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Envisioning classrooms of tomorrow

Community leaders, educators consider ways to redesign public education

Educators and business representatives considered the task before them: Design a dream school with Legos.

In small groups inside Grand Rapids Public Museum, they assembled miniature blocks into structures while discussing what would make a school great. Color. Greenspace. Bridges symbolizing connections with the community and area businesses. They talked about how students thrive by learning through movement, design and creativity.

The groups presented their schools to each other, describing  joyful places with equitable opportunities for all, where students feel safe and focused. They wanted high academic expectations for all learners.

The breakout session was part of a daylong conference, “Outsmarting the Robots: Redesigning Education from the Classroom to the Halls of Lansing.” Fifty educators and community stakeholders participated in investigative activities designed as immersive learning experiences. The goal was to bring people from various sectors of the community together to influence education so it aligns with what is needed in the economy, society and world.

The event was co-hosted by Grand Rapids Public Museum, Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, Kent ISD, Kendall College of Art and Design, Institute for Excellence in Education and Michigan Future Inc.

Guillermo Cisneros, executive director of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber or Commerce, described his group’s Lego school as diverse and globally minded and connected to the private sector, government and community. “In order for our communities to be thriving, we need good schools,” he said.

‘An Unfair Way to Judge Our Schools’

But then participants had another task: Grade your school using a rubric that is weighted heavily on student growth and student proficiency according to standardized test scores.

Annie Ratke, a fourth grade teacher in Grand Haven Public Schools, cried foul after studying the rubric passed out to groups.

“The four of us were looking at this and said, ‘This doesn’t match anything we just created,’” Ratke said. “It’s really unfair for us to design the school of our dreams when we are going to fail no matter what because the student growth and student proficiency is M-STEP, or whatever.

“That doesn’t necessarily measure the way students interact with others,” she added. “It doesn’t measure their curiousity or the way they ask questions or the way they gain empathy for their communities. It’s an unfair way to judge our schools.”

The meaning behind the activity was clear. For teachers and students to be creative and innovative, the old way of “doing school” — and the current way of measuring success — aren’t working.

Success Beyond Testing 

But there are ways to make education meaningful, joyful and put students on a trajectory of success that’s defined by much more than test scores, said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, co-author of “Becoming Brilliant,” who presented on redesigning education to meet the needs of today’s learners.

Hirsh-Pasek has been partnering with Godfrey-Lee Public Schools on a long-term human-centered design process, funded by the Steelcase Foundation. The district has embedded into education the “6Cs,” as described in Hirsh-Pasek’s book: collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation and confidence.

‘Things are changing too fast if we want to outsmart the robot.’

— Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, author and education researcher

Hirsh-Pasek is the Stanley and Debra Lefkowitz Faculty Fellow in the Department of Psychology at Temple University, in Philadelphia, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, in Washington, D.C. She said much of what students are learning today is still based on rote memorization of facts, which are now easily available through technology. That needs to change.

“It’s really not about the future anymore. It’s about the present,” she said, adding students need to be prepared for a business landscape that is becoming more and more automated.

“Robots are actually taking over a lot of those rote jobs. So if our students aren’t prepared for non-rote jobs they are not going to be successful in today’s jobs.” 

Yet, when trying to improve schools — pressured by high-stakes testing — people fail to change old systems. “We really don’t have to keep modifying the horse and buggy,” Hirsh-Pasek said. “Adding a motor is not going to make it as fast as a Tesla.

“Things are changing too fast if we want to outsmart the robot.”

Rethinking school was the task of the day

The Six C’s

Hirsh-Pasek said the United States is lagging other countries that are reforming education and moving away from standardized tests.

“We think that the only outcomes that matter are in reading, writing and arithmetic,” she said. “While that is important, I’d like to suggest that most of you in your businesses don’t want to just hire the straight A student. That you are looking for something more. And a lot of students today coming out of our schools are coming up short for our business environment.”

Brad Thomas, president and CEO of architecture and engineering firm Progressive AE, said he’s glad to hear that line of thinking in education — to develop skills he looks for in employees.

“I think those six C’s are very relevant to how people perform, work and connect with each other,” Thomas said. “I’m excited to see schools building those skills or at least aspiring to build those skills.”

Julie Ridenour, president of the Steelcase Foundation, which is funding the Godfrey-Lee design process, said Steelcase as an organization gears its design toward bringing “people to their full potential.”

“Steelcase already uses a lot of these techniques in their work,” Ridenour said. “Even their design of the office space is for collaboration when it’s needed, or quiet thought when it’s needed.”

Godfrey-Lee Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Carol Lautenbach said embracing education based on the six C’s has allowed more flexibility and built confidence among teachers. 

“Teachers are not asking permission anymore,” Lautenbach said. “They are doing things we didn’t even know about. That’s been the most exciting thing. They are becoming curriculum designers. … They are saying, ‘I have the expertise and resources to design for the human being in front of me.’”

Thematic units that cross several subjects are a way to embed the six C’s, she said. Last year, first and second graders participated in a project called Who Am I?, which involved exploring themselves including dreams and heritage.

Hirsh-Pasek also led a student panel of Grand Rapids Public Museum School students, who answered questions about what they like about school and how it could be better. Museum School uses a project-based learning model.

“For our projects we have a lot of presentations,” said eighth grader Terra Workman. “When we demonstrate our learning that way I feel like we learn about more, not only about our topic, but public speaking and presentation too. It’s probably going to help us a lot more than filling out bubbles.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.


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  1. As a retired teacher, I am so glad to see that many teachers are again providing thematic and activity centered units. This method is far more successful than teaching to the test. It provides opportunities for utilizing the 6 C’s. Besides that, it makes teaching and learning so much more fun!

  2. Misguided to think that “facts” stored in a computer are the same as facts stored in the brain. One has to know the facts before they can be connected and thought about critically. On the computer is out of sight, out of mind.


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