Empowered Leadership: Creating Conditions for Every Learner to Succeed – Digital Promise

Empowered Leadership: Creating Conditions for Every Learner to Succeed

Teachers and staff from UCLA Community School meet with UCLA professors to discuss the various research projects happening at the school.

June 30, 2023 | By

At Digital Promise, we recognize that computational thinking, AI, and learner variability are three key topics practitioners and researchers must discuss in order to ensure that education systems have the knowledge and tools to create the conditions for all learners to succeed. In spring 2023, with support from The Wallace Foundation, Digital Promise led a series of webinars to explore these topics. These webinars featured panel discussions where K-12 practitioners and school leaders, researchers, and community leaders shared their experiences, and participants had the opportunity to join breakout discussions and make connections with a global audience of researchers and leaders. The outcome was a rich series of discussions and resources that can be shared widely to advance the conversation. In this blog post, we share key takeaways from each panel, and offer resources for further learning.

Designing Systems to Support Learner Variability

Understanding learner variability is essential to ensuring that all learners have sustained and meaningful experiences of Powerful Learning. Alison Shell, senior research scientist on the Digital Promise Learner Variability Project, explained, “When you see the whole learner, you’re looking beyond just their academic outcomes and behaviors and really thinking about where they come from, what their identity is, what their interests are. When we can connect learning to who they are and what they care about in the world, then learning becomes powerful.” This is especially true for learners who have been historically and systematically excluded. Ty Johnson, senior improvement partner at Partners in School Innovation, expressed, “Learner variability takes into account some of the critical conversations that we should be having right now around stereotype threat, physical well-being, working memory, and motivation, which really impact our students who are culturally and linguistically diverse.”

Michele Dawson, senior director of innovation and technology at Compton Unified School District, shared how their system designed for learner variability: “We developed the Equity-Driven, Blended Learning + Project-Based Learning (PBL) Model, and you can see it in every school. We leverage the power of adaptable technology programs to garner data that helps decide what our students are going to be learning and to make sure that we are meeting all their learning goals. We also bring in authentic learning opportunities through PBL and we do small group instruction to be able to make sure that every student is getting what they need. We are also making sure that we have the social-emotional supports that we need through our wellness centers that we have at 24 schools, through our Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) programs, and through our free counseling programs.”

Empathy interviews are another tactic schools can use to support an understanding of learner variability. Ty Johnson stated, “One thing we’re finding in a school that I work with is that a good number of our English language learners have not had formal schooling in their native country. A lot of teachers tend to just translate material, thinking that they’ll be able to read in Spanish. However, they didn’t attend school in their native country, so they probably can’t read Spanish. So how do we design around that issue? The only way we would know about that is if we spoke with parents during intake, or took time out to speak with kids. Schools have to be prepared for the things that they hear. Are we listening to listen? Are we listening to act?”

Removing Barriers to Engagement in Computational Thinking Experiences

Computational thinking skills—skills that support problem solving systematically, such as working with data using algorithms and understanding information through mental and physical models—have become a fundamental literacy in postsecondary success. Yet, as Quinn Burke, director of computational thinking research at Digital Promise, explained, there are inequities that persist throughout students’ educations: “What we’re learning now is that if you’re offering standalone high school classes, oftentimes these classes are just not attracting students. If they don’t have prior exposure in those K-8 years, even when there’s some kind of offering at the high school level, students simply don’t see themselves as part of that.”

One key tactic for broadening access to computational thinking experiences is teacher professional development. Minji Kong, a doctorate student and National Science Foundation (NSF) graduate research fellow at University of Delaware, explained, “We try to offer a shared definition and then provide many different examples of how computational thinking might look in other subject areas, pointing them to different curricular examples, activities, and so on. That gets them thinking, this is how it might actually look in real life, in classrooms.” LaTrenda Sherrill, working group strategist at Remake Learning, expanded on the importance of professional learning: “How do we uplift these examples to the broader ecosystem? How do we translate it for policymakers? How do we translate it for funders? How do we translate it for superintendents? And then administrators, and then educators in the classroom, and then everyone else in the ecosystem that exists in a child’s life.”

Kelsey Tackett, digital learning coach in Floyd County Schools (Kentucky), shared how her district has worked to remove barriers for schools, teachers, and students. She explained, “As we went through the CSforAll process and started to evaluate ourselves on that SCRIPT rubric, we saw that what was happening at one school was inconsistent throughout our district. Looking at that from a district standpoint, we started to evaluate. What were those barriers and how could we remove them?” She described their STEM lending library, where all teachers can check out free resources that promote computational thinking, such as Makey Makey kits and Hummingbird kits. They also mapped out computational thinking standards within the district, and had teachers create a resource library of lessons with video clips of classroom examples. She said, “It was really important for us to try to remove as many [barriers] as possible so that we can support our teachers, because people who feel supported are going to have a more positive outlook on trying something new, and that is going to create more buy-in district wide.”

Keeping the “Human in the Loop” with Artificial Intelligence in Education

The recent surge of AI products has been a top headline in edtech news. Digital Promise has set forth a “people first” vision for AI in education, which emphasizes the value of partnerships among educators, innovators, researchers, policymakers, and other impacted community members and centers anti-racism and anti-bias core values. Judi Fusco, director of emerging Technology and learning sciences at Digital Promise, explained, “We really need to ensure that humans stay at the heart of the system to support our teachers and students…I want to know that we’re actually getting systems that were designed with educators and researchers and tested before we put them into the classroom…I don’t want to design systems that automate bad pedagogical practices… AI systems can do some things well and teachers do a lot of other things well, and we need to think about that partnership.”

Vidula Plante, a sixth grade classroom teacher at Manchester Essex Regional Middle School (Massachusetts) shared examples from the teacher’s perspective: “Deliberate decision making is still going to be the role of the teacher, the administrator, the student who’s making choices. AI will get us only so far. There’s a craft to teaching and learning that really cannot eliminate educators… For me, using AI [includes tools for formative assessment] like using Edpuzzle which would give me immediate feedback on what things kids got wrong…So I consider that super helpful in collecting information. It’s not the only information I use, but it’s very, very helpful.”

Julio Vazquez, director of instruction and human resources at North Salem Central School District (New York) shared an example of how they’re exploring the use of ChatGPT with teachers as professional learning both in AI and in computational thinking: “We entered very specific searches and we came up with sample lessons that integrated computational thinking in the arts, sciences, ELA, and social studies…Our teachers analyzed the examples, and some of them thought, this is a lesson that I could turn around and do the next day. Other staff thought, this has some good ideas that I could tweak.” He also shared how a classroom teacher used AI with their students to generate essays in and then analyze them for their strengths and limitations, which became an opportunity to discuss ethical considerations of using technology: “You need that adult leading the way and having students think about things they wouldn’t normally think about or consider on their own.”

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