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Brady Ryan
Solid Lesson Plan
UW’s focus on holistic education is reshaping childhood learning

AS ANY TEACHER WILL TELL YOU, there’s more to education than just academics. Sure, it’s important to teach students multiplication, how the respiratory system works and that the Norman Conquest occurred in 1066, but the details don’t mean much when students aren’t able to follow the lesson plan or keep up with the rest of the class. In the past, kids who fall behind have long been labeled lazy, slow learners, learning disabled or mentally ill. The University of Washington’s focus on a holistic approach to education, however, may not only keep more children from being left behind; it could also result in better outcomes, especially in inner city schools. The reason is simple, really. Instead of pondering why kids fall behind, the UW’s approach stacks the deck in their favor by looking at the factors that may have unexpected effects on performance, ranging from social and cultural to physical and emotional.

The UW’s effort is so comprehensive that it not only looks at kids from birth through the age of 20, it also covers a wide range of disciplines including psychology, sociology and medicine.

“If you were just looking at this from a disciplinary lens, you would say it’s an academic problem,” says Tom Stritikus, dfean of the College of Education at the UW. “When you are interested in solving problems you have to tilt toward an interdisciplinary approach because problems aren’t solved by looking at it from just one discipline.”

The use of neuroscience is a case in point. The discipline plays an important part in research at the Institute For Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS) where research focuses on the development of children’s brains and minds through age 5. One of I-LAB’s many projects looks at language acquisition, which is considered a major indicator of a child’s ability to read. At the same time, the institute’s Magnetoencephalograph creates a map of a young child’s brain, which could eventually lead to the ability to diagnose potential disabilities early enough to do meaningful interventions.

Such early interventions are the stock and trade of the Experimental Education Unit. The school offers a comprehensive early childhood program that runs from birth through kindergarten for children with and without developmental disabilities. Rather than teach down to students with autism and other developmental disabilities, Director Ilene Schwartz says the program focuses on inclusion and teaching up so that all students will learn the skills they need to succeed across all domains including social, communications, cognitive and academic. Given the wide range of challenges in each classroom, it isn’t always easy to teach the skills, but that doesn’t discourage teachers in the program.

“You can bemoan that they don’t know [the skill] well enough to demonstrate it. If the child’s not making progress, we need to change how we’re teaching,” Schwartz says. Success at the EEU often means more than just a little person’s personal accomplishment. Since the school is also an incubator/research facility, the approaches that work are disseminated throughout the country.

“When I think about what we’re doing with our toddlers, it’s about access. I’m working on a program that can be implemented not just in Seattle, but Moses Lake and Wenatchee and Walla Walla,” Schwartz says. The change may not only mean a difference in the way education works, but also in how people do their jobs.

School psychologists are a good example. Professor Jim Mazza says they’ve expanded their focus from testing and placement to include issues of childhood and adolescent mental health concerns such as noncompliance in the classroom, childhood anxiety and depression.

“If you have a child that’s acting out in the classroom and a teacher keeps kicking him out, he can’t learn,” Mazza says. As part of the new approach, school psychologists consider what other concerns are causing the problem and help the student find coping skills that lead to better results as well as helping the teacher develop strategies to deal with challenging student behavior. “The belief is that the reason some of these kids may not be learning as much [is] because maybe they’re being bullied, maybe they’re depressed or have other mental health concerns. If you can work on the issues that make them feel safer, they’re able to learn more,” Mazza says.

Getting kids prepared to do academic work is just part of the battle, though. Showing them why their lessons are important also makes a difference, according to Phil Bell, director of the UW Institute for Science and Mathematics Education. “We do a lot of work to help students identify how what they are doing relates to their own personal interest,” Bell says, pointing to an early program on health for fifth-graders. The unit asked students to look at what members of their community did to stay healthy or get better when they were ill, introducing them to microbiology in the process. Another more recent effort is an after-school program designed to get young girls in South Seattle interested in earth science by centering on the science of water and how it affects life in Puget Sound.

The efforts to connect the dots continue all the way through to college with the Dream Project. The program that pairs college student mentors with high school students does more than just ease the transition to higher education; it’s also helping attract students who might not have considered themselves college material, Director Jenee Myers Twitchell says. In fact, the project that targets students in poorer school districts along the I-5 corridor between Seattle and Tacoma has proven so successful that 65 percent to 88 percent of the Dream Project participants in each school go on to college. That’s compared to the 51 percent from each school that would otherwise opt for higher education.

Academics are also part of the holistic approach. The lessons remain, but how they are taught is being rethought. Elham Kazemi, professor of curriculum and instruction in mathematics education, for example, is helping schools in Seattle change the way they train elementary school teachers. Instead of having them leave the school to attend seminars, Kazemi has encouraged math faculty to meet regularly, plan their lessons together, try them out in a class, analyze student response and then go to another classroom and try again. In addition to encouraging teachers, it also helped improve the overall math performance of students in low-performing schools. High school students taking college level Advanced Placement courses in American History have also benefitted from a UW-initiated redesign.

The change became necessary after school-reform movements successfully pushed to have AP courses opened up to more students in an effort to include more low income students, says Walter Parker, College of Education professor of curriculum and instruction. Although the goal is admirable, Parker describes the courses as being “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Because the learning was so superficial, many of the students didn’t learn that much about the topic.

“Knowing a lot about a little is not necessarily learning,” Parker says. “We are aiming for adaptive transfer, the kind of learning that enables people to apply that learning in novel circumstances in the future.” The UW’s AP+ team responded with an alternative course that replaced lectures with experiential learning where students participate in a series of five simulations. In the unit on the Supreme Court, the students re-litigate classic court cases. In the project on elections, they play a variety of roles, including candidates, campaign managers and reporters.

Programs like I-LABS, EEU, AP+, the Dream Project and other efforts aren’t just good ideas that are still being developed in the lab. Most have real-world applications that have been tested locally, many in underperforming schools in the area that stretches from Interstate 90 south to the lowlands of Kent, where only two out of every 10 students that start kindergarten will earn a college degree. “That’s very different from many more affluent districts within the region,” says Stritikus. “We think that’s an unconscionable opportunity gap.”

While some may see the numbers as being akin to a glass that’s less than half full, Stritikus views it as an opportunity for higher education to redefine itself. “Our goal,” says Stritikus, “is to improve education locally while serving as a national example of what’s possible when the connection to practice meets rigorous research.”

—David Volk is a frequent Columns contributor.

2 Responses to Solid Lesson Plan

  1. Pat Gorman says:

    Interesting article, but didn’t see any new techniques. District 48 in Washington County, Oregon was using the above techniques 40 years ago. In addition to Outdoor school, there were mock political rallies and other large scale simulations and an architecture class that designed a house, which the wood shop class built the next year and business class sold to recapitalize the class for the following year. Similar programs were written about and demonstrated to have worked 80 years ago. All were demonstrated to be effective, and all take tremendous energy to keep going. I wonder if we can find an organizational solution to encourage creation and maintenance of programs we know work?

    I wonder if magnetoencephalography will create another method of categorizing kids that works no better than various methods we use now. We ought to try it, but recognize that while it may be another tool in the kit, it’s not the be all and end all, as we thought IQ tests were, achievement tests are, etc. Individuals are still individuals, and brain shape isn’t thought.

    Would love to participate; let me know if I can assist.

  2. Josh Johnson says:

    It’s ironic that what we know works has to be continually defended to policy makers. The hard truth is: High quality education is expensive, complex, and requires consistent effort. It’s also worth it. High quality education is under attack because of the phenomenon of child poverty and the effects of this on overall test scores. The competing pressures causing this are the desire of wealthy families to have their tax money go primarily to improving the quality of their children’s education, and the overall desire to raise outcomes from impoverished students, to close the achievement gap.

    The only reason that our international FISA scores seem to show failure is because of our epidemic of childhood poverty. Academic success cannot be compartmentalized from overall physical and mental health and the inherent stresses of impoverished or unstable home conditions will effect students in those situations. This effect is further exacerbated by the disparity in funding between wealthier schools and districts and poorer districts and schools. In our country, generally, the more at risk a student is because of their social class or recent immigration status, the higher student to teacher ratios will be in their classes.

    There is not a cost neutral solution to this. Impoverished and at risk students needs MORE resources, MORE support, and receive less. This is a policy issue, not a pedagological one.

    Perhaps if the NSA loses funding to spy on our personal communications, some of the hundreds of billions of dollars they were using could go toward improving schools and services for at risk children? Just a thought.

    However, educational research is valuable. Raising the floor is great, but we should also raise the roof. There is value in improving the potential of high achieving students as well. So much is going toward autistic and LD students that gifted programs are being cut. These gifted students have great potential to find novel solutions to difficult problems just like these (I am one of them) and supporting the education of gifted students would be a tactic with cumulative advantages. Better educated students with great potential could return to the education field to further improve educational techniques.

    In the end…it’s about more money. There’s no wiggling out of it. By more money, I mean more money on the federal level, more money everywhere. It’s an expensive oversight to fail to support the education of a gifted student caught in poverty.

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