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Mountain Park making changes that inspire collaboration through @AK12DC

February 28, 2015

K12_Logo_FINAL copy

I recently visited one of the eleven schools that are part of Atlanta K12 Design Challenge (@ak12dc).  Mountain Park Elementary, the Mustangs (@MPE_Mustangs), is a Fulton County School north of the I-285 loop.  I met with Stacy Perlman, the school’s principal, and Wendy Kelly, the school’s project-based learning coach.  After our meeting they took me on a tour of first grade classrooms and a number of TAG classrooms.  It was a very inspiring meeting that provided a window into the school’s work since spring 2014.  Both of them expressed great satisfaction with the AK12DC program and what the Design Team and faculty have been able to accomplish at Mountain Park.

In AK12DC, schools have learned and implemented a design thinking process modeled after work at the Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design to tackle a school challenge identified in Phase I of our project.  After collecting empathy from their user, Mountain Park faculty, the school’s Design Team came up with the following point-of-view statement:

  • we met…several hardworking Mountain Park teachers who hold themselves to
    extremely high standards
  • we were amazed to realize…how much they feel like their day-to-day schedules
    and tasks prevent them from making the most of the time they have with their
    students and colleagues.
  • it would be game changing if we…staffers had clarity, confidence, and ownership
    to implement school-wide enrichment to help students become real-world problem

One of their tasks in the spring of 2014 was to create a new schedule that would faculty to implement the school’s enrichment program with greater fidelity.  In particular, they were interested in launching some project-based learning in their science and social studies classes at different grades.  The following slide shows their first prototype of a new schedule which they tested in  spring 2014.

MP schedule

They use the enrichment block built into the schedule for teachers and students to design, implement and showcase different PBL units that engage students in more open-ended, student-centered learning.  The following slide illustrates a few examples of what they have been working on.

Mountain_Park_enrichment block

It was clear from my visit that the faculty has embraced using the enrichment block to experiment with some new ideas and curriculum.  This year, they have been working on iterating their prototype and collecting more empathy data from their user to go a little deeper into their work.  The following slide illustrates some of their project unknows and big questions that they are exploring.  As Mountain Park’s Design Team goes deeper into addressing their point-of-view statement they are learning a great deal about their faculty culture and what it takes to promote innovation in their school.  The following two slides illustrates their design-thinking action plan, with unknowns and questions to answer, as well as a glimpse at the concept map that guides their work.

Mountain_Park_2015-01_AP.slide 2

File Feb 28, 11 22 47 AM

Mountain Park’s work is just one example of what is happening in Atlanta K12 Design Challenge in Atlanta, GA.  Ten other design teams from four more Fulton County schools and a group of six independent schools are working hard to use design thinking as a process for initiating and support innovation in their schools.

If you want more information about AK12DC follow us on Twitter @ak12dc or email me at

From #Strategy to Execution: What are the Myths?

February 25, 2015
A recent article in Harvard Business ReviewWhy Strategy Execution Unravels—and What to Do About It, written by Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes, and Charles Sill demystifies the beliefs we hold about how to implement strategic thinking or planning.  Here are the five myths the authors discuss and demystify.
Myth 1: Execution equals alignment
The authors point out that typically leaders in charge of implementing strategic plans organize objectives and create a scorecard approach to tracking progress.  Their goal is to keep alignment of activities and objectives throughout the organization.  They indicate that their research supports the fact that organizations approaching strategic thinking this way have sound and coherent processes in place.  Their question is why then do most companies struggle with implementation of strategies?  They believe the answer lies in lack of coordination across units or departments in an organization.  Thirty percent of leaders surveyed believe that lack of coordination across units is at the center of strategic failure.
In schools, this could look like a strategic plan that is not well-coordinated across divisions or is only being implemented with fidelity in one department within the school, while being ignored in another department.
Myth 2: Execution Means Sticking to the Plan
In many strategic plans there are elaborate action steps that spell out exactly how the plan is carried out and who is responsible.  Again, the authors point out that having a detailed plan is not a bad idea, but religiously sticking to the plan may not get the organization to the promise land.  The authors write, “managers and employees at every level need to adapt to fact on the gourd, surmount unexpected obstacles and take advantage of fleeting opportunities.” [1]  Successful implementation of strategies requires that an organization adapt to information in real-time, “seize opportunities that support the strategy.” [2]  The concept they promote in their article is that organizations need to be agile while in the midst of strategic implementation.  Leaders have to be able to “read the tea leaves” and adjust to data coming in to the organization about how things are going.  Adjust strategic thinking based on incoming data if it seems important.
In schools, the ability to be agile requires that we collect real-time data to inform us of our users’ experiences so that we can make adjustments to our strategic thinking.  Do we collect enough data about student experiences in school?  Do we collect data from parents?  If we do, are we prepared to objectively analyze it and adjust our approach to better meet the needs of all students?
Myth 3: Communication equals Understanding
When organizations are in a strategic frame of mind, they often communicate their direction in all kinds of ways.  They communicate about their strategic priorities extensively within the organization, as well as externally to their constituents.  In their research, the authors have discovered that communication, the amount and quality of it, is usually not the problem.  What they have found is that most people within the organization when surveyed, are unable to explain what the strategic priorities are?  “Not only are strategic objectives poorly understood, but they often seem unrelated to one another and disconnected from the overall strategy.” [3]  The point being that many people within an organization do not understand the big picture, nor do they understand the basic structure of the strategic framework.  The authors suggest that we should not measure the effectiveness of our communication of strategies through number of inputs (like emails), but we should measure it through the ability of internal and external stakeholders to express their understanding of the organization’s strategic vision.
At Westminster Schools, we have a very detailed and elegant strategic plan (click here) that is in its third year of implementation.  There are two parts to the plan: (1) the Learning for Life Vision; and (2) For College and for Life (the plan itself).  In addition, we have been working on a research study with The Center for Education Integrating Science, Math and Computing (CEISMC) at the Georgia Institute of Technology.  CEISMC has been our partner for three years studying the impact of our strategic initiatives on student learning and faculty development.  Click here for an explanation of our work with CEISMC.  This partnership is a bold and courageous attempt by Westminster to get reliable and actionable data on whether we are hitting our mark.
One of the preliminary results of their study is that many faculty on campus report that they know very little about our strategic planning process.  The implication is that we think we have communicated the vision and direction of our work very well, but the reality is that many faculty do not understand the plan or what is expected.  Communication does not necessarily result in understanding!  Communication to disseminate is different from communication for understanding.  In successful strategic implementation we want to execute for the later, therefore, we need activities that build understanding of strategic priorities, and then we need to measure for whether we achieve those outcomes.
What do you see in your schools?
Myth 4: A Performance Culture Drives Execution
The authors discuss the idea that in many organizations people are rewarded for performance, how well they do their jobs or how well they execute strategic activities.  Their data suggest that many organizations struggle with this idea of rewarding performance or not rewarding underperformance.  “A majority of the companies we have studies deal action (33%), address underperformance inconsistently (34%) or tolerate poor performance (11%). [4]  It is a myth that “high performance leads to successful execution.”  They point out that “a culture that supports execution must recognize and reward other things as well, such as agility, teamwork, and ambition.” [5]  Do we place enough emphasis on rewarding people in our organizations that can successfully adapt to changes?  Adaptive people are generally people who are willing to experiment or take risks?
In schools do we reward our faculty who are risk takers?  Do we promote those faculty that show a high capacity for responding to changing times?  Faculty who experiment with new ways of teaching to meet the needs of all learners are likely to be faculty who will try to understand and integrate the school’s strategic direction into their classroom practice.  Do we reward these people for these skills, communicating to the broader culture that we value this approach?
Myth 5: Execution Should be Driven from the Top
In the past, we thought it was up to strong, visionary leaders to single-handedly move organizations through their strategic plans.  The authors write, “Top-down execution has drawbacks in addition to the risk of unraveling after the departure of a strong CEO.” [6]  They suggest that as strategic thinking becomes more complicated in a globally-connected world, an organization’s adaptation to change requires orchestrating complex decisions at all levels.  Decisions are being made both vertically and horizontally within the organization.  The authors believe that “concentrating power at the top may boost performance in the short-term, but it degrades an organization’s capacity to execute over the long-term.” [7]  The goal is to build the capacity of people throughout the organization to understand the strategic vision and work collaboratively in support of its implementation.  They advocate a distributed leadership model as a way to promote strategic execution.  What drives success from their perspective is if “execution is driven from the middle, and guided from the top.” [8]
In schools, this means that we must invest in the leadership of classroom teachers.  Without their support, involvement, and critical eye it is likely that strategic implementation will falter.  What does school look like if leadership is distributed to faculty for executing the strategic vision of a school?  What does their day-to-day life look like?  Are they working harder than usual or are they working smarter?  What type of support do they need from their administrative team to be successful in their implementation?  The concept of collective leadership rather than individual leadership is promoted by Nick Petrie in his article, Future Trends in Leadership Development.  I reported on his work in a previous blog post (click here).
If we address this five myths by designing strategic solutions that foster agility, distributing leadership, rewarding qualities other than performance, communicate for understanding of the vision, and coordinate both vertically and horizontally within our organizations, we will optimize for successful implementation of our strategic initiatives.
[1] Why Strategy Execution Unravels–and What to Do About It?, by Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes, and Charles Sull, Harvard Business Review, March 2015, page 61.
[2] ibid, page 61.
[3] ibid, page 63.
[4] ibid, page 64.
[5] ibid, page 64.
[6] ibid, page 65.
[7] ibid, page 65.
[8] ibid, page 66.

#leadership development: stay the course or try something new?

February 22, 2015
I read this interesting article, Future Trends in Leadership Development, written by Nick Petrie.  He proposes four trends for the future of leadership development.  (see page 6 for a summary, the whole article is about 30 pages)
  • More focus on vertical development
    • horizontal development focuses on specific competencies of individuals whereas vertical development focuses on developmental stages that people need to move through.
  • Transfer of greater developmental ownership to the individual
    • “People develop fastest when they feel responsible for their own progress.”
  • Greater focus on collective rather than individual leadership
    • Petrie envisions us transitioning from a time when leadership resided in an individual or role, to a new phase where leadership resides in a “collective process that is spread throughout networks of people.”  Reliance on a team instead of an individual!
  • Much greater focus on innovation in leadership development methods
    • Models of leadership that attend to developing a collective process or network don’t exist.  Petrie believes we need to rapidly innovate ways of thinking about leadership development.  “Organizations that embrace the change will do better than those that resist it.”
If you’re curious, add this one to your pile of things to read.

Is teaching ethics the responsibility of schools?

February 8, 2015

With all that is happening around the world to challenge our sense of what is right and wrong, I wonder if schools are taking their rightful place in the conversation, doing what we can to advance a deeper understanding of the moral and ethical questions before us.

The Oxford Dictionary defines ethics “as moral principles that govern a person’s or group’s behavior.”  If we dig a little deeper into the definitions of moral principles we find: 1) moral is “concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior;” and 2) principle is “a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior.”  Are there fundamental truths of right and wrong that govern all human behavior?  If so, what are they?  This very idea has been debated in philosophical circles for many years with little resolution on the horizon.  Moral relativism surfaces when a variety of philosophical positions, centered around differences in moral judgments with people from different cultures, makes it challenging to come to a shared understanding of right and wrong.

With recent events unraveling in war-torn Syria, there is no better time to engage in conversation about ethics and moral responsibility.  The Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS) has created chaos in the region and around the world with their blatant disrespect for human life through beheadings and burning their prisoners alive.  I think outside ISIS’s members or sympathizers we could all agree that the moral principle of “valuing human life” has been terribly violated.  There is expressed outrage around the world for these events.  Why doesn’t ISIS see human life in the same way as the rest of the world does?  Is this an example of moral relativism?  Do they believe that it is OK to sacrifice innocent people as an act of war against what they perceive to be their “aggressors?”  I can’t imagine how they would justify such acts, and yet they must believe that they are justified to carry them out.  Does justified equate with them believing it is morally right to do so?

The Washington Post ( February 5) reported on President Obama’s recent speech on ethics.

His latest challenge came Thursday at the National Prayer Breakfast. At a time of global anxiety over Islamist terrorism, Obama noted pointedly that his fellow Christians, who make up a vast majority of Americans, should perhaps not be the ones who cast the first stone.

He continues by challenging us to think beyond ourselves.

“Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history,” he told the group, speaking of the tension between the compassionate and murderous acts religion can inspire. “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

President Obama was widely criticized by many politicians and pundits, especially from the conservative right.  But I wonder if what he was doing was pointing out that throughout human history we have been divided on the moral principle of “valuing human life.”  There is a certain moral relativism that exists when we look closely at the ethics of “valuing human life.”  Should it be so?  I personally don’t think so, but then again I was not raised in a society where I was oppressed for decades, seeing my own life not valued by those around me.  Some from the Christian right may not like how Obama opened the door on the question of the moral relativism of human life, but he was speaking the truth.  Can we face the truth?

Maybe we have to go back to the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you!”  Would any of us want to be burned alive?  I don’t think so, at least not if we had the choice.  Maybe that could answer the question for ISIS members and their sympathizers.

Albert Schweitzer was quoted as saying:

The first step in the evolution of ethics is a sense of solidarity with other human beings. (click here)

He seems to be implying that unless we sit down and gain empathy with our fellow human beings, we will struggle developing a universal moral principle that all human life is valuable and should be respected.  Solidarity with our fellow human beings requires that we build trust and credibility with them so that we can honestly dialogue around life’s challenging issues.  Clearly, this is not happening almost anywhere in the world today.  Certainly not on the world’s political stage.

Our individual and collective reputation is dependent upon our ability to build trust and credibility.  We need to be perceived as honest, fair, and trusting.  If not, then our ability to openly dialogue is compromised.

It is so important that we begin the teaching of ethics early in a child’s schooling.  Students need to develop the knowledge, skills, values, and experience discussing these important challenges we face.  While we don’t have to teach a specific set of moral principles, we should be teaching students how to analyze and evaluate their beliefs and those of others from different cultures.  In truth, few decisions are completely right or wrong.  For many challenges we face, there are two sides to every issue.

When we look at a typical student’s course of study in public or private school, we will generally find no curriculum dealing with ethical decision-making or “leading the good life.” (see an excellent post on Brain Pickings, February 8)  While some teachers may venture into conversations ethics, it is true that it depends on the school you attend, the teacher you have, or the course you are taking.  Luck of the draw!  To me, random chance isn’t good enough given the high-stakes we face in our chaotic world.  We will need educated, empathetic, patient and thoughtful students to think their way towards better solutions.

Here are some issues our students will face:

  • a world population that cannot feed all of its members.  “According to the most recent estimates, in 2011, 17 percent of people in the developing world lived at or below $1.25 a day. That’s down from 43 percent in 1990 and 52 percent in 1981.”  (World Bank)
  • a changing climate that presents with drastic weather changes impacting billions of people.
  • managing freshwater supplies on the planet so that we all humans have access to drinkable water (National Geographic’s water crisis)
  • managing our energy supplies so that developing nations have the opportunity to bring a higher-quality of life to their people.  The United States has fewer than 5% of the world’s population but accounts for almost 20% of the world’s energy consumption. (United States Energy Information Administration)
  • honesty, transparency and accountability in financial, corporate and non-profit organizations (StockPickSystems, the collapse of the housing market in 2008 due to financial and corporate greed)

Of course the list could go on-and-on.  The point being that if we want students to be educated to deal with our complex and ever-changing world, they will need the ethical decision-making skills to understand, manage, and responsibly deal with these and other issues.  This will only happen if we expect them to grapple with them now within the context of learning about ethics, moral principles, and moral relativism.  While some of this education happens in their family, school can be a more objective place to engage in the learning and dialogue.

As educators, can we honestly say that our students are well-educated unless they graduate with a firm understanding of ethical behavior?  I don’t think so.

As educators, the implication for us is that we have to be good role models for openly addressing the moral principles present in modern society.  Is our leadership in classrooms and schools showing students what ethical behavior constitutes?  Like the society at large, some educators are good role models and some are definitely not (Cheating scandal in Atlanta Public Schools, AJC report).

As educators, we should take an ethics inventory of our curricula and our school programs.  Do we support ethics education throughout our curricula or are we so obsessed with coverage of content that we fail to integrate ethics into our work?  Do we have advisory programs that are vehicles for ethics education and are we developing our faculty to deliver the programs effectively?  How are we handling cyber-ethics in our schools?  Do we only deal with it by punishing those who abuse our policies or do we have an integrated curriculum that helps students manage the complex world of the internet?

These and other questions are on my mind as I think about our responsibility as educators to help shape the next generation of ethical citizens.  When we look across the landscape, there are definitely beacons of hope; however, it is discouraging at times to see how poorly we treat one another, look no further than our public officials.  And it is equally discouraging to see how utterly disrespectful we are of human life, look no further than ISIS burning or beheading its prisoners.  Some would criticize me for putting those two examples in the same paragraph, like the criticism Obama received after his recent speech, but I would ask the critics isn’t it possible that the first example could eventually lead a person or group to manifest behaviors that were morally irresponsible?  History is full of examples I think.

So let me leave you with the question: What is a school’s role in teaching ethics?





Look at #cftrecommendations for insight into education

February 2, 2015

Here are some interesting pieces I have recently read.  I have provided links.  In some cases, you might need a subscription to read the full article.

Principal: What I’ve learned about annual standardized testing, Washington Post, by Valerie Strauss, February 1

  • This piece looks the issue of school reform through the lens of a principal in New York City.  The following quote speaks to the content of the article.  Policymakers get out of the way of education reform!  Teachers need to be more invested in the changes that improve student learning.

“My experience in the education world is that there are really two worlds in it. One is the world of contract and consultants and academics and experts and plenty of officials at the federal state and local level. And the other is a world of principals and classroom teachers who are actually providing education to students. What I’m hearing from my principals’ and teachers’ world is that the footprint of that first world has become way too big in their lives to the point where it’s inhibiting their ability to do the jobs they’re entrusted to do.”

Five Myths About School Improvement, Educational Leadership, by Marge Scherer, February 2015, page 7

  • Myth #1: We don’t really know what works.  We do and Ms. Scherer points out where reform works.
  • Myth #2: A single reform will move the needle.  No single reform has ever moved the needle in education
  • Myth #3: One improvement is as good as another.  Ms. Scherer points out that John Hattie’s extensive research proves this wrong.
  • Myth #4: Researchers agree about what’s needed most.  I don’t believe that most researchers really can agree on what is needed most.  Many of them spend almost no time in the classroom and don’t understand teachers’ hopes, joys, and frustrations.
  • Myth #5: Educators resist accountability.  Ms. Scherer points out that just because teachers, administrators and/or unions don’t agree with policymakers attempts to construct ways to hold schools or teachers accountable doesn’t mean educators resist accountability.  They just might not agree because the policies are bad ideas for teaching and learning.

From Gotcha to Growth, JSD, by Janice Bradley, December 2014

  • This is an excellent article about how important it is for principals to construct a supervision and evaluation process that values growth and does not focus on trying to “get the teacher.”  The author shares the model of a collaborative design cycle (page 14) as a means towards engaging teachers in meaningful growth.

The Art of Giving and Receiving  Advice, Harvard Business Review, by David Garvin and Joshua Margolis, January 2015.

  • These authors hit the nail on the head when they unravel the challenges of mentoring or being mentored.  Why is this harder than it looks to give and receive advice?  How do you choose the right advisors or mentors to guide you through challenging situations?   The key is trying to clearly articulate the problem that needs to be solved  There is a good table on page 63 that summarizes roles advisors often find themselves in and desired outcomes from these experiences.

Four Ways We Must Improve Student Health Services, Education Week, by Stephen Brock and Thomas Brant, January 21, 2015

  • These authors point out that our society is terribly inadequate in meeting the mental health needs of our young children and adolescents.  We tend to only focus on the issue when there is a national tragedy like the Sandy Hook school shooting.  They advocate for schools providing a continuum of school and community health supports.   That schools broaden access to mental health services beyond students with special needs.  That schools work on improving school-community collaboration with the intent of providing integrated services.  Finally, empower families to manage the myriad decisions and resources they need to support their child’s mental health.

Activists Learn Art of ‘Test Refusal,” Education Week, by Liana Heitin, January 28, 2015

  • A fascinating story about activists around the country that are trying to get their voices heard around opposition to the extensive high-stakes testing that most students are subjected to.   They report on the regional “Opt Out” campaigns where parents keep their children from participating in excessive high-stakes tests.  The number of tests students are subjected to varies from state-to-state.  However, there is consensus that all the testing requires a significant allocation of school time  to review and preparation.  Some would argue that this ‘testing time’ (as much as 20 standardized tests in a year) is not engaging for students and doesn’t lead to deeper understanding of knowledge and skills.

Hope you enjoy these six pieces!

What do students need to #learn in their #schooling?

February 1, 2015

Maybe before venturing into a conversation about this question, we need to have a clear sense of the purpose of education.  If the purpose is clear, we will have less difficulty arriving at the “curricula,” and therefore what students should learn in school.

So what is the purpose of school?  When I searched the question, the first resource was a website with the question as the title (click here).  They reference research, much of which is devoted to the work of Steven Stemler, a professor of human intelligence and social behavior.  Here is a list of five common reasons given for the purpose of school (click here for website).

Civic development

Emotional development

Cognitive development

Vocational development

Social development

In a July 2012 edition of Education Update, a publication of ASCD, the purpose of education was the lead article.  The authors suggest that the purpose of education is a question that most teachers, administrators, parents, educational policymakers and politicians are unable to find common agreement.  The authors write:

In the United States, historically, the purpose of education has evolved according to the needs of society. Education’s primary purpose has ranged from instructing youth in religious doctrine, to preparing them to live in a democracy, to assimilating immigrants into mainstream society, to preparing workers for the industrialized 20th century workplace. (Education update, July 2012, page 1)

What are the needs of society in 2015?  How does our educational system, both public and private, define its purpose in the midst of a rapidly changing world?  Is the purpose:

  • to prepare our students to compete in a globally-connected world;
  • to create students who are eager to learn in a technology rich culture;
  • to create students who are literate in math and language arts and can perform well on high-stakes tests;
  • to create students who are civically minded citizens with a moral conscience
  • to create students, well-grounded in STEM disciplines, that have an interest in STEM careers.
  • other

As we think about the purpose of a 21st Century education, we have consider whether our thinking is restricted by a mindset and framework tied to the past.  We still struggle with initiatives devoted to integrating disciplines so that students learn to critically think and problem solve using a diverse set of skills and strategies.  We clearly struggle innovating curricula that are burdened by an enormous set of learning objectives.  We are all familiar with the response from a teacher who might consider creative approaches to her teaching: “Can I afford the time to think outside the box because I have so much content to teach in so little time?”  Finally, we have little consensus around the right amount of assessment and the right balance of types of assessments that students should experience in school.  Can we agree on the purpose of education?

Whatever we do, we must come to an understanding of the breadth versus depth conversation in education.  In traditional schooling, where content is the driver we tend to place blame on students when they don’t learn the mountains of content we expect them to know.  “I taught it, they didn’t learn it.”  We need to shift the focus to: “If they didn’t learn it, maybe I didn’t teach it very well.”  I would suggest that teachers honestly reflect on the quantity of material they expect students to learn and opt for deeper learning.  Of course, they need to be supported by their administrators, district leaders, and educational policymakers.  Teachers cannot make this shift towards more conceptual understanding of ideas without widespread support.

So what are the purposes of education?  I would suggest the following:

  • to help students develop the skills, knowledge and habits of mind to enter into the workforce using their talents and interests;
  • to help prepare good citizens in family and community;
  • to help students see the connections between what they are expected to learn in school and the things that relevant to their lives; and
  • to help students tap into and develop their creative potential as it relates to the curricula they are expected to master.

You might suggest some other statements of purpose, but I would argue that these form the foundation of what school should be about.


Machines, mechanics, and STEAM come together in 8th grade science

January 31, 2015

STEAM[1] copyThe Westminster Schools is embarking on an initiative in its Middle School to build a STEAM vision, mission, and curriculum. The School is also embarking on a 3,400 square foot renovation of existing Middle School space into an innovation lab/maker space to support this curricular initiative. To get this process off the ground we have a group of seven Middle School teachers who have formed a STEAM cohort that will meet regularly under the guidance of the Center for Teaching. This cohort will lay the groundwork for the STEAM curriculum. A separate Design Team of Middle School teachers is working collaboratively with an architect to inform the design of the innovation lab. Our goal is to have a curriculum ready for 2015-2016 and the innovation lab ready for occupancy in August 2015.

As part of this overall work, our 8th Grade Physical Science students are ramping up the machines unit with a STEAM initiative. I introduced this unit using a wide variety of music videos featuring Rube Goldberg machines. Immediately, students became excited and submerged in the development of their project to build a Rube Goldberg machine. Each student was tasked with contributing three items they wanted to use in the design. In teams, they created “sub-parts” of the machine using the design cycle of tinkering, testing and revising. Students assembled the subparts and learned the true meaning of trial-and-error.

Student engineers found that embedded in the project was a generous amount of applied math. In a guided reflection, student wrote about what they learned with regard to taking risks, making mistakes and collaborating on teams. They discovered and applied their physics principles using different types of simple machines, experimenting with mechanical energy and advantage, and learning about conservation of energy in a system. Their work is leading towards a Rube Goldberg exhibit that will be part of our school-wide STEAM show in March 2015.

STEAM 2Recognizing that art is more than drawing and painting, the students decided in to integrate art through performance art using music videos. Students will use the language from their numerous reflections and the devices or “sub-parts” of the Rube Machine as instruments to make a Rube Goldberg music video. With a mindset of competition and their heart of service, students will crowd source and “sell” their videos sending all proceeds to a philanthropic
organization as a way to complete the learning cycle.

In the meantime, students are completing performance-based assessments, using and redesigning simple machines to illustrate the scientific definitions of work, mechanical advantage and efficiency. These assessments are graded in the categories of lab skills, accurately using rulers and spring scales; diagrams, applying the vocabulary to free body diagrams; calculations, using the six new formulas of machines; and scientific writing, clearly explaining science concepts using evidence to support their understanding.

In reflection, this transformation from a computational to conceptual approach to mechanics, along with the integration of a STEAM approach, has made a difficult unit a more rewarding unit for all of us because of the authentic level of engagement of my students.

For more information about this work in our Middle School science program at The Westminster Schools contact

Guest post: by Mecia Israel, 8th grade Science Teacher at The Westminster Schools


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