Listening to Kids and Designing from Scratch for Timeless Learning

Pam Moran (@pammoran) just wrapped up 32 years as an Albemarle County educator. After a dozen years as superintendent, Pam passed the torch last month to her deputy, Matt Haas. She left a great example of what she calls “contemporary progressive education.”

With Albemarle colleagues Ira Socol (@irasocol) and Chad Ratliff (@csratliff), Moran just published “a map of what we believe are the processes necessary to move from schools in which content- driven, adult-determined teaching was the old norm to new learning spaces and communities in which context-driven, child- determined learning is the new norm.”

Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-based Thinking Change Schools (Wiley) is not a how-to manual, but it does ask you to do some heavy lifting. Each chapter ends with sections designed to spark your own learning including sections called provocation, structured Inquiry, reflective pause, and take action.

“We have rejected the mass standardization of learning that has dominated schools for decades,” said the authors.

The Authors

Pam Moran directs the Virginia School Consortium for Learning. Until last month she was the superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools in Charlottesville, Virginia. In 2016 she was named the Virginia Superintendent of the Year.

A great high school science teacher in South Carolina convinced Moran to combine her love of science with an interest in working with young people. She still thinks it’s the “most important profession.” And she’s learned that teacher voices matter–that they do their best work when they own it.

Ira Socal provoking Albemarle High School Principal Dr. Jesse Turner

Ira Socol (above) is the Chief Technology and Innovation Officer for Albemarle County and was named one of North America’s “Top 30 Technologists, Transformers and Trailblazers” for 2017 by the Center for Digital Education. Moran calls Socol the “Provocateur in Chief” for the way he leads the reimagination of learning and learning spaces.

Chad Ratliff is principal of the Albemarle Lab Schools. Chad was named one of the nation’s “20 to Watch” educators by the National School Boards Association (NSBA) in 2017. Moran calls Ratliff “a radical entrepreneur–someone who doesn’t just generate great idea, but sees a project from beginning to end, who epitomizes effectuation thinking.”

Contemporary Progressive Education

What Moran calls “contemporary progressive education” began in 2002 under superintendent Kevin Castner who wanted to sustain a passion for learning as federal testing provisions were rolling out.

Moran took over as superintendent in 2006. A decade later she knew they had an important story to tell and the book project was launched.

They had identified seven pathways to lifelong learning that uniquely combined a vision for powerful learning experiences and spaces. As quickly as capital budget allowed, schools added multiage space and programs. Interdisciplinary projects and maker spaces became common across the district.

The district’s strategic plan includes a profile of a graduate that includes:

  • Responsible self-advocates who demonstrate ownership of and engagement in their future.
  • Effective communicators and collaborators who can work well within diverse communities.
  • Academically accomplished as demonstrated through a well-rounded instructional program inside and outside of “core” academics.
  • Responsible citizens who value and build connections within diverse communities
  • Critical thinkers who demonstrate an ability to analyze, assess and reconstruct issues related to any subject, content or problem.
  • Creative problem solvers who have experience solving authentic, community-based problems.

The focus in Albemarle is on lifelong learning competencies, “not to pass test but to enter the community and workforce and continue to learning,” explained Moran. “Proof of our kids success in variety of workforce is areas not based on what people know in a static way but iterative,” she added.

Albemarle elementary schools increasingly have spectacular multiage space that feature varied floor and ceiling heights that make the large space quiet and intimate. Multiage isn’t new–it’s been part of American education for 200 years explains Moran. In Ireland, a country the Albemarle leadership team studied, “they can’t imagine not having multiage classes,” said Moran.

Agnor-Hurt multiage space

Secondary libraries in Albemarle have been converted into collaborative makerspaces–and in some cases they have been life changing.

A grant from LRNG spurred an investigation of local monuments and encouraged them to devise their own monuments.

Kid Watching

Becoming much better at seeing children is a key theme of the book. What Pam calls “kid watching” helps teacher observe how children learn and why some struggle.

The questions that guided the journey of Pam, Ira, and Chad included:

  • What do you see when you look at your school?
  • What do you see when you look in a classroom?
  • What do you see when you watch children in the playground, or on a street, or in a park? What does learning look like? What does growing up look like?

The introduction explains, “Once we are able to see clearly what is happening with children in our schools and outside of our schools, we will then be on the path to learn how to take rapid, yet deeply considered actions to change the educational system we have inherited.”

Albemarle Tech is a new set of high school opportunities based on kid watching. Based in an old warehouse that’s now a startup hub, the new high school features relevant learning, internships, and authentic workplace connections.

“Students should not finish high school with same structure as a fifth grader,” said Moran. “There should be an evolution about how human learn with more control and autonomy.”

Moran appreciates the 4Cs of P21: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity, and Virginia’s addition of citizenship. But she thinks those were helpful five centuries ago and may be just as important five centuries in the future. That’s why the book is called Timeless Learning.

Key Takeaways from the Podcast

[:15] About the guest today, Pam Moran.
[:52] Tom welcomes Pam to the podcast and she describes her passion for her career.
[3:40] When did Pam decide she wanted to be a teacher?
[5:55] When and why Pam decided to write her book, Timeless Learning with co-authors.
[15:00] Pam talks about one of her key focuses: seeing children more clearly.
[17:28] About Pam’s and her co-authors’ collective philosophy.
[25:20] Pam talks about multi-age spaces and the benefits of children learning in these spaces.
[31:10] About an initiative Pam is working on, and one of the major ways schools can help ready students for college and career.
[36:06] If Pam were going to write a headline for each of her co-authors, what would they be?
[38:23] How did Pam and her co-authors write the book?
[41:59] Why Pam and co-authors decided to include the “take action” section at the end of each chapter.
[45:03] Pam reflects on and gives her thoughts on Better Together.

Mentioned in This Episode

Albemarle County Public Schools
Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-based Thinking Change Schools,
by Ira David Socol, Pam Moran, and Chad Ratliff
Virginia School Consortium for Learning
Better Together: How to Leverage School Networks For Smarter Personalized and Project Based Learning, by Tom Vander Ark and Lydia Dobyns
Wiley Publications

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The Getting Smart Staff believes in learning out loud and always being an advocate for things that we are excited about. As a result, we write a lot. Do you have a story we should cover? Email [email protected]

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