Lodestar: A School Built Around Agency

Making in Schools

This is the fourth in a six-part series titled Making in Schools.

Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, roughly 125 years ago, American schools have looked roughly the same. At its heart, our system has been driven by two organizing principles:

  1. Students should be organized into classes by age and subject.
  2. Content should be delivered in a standardized order and at a standardized pace.

While this system may have been functional in preparing students to work in steel factories or cotton mills, ensuring that each graduate of the system had similar skills/knowledge and were used to working according to a standardized, regimented schedule, it’s not holding up to the demands of today.

As teachers who are passionate about student-centered education, we’re not alone in thinking that it’s high time to rethink and redesign school. We’re also not alone in thinking that the fix involves increasing student agency, and we’ve been inspired by the amazing community of teachers, students, parents, leaders, and community members across the country who are tirelessly working to reimagine school.

This post provides one example of what it looks like to reimagine school by examining Lodestar, our new school whose design has been deeply shaped by maker empowerment and our experience making in schools. We’ll start by briefly sharing why we think our definition of agency is the central principle around which school should be designed. Then we’ll share how this translates into the design of Lodestar. We’ll finish with a brief list of resources that you can use to engage your school or organization with this work.

Why Agency?

Making is often thought of in terms of specific tools (such as modern fabrication tools like 3D printers, laser cutters, or CNC machines), or for specific subject areas (STEM classes). At Lodestar, we think of making in schools a bit more expansively: as described at length in our first post, we think making is important because it empowers people to understand the made dimensions of their world — the ways in which human hands and minds have built and shaped our world — and how they can influence, change, hack, and improve designed systems and objects.

We believe that this kind of agency (with all of its associated dispositions and capacities) is the fundamental quality students need to be successful in a rapidly changing world.

Agency at Lodestar

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning are rapidly creating opportunities and changing the kinds of jobs that need human input. Just as automation and robotics have changed the face of manufacturing and industrial work, AI is starting to replace jobs that used to be the domain of dependable, white collar work. This is more than just self-driving cars: it’s about technology that can analyze, synthesize, and evaluate. As a result, computers are taking on things that until very recently have been considered human work, including writing news and doing data analysis.

In addition, the freelance economy is changing the type and consistency of jobs available. There are some predictions that the freelance economy will make up at least half of the workforce in the United States as early as 2020. For most people, it’s no longer possible to graduate from college or high school, get a job, and remain in that job until retirement.

Our current factory model of education, where students rotate through a one-size-fits-all assembly line of classes, fails to develop the agency and flexibility necessary to survive in a world where freelance work is the norm and the tremendous opportunities of AI are realized. This is where being able to understand human made systems and find opportunity within them is perhaps the fundamental capacity that enables people to have success. People with agency are firmly grounded in their passions and know how to explore and develop new skills and passions. They’re aware of the array of work that’s available to them in life and the resources they can use to get there. They don’t wait to ask for permission; they’re not afraid of being told “no.” Expert system-navigators have the ability to shape their world to make it work for them.

How Does Agency Look At Lodestar?

When we started planning Lodestar about a year and a half ago, we knew that we wanted to build a school around the idea of maker empowerment. We also did extensive needs finding by interviewing our current K-12 students, parents, teachers, and graduates to understand their needs around school.

Many prototypes and iterations later, we’ve arrived at a model that we believe will promote agency for our students when we open the doors for our 240 kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, and 6th grade students this August.

Lodestar Insert

We’ll highlight two ways in which some of the core instructional experiences in this diagram promote student agency.

1. Inquiry Arc rethinks what’s worth learning in school. In line with the thinking of David Perkins’ Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World and many of the core principles of the EL Education network, we question the assumption that the majority of a student’s day should be spent passing from subject to subject. Instead, students will have the opportunity to learn deeply, with others, about topics that present opportunity to impact their world. Students will produce amazing, high-quality work and will develop their skills in making and the arts. This work speaks strongly to the inclination and sensitivity to design components of agency, allowing students to look closely at complex systems and find ways to impact, change, and improve them.

2. Math and Literacy Lab rethinks the idea that students should move through curriculum according to a set calendar. We know that reading and math are incredibly important in building the ability component of agency, but we also know that students grow at different rates. We also know how powerful it is for students to get 1:1 or small group learning experiences with teachers tailored to their zone of proximal development — and this model breaks free of the constraints of self-contained classrooms — to promote learning that is more personalized and self-directed.

There’s so much more in our model that builds agency (including belonging to a community, another incredibly important strand that we haven’t discussed), but these shifts give a taste of what school can look like when we reconsider its basic premises.

How Can I Get Involved In Rethinking School?

As we mentioned above, there is an incredible network of people working to reimagine school. Here’s a list of places you can go to begin transforming your classroom or school:

  • Learn more about Lodestar (including enrollment and jobs).
  • Find out more about Next Generation Learning Challenge grants and grantees.
  • EL Education represents a network of over 160 schools using project-based learning to rethink student engagement and achievement.
  • The Buck Institute is a great resource for thinking about project-based learning more generally.
  • Connect to a network of schools using Design Thinking through the Stanford d.school’s K12 Lab Wiki.
  • AgencybyDesign and Project Zero study maker empowerment and what it means to learn in our evolving world.
  • MakerEd aims to support teachers in giving students meaningful making and learning experiences.
  • The Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio is a resource for thinking about playful invention, investigation, and collaboration.
  • Most Likely to Succeed is a provocative film about schools and the future of schools.
  • The XQ Super School Project is a grant opportunity and community for people who are interested in reinventing high schools.

We’ve been incredibly lucky to get to visit schools across the San Francisco Bay Area and our country that are doing amazing work to personalize learning, to integrate and develop models that use making, and to rethink the fundamental structure of school. While we don’t have the space to make a comprehensive list, here are a few places to look for inspiration:

  • Visit the Lighthouse Creativity Lab to start thinking about what a making program can look like, and visit Lighthouse to see the power of making integration and project-based learning.
  • Visit High Tech High to think about quality, complexity, craftsmanship, and depth over breadth.
  • Visit Design School X to see another new Oakland, California school designed around agency and empowerment.
  • Visit the Khan Lab School to think about how schools can be organized and where students can drive their own learning.
  • Visit the East Bay School for Boys to see how meaningful work can be integrated into learning.
  • Visit Urban Montessori to see children, from pre-k through 8th grades, self-directing their work and using the Stanford d.school framework.

Robbie Torney has been a kindergarten teacher at Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland, California since 2011. This year, he is part of a team working to open Lodestar, a sibling school to Lighthouse, with an exciting new model designed around making and agency. Robbie is an Oakland resident, a Stanford fanatic, and supporter of students, teachers, and higher standards. Connect with him on Twitter: @rtorney.

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