Structuring School to Close the Gap Between Teaching & Learning

By September 18, 2017 No Comments

In this episode, Doris speaks with Dr. Rand Harrington and Phil Klein of Kent Denver School in Colorado. Rand is Head of School and Phil is Instructor of AP Economics, Director of the Hunt Family Institute for Entrepreneurial Education and Director of Development. They discuss creating structures in the school to leverage expertise both in and out of the building to allow for authentic learning. They highlight the importance of teachers acting as curricular architects to design classes for today’s students.

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Doris: Rand and Phil, hello.
Rand: Hi, Doris.

Phil: Hello Doris.
Doris: Oh, hello. It’s wonderful to talk to you. Thank you for both being here, this is going to be very fun. I’d like to start for our listeners by having you introduce yourselves. Maybe Rand you can start?

Rand: Terrific. Well, this is Rand and this is my fourth year as Head of School at Kent Denver in Colorado. Prior to being here, I was Associate Head of School at the Blake School in Minneapolis where I oversaw academics. But even before that, my work in academics is spanned from middle school through college, and my PhD is in Physics in the University Washington. And I had worked there in the Physics Education Research Group and got very involved in thinking about this gap between what we teach and what students learn. And intellectually, very curious about how to close that gap and applying some of the evidence-based reasoning that a physicist applies to systems into thinking about how to close that gap. Then, I ended up working at the University of Maine and then helping to start an independent in California. So, I love schools, I love working with teachers. And I believe deeply in the idea that education can change the world, that’s the most satisfying work that I’ve ever done. And I’m thrilled to be here and having this conversation.

Doris: That’s fantastic. And just Rand, one thing, you’ve been an educator in university public and private schools, yes?

Rand: That’s correct. And I was supervising student teachers in the Orono public schools in Maine. And I had a joint employment in the College of Physics and Astronomy and the College of Education, so I worked at both sides of that.

Doris: That’s really great and gives you a very interesting and valuable perspective on all this. So, Phil, tell us about yourself.

Phil: So, my name is Phil Klein, I am an AP Economics Teacher, Director of the Hunt Family Institute for Entrepreneurial Education here at Kent Denver, and I’m also the Director of Development. My story as an educator, sort of my way in is a little bit different than the traditional story. I actually spent the first 20 years out of college working in the private sector. I worked for Walt Disney and for Procter and Gamble, and for Dish Network before coming to the world of education. I found after 20 years, I had sort of that mid-career conversation with myself, I’ll call it, that many of us have and wanted to know what the next 20 years would hold. And I realized that I wanted to do something different. At the time I was doing this, I actually got a call from a friend who said, “Hey, I know you’ve done some volunteer fundraising for your kids’ school, would you ever be interested in doing that full time?” And my initial answer was, “No, I’m not interested in that.”

But then they talked me into having a conversation with the person who was then the head of the school here at Kent Denver and I was sold. And he also said “Oh, by the way, you can teach.” And I think in retrospect, that’s really where I was hooked. I had done volunteer work as a teacher with kids in the first 20 years of my career and loved it. It’s my second year here at Kent Denver, I started the AP Economics curriculum and fell in love with it. I fell in love with the idea of engaging kids in things that they didn’t necessarily know much about yet. But as the kids and I learned together, just watching their eyes open up, watching their world view expand, watching them realize that they now in their head and their hands just knowledge. A lot of it was just for the sake of it in the love of knowledge. But also other kids saying, “Hey, I might be able to apply some of this,” was really really exciting.

I also realized that kids love once they have this knowledge. They love to express that knowledge, they love to exercise it. And a lot of the work that I’m doing now in the AP Economics class and also in the Entrepreneurial Institute, are giving kids chances to deepen their level of learning and really deepen their love for the subject material that we’re teaching.

Doris: That’s awesome. And so you, as an AP Economics teacher, you were already having a blast with this. Why did you come to the workshop and what you were hoping to do and what did you end up doing?

Phil: So, I was I think three years into the AP Economics curriculum and I had been having a lot of fun with a group of kids in that class that were interested in doing simulations. So, simulating markets for some things that they were learning and basically putting together, putting together some small businesses. Coming out of that and some of the excitement there combined with some kids in the school who had ideas for either nonprofits or for small businesses for other enterprises, I realized that as a school, we weren’t fully utilizing the opportunity to support these kids who had entrepreneurial ideas. And I want to be clear up front, the way we define entrepreneurship at Kent Denver might be a little different than the way some other schools or even people identify it.

We talk about entrepreneurship as ideas that can add value to the world. And some of those kids like to think of it in the context of a nonprofit. And actually, Doris, I remember you highlighted some kids that created a product that was intended to reduce plastic bags in the oceans. And they did it by creating a kiosk that people could use to exchange their reusable bags, happened to be an interesting underlying idea for a business. But they were really motivated by, I think it was sea turtles if I’m not mistaken.

Doris: Yeah, they wanted to save sea turtles.

Phil: Yeah. I was really inspired when I came to the workshop and saw that, what you were talking about in the context of entrepreneurship was very similar to what we wanted to do here at Kent Denver. This underlying idea that if a student has something they’re interested in doing, their interest in taking an idea, we call it to taking ideas and putting them into action. I like to tell students of entrepreneurship that as a school, we’re not really concerned about whether their idea works in the end. We’re much more interested in the process. We’re much more interested in the experience that those kids have of looking at problems and understanding that they don’t have all the knowledge that they need yet to necessarily answer those questions.

And the part of the entrepreneurial process is, in our case at Kent Denver, reaching out to a network of interested adults, including a lot of our teachers who are interested and passionate about their particular subject matter. And imparting that knowledge on to those kids, whether it’s knowledge of statistics or knowledge of…and we’ll get into an example. Actually Rand was able to connect some kids who were having problems with an algorithm in a quadcopter. And Rand actually introduced these kids to a PhD level mathematician who was able to help them solve some problems. And frankly, I think this kid, Alex, the one who was solving the problem, he’s as interested in math right now as he is in anything after having had that experience.
Doris: Yeah. It’s an amazing thing what happens when you actually see, find out that this stuff is useful somehow.

Phil: And you know what, I would say in addition to that, that a kid like Alex it’s useful, but he also, I think, is now just passionate about math. He might not have been in it before. Again, whether he ends up making this quadcopter fly or not and we hope they do. You’ve got a kid who is starting to make connections between what he’s learning in the classroom and opportunities to dig deeper. As we learned, you know, this kid was doing PhD level math and algorithms that nobody at Kent Denver had experience in, and nobody ever could help him with, but it was somebody who was this PhD in math was passionate about connecting this kid to some answers.

Doris: Yeah. Well, exactly. And so that you have developed an entrepreneurship institute, yes?

Phil: Yes.

Doris: And if I’m a Kent Denver student, how do I participate in the institute? What are the offerings?

Phil: Sure. So, the institute I would say right now is very much in its nascent stages, and I think Rand is going to talk a little bit about our vision for institutes in general. The idea for the Entrepreneurial Education Institute is to create opportunities for kids who have an idea, whether it’s a nonprofit or it’s a for profit, or just something that they think could be really worthwhile. Right now, in the stage where we are at the institute, the opportunity is for us to connect those students with either other students or adults, whether they are teachers or administrators, or an alumni, or parents who can help connect them to the knowledge they need in order to make whatever that idea is work.

I use the example for a minute ago about a company called Magnexo Systems. Magnexo Systems is a group of four boys who started with an idea for a quadcopter, so a drone that actually works better than conventional drones do. We have another girl who is building an app for kids with anxiety because she believes there’s a really powerful opportunity for kids who suffer from anxiety to take advantage of the technology in a really simple app, to help them treat that. We have another group of kids who are working on an augmented reality application that they can use here in the school.

The Entrepreneurial Education Institute is designed primarily before we start talking about additional classes they can take is designed primarily to connect them with other students. And with adults who can help them bring those ideas to life, those ideas that ultimately as we say add value to the world.
Doris: Right and I was just going to insert something that’s been interesting to watch. Kids, if you give them the right conditions for coming up with their ideas that they’re passionate about that they want to pursue, they want to do things that make the world a better place. And so it’s been very interesting. You brought up the example that you remembered of this sea turtle group, the group that wanted to save sea turtles. I found that students in all these entrepreneurship programs, after some initial guidance and learning tend all of them to create ideas that will somehow add value to the world. That’s what they want to work on, this generation, they want to make the world a better place.

Phil: I remember Doris, you telling us in that workshop that in fact, if kids are working on things that don’t add value that way, there isn’t, we like to talk about it here at Kent Denver as an ethical consideration for what they’re doing. I remember you telling us that the kids actually push back on it, and you question it and be critical of it. And I think in our part of our mission statement as a school is that we set high ethical standards for our students and for ourselves. One of the criteria that we want to set for projects the kids work on is an ethical consideration. And making sure that the kids are able to reflect on what they’re doing in the context of the impact, positive or sometimes, you know, sometimes they’re negative impacts of the things we do. But in a more holistic sense, why is what they’re doing going to make the world a better place. And I do remember that, I remember that coming up very clearly in with the Hawken’s students that you guys interviewed.

Doris: Absolutely. So, I want to take it up a level now. And we could talk for hours, I know you and me Phil, about what the incredible steps you’re building and how it’s showing up in your students. But I want to take this up now and say, “Okay, so Rand, this is cool. You have this incredible educator here who’s got a pretty untraditional background that he brings to this and a huge amount of passion for this work, and he’s building an extraordinary entrepreneurship institute and program. How does any of that as a Head of School with a mission… who is, by your own admission, passionate about teaching and learning. You were in an academic school, it’s a high school, it’s a college preparatory school. How does any of this program play into your bigger mission with your school?”

Rand: Well, it’s a great question. I do think that institutional structures have an impact even down to the classroom level and I’ve done a lot of thinking about our institutional structures for many years. As you know, colleges and high schools have had pretty much the same structure in terms of being organized by departments. And if you look at the university level, you see that they’ve started for many years have attacked this by creating what you might call a matrix organization, where you have core departments. And then you started seeing centers or institutes of interdisciplinary studies around various topics merged just to connect the departments together.

You’ve seen that happened a little bit in high schools but not much, and I think it’s probably time for us to be thinking about alternative structures to support this kind of learning. I don’t think that it’s something that you would want to replace the traditional structures with. Because I think I’ve done well, the traditional structures do provide a really important role in terms of teaching foundational concepts and skills. And so in my experience is that, you know, project- based or problem-based, or entrepreneurship, whatever you want to call it, this sort of applied side of things. Even if done well, often leave a gap in their skill level, it’s in there. So, you develop the skills and concepts that they need to do stuff at a more sophisticated level.

So, you want kids applying things that they’ve learned. And so I think, you know, you think about the three reasons for learning in schools. One that resonates with me the most is just love of learning, certainly as a physicist thinking about ideas and the pure love of learning, I think it’s part of what makes us human. And then there’s the reason for learning to sort of get certified, right, to get entrance to the next level, whether it’s college or job. And that’s where grades and assessments come in as mostly what schools do.

And then the third area would be learning for a purpose, and this is really what you and Phil are talking about. Learning that’s framed around an authentic problem in the world and a way to apply that. And I think the application piece is really important but also I think it’s really cautionary for schools not to jump past the foundational skills. Kids still need to know how to write, they need to know how do math, and they need to know about civics and U.S. history. And thinking about ideas and literature, and about relationships and all of the important things that make us human in the world, those are important.

And so, how does one address this given the biggest constraint we all face in schools which is time, right? We only have a certain amount of time. And every time you put something on the table such as this institute work or these applied ideas, we’ve got to be prepared to take something else off the table, and I think that’s the most difficult conversations that schools have. So, we sort of envision here, we’re starting slowly with this. But thinking about, again, a structure that preserves our core departments but then adding an additional structure that we’re calling institutes, that kids can participate in once it have a certain amount agency and role of encouragement. They really want to apply their ideas across the disciplines in sort of a more authentic context.

We also see this as a way to leverage innovation in our current courses too, right? So, rather than just being an add-on, right? If a kid wants to pursue something, for example in technology and design, that they could also approach. And we encourage our teachers to have projects within their own courses that are differentiated, so that a student could do a tech and design related project, for example, in the English class. You know, do a podcast or do something related to technology and programming as part of their core English classes.

So, we see this as a lever just sort of innovated in our existing courses as well. But giving kids also opportunities to do things in the summer or doing a capstone project, or an internship project that we already have, some of those structures that exist. You know, I think all schools provide this sort of cross-disciplinary work in the form of extracurriculars. You see it in Model UN, after school activities whether it’s the robotics team or a speech and debate team. And the question is how do we create structures in our schools to support those activities that don’t exist solely within a department.

Doris: Well, it’s interesting you say this because I like what you’re talking about in terms of the structures and the institute. So, I separate the question of what are the learning objectives? What learning objectives do you have for this group of students in this time that you’re going to have them? And the learning objectives, are some of them are skill kind of things like I want them to learn analytical thinking and I want them to develop problem solving skills. And I want them to be better communicators and I want them to develop writing skills.

And then there can be some and there should be concepts and knowledge, and some people call it content, all that stuff, that can also be learning objectives. And then separately is the question of given those learning objectives, how do we structure the learning experience to maximize the learning that’s going to happen, and the achievement of those objectives? And I think what we confuse in education these days a lot is we talk about the wrong things. We argue about should it be PBL or should it be entrepreneurship, or should it be interdisciplinary, or should it be that. And these things get as educators into these discussions about, “Okay, this is an English class and in what the kids are doing in English class is that a skill or is that content.” And there is a difference between the structures in education, the disciplines and what kinds of things come out of building schools around this academic disciplines in the way that we have. And how we approach designing a learning experience which could be a course, it could be a project, it could be a unit, whatever it is.

If I’m teaching, if you assigned me, “Okay, Doris, you’re going to be our physics teacher. Here’s your physics class.” And you say, you know, “This is your AP Physics class, these are the key objectives and they’re really mostly about equipping the students to excel in a way that shows up on an AP Physics test.” I’m going to still use all kinds of different strategies in how I set up the teaching so that the learning happens really powerfully. And it will likely have in it some interdisciplinary projects, real world projects, and some other things. Does that make sense?

Rand: You know, you’ve hit on I think exactly the shift in what you might call a modern pedagogy that is happening, where we’re asking our teachers to be curricular architects. And, you know, the old teaching methodology is where you blow the dust off your yellow notes at the beginning of the year and mark it through. Usually determine almost entirely by the table of contents and whatever book that was adopted. And those days are over, and because those days are over and you look at what we’re asking teachers to do. The skill set required for teacher to be successful in this new environment are really exceptional. And so this is why my focus has been throughout my career on teacher preparation, attracting and retaining great teachers. And it is I think the singular most urgent issue in the country is how, is what we’re doing with our teaching profession and making sure that we have qualified teachers for our schools that can do this kind of work.

This is a really challenging issue and I think one of the things to loop this back into institutional structures is how do we attract adults into our community who have a high level of expertise and can mentor kids? And I think if we’ve had in our independent schools particularly but also in the public schools, you’re always getting either alums or parents that are interested in helping out. And our departmental structures with our, you know, fairly tight curriculum narratives is very difficult, short of having someone come guest lecturer or guest, you know, come in and talk to kids on occasion to fit them in and find a place for them in our departmental curriculums.

But if you think about kids that are working on projects as Phil described, and even Phil’s description, you can see the number of people outside of our school employees or regular faculty, they’d been able to interact with these kids and help them whether it’s an engineer, you know, air electronics, or an alumnus working at a local business. So, the most important piece in terms of attracting adults into schools is figuring out structures that allow folks with nontraditional backgrounds that have particularly high expertise, a way to volunteer their time or to work with kids. And having institution structures rather than just departments I think allows us to do this.

It also allows me to recruit faculty in a different way, in the sense that you have folks that are interested certainly and being in the traditional classroom teaching four or five periods a day. But then you have in our independent school world, an ability to attract career changers, as Phil is a career changer. And I think some of our best faculty have been career changers, that have gone from an industry in which they developed deep expertise and now our interest in doing something different. And if we can get them into our schools, a lot of those folks aren’t interested in just teaching, they’re also interested working with kids on authentic problems. And since they’ve been out in the world as you have Doris, they can help mentor kids and really create a lot of value.

So, I think we have to look at schools in terms of structures that allow for a different kind of individual to work here and to work with kids. And that’s going to be I think, as a shared earlier, the biggest challenge the country is facing, how do we bring great teachers into the schools? And again, what we’re asking them to do in the kind of pedagogy you describe, Doris, requires such a different skill set. And, here’s my pitch to folks out there that maybe listening to this is, teaching is the greatest profession in the world. And when you hear about all these terrible things about, you know, the conditions and the well pay, and so forth. Let me tell you, if you’re intellectually curious and you love working with kids there is no better job. And I’m hoping too, that we can attract more people that are successful in their industry to come work with our kids because our future depends on it.

Doris: I agree and actually it’s interesting because it loops back to what we’re saying earlier about students today, young people today want to work on things that are meaningful, so do adults. And, you know, Phil, you described that after 20 years in the industry, you had a bit of a, you know, mid-career crisis I’ll call it, you didn’t use that word. But that’s a very common thing to say, “Okay, I’ve been doing this, this is great. I’m ready for a new chapter and I want this new chapter to allow me to have purpose and add meaning in maybe ways that I haven’t so far, different ways.”

Phil: Absolutely, Doris. I think to it, what I’ve learned and I’m now able to look sort of seven years in the rearview mirror, we ask our kids to be lifelong learners. And we ask our kids to never lose that enthusiasm and curiosity for learning new things. And I realized, I’m one of those people, too. And as an educator, I get so much joy out of really two things, one is teaching kids a concept and I’ll speak specifically for economics. We were teaching recently the concept of exchange rate policy and how exchange rates fluctuate between countries. And for three quarters of the kids in the room, they literally looked and once they got it just said, “Oh, wow.” I love knowing that, just knowing how exchange rates work is fascinating. And there were some kids in the room too who’d say, “Oh, wait I’ll bet I could apply that to my business.” So the kids, this girl with her app, she has to figure out. Well, if people do start buying this, what if it starts to sell around the world?

But for me as a lifelong learner, it’s also really inspiring and really exciting for those kids. You just see their eyes open up and the fact that they now understand something that they didn’t is really exciting, really, really exciting.

Rand: I’ll just interject here because as part of that lesson, Phil took his class to the headquarters at Western Union. And you can imagine the importance of exchange rates to a company like Western Union. And they got to speak with, you know, leaders from all over the world. They were gathered there at a meeting at their headquarters and talk about these ideas, it’s pretty powerful.

Doris: It is and taking, going back to, you know, you brought up an example of a kid who learned very sophisticated math, right, and is now very excited about mathematics. Once you get excited about the power and joy of learning itself. And that’s what we’re talking about. How do you create a learning experience for kids where they get empowered by their own ability to learn and love, interested in learning. Then what the thing is that they’re learning, that’s something as a curricular designer, as an architect, as a K12 teacher, that’s the part of the challenge of how you structure the learning experience. Well, you know, I want them to learn a lot about mass modeling and optimization, and linear programming, and all that. That’s, yeah, I have those goals that are very specific and very old school language rigorous. But how do you get that to happen? As Rand he said, it’s a whole different world now because of the…

Rand: I will add one more institutional structural change that we need to do in the schools. And that is that, yes, the teachers coming in need to have a high level of expertise certainly in their content areas. They also need to know how to do design curriculum and activities. And to do that well, they really need to also be psychologists, right? You know, cognitive psychologist and understand how brains work, particularly teenager brains and so forth. And I think it pertains to the need for better professional development within our schools, ability to train and support teachers on their own growth, and have professional growth as part of the expectations of being a professional educator. And we can’t just sort of rely on the colleges that have, you know, to do that and deliver for us the kind of high level teachers that we need.

And so, I think you’ll see around the country particularly in the independent school world, but I think you see this in public schools as well. Partner with graduate schools are creating centers for teaching and learning on their own campuses. And so that we can recruit folks that may not have an education degree may not have had that much experience teaching but that they can join a community that they can continue to grow in their own expertise on how kids learn, and that’s really an important piece.

Doris: Exactly, yeah. It is an important piece and I would add that all these things are important but if you look at the challenge we have in education, we also need to take the existing teachers in schools who came to teaching for all the reasons all of us have and create programs to help them completely revise, and relearn the way they approach curriculum development and teaching. It’s a whole different practice.

Rand: It is.

Doris: And the numbers don’t work if we rely only on the new teachers coming in wherever they come from, whether graduate schools or other careers. We also have to work with the teachers who are there and that’s a joyful thing. Because the teachers who are in place, you know, we have globally, what millions of educators who’ve been working with kids and get kids really well and…

Rand: My guiding principle around this, Doris, is that whatever we think of as great education for kids we should be doing the same thing with adults.

Doris: Exactly, that’s exactly right.

Rand: One of the things that we did here was we created an opportunity for faculty to write summer curriculum grants. And so they would come up with an idea. It had to be sort of a transformative curriculum idea that they wanted to try out. And we paid them to come in the summer to work together to develop the idea. Actually, we didn’t pay them so they delivered on it which was to present to the rest the faculty at the start of the school year with their ideas.

Doris: Okay, I love that.

Rand: And then they implemented during the school year and, you know, we started with I think 30 teachers involved in that program. I think this last year, we had 45 teachers participating in collaborative groups doing basically becoming curricular architects, right, and designing learning experiences. It’s really hard to do that during the school year because of the time constraints.

Doris: Yes.

Rand: Somebody once told me that redoing your curriculum in the middle of the school year is like rebuilding a boat in the middle of the ocean. You can do it but you got to be careful because you got to keep everything afloat. And so, I think summer is really great time to do this sort of accelerated professional growth and careful thoughts about curriculum design that you’re describing.

Doris: I love that, and I love what you did. And so these teachers, just to be clear in the summer who are doing this, are they working together with other teachers…?

Rand: Yeah, just the requirement of our program that it’s a collaboration. So…

Phil: I participated in one of these summer curricular grant sessions two summers ago. And as a result, three teachers and I were able to integrate the work that was going on in our classrooms between our students during the fall semester. And we were able to cross economics, statistics, and even some art in a project that we did that spanned the entire school. And the motivation for us was that we had time in the summer when we weren’t as busy as we are during the school year, and we had an opportunity to rethink the way that our classes ran. And it was a lot of fun for me to work with one of our statistics teachers who’s been teaching for 20 years.

Who was motivated by the idea of trying something new but it was also to instill in me this idea that, there are things that kids can learn by us teaching in a different way that they wouldn’t have otherwise taken away. So, not only were we as teachers motivated to work together, but we then had our students across three different classes finding times outside of the normal school day, sometimes during the class day, to work together on these challenges that we put in front of them. It was always really exciting.

Doris: I’m sure it was. And, Rand, I have to say that’s an absolutely brilliant, brilliant thing for you to do. If you’re not in education, if you’re out in the industry, you don’t understand just how significant and strategic, and impactful, and different that idea is. Historically, teachers are in their room and they’re in their silos, and they’re supposed to be, you know, the master of their domain. And in that one program you just described, that you’re kind of hitting on everything that matters in terms of how you create institutional scaffolding for innovation and culture change to happen in the right direction in a school. I’m really impressed that you do that, that’s fantastic.

Rand: Well, the teachers have really stepped up. It’s really been a fun program to work on.

Doris: It’s great. Well, listen, the work that you’re doing, both of you in the school. Phil, you in the program you’re building, nascent or not, it sounds just like you’re rocking it. And I will continue to want to keep in touch with you and hear how it’s developing, very exciting. And Rand, your leadership in the way in which you’re building new practices inside the classrooms in your school are really, they sound extraordinary. And I love that we had this conversation, I think it’s going to spark lot of ideas for people all over the world.

Rand: Well, thank you Doris. I totally enjoyed the conversation and the privilege to speak with you today.

Doris: Thanks. Have a great day, guys.

Phil: Thank you so much Doris, you too.

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