by JOHN P. EVANS III
On November 14th, the Caroline County School System held the latest in a series of meetings on “What’s New in Our Schools.” Held at Denton Elementary, it focused on the system’s planned adoption of the “Essentials in Learning” curriculum, which is intended to give students “more autonomy” in how they learn. Though still under a teacher’s guidance in the classroom, it gives students more of a role in their own education.
The method was developed by Learning Sciences International (for information, go to firstname.lastname@example.org). It shifts from traditional teacher-focused methods to a student-centered model that encourages the development of skills needed for good paying jobs in the new economy. These skills include teamwork, face-to-face communication, critical thinking and persistence in the face of failure.
The “student centered” lessons are designed for the students to have more interaction with each other through team-based group dynamics, rather than having a teacher stand in front of a class and lecture for an entire period. Through this method of learning, students learn to work in teams, offer their opinions and learn to accept and offer constructive criticism. As the school system incorporates more critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, character and citizenship into what and how the students learn, it changes the instructional process.
At the November 14th meeting, teachers and administrators shared the tasks students are doing during their day, and provided examples of experiences from this form of teaching so that parents and the community better understand how education is changing to meet the 21st-century learner.
“It’s important for the community to learn what our plans are,” said Schools Superintendent Patricia Saelens, who was the lead presenter. “Caroline County schools have embarked on a second order of change so it’s important we talk about what we’re doing … we are in the very early stages of this second change.” The face-to-face interaction and decision making are key factors in the new teaching method.
“Today’s workplace is different than in the past. This method will better prepare our students to succeed in that workplace,” said Saelens, who added that “we have to be able to prepare our kids for jobs that will require critical thinking and teamwork.
“What do we need to do to get our students ready for those jobs?” she added. Saelens has promised that the curriculum and standards of Common Core curriculum won’t change, but that the method of teaching will change to make it more likely students are able to achieve them.
The school district decided to make the change after two years of research and site visits to other schools already using it. The cost to the district will be minimal since most of the costs will be covered by a $3.75 million grant over the next five years and Title II funding.
The meeting also updated those in attendance on some of the accomplishments and advancements that have been made during the current school year. “Here in Caroline County we accomplish a lot with a little. It’s time to showcase Caroline County, “said Saelens. “We do an awesome job.”
Saelens said the school system is always looking for new ways of educating its students in order to make learning more interesting or fun. One of the principle goals is to ensure that middle-school students are prepared to be successful in high school and that high school students are prepared to move on to college or whatever profession they choose after graduation.
Saelens stressed that career tech education is important to maintain at a high level, as well. “We want to be sure every student has a career path,” said Saelens.
Improved graduation rates is also a goal. Graduation from high school, of course, improves a person’s chance at getting a decent job.
“Looking at graduation figures, students who complete their ninth-grade year and are able to get through the 10th grade, their chances to graduate improve significantly,” she added. “In order to prepare students for their next job, three focus areas are highlighted: Student controlled lessons, student autonomy and cognitive complexity.”
A longtime school board member and a past president of the board, Tolbert Rowe promoted the new plan. “As an instructional strategy, peer-to-peer interaction is important and it could have a good impact on students,” he said.
School Board President Jim Newcomb spoke at the end of the meeting and thanked parents for attending and stressed the importance of staying involved in their child’s education. “This is a great opportunity (to improve educational tools), but there are always growing pains,” he said. “I get lots of comments from parents and that’s good. We always need help in the schools as mentors, to serve on advisory committees and with Character Counts. Help the school system be the best it can be.”