLE thought leaders and 5,000 of your peers at the 26th Annual Model Schools Conference, June 24-27 in Orlando. You’ll take away innovative strategies for interdisciplinary learning and values-based school culture. Come be inspired by our success story and many others!

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