Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Integrated Studies Program (ISP): A 21st Century Learning Environment

 William Butler Yeats once said, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." As an educator, I have always had great affinity for this adage. I think that this is true in many ways, and perhaps now more than ever. The traditional model of education includes a teacher who serves as an authority on what is learned and how it is learned; rooted in curriculum, lectures, assignments, tests, quizzes, and preparation for standardized assessments. One could equate this to the "filling of a pail." I can just see a teacher pouring a bucket of information into the heads of students. Now, as valuable as that information might be, it allows no room in the mind of a student for real learning to take place. Real learning does not stem from a flood of knowledge. Real learning occurs when there is a spark and stimulation of the mind. The 21st century model of education consists of vastly different variables, including student choice, fun and innovative projects, qualitative research, student/teacher negotiation about assessment of learning, and utilization of advanced technology. It is not a classroom, it is a bonfire of learning. This learning environment does not bore, it burns with creativity and thought. Teachers are not teachers, but facilitators of learning. Students have control, as they should. They are the people we serve. They are what matter most. They are the future.

 At Camden County Technical School, the future is now. The 21st century learning environment is a real place, and it's located in building 2 of the Gloucester Township Campus. This is where the Integrated Studies Program (ISP) can be found. It is a room with over 50 desktop computers, 20 laptops, and 2 projectors with screens. It is a virtual edutopia and a learning environment like no other.

 The Integrated Studies Program is rooted in the philosophy of Constructivism, which promotes learning by doing. There is no better teacher than experience. However, experience doesn't work alone. My name is Frank Williams and I am the content area specialist for English/LAL in the ISP. Michael Ritzius is the mastermind behind the operation and largely responsible for the creation of the ISP. Ritzius also serves as the science teacher in the ISP. Nicolae Borota is like the Yoda of the math world, teaching his young apprentices how to use their jedi powers in the field of mathematics. Sarah Daly (Spanish) and Peter Hooke (History) comprise the rest of the team of ISP teachers. My colleagues and I facilitate student learning with students ranging from grades 9-12. We utilize a project-based learning approach to education, allowing students to focus on areas of interest while still addressing necessary academic skills. We are blessed to have the most advanced educational technology at our disposal, such as Moodle and Project Foundry.

 However, perhaps our greatest gift is the support that we receive from our administrators, specifically our superintendent, Dr. Albert Monillas, our principal, Dr. Teri Stallone, and our supervisor, Robert Shappell. Without them, the web tools and programs that we use would be of no application. Because of their vision, our ideal classroom is not a dream, it is a reality.

 The Integrated Studies Program (ISP) reflects our vision of 21st century learning and echoes a philosophy of education that promotes the learner as the student, teacher, and authority of knowledge gained. Our constructivist design enables students to learn with a great deal of freedom and independence. They work on projects that are relative to their interests and abilities while also addressing New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards in the process. Teachers are facilitators and students are the ones making the decisions as to what is important to learn and how they are going to learn it. Students devise their own rubrics and dictate their own levels of achievement. There are no deadlines, but instead time lines that are established for the completion of work. It's a cross-content model that allows for students to mix and mingle with students in other classes and other grade levels, allowing for collaborative efforts that would not be possible in the traditional model. To most educators, this may seem like a fantasy. For us, it's just another day in the ISP.

 The 21st century requires a model of education that will light a fire in the hearts and minds of its students. The Integrated Studies Program is burning brightly as a beacon to schools everywhere. I hope they see the light.