9 Billion Schools: One School’s Journey – A Student’s Perspective

Dick Thomas

Our One School’s Journey blog series covers our work with two Cincinnati high schools which will merge in 2018-19 to create a brand new institution, Mercy McAuley High School. During a two-day futurecasting session, the Mercy McAuley transition team heard presentations from different stakeholders on a variety of issues affecting the school and community’s future. One of the sessions featured two students from another Cincinnati high school, who shared their experiences and perspectives on project-based learning.

Aliyah and Kate are both upperclassmen at Winton Woods Academy of Global Studies, a public school focusing on global and social issues through project-based learning (PBL), and the only New Tech Network school in the state of Ohio. SHP Leading Design invited them to speak at the futurecasting session to provide a counterpoint – and boots-on-the-ground perspective – of how innovative curriculum and personalized learning can develop better students and young leaders.

The goal of PBL is to connect students’ academic work with the real-world. It helps students apply their knowledge and critical thinking skills as opposed to memorizing and regurgitating information, as many students do in traditional classroom settings. Underpinning PBL is the belief that if students don’t truly understand or know how to apply what they’ve learned in school, the information is useless. They may have acquired fact but not knowledge.

It was that mentality that drove Winton Woods to completely overhaul its curriculum to focus on PBL, and according to Aliyah and Kate, the approach is working. The students shared with the Mercy McAuley transition team how PBL – and its corresponding effort to encourage students to explore, adapt and engage the world around them – has deepened their abilities to collaborate, innovate and think creatively. The students stressed the importance of an “I don’t know, but I’ll find out” mentality. Not to mention, the focus Winton Woods places on its curriculum in the real world – and the idea that students are solving global problems, not just math or science equations – has ignited a passion for current events and foreign studies. The students also acknowledged that their school has encouraged their natural curiosity… a trait shared with other lifelong learners.

Other sessions covered the future of technology and its impact on education, but Aliyah and Kate emphasized the need to balance humans and technology. Students don’t want technology to replace teachers, and they understand that social development is an important part of their educational experience. It’s the ability to find information at the push of a button, and the connection technology provides to the broader world, that the students find most useful.

Much of the girls’ school work is collaborative. Their school’s approach to PBL requires a significant amount of group work to complete projects. And in this area, Aliyah and Kate warned that the system isn’t perfect. The emphasis on collaboration to complete assignments can take focus away from individual students, both those who are struggling and those who are excelling; in fact, the students said, group work can often level the playing field too much. If they had to change anything about their school’s curriculum, Aliyah and Kate suggested they’d recommend individualized instruction or activities to assess student growth on a 1:1 basis. It was an important reminder that no pedagogy is perfect; personalized learning must be carefully integrated into the curriculum to achieve Mercy McAuley’s vision.

Despite the challenges of a PBL school, both students believe that project-based education is the way of the future. Both Aliyah and Kate spoke positively about their experiences and were hopeful about the future of PBL in education. Hearing from real students about their experiences helped strengthen the transition team’s resolve to pursue truly individualized learning models for the future Mercy McAuley High School.

Next in the One School’s Journey blog series, I’ll discuss how the local, regional and national economic outlook impacted the Mercy McAuley transition team’s discussions, and education as a whole. I hope you’ll stay tuned.

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