Alphabets are the building blocks of language and learning. Through 'Back to Basics' series, we have shared our approach to education with all the alphabets which describe the unique ways and learning methods at The Northstar School.
Let me begin by mentioning that the last few months have been the most difficult of times for The Northstar School. I am not hesitant to accept it and share it. Are we alone in this? Certainly not. I prefer sharing about where we need to get better at than wrongfully boasting that " we can do no wrong". In this piece I do not want to share about the administrative issues that we have been battling with. Financial uncertainties, government overreach, etc. I will not talk about those. I want to talk about what has bothered me the most: what does learning mean in these times? I have struggled immensely in answering this question for myself. Let me start out with a preamble:
- Read my earlier post on learning in the times of Corona here.
- I am certain that the educators at Northstar have responded with great fortitude. The speed with which we transitioned to online learning was nothing short of extraordinary. Speed was of essence in the initial response. Our goal was to ensure that learners to do not feel any discontinuity in learning.
- Our online sessions are some of the best. There is a simple reason for it. What happens in online learning (synchronous live sessions) is merely an extension of class learning. What I mean is: if the class learning a great, the online learning has the potential to be good. Online sessions cannot be markedly better than in class learning because the basic principles of good learning hold true in either case. Having said, there is a great scope of improvement.
- There is simply no replacement for in-class school learning. The best place to learn is in the school with friends and educators. And we miss them a lot.
The greatest concern for me has been to establish a clear model of thinking that guides our approach to online learning. For many days I fumbled in the dark to put my head around it. I knew we were doing well, but without a clear model I felt disoriented, like finding your way out of a dense forest without a map. I had some signals which showed the general direction we were moving in, as you would when finding your way in a forest. But that is not a predictive or guiding framework. Along with the need to find a good guiding framework, I was, and still am, firefighting issues that come along with running a school. It has been a few very difficult weeks. And I was not making any progress.
Then one day, I had this nagging feeling as though I have already answered these questions before. We have some great documents written about our approach to education when we started the school. I have not revisited them mindfully in many years. I knew the answers lie in those initial thoughts about the Northstar approach. While rereading those documents I felt a surge of excitement. It all made sense. The model that I was looking for was right there. It was always there. Whether in school or online, the principles of good education do not change. So here is the Northstar Philosophy of Learning that guides our online and in-campus learning.
NORTHSTAR PHILOSOPHY OF LEARNING
Our philosophy of learning presents a broad view of our educational thinking. It guides all our decisions.
At Northstar students learn in different ways, in different places and from different people, including the teacher, peers, community members and themselves. We believe that education should not be about memorizing facts, but about nurturing the curiosity of learners and guiding the development of the skills needed to pursue and learn about any interest. It is our job as educators to help students ask questions and search for the answers wherever they might be rather than simply providing answers, and to ensure we do not deny students the opportunity to explore and reflect. Learning is a complex process that demands a lot of hard mental work. But it is also a fun and satisfying process, and healthy habits of learning are at the core of the Northstar Philosophy of Learning.
5 years ago we spent an inordinate amount of time in developing the Northstar Approach. Those were the days when the school had not started, and we were in a great frame of mind, unblemished by harsh practicalities. We believed, and still believe that educating a child takes a village. Educators, parents, community and the learner herself. The image below is a concise version of our expectations from each of these groups. Remembering and actively imbibing these in our practice is the guiding force of our teaching and learning, whether online or in-class.
NORTHSTAR LEARNING DESIGN PRINCIPLES
Apart from the philosophy and approach, we have developed a unique model of learning that guides our instructional design. Northstar Exploratory Learning is the foundation of learning experiences at Northstar. Exploratory learning refers to deep and meaningful planned experiences that kindle the innate curiosity and sense of wonder in children. Exploratory learning allows children to wander through and wonder about unknown territory in ways that motivate inquiry and the having of wonderful ideas. These inquiries and ideas need not look wonderful to the outside world, what matters is that they are meaningful to the child and his/her development. The design of exploratory learning experiences is guided by the following design principles:
Literacy and Expression
Reading, writing, speaking and listening are essential skills to access and express knowledge and ideas. As such, strong literacy skills form the basis for successful learning in any discipline, and students must learn to use language effectively to excel across subject areas.
Local and Global
Exploratory learning tackles questions that are immediately relevant to learners' local experience but which have clear connections to global phenomena.
Authentic and Interdisciplinary
Exploratory learning provides opportunities for students to experience the authentic learning involved in real-world professional work in their role as writers, mathematicians, historians, scientists, geographers, athletes and so on.
Collaborative and Individual
Exploratory learning involves meaningful collaboration, helping students develop and refine their ability to work as a class and as part of a team. Exploratory learning also provides opportunities for individual learning and reflection to support the development of each learner's meaning-making and independent thinking.
Iteration and Ownership
Learning is a mindful process, not a destination: deep understanding and skills-building require deliberate goal setting, practice and reflection.
These principles help us design learning experiences that are consistent with our philosophy of learning. The matter of adapting these to online learning is a matter of tactics, not strategy. I think once you have a goal and a framework in mind, the tactics (and tools) are easy to adapt or build.
This pandemic has brought unprecedented issues for learning and institutions. I see two ways going ahead. First is to continue the make-shift arrangements until the schools reopen and get back to "as things were". Second is to fundamentally change the role of educators and institutions. We are taking the second path. Online elements were always a part of learning experience at Northstar. It will now take its rightful role in support of the in-class learning. A corollary, an addendum. An important one. To me online learning represents a shift towards self-directed learning.
We are now building perhaps the most advanced learning management system. We use different tech platforms for varied needs. I do not believe in one tool/platform solving multiple problems. I have generally found them to be suboptimal. I prefer one job-one tool. So we have separate platforms for academic planning including assessments, parent communications, administration, etc. We are now building a platform that will replace our existing academic platform (Google Classroom) to something much more elaborate and designed specifically for online learning. Details on it will follow soon.
These are difficult times, particularly for small schools like ours. We are easy targets for populist measures by powers that be and everyone loves to plant a nice kick when someone's down. But we are resilient. Our fundamentals are strong, and we rely on our first principles. We are here to do good, and we will continue to do so.
- Mohit Patel, Founder
At Northstar, our methods of learning are different. In an effort to give an opportunity for kids from all schools to experience our methods, we organized Northstar Experience Day.
It's hard to teach what you were never taught, and if you have gone through the Indian school system, chances are that you have had little experience with teamwork and collaborative problem-solving, unless, of course, you have been exposed to this later in life. I bring up this issue of collaboration because, during my stay in Rajkot, Mohit and I designed and facilitated several workshops with parents, educators and professionals. Many of our activities required participants to collaborate with each other in small groups and I was surprised to learn how little familiarity and, as a result, how few strategies our adult participants had with group work of this kind
The blank stares and uneasy silence made me feel as if we had just asked a group of race car drivers to complete the Tour de France with some of them never even having seen a bicycle.
In fact, the analogy of the race car drivers and the cyclists is a faulty one in the sense that both the drivers and the cyclists perform their work in teams. Yes, a single person might ultimately be standing on the podium and be announced as winner, but the process is a collaborative one involving a team of people working to advance a joint mission. In fact, teamwork and collaborative problem-solving seem to be unavoidable features of the 21st century workplace, but that doesn't mean that all teams and team members are created equal! A study from MIT on the characteristics of successful teams (link:?Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others found that the smartest teams were not the ones whose team members had the highest combined IQ. Instead, the most effective teams were the ones whose members ?contributed more equally to the team's discussions, rather than letting one or two people dominate the group? and whose members scored higher on a test measuring their ability to read ?complex emotional states from images of faces with only the eyes visible.? The answer to the question: ?is your child a team player?? is thus dependent on his or her ability to engage in balanced group interactions both listening and offering input and on his or her degree of empathy.
Back to our summer workshops. Let's take a look at what happened when people with little experience with collaborative problem-solving were asked to do just that: Faced with the unfamiliar challenge, groups of faculty, parents and professionals proceeded to respond in various ways: many teams were initially very quiet, seemingly unsure how to approach a task that demanded collective idea generation and decision-making; others immediately gravitated towards an in-group leader figure in a likely attempt to make the situation more familiar and comfortable; and still others set out to initially solve the task individually, thus postponing having to deal with the unknowns of collaboration for as long as possible. Providing and receiving feedback between groups presented another giant leap into unknown territory, and often these feedback conversations would be heavily skewed towards thinking about how an idea might NOT work, rather than exploring the potential of a new idea through collaborative, supportive inquiry. Of course there were also a minority of groups whose members were perhaps more familiar with team work and who managed to create a healthier group dynamic where everyone's voice and ideas were heard and decisions informed by discussion and consensus. The real question is: how do we make such teamwork the norm, not the exception?
In Denmark, where I am from, education is more participatory and more collaborative than the traditional model in many Indian schools. By engaging in regular collaborative activities, students learn how to navigate group work, how to share perspectives and ideas and how to provide constructive feedback. I'm not saying we have it right in Denmark in fact, I feel we have a long long way to go when it comes to education but I want to point out that it is possible to effectively practice collaboration in schools.
Collaboration is a key focus area in the Northstar Approach
At The Northstar School we strive to create a culture of collaboration between all members of the learning community. For example, because we understand that it is hard to teach something you have not yourself mastered, we train all our teachers to collaborate with each other when designing and delivering student learning experiences. This is because we believe that life is interdisciplinary so school should be too!? but it also provides students with a model of what effective collaboration can look like.
Our focus on experiential learning has students engaged in tackling real world curiosities, often working in project teams that demand collaborative decision-making and action. We encourage students to welcome differences of opinion as opportunities for personal reflection and growth and to collectively negotiate meaning in conversation with others to reach deeper understanding. Such learning experiences allow students to practice and strengthen their communication skills and level of empathy to help them master the social art of collaboration and emerge as team players.