Questions for Heidi Hayes Jacobs

Dr Heidi Hayes Jacobs, co-author of Bold Moves for Schools, talks to us about the interconnectedness of the four pivotal platforms of space, time, grouping of learners and grouping of professionals

Dr Heidi Hayes Jacobs is a global educator, passionate thought-leader on contemporary learning and a valued collaborator with Independent Schools Victoria. She and co-author, Dr Marie Hubley Alcock, explore the interconnectedness of the four pivotal platforms of space, time, grouping of learners and grouping of professionals in their book, Bold Moves for Schools. We asked Heidi to record her responses to a series of questions on her work and these are transcribed here.

What are the key principles underpinning your book, Bold Moves for Schools?

The key underpinnings to Bold Moves can best be found in our work on pedagogy, we believe that is foundational. And it’s the most revealing about why we make the decisions we make in our schools. Those decisions deal with everything from curriculum to instruction, how we assess our learners, what we value, how we organise our day, how we use learning spaces, how we group our kids. It’s all governed by pedagogy, by that we mean the role of the teacher and the school and relationship to the student. And to help, Marie and I developed three clusters of pedagogy, and three corresponding questions: Antiquated pedagogy that responds to the question what do we cut? Classical pedagogy which responds to the question what do we keep?  And contemporary pedagogy which responds to the question what do we create?

First antiquated, there’s really no role, except the teacher is a dispenser and the student is receptacle. There’s no interactive role. My job is to cover as a teacher and the student just needs to be in the room with me and get it. So if they don’t get it, it’s the student’s fault. You know that’s really old fashioned, but I have to tell you, I see it all over. And boy, students can really feel it. We think that type of decision making – and in many ways the structures of schools are very responsive to that old thinking – needs to be cut.

We would argue that the best of classical work needs to be kept. Just like there’s great works of classical literature, they’re timely. Anything classical is timeless. It’s relevant. Similarly, we look at teachers as being guides, as mentors, as coaches, knowing when to sit on the sidelines and let the students try it out themselves. It’s an important relationship and we believe the teacher student relationship is more important than ever. But it’s interactive, and it’s caring, we were all trained in it as professionals. We want to keep those practices.

We do have a new kind of learner with new types of literacies: digital, media, global, in an environment that requires a new level of social contracting and networking, an ability to be innovative and design new solutions. It’s requiring new types of skills and talents that we ourselves need to cultivate so that we can be more mindful citizens and that we can be more discerning members of our school communities and our internet based communities as well. So we see that students are going to be working more and more on their own, they can now. We want them to be informed. They need us, but they need new types of learning experiences, contemporary pedagogy, and that’s what we’re looking to create.

What kinds of changes can happen in the classroom by schools that embrace a Bold Moves approach?

So I think one of the important things is to let go of the idea of the classroom. And to begin to look at opening the notion of what types of learning possibilities are there in our own backyard, wherever you are, whatever school. And what we believe is that a hard look at the design of learning experiences and curriculum needs to be deliberate in making concerted attempts at designing with more modern, relevant content and knowledge and issues and problems and themes that can bring in the best of the classical, but at the same time, examine what’s meaningful and relevant. We believe that the skills students need to develop should include the new literacies: digital, media and global, but also self-monitoring skills and the ability to examine their own progress, their ability to make choices and, periodically, create their own type of a learning pathway. We see that that might be possible in a school that has, again, a more classically organized setting, but I do believe that the more we open up to flexibility and the way we use time, and the way we use space and the way we group our kids allows the shackles of those structures to come off and allows us to be a much more responsive place.

The notion of what’s possible also plays out in the way students can orient themselves to more authentic place based learning experiences, whether it’s developing a project that would assess members of your school or local community; or whether it’s studying or examining case studies of businesses or start-ups; or small projects; or service learning; or not for profit organisations, with the upper grade levels and the students in years 9, 10, 11 or 12. The point here is whether they go into that work or whether you have your youngest learners, learning about the world around them, and using all the tools that are possible. I think those are the types of learning experiences we want to see enhanced, so that some of the more foundational academic work has meaning and purpose to it. We want to see the possibilities grow for more engagement with community and definitely more of a sense of respect and wellbeing with others. You know, modern learning also has to do with social emotional learning. And we believe that a more intimate community model is at the core of this work. It’s not all about the technology. Certainly, that’s making a huge difference in the way we interact with what’s possible. It’s about the human experience for our learners. And we think actually that the antiquated school model is less supportive of exploring a rich and dynamic experience with life in an educational setting.

In your book you say ‘An institution’s passage from past to present with an eye to future possibilities is a major journey. Preparing for the trip may seem fraught with anxiety and concern.’ What advice would you give to schools about to embark on this journey?

In beginning the journey to making bold moves for a school, my suggestion would be to engage small groups, to invite a wider array of the community, both families, community members, and learners, as well as teachers, to begin to ask questions, to begin to look at the three arenas* where I think this work emerges. If you imagine a Venn diagram, I think these three arenas overlap. I think you ask questions about the culture, mission, the purpose of schools, what is it we really want to have happen? What is important for our contemporary learners who are our kids? What’s the pedagogy we need to be thinking about? Do you feel like what we’re doing now is really preparing them? Or are we running a lot on habit or even with our best schools, are we resting on our laurels? Is there a lot of laurel resting going on? Then just to begin to stir up questions about possibilities, but also create a culture of bravery, begin to ask those questions.

The three arenas are:

  1. Pedagogy: cultivating a culture and purpose, becoming learning leaders
  2. Program, modern learning experiences, upgraded curriculum and phenomena-based inquiry
  3. Structures: significant shifts in the coordination of learning spaces, time, grouping of learners and grouping of professionals.

I think the other arenas are equally as important and you can invite groups to ask questions about these or all three. The arena of the learning experiences we believe are important, what types of curriculum make sense? What are you hearing about in other places that are helping students really make great connections when they launch from school and to post-secondary learning, whether it’s in a university setting or whether it’s in the workforce? What do they need to function well in a society that’s changing so rapidly? What types of assessments make sense? How do we know kids are learning what it is we think is important? What practices are going on in other places? Are we really developing digitally literate and media savvy learners? Do we really support innovation in our actual learning experiences?

And then the third arena, I think, quite frankly, is the most challenging in many ways because it goes to the very heart of what school feels like and looks like to people. And that has to do with the four structures that I think are most fundamental in allowing us to achieve the mission and the purposes we want and allows for better learning experiences. Those four structures are the ways we use time, our schedules; the way we use spaces – learning spaces, both on site, off campus, virtual; the way we group our learners, which is very much based on a habit. There’s a rigidity to the way we group our students year after year after year that’s based on habit, not necessarily what they might need, and that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. For some things it is by the age, maybe others by common age rather, maybe by others that should be multi-age. And the way we group our personnel: teachers often get boxed in because of a subject they’re supposed to teach when, in fact, they may have talents or abilities or interests. It can be really helpful to students if we opened it up and then also if we collaborated more formally, as communities, within schools – teachers are often very isolated.

So one thing I believe is that small groups begin to come in and ask questions, and then begin to do R & D, research and design. Let’s find out what is going on around our locality, other parts of Australia, other parts of the world and then move to drafting prototypes. What might be possible in our setting? How might we begin to make even small shifts? The notion is that old axiom that Margaret Mead used to say, something to the effect that if people think a small group of people can’t change the world, she points out, that’s the only way the world has ever changed. And so what we’re looking at is the world of your specific learners and what can we do best to inspire them, to support them, to be responsive, and to be courageous and bold?

Are there any unique differences in how Australian educators approach developing contemporary learning compared to the US and other countries?

It’s an interesting question to think about comparing and examining how different countries are approaching this question of modernization of schools. I think generalizations are not necessarily helpful here, but I do think there’s trends that merit attention. … I would say that across the United States, there’s a really lively and growing group of educators both in our private and public institutions that are looking at modernisation. My country is noted for innovation in many ways and we’re seeing that come to the forefront. We have widespread access to technology in a way that has just proliferated dramatically over the years. And so that in many of our schools, you will find tremendous access to tools, … so it isn’t so much about the access question. I think the question really is the larger one of do we want to continually put all our energy into? End of year testing? And that debate is raging right now in many places, and part of it is because they we see that we want students to have more opportunities for authentic learning. Personalised learning is very big in the United States right now. Architectural shifts and changes are permeating the discussions now, and school boards and groups. I am seeing wonderful organisations like the League of Innovative Schools … sponsoring and supporting a hard look at how we create modern learning environments. So I think it’s absolutely alive and well in the United States, but it is certainly not consistent.

Australia where . . .this will be my ninth visit coming up soon in November. My experience is that whenever I’ve been asked to come here, I’ve been asked to participate almost always on a conference that was featuring a look at the future, was looking at new directions. I’ve been very aware of the fact that you have a robust and lively education community and communities engaged and looking at how to prepare Australian children and young people for their future. You’re a country that has a lot of energy and I would think that there’s a lot of like-minded people engaged in looking at the question of how they could make shifts in the schools. I also recognise, like my own country, that you will have many who are less interested in that question, if not interested at all, and want to maintain a certain kind of status quo.

But I I think this is a great time to be in education. And I think of Australia as a place that’s ripe for taking a hard look at possibilities and networking around those questions. Other countries that are making headway? The country that comes to mind the most though, that I always find just remarkable, is Finland. I was there last year on a study group with a few colleagues and I was just really taken with how the Finns had altered the culture through a tremendous shift in pedagogy and it is very familial in its orientation. They eliminated testing fundamentally, until of course, the end of graduation, at the end of the comprehensive years, comprehensive school years, like on the TIMSS and they always do well on that. They really value ongoing formative work. They work in teams – there’s long term teacher-student groupings. Often, with the young children, school doesn’t really start to the age of seven. And what I was most impressed with was the quality of the educators and how much teaming and time was devoted to collaboration and planning. So it’s an intimate environment and I think it bears looking at by any group, or any country interested to see how a shift in pedagogy and really changing their values to be based on what they call a circle of trust. And they are not so concerned about what we would call accountability. They believe in responsibility, and that students need to be more responsible for their own learning. To me, that’s contemporary pedagogy.

What other exciting projects are you currently working on that are using the Bold Moves approach?

One of the most exciting projects that Marie and I are working on right now is engaging with Prakash Nair who is the Head of Fielding Nair Architectural Works International, and they are in 47 countries, including Australia. I’ve known Prakash now for several years and he actually has had me work with his organization, advising on certain projects. But the three of us are putting together a pre-conference at the International ASCD conference, which will be in Los Angeles, in March 2020. I’m very excited about this because I think what I’d like to see is more work for professional development where there’s the integration, it’s almost interdisciplinary PD, where we bring in people from various fields and work with educators to create these types of learning experiences.

But for me, the model is even bigger. I can envision pulling together the designers, for example of new types of school furniture, and groups of educators and teachers, and coming together to have think tanks or have some forms of professional development (that) are quite creative. I’d like us to do more interdisciplinary work, and I think this is a possibility.

The other thing that’s been terrific is the last two years, we have been able to facilitate a group with what’s called the Tri-state Consortium of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. We work with schools in what’s called the tri-state area here and over the course of the two years we met about every six weeks on sessions that focussed on the work from Bold Moves but focused on their project. I think that much of what we learned from that work will inform, and has already informed, this wonderful work we’re doing on the Bold Moves Project with Independent Schools Victoria.