‘Authentic learning’ puts emphasis on applied education
Central Point Elementary third grader Sophie Payne (center) likes using tools, and she said lessons in the school’s bike repair room have taught her she can do other hard things. Central Point School District has put hands-on projects at the center of its teaching philosophy. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Three third graders huddled around a tire in Central Point Elementary’s bike repair room. They worked together to free the tube as part of a lesson.
“It’s fun seeing all the stuff that’s in a bike tire,” Jackson Broughton said.
“I like to break things and take stuff apart,” Ava Joelyn Smith said.
The room used to be a textbook storage room. Now it holds a school-owned practice bike on a stand and a wall of tools. It is an education laboratory, where students identify tools, collaborate, problem solve and learn practical skills, including how to fix their own bikes.
“It makes me feel powerful because sometimes it’s hard to do it,” Sophie Payne said.
Central Point School District students learn by doing in maker spaces, school gardens, workshops and laboratories, part of a districtwide effort to match education to a changing world.
The district has taken the position that traditional school structures don’t align well with real-world needs and that tests are not necessarily the best indicators of learning.
“How would you learn if there wasn’t something called school?” Assistant Superintendent Todd Bennett said.
This district north of Medford has embraced over the past half-dozen years what it calls “authentic learning.” Similar to project-based learning, the approach integrates core education subjects in projects and day-to-day hands-on learning.
“We think in terms of that kid in math who says, ‘When am I going to ever have to use this?’” said Superintendent Samantha Steele. “We try to answer that question.”
The new CraterWorks MakerSpace is one of the most visible outgrowths of the district’s philosophy. The center, created out of a district-community partnership, offers industry-standard equipment and local experts for class projects. But every district school has a maker space as well as other hands-on learning areas.
The district has also placed an emphasis on developing soft skills, such as creativity, engagement, empathy, a sense of purpose, respect, perseverance and collaboration.
The world’s information is readily available on the internet, but students still need to learn how to think and work.
“Gone are the days of teachers being the keeper of the knowledge,” Central Point Elementary Principal Walt Davenport said. “We are the facilitators of that knowledge.”
The district’s state assessment reports are a mixed bag. The high schools exceed state averages in math and reading, but the lower grades lag state averages. Steele said that, of course, the district would like to see higher scores but there are other encouraging indicators, including parent satisfaction and higher-than-state-average attendance.
Central Point Elementary assessment scores are below the Oregon average in math and language arts, but math, English and individual student progress all rose in the most recent data. The school is exceeding national norms in math and language arts assessments on AIMSweb, a progress monitoring system.
The Gallup Student Poll of Central Point fifth graders showed a higher-than-average level of engagement, hope and entrepreneurial application – three of its four noncognitive metrics with links to student achievement.
Central Point Elementary employs creative spaces all over the school, such as a podcasting nook with recording equipment, a 3D printing lab and a green screen space in what was an attic storage area. Projects and tools abound.
“One of the things I’ve had to give up is trying to keep this school neat and orderly,” Davenport said.
The elementary puts new life in old-school student projects. The first grade class recently made traditional shoe box dioramas for a space lesson. Using green screen technology, they created videos that placed them inside their dioramas talking about what they had learned.
Much of the action happens in the Collaboratory, a communal space where teachers can work on large projects and lessons.
Starting in 2017, the elementary has put on an annual spring exhibition. Students start the school year learning foundational knowledge for a project they create in the second half. Hundreds of friends and family turn out for the school-wide display of projects.
In a Collaboratory corner sits the carriage for a human-sized working elevator. When Melissa Telford’s first grade class was studying simple machines two years ago, nine kids decided to build an elevator.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, I have no idea how to build an elevator, but I can’t let my lack of knowledge stop their goal and their desire,’” she said.
Central Point asks a lot of its teachers. They are not just following the same curriculum year after year. They must plan and execute long-term projects, often on new subjects, that incorporate the core learning standards.
Telford, in her 15th year of teaching, said she has had to increase her skill level but she also gets to pick topics that speak to her. Her excitement then translates to the students.
She said the first year using projects was a revelation.
“I think a lot of us realized we were actually kind of holding our students back before by keeping things in the lines,” she said.
Through collaboration, editing and revising, her class drafted a plan to use a pulley suspended from the ceiling to lift an elevator car capable of holding people. A parent helped cut some pieces and predrill holes in the wood, but the students assembled the car using power tools and imagination. They decorated the walls and made modifications, such as replacing bungee cords on the front with a lever door for added safety.
The exhibition included a wall showing the standards they learned along the way in science, reading, math and art.
“There was a sense of awe,” Telford said. “Their sense of pride was so powerful because they knew the extent of their learning.”
Experiencing failures, revising and trying again are part of the learning. Telford said her class calls them “interesting mistakes,” and they celebrate them as learning opportunities. Students ask to share their mistakes.
Teacher Candey Lee said the extra effort is worth it. Students fully engaged in interesting lessons makes classroom management easier. She said the projects bring out the best in her students and she doesn’t have to battle them to do assignments.
Lee taught some of the elevator creators in second grade when they decided to build a working roller coaster capable of carrying a person. It started from a 4-foot-high platform and carried over a hill before coasting to a stop. She said those kids felt as if they could build anything.
Lee has been teaching for 17 years, but last year was her first at Central Point Elementary. She said it was the best teaching she has ever done.
Students seem to like the exhibitions too.
“It is one of the best things since I switched schools,” said fifth grader Joseph Fitzgerald. He said his old school was kind of boring, and he had attendance problems.
Now Fitzgerald is on the student council.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA