So, I wrote an article about the Integrated Studies Program and it was published in the latest issue of the ISTE Newsletter, which is pretty cool because now our program is getting the national exposure that it rightfully deserves. As a result, I have received emails from across the country with questions about the design and function of our 21st century styled program and the challenges that it faces with standardized testing and other traditional measures of success.
Here are some of the questions I've been asked along with my responses to each:
1) Do you have a defined curriculum that includes fact-based, testable knowledge? If so, how do you include this into the project based, constructivist approach? If not, how do you avoid or prepare students for the ever-present standardized testing that is implemented through programs at the state and national level?
We do not have a standard “curriculum”, because it is ever-changing based upon student needs. We do, however, maintain a strong focus on the New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards, and that guides much of what we do in the ISP. Students are responsible for devising their own rubrics, but also have the task of selecting what standards they are going to address. Of course, teachers are very involved in this process, and the selection of standards to be addressed in a respective project are negotiated through a series of questions and answers. Thus, the teacher, through careful guidance and facilitation, ensures that the student achieves mastery of the standards being addressed in a project, and ultimately completion of all standards by graduation.
2) How does this model impact your students' ability to compete for scholarships and accepted positions in more prestigious colleges?
Since the ISP students are essentially doing the same thing that traditional education students are doing, striving to meet state and federal standards, and receive grades to track their progress throughout their time in high school (thus, providing a GPA), they are able to compete for scholarships and acceptance into prestigious colleges and universities just the same as any other student. In fact, if anything, the ISP students have a competitive edge, because most of their projects are geared toward real world learning and developing skills that will lead them to success beyond the realm of secondary education. Thus far, we are batting 1.000 with the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) in both English/LAL as well as math and we have sent every single one of our graduates into a college, university, or branch of the military.
3) Specifically to the point of students setting their own achievement levels, how do you avoid the inevitable: a student that does not push himself/herself to achieve their full potential? I understand that this varies for every student, and that each student can give their all in one class at one time of the year and their all in another class at another time of the year. However, I would assume that you still encounter some student apathy that becomes problematic when continued throughout the year/years. If you see this, how do you deal with it and still maintain the basic principles of the constructivist approach?
I love the fact that you used the word push, because I am always using that word with my students. Motivation is important when it comes to a unique learning environment, such as the ISP. There is a great deal of independence involved with what we do in the ISP and students must push themselves to achieve their full potential. As facilitators of student learning, we are there to provide them with a nudge whenever it is necessary. The ISP is organized into different advisories. Each teacher in the ISP maintains their own cohort of students to which they serve as advisor. The job of the advisor is to maintain active communication with the parental unit at home to ensure that they are receiving support from both sides of the bus ride. Furthermore, parents and legal guardians actually serve as team members on certain projects. We try to incorporate the parental unit into the ISP as much as possible so that students cannot tell the difference between school and home. We are not big on physical settings, since we exist in a web-based world. A traditional classroom has walls, a ceiling, windows, and a door. The ISP is located in a similar type of setting, or so it would seem. Allow me to explain. The ISP is like NASA. We have our launch site, which has all of the physical characteristics of a traditional classroom. However, we have computers; a lot of them! These computers are like space shuttles for the students. They jump on the computers and take off, each moving at different speeds but with the same destinations – the New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards. What students do at each one of those respective destinations may be uniquely different, but as long as their visit can be verified as valid and meaningful, they have accomplished the objectives of their mission. The ISP teachers and the students’ parental units are the systems control base. We are there to help the students navigate their way through a galaxy of learning, but it is incumbent upon the student to discover, deduct, and build in order to grow and develop as an explorer. Like space, the internet is infinite, and so is student learning in the ISP.
Many cities in the US are attempting to climb out of an outdated 20th century traditional model of education. In Philadelphia, the present has caught up to the future of 21st century education, and programs like the Integrated Studies Program at Camden County Technical School are leading the way! I am not by any means going to pretend or attempt to argue that the ISP is the 21st century learning environment perfected. We have our problems. We are still young. We are learning and experiencing growing pains like any other new program would. However, I will say that our goal of creating a 21st century edutopia is a realistic one. We are striving toward excellence, and it is only a matter of time before we achieve it.