Monday, 9 June 2014

#3 Learning for the 21st Century: 3 Lessons from NYCiSchool

Tucked away on the top two floors of a non-descript 18th century building in South West Manhatten there are brilliant things happening. NYCiSchool is a small school of 460 students catering for 120 at each grade level K9-12. Though from the outside, it looks a lot less 21st Century than it sounds, Isora Bailey and her staff are developing students with the confidence, independence, skills and knowledge to become the leaders of the future. So here are three lessons from NYCiSchool on how to do it:

Lesson 1: Personalisation & Real-world Learning

The curriculum is structured around five different components including: online learning, challenge-based modules, core experiences, field experiences and advisory. This mixed model is designed to be individualised and foster the development of 21st Century skills. The effect on student engagement is dramatic. Here is an insight into some of these different elements.

Blended Learning

Online learning helps students to work at their own pace, to catch up missed work due to absence or to develop in areas of weakness in preparation for the Regents Examinations (standardised tests in NY state). All mathematics teachers have uploaded videos of the lessons that can be accessed by all students at any time through the D2L online platform. 

Online resources are also used in language learning, with students completing independent work through Powerspeak in addition to face-to-face teaching. This has reportedly enhanced student engagement as learners can work at their own pace, with teachers offering additional guidance as necessary. There are face-to-face traditional classes each week to build on the skills developed through online courses. 

This use of both online resources and face-to-face classroom instruction has become known as Blended Learning. Rapidly becoming the norm in U.S. classrooms, over 3 million students in K-12 took an online course of some description in 2009. It is estimated that over 50% of K-12 students will have taken an online course by 2019 as part of their school experience.[1] At NYCiSchool they have embraced this innovation but Isora Bailey is clear that though technology is used to “ … further the study of mathematics, science and humanities” it is not designed to replace face-to-face instruction.

Challenge-Based Modules

At the heart of real-world learning at iSchool are ‘modules’. These are interdisciplinary Challenge-based Learning modules centered around a real-world problem. Successful past projects include the Build a Green Roof challenge, which involved students of biology and environmental science campaigning to transform their roof space into a garden. This has now grown into a project involving partnerships with local politicians and other schools to help make changes to other parts of the community. 

3D design of the iSchool Roof Garden created as part of a Module.
Challenge-Based Modules develop 21st Century skills as students work in teams to solve a difficult real-world problems through use of technology, collaboration with peers, teachers and experts in their community. The depth of learning is evident in the final products from past student projects such as Think Before You Frack and The Sixteen Project. The authenticity of these projects is also recognized by the students: “I like applying what we learn to the real-world. It gives a real depth to the curriculum that I did not get at my middle school”, says Tom. 

Core Experiences

A student display showing some of learning from one the Core Experience classes in literature.
Still underpinned by the constructivist philosophy, Core Experiences are distinctly different to Modules as rather than structured around a single real-world problem, these are planned around a unifying theme and address a coherent set of learning objectives. Core experiences aim to develop the academic skills and experiences necessary for college acceptance, college success and high school graduation. These could include literature seminars, writing workshops and laboratory experiments. 

The planning process is rigorously scaffolded (see full planning guide here), taking teachers through 7 steps in designing a well planned Core Experience. Before even beginning the planning process, teachers have to prepare an "Elevator Pitch" 2 minutes in length to get the go ahead to run the unit. This may seem over the top, but the result is a set of Core Experience classes that are of a high standard and serve to prepare students for High School graduation or College.

The Key: Student Choice

Though a "huge logistical operation", as Isora called it, students choose their Modules & Core Experiences based on their interests, aspirations and credit requirements. This is more akin to a University than a High School. Students complete a Google form to express preferences for 5 Core Experiences and 1 Module per 9 week Semester.

The process of students choosing their Modules and Core Experiences drives engagement as the students feel that they have ownership over the curriculum. As Jack says "Coming from a 'cut and dry Middle School' to a place where you can choose your courses like in College means you are really interested in the content and skills you are learning".

Also, this flexibility and choice allows time and space for students to begin to identify their own passions and interests. As Katie puts it “… they all offer different classes every quarter and this helps you to really figure out what you want to do in the future”. This process is certainly not easy for administrative and teaching staff (460 personalized timetables), but the pay-off in terms of engagement may just make it worth it. 

Example student schedule. Note the Core Experiences (Critical Thinking in Science, Algebra, Earth Science B, Spanish IBA), Module (The Future of Teaching the Past), Advisory periods, Independent Work periods and timetabled office hours.

Lesson 2: Assess student mastery frequently and communicate to parents

At the end of each class (Core Experiences and Modules) students carry out a ‘Mastery Demonstration Task’, where they show their understanding of the class content and present a final product. 

Social Studies teacher Jay Finkelstein makes the point that this should be the ultimate demonstration of student understanding and knowledge, both of the content and skills developed over the module. As part of a unit in world history, Jay had students study a significant development or period in history (everything from the Vietnam war to the life of Ghandi), write a song about it, record the song, record a music video and accompanying explanation. You can see these online at 

This is peer assessed using a class rubric specific to this project task and teacher assessed to give a final grade. Rubrics are developed by individual teachers and designed to assess the core content and skills from the Module or Core Experience.

An example rubric from a Core Experience English class

Student progress is tracked using an online system (JupiterAssessment) that is accessible to staff, students and parents. Each course unit is broken down into ‘Mastery’, ‘Productivity’ and ‘Contributing Factors’, with each component accounting for a percentage of the overall final grade (click to see full grading policy). 

This system of assessment therefore incorporates a full range of factors that may affect student performance and helps students (and parents) to identify weaknesses. Rather than a flat 'D' grade, students have a % score for the three components that is consistenly accessible to them and updated every Thursday, with many teachers choosing to update even more regularly.
Lesson 3: Get the right people

An engaging real-world challenged-based curriculum that is constantly re-planned and re-modeled based on student interests coupled with rigorous weekly formative assessment and feedback for every student. This all sounds a lot like hard work. And indeed it is. Principal Isora Bailey makes no excuses. “They need to really want it and we like to put them through their paces.”

The recruitment process at NYCiSchool, featuring five separate stages, is so rigorous it is no wonder the staff in the building appear to be so passionate, positive and dedicated to what they do. Following an initial application and phone interview prospective staff are invited (all together) to a "Hiring Night" where they pitch a module idea, receive and give formative feedback on these ideas, carry out a case study exercise about a student and have an interview speed date with administrative and teaching staff (a five minute grilling about one specific aspect of the role at each station!) If, after all of this, they are successful only then are they invited in for an interview and to teach a taster lesson. They really have to want it.

However, this pays off. Teachers at iSchool have incredibly positive relationships with students and have established a clear mutual respect and clarity in expectations. “Our advisors are amazing. They are always there for us” says Senior student Kelsey. Every teacher in the building has office hours, making themselves fully available to students every Tuesday and Thursday 3.20 - 4.20pm. Junior Martha added: “The accessibility of teachers is really important. They all work hard to offer different classes every quarter and also to help you work out what you want to do in the future”.

Having a talented and hard-working staff also helps to create a culture where the Principal is open to discussion on a whole range of issues. As Isora states, “… It’s not a top-down thing. Ultimately I have to make tough choices but I am happy to discuss things ad nauseum”. 

Caveats and Takeaways 

It should be noted that NYCiSchool is not an open enrollment school, with admissions dependent on 7th grade report card test scores, middle school attendance and a qualitative online assessment much akin to a job application. Online applications, featuring questions such as ‘Why do you want to attend the iSchool?' Are rated on a scale of 1-4 according to their suitability for the school. With 1500 applications during 2012/13 the school clearly has an aspirational intake of students with a strong commitment and desire to attend.

This should not however take away from the achievements of NYCiSchool over the course of its brief history since 2008. Indeed for some students their experience on floor 4 and 5 has been transformative. Senior student Kelsey was quite clear that the choice of courses, vertical class structure and consistent support from teachers had a significant impact on her. “I was a different person in 9th grade. I quickly felt like I was part of the iSchool community and the courses offered really helped me to figure out what I wanted to do in the future.” Kelsey, just like most of her peers is about to graduate iSchool to enter into a four year college course. 

So, to all the progressive Principals and teachers out there, these three lessons are anything but easy to implement. However, if we are to re-design our institutions for the requirements and learners of the future we may wish to take a few pointers from Isora Bailey and her team.

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