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VOL. 128 | NO. 116 | Friday, June 14, 2013

Inspiration, Not Imitation

Virginia educator preaches value of different teaching models

By Bill Dries

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The superintendent of the Albemarle County, Va., school system told a group of educators in Memphis this week she is concerned U.S. schools are too based on an outdated 20th century industrial model.

Keynote speaker Pam Moran, superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia, addresses an audience of teachers at the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence on Wednesday, June 12.

(Daily News/Lance Murphey)

Pam Moran told 800 public, private and charter school educators from 21 states and Argentina at the annual Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence conference that different education models are the key to learning today. But she said specific methods may not translate to every school or school system.

Moran and Ira Socol, program manager of the school system’s “Design 2015” plan whom Moran recruited from Michigan State University, were the keynote speakers Wednesday, June 12, at the conference at Presbyterian Day School in East Memphis.

Moran showed nontraditional school libraries that are noisy and open classrooms where students draw on tables and floors and use a wealth of digital devices as an effort to mold “independent collaborative learners who are able to themselves figure out where do I need to work and how do I need to work.”

But the presentation wasn’t a call to emulate what is happening in the Virginia school system to the letter.

For instance, Moran is familiar with the old open schools concept of the 1970s that amounted to a school without classroom walls. And her experience as a teacher at the time was that it was “pretty chaotic.”

Moran said the approach in Albemarle is different than that, although students do collaborate and work on numerous projects at once in ways that depart from the traditional classroom with students at desks in rows.

“One of the things that never happened was the deep dive work with teachers to help them work with kids in that environment,” she explained after her talk. “Really looking at space as being open in classrooms so kids have choices. We always expect to see a continuum of teacher-directed and student independent work as well as project work. Kids have to learn to work in all of those environments well.”

Moran was introduced at the sold-out, two-day conference by John Hunter, a teacher in the school system who keynoted last year’s Martin Institute Conference.

Hunter is known as the originator of the World Peace Game, a critical-thinking, problem-solving approach to learning across several subject areas.

Moran and Socol took a swipe at the idea that successful education reforms must be able to scale up for use across a school system. Reforms that can be scaled up was a big part of the emphasis of former Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash after MCS experimented with numerous reform models in the 1990s during the tenure of Gerry House, one of his predecessors in the role.

“We scale across. We don’t scale up,” Socol said. “We take an idea and say everybody get inspired by it and go do your own work. We think that’s one of the most critical changes we have to make is to let things grow in a natural environment.”

Their examples were heavy with technology but Socol said the technology is a way to “change a belief system.”

“We don’t want you to tell us what devices you want. We’re not interested,” he said. “And we sure don’t want you giving us a brand name. We want you to tell us what you want your kids to do and then we’re going to show you a bunch of things and show your kids a bunch of things.”

Moran added that the school system’s emphasis is on what is done with the technology, not that the presence of the technology itself will improve education in the Virginia county that ranges from rural poverty to suburban wealth.

“We call ourselves platform agnostics. We have Apples, we have Samsungs. We have Dells. We’ve got PCs, netbooks. We’re using mobile devices such as iPods,” she said. “One of the things that we try to do is to make sure our kids get a wealth of experience with technology. The reality is that none of us in this day and age have one piece of technology that works for all of the work we do.”

And Socol was blunt about what he termed the myth of teachers controlling classrooms and the impact of digital devices.

“There has been a myth in the traditional classroom that you knew what was going on and you had control. You didn’t. But you could pretend. When everybody has a screen in front of them, you know it’s not true. You have to learn to accept that,” he told the standing-room-only group of educators. “Is looking at Facebook for five minutes any different than looking out the window for five minutes? And is there anything wrong with either?”

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