The Science Leadership Academy: A new school approach to learning

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to visit the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA, a high school that was created in conjunction with The Franklin Institute. Those of you that watched the recent #140 Conference in New York might be familiar with the school’s principal, Chris Lehmann, as he delivered an inspirational vision of what schools can be:

What they’re doing at SLA is ground-breaking enough to bring visitors every day, including Bill Gates (who visited two weeks ago). The students documented that visit through video:

Bill Gates speaks at Science Leadership Academy from Chris Alfano on Vimeo.

This school is different

I wasn’t aware of how many preconceived notions of education I held until I walked down 22nd Street in downtown Philly and encountered a space that could easily be mistaken for a business. In fact, it seems that SLA models much of its learning environment on the “real world” concept: that people spend time and effort working in groups and must learn to work in this type of dynamic, that resources and information aren’t limited to a textbook or syllabus, and that evaluation of success rests on a cumulation of work rather than a single grade.

When I first arrived, I walked up to the second floor looking for the principal’s office. The first door I saw was labled with the placard. When I walked in, I didn’t see a receptionist’s desk guarding another entry point, but instead found Chris speaking with a student sitting opposite his desk (she wasn’t in trouble, she was working) and a faculty member that periodically popped in to make a request or ask a question. The student at his desk asked if a particular teacher was currently online; he immediately checked and responded. He fulfilled the admin’s request, shouting down the hall to check her inbox. Another teacher stopped by and they discussed a home visit that had to be made that morning.

I didn’t even make a formal introduction, off-balance at the unexpected activity. I was directed toward Jon Amsterdam, one of the school’s adminstrators, who sat me down in his office and asked how he could help.

At this point I learned more about the school: its newness (first opened in 2006, SLA will graduate its first class in June); its admission process (hundreds of applicants each year with only 125 new students this year) that has all students undergoing an interview, and no prospect denied one; and its pedagogical method, a system that Amsterdam described as inquiry-driven and project-based. The students aren’t all all-stars (straight-As, perfect attendance) and admission is based more on a students’ potential to adopt to this type of learning environment than to past grades.

Is SLA that different? In some cases, no: its teachers are all union members, it operates within the same district as other public schools in the area. But in so many other ways, it is unique and a bit rattling because it shows what a school could potentially be given the approach of focusing on students and their learning rather than their scores on a state-wide test.

All students are issued a laptop (Apples are the choice hardware), a piece of learning equipment that they carry with them from school to home. Some of these students are jealously accused by peers in other schools of only attending SLA to receive a laptop, an accusation that they fiercely put down. They eschew this perception by pointing attention toward what they’re doing with them. Experential learning forms the basis of instruction, project presentation the method of assessment. These students are held to high standards: if they write a paper, they must undergo the same process as submitting it for publication. Science experiments require documentation of research, methodology, and conclusions, all with formal presentation.

There are no bells; classes run for 65 minutes, and as all students have a clock on their computers, they are expected to attend all classes on time. Freshmen are overwhelmed with this freedom and even abuse it for a short time. Eventually, students learn the consequences of poorly spent time and abused privelages. It’s common for students to make these types of discoveries, and sometimes, because restrictions are often beyond the norm, limits are pushed. I asked Lehmann about this,and he replied that empowering students can be both a strength and weakness. Yet rather than restrict, the students are allowed to act and learn from those actions. Students make mistakes, like all people, but they are encouraged to understand consequences and learn from them.

What I learned

The most valuable part of my visit came when I sat down at a table to speak with a group of teachers at SLA. It was, for me, relevatory and humbling. I have a technical background, and I admit that my experience in education has been limited to the exposure I’ve received through working on the SMCEDU project.

The teachers that sat down with me during their breaks conveyed a powerful message to me: the true complexity of what’s going in education, and how there isn’t a single solution to “fix” it. I went there with an evangelist, “here comes social media to save the day” attitude, and I was quickly sobered by the reality. Technology is a key component of the solution, but it’s not the single solution. In fact, technology was so integrated into how the school works that it is, as described by Lehmann, “ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible.” In other words, nobody paid attention to the fact that every student has a laptop and a cellphone, it’s just what you work with on an everyday basis.

And that perceived casualness also has ties into how I think social media should play out in schools: it shouldn’t deserve special attention, its own curriculum, or even its own course. It should just be how things are done. You don’t think about how you talk on the phone, or how you send an email, you just do it. That familiarity breeds a slew of advantages: comfort in the tools you’re currently using, adaptability in adjusting to future conventions, and the ability to actually do something with this stuff rather than just marvel at how awesome it all is.

It was also reinforced in my mind that changing the minds of educators that haven’t crossed the digital divide will be tricky. Ego plays a huge part in how many educators teach, and it is a delicate thing. Using technology/social media means giving up some control of your classroom. What’s more, if teachers have been using the same methods for years (some, even decades), they trust those methods. To tell them that they could be doing a better job is a hurtful thing to say…teachers care, I have no doubt about that. They work hard. They don’t want to be told that what they’ve invested themselves in, the betterment of individuals to create a better society, has been something they could have been doing better.

Instead, the right way to bring social media into the classroom isn’t to focus on it. Much like SLA uses technology without noticing it, the focus should be on how the learning experience can be improved, how the expectations of teachers for their classes, and the expectations of students for their education can be met.

For many, social media can help bridge the gap between expectations and experience. But touting social media as an educational panacea is incorrect; even the teachers at SLA all agreed that while what goes on there is unique and wonderful, it’s not for every school, it’s not for every student.

Learning styles are different because people are different. For this reason, it’s wrong to assume that any single teaching method is correct for all students. A better solution might be to have schools offer different ways for students to learn. While some students may thrive in an environment that places inquiry as the first step toward learning, others might be better served by traditional methods of instruction, such as lectures and regular, periodic tests to assess understanding.

It’s a complicated issue, this idea of improving education. I came out of Philly dazzled by the potential of one solution, while encumbered by the reality that the answer is more elaborate than I could ever have imagined.

That doesn’t mean that I’m giving up on the idea that social media and technology in schools can improve education; after all, innovation, collaboration, and communication are the vehicles that drive progress. What I am giving up on is waving around the idea that what we’re doing with SMCEDU, and any other single approach to education reform, is an all-encompassing solution.

Still, my belief that something has to be done, and done now, was made stronger when I saw that different solutions are possible and are being implemented right now. I’d love for us to keep collecting lessons, sharing them with others, and for social media to be a key component to how classrooms succeed in the future.