High school seniors design educational systems change

March 16, 2024

In 1994, Oregon passed the Oregon Educational Act for the 21st Century. The Act focused on assessment.

“Under standards based reform, states began to focus on what students had learned rather than what or how they had been taught. Assessment and evaluation are central to this model. If assessment results are to be meaningful, they must meet technical standards for accuracy and consistency.”

In 1994 I joined sixty Sheldon High School history students, using a continuous quality tool known as a fishbone diagram to assess graduating students views on educational systems change during three periods of history classes.

I began by showing the students Oregon Benchmark data. Here’s a sampling from 1994 Oregon Progress Board.

I facilitated three history classes at Sheldon High School – a total of 60 students. After presenting the Oregon Benchmark data, I asked the students to design a new educational system. I approached my facilitation from a continuous quality improvement perspective and used Ishikawa’s “fish bone analysis” to organize their ideas. Here are those fishbones for the three classes. I began the process by asking them if they had seen the Oregon Benchmark data.

Listening to the students one class at a time I found coherences or regularities in the three fish bone diagrams. Three that popped out for me included, eliminating grades, student centered learning, and community based learning.

From a holistic point of view, the students systems change ideas about knowledge and learning were quite different from the educational systems focus on testing, educational attainment, and ranking as the core elements for developing knowledge and learning. (The United Nation uses educational attainment as its human development measure today).

In the students education system knowledge and learning came from experience. A perspective shared by educator Dewey and biologist Maturana. At Creswell School District in rural Oregon, the Superintendent spent a day working in his school districts kitchen. His observations and discoveries of learning by doing showed the impact the new philosophy of knowledge.

“As superintendent of schools the hardest thing in the world to obtain from people in the organization is accurate information. The natural tendency for people is to tell you what the think you want to hear, not what you need to hear. A simple illustration for me is title. For example, I want to be called Jim, but they insist on calling me Dr Ford.

To the cooks in our district, I’m Jim. After spending a day walking in their shoes, I can count on them to treat me like a cook, and cooks “tell it like it is”. During my day with them I shared the pressure of the “just in time” daily deadline and the joy of completing the project – the meal. I discovered too, that they knew more math than I did, could think on their feet, collaborate on a dime, self-start, and bring joy to their work. When I was with them I could too.

As a result of the visit, three of their ideas are built into our district improvement plan and they will be assisting teachers in the district with math instruction in numeration and estimation, probability and statistics. You see there is a whole lot of math going on, every day, in the kitchen. Furthermore, the superintendent, technology coordinator, learning leader, and business manager will be working one day this school year in the following job categories: secretary, cook, custodian, classroom aide and transportation.”

This is a fine example of systems change. Jim experimented with the students new educational system and brought about systems change in a simple and effective way. No mention of change agents, models, frameworks, or road maps, just leadership by doing and reflecting.

The Discovery team consisted of four teachers at Creswell Middle School. They shared a common project called Local Links, designed to foster individualized community based learning. For example, when their curricula turned toward biology, they organized a network of biologists, educators, fellow teachers, and others to form their community learning space.

I mapped the Discovery teaching network. The four middle school teachers, Kenny, Terri, Kristine and Dee, planned, taught and evaluated the Local Links Project forming a cohesive social network that included community members who taught students.

We saw students teaching students, parents, school principals and others all teaching the Local Links Project.

The Discovery Project created a community based learning network just as the graduating students at Sheldon High School had imagined. But, was the learning individualized?

I mapped two students learning networks.

Autumn’s learning network included three of the Discovery Project teachers, the bus driver for the school district, office staff and her classmates.

Jen’s network included one Discovery Project teacher, the districts bus driver, the schools technology lead and her classmate David. Adding Jen’s comments to the learning network map also showed David and Jen’s support of each other.

Brian was attending Albany Public Schools and was interested in learning about auto cad. He participated in the districts work based learning program and was connected Lemons Millwork, a family-owned cabinet-making business. Brians learning network, like Autumn and Jen’s, was individualized and supported his applying auto cad at Lemons Millworks. The collaboration included Lemons Millwork employees, staff from Linn Benton Community College and two Albany Public Schools staff.

Educational systems change is not a matter of changing the basic elements of institutional education it is about changing the relationships between elements in the system.

“A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system. A system must have an aim. The aim is a value judgement.”

WE Deming 1993 The New Economics

A community system is a network of human relations. It is a network of many networks including schools, market places, churches, recreation, nature, and on and on. It stands to reason that if we value student centric learning a good place to begin is by designing a student centric educational system. When I did this with high school students, the designed a system of community learning. The community learning system was designed to be a learner-centric system where progress is not measured by students grades but what they learning and their development.

Three classes of Sheldon High School students designed educational systems that were community based, learner-centered and the curriculum and teaching was individualized. West and South Albany School students and teachers validated the views of the Sheldon students in an electronic polling exercise.

The Superintendent of Creswell Public Schools led by example. Spending a day in the districts kitchen he discovered their collaboration and how they constantly used mathematics to achieve their purpose – serve healthy meals to children. His middle school teachers followed his lead and built relations with Creswell’s biological community so their students could do field work and learn about water quality testing and wetland habitat restoration. A social network map of one project showed how community-teacher networks were supporting student learning.

In Albany, Oregon I also mapped community learning networks for students. Once again, the community learning system was learner-centric, collaborative and included school district staff and business employees. Admittedly these social action research findings using quality improvement processes to evoke educational systems change are dated. This work was done 30 years ago. But to me, there is something enduring in what we had discovered. Something natural and right about creating a community learning system.

Community learning spaces happen in schools when police, fire, technologist visit school classrooms and talk about their jobs and careers. Physically this space is an open one were anyone interested can participate. Again, some places endure like the idea of a school multipurpose room popular in the 1950-60s. Community learning spaces also happen in the community. Educators act on the interest of a student and link them to folks in their community that can let the student learn much more about their interest then they can at school. A group of us connected by the Albany Public Schools work based learning wrote about community based learning for students with disabilities.

The new educational system designed by Sheldon High School high school students and applied at Creswell School District and Albany School District showed two features of the new system that should promise – learner centered design and creating work-based community learning centers.

Staying with the new design, it’s important to remember that I was also part of the process. My role was to create an environment for collective reflection and learning. I began with the Oregon Progress Board’s Oregon Benchmark data for the county the students lived in and asked them if they had seen it before. When I asked the Sheldon High School Students to design a new educational system, I integrated two quality improvement tools – Ishikawa’s fish bone analysis and Mizuno‘s affinity diagram. Studying new practices at Creswell and Albany, I used my own social action research that has proven effective in understanding wellbeing and high performance in the workplace. This brings us to the practice of evaluation.

The liberation of people with developmental disabilities that began in 1975 and continues today has had a significant social impact in US society. The Developmentally Disabled Assistance and Bill of Rights Act of 1975 established a systems change process with evaluation at its center. It presented an innovation in evaluation of social services.

” The purpose of the evaluation system is to provide objective measures of the developmental progress of persons with developmental disabilities using, data obtained from individualized habilitation plans.”

The evaluation is simple and elegant. It is person centered and asks three questions.

Where am I?

Where do I want to be?

How will I know I have made progress?

Compared to comprehensive evaluation protocols, this might sound trivial. But it was not.

Asking the three questions in a continuous improvement cycle is what made the evaluation system so powerful. This is also classic positive behavior change.

“Where am I?” is a baseline measure which future measures will be compared to.

“Where to I want to be?” becomes the goals and sub-goals for student based learning.

“How will I know I have made progress? become the measures for achieving the goals.

This formative evaluation process is summarized in a Individual Development Plan (IDP) that guides each students community-based learning network.

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