On Monday and Tuesday I was in LA to visit Da Vinci Science and Aveson Charter Schools. Both schools have different models to curriculum design to what I have seen earlier at HTH, Big Picture and Bulldog Tech. They both use project based approaches. Da Vinci more so within a disciplinary model, Aveson Global Leadership Academy have projects as a separate project class within the social sciences. What distinguishes them is their approaches to learning mastery. At Aveson, interestingly, they also have cross-age classes which is worth considering and investigating further.
In the UK we are ultimately slaves to high stakes assessment at GCSE and A level that can deform a persons learning ‘capacities’ as written about Rob Gratton here. So on one level, any form of curriculum innovation needs to be designed carefully to allow success in high stakes tests. My personal opinion is that the knowledge, understanding and skills can sit within a highly personalised curriculum that liberates students through choice, authentic outcomes & community and adult world connections for example. Thus developing students wider learning capacities beyond the narrow knowledge required solely for testing. Certainly developing students subject skills through enquiry at years 7,8 and 9 is possible before moving to broader knowledge approaches using blended learning later on is possible. Project Based Learning can be the most effective method to develop wider dispositions and rich knowledge that is more likely understood and retained for high stakes testing.
At Da Vinci Science I met with Steve Wallis, Principle and we chatted and toured a few of the presentations of learning going on that week. The school is STEM focused and students will master Science and Engineering before moving to specialised pathways in 11th and 12th grades such as a STEAM, Biomedical or Engineering Pathway. There is also Da Vinci Design School and Da Vinci Communications High School which specialise in different pathways. All are guided by similar underlying principles. Steve was passionate about content mastery which is important for the UK context. I think this school has a fine balance between academic rigour and the wider outcomes, habits and dispositions. The similarities are clear such as PBL, digital portfolios, student led conferences, presentations of learning, internships and so on. They seem to have it all! They do have a focus on the mastery of subject content. They call this ‘essential knowledge and skills’. Steve was kind to give me a whole book full of teacher projects and how they are rigorously assessed. By reading through the schools literature there is a lot that UK schools trying innovative approaches can learn from Da Vinci. I observed one student presentation of learning. POL’s are high accountability for students where they are asked to defend their learning to teachers, peers and parents. They must be done in the UK!
The POL I observed, the student presented her learning against the essential knowledge understanding and skills for that semester in her subjects algebra, chemistry and world history. Not only that but following the POL, the 3 teachers in the room asked her to defend her learning so that she was not simply reciting a presentation. For example the algebra teacher asked her to work through an algebra problem there and then to prove she knows it. All 3 teachers were collaborating on a google sheet that had the student grades and gave her immediate feedback for her defence. The student had access to the google sheet and could track her progress over the long term. Additionally the student also had to defend the 21st century skill she had been focusing on in the term. She demonstrated that she had developed collaboration by showing feedback from her peers through a google sheet.
Da Vinci use a mastery based grading system, which grades them on essential skills rather than an average that is ineffective. A B grade on its own is ineffectual, but explaining why a B grade because the student as mastered skill a, c and d but not b is more effective. This can sit within a project based unit of learning. Where students may have a beautiful authentic outcome and are intrinsically motivated, students will also be assessed using a mastery based approach. This is simplified into 3 questions based on the skill that is being assessed. The questions will assess basic understanding, significant understanding and if they are approaching mastery for example. The student can now value depth of learning over speed and are given feedback on how to ‘grow’ and master content specifically. Of course within this, students need to have a system of accountability that means they do master the content.
At Aveson they have ‘personalised mastery learning‘ “Personalized Mastery Learning (PML) allows for students and advisors to have a conversation about what gets learned, how it gets learned and when the learning happens. Students and advisors work together to establish relationships and relevance in learning, to define each student’s learning path, to determine learning expectations and then to develop methods for students to reflect and defend their learning in order to show mastery.”
There were so many takeaways from both schools to think about in my own practice and others and both in personal and whole system design. There are many great things already done in the UK and marrying this with aspects of mastery within an innovative curriculum model is important. How it is done is open to interpretation. My fellowship has helped me to take the best practices alongside what I think already works in the UK.
How do we design school assessment and curriculum that liberates learners at the same time works within the framework of high stakes testing and university admissions? What do you think?