schools philosophy of powerful learning is based upon an
approach in which learners construct knowledge and personal
meaning from new experiences. In constructing their own
understanding, students learn how to apply concepts,
analyze information, and solve problems. Constructivist
concepts are deeply embedded in the three accelerated
- building on strengths
- empowerment coupled with responsibility
- unity of purpose as well as accelerated school values such as:
Focusing on the Learner
At its core, constructivism is learning that is active,
engaging, and arouses the curiosity of the learner.
Accelerated school students are given the responsibility
to search for their own meaning using a variety of hands-on
activities. The focus of constructivist learning is on
students coming to understand the concepts and processes
rather than just trying to come up with the "right" answer.
In addressing learning as an active process, teachers develop
learning experiences that allow for student interaction and
collaboration. In these ways, constructivist learning
reflects the complexities and possibilities of the real
One of the basic elements in creating powerful learning
experiences is that learning must be relevant. This does
not mean that a student has to have a prior interest in a
particular subject or topic, but instead that the information
needs to be presented in a way that is relevant and meaningful
to the learner.
In an accelerated elementary school in Colorado, teachers
designed a physical science unit for third graders based
upon simple machines. Students worked in teams with hands-on
exploratory activities and experiments that gave them an
overall understanding of the concepts. In the culminating
activity for that unit, students designed and built an
invention (using simple machines) that would make some aspect
of their lives easier. Student creativity abounded as they
began to work on their designs. One student made a "bed
wakerupper" machine with an extensive pulley system that
helped him get out of the bed in the morning. Assessments of
these projects included not only teacher evaluations, but
peer and self-evaluations as well. Students wanted to explore
and discuss how machines were put together they were excited
about what they were learning!
In learning experiences such as the one above, students are
given the responsibility to search for their own understanding
and begin to take ownership of the learning process. Students
find that they are integral to the learning process and that
learning is something that they can affect and influence.
Students come to perceive knowledge in a more personalized,
holistic way, rather than seeing it as separate, isolated
bits of information. Through active participation in these
kinds of activities, students learn that their personal and
cultural experiences, thoughts, talents, and interests are
valued and contribute to the learning of the community as a
The Role of the Teacher
In a learning environment that remains open and flexible,
the teacher becomes more of a facilitator than a director.
The main focus of his/her efforts comes in planning and
designing the activity instead of giving the information
to the students for them to memorize and repeat back. During
the actual unit or activity, the teacher helps guide the
students' learning by clearly defining the purpose of the
lesson, asking reflective questions that help focus on
primary concepts, and developing a format that encourages
exploration, involvement, and reflection. Students in turn
can help select and develop lessons and decide what materials
and resources to use. In designing units, teachers look at
how they could create a lesson that would touch every child,
allow them to use and build upon their different strengths,
and be truly stimulating and engaging.
In developing a constructivist environment, the teacher tries
to empower students to seek out new ideas and take responsibility
for their learning; this means knowing the right questions
to ask and remaining flexible to the different situations
that may arise. For the teacher, constructivism may mean
acknowledging that they do not always know all of the answers
and encouraging students to explore their own ideas and curiosities
as they develop. In this way, teachers model themselves as learners.
According to Brooks and Brooks (1993), "when students work with adults
who continue to view themselves as learners, who ask questions with
which they themselves still grapple, who are willing and able to
alter both content and practice in the pursuit of meaning, and who
treat students and their endeavors as works in progress, not finished
products, students are more likely to demonstrate these characteristics
Elements of the Power Learning Experiences
In order for learning to be powerful, accelerated schools use this
constructivist framework to address three interrelated elements
that make up any learning experience:
what is taught - curriculum, what children like, need, and want to learn.
how it is taught - instructional strategies, how children best learn.
context in which it is taught - types of resources and environments that best
support and promote this learning.
Powerful learning occurs when these elements are integrated, in
contrast to the usual piecemeal approach that seeks to make isolated
changes in only one of these components, usually the curriculum or
instruction. For instance, if a teacher decides to use more cooperative
grouping in her science unit, she would need to change from more
teacher directed instruction based on textbooks and worksheets to
activities such as labs and group experiments that provide more
opportunities for students to interact. This, in turn, would require
a reexamination of the most appropriate instructional resources.
Obviously this integrated approach to powerful learning requires that
schools design assessment measures that go beyond the limited scope
of standardized achievement tests to address other areas of learning
such as the creativity and resourcefulness students exhibit and the
level of critical thinking skills they use to solve problems. Many
accelerated schools have begun to look at new ways to assess students'
understanding including demonstrations, projects, and portfolios.
Adopting changes in what is taught, how it is taught, and the context
in which it is taught does not lead to lasting change unless these
three areas are addressed as an integrated whole. In addition, in
order for changes to last, they must reflect the beliefs and desires
of the entire school community including staff, students and parents.
In traditional schools, most schoolwide curricular and instructional
changes occur as the result of a topdown mandate or the decision of
a small group of people within the school. In accelerated schools,
systemic change in student learning occurs as a result of careful
and systematic analysis of a school's strengths and challenges by
the entire school community.(2)
Creating Powerful Learning in Accelerated Schools
How do accelerated schools create more innovative learning opportunities for all students?
The kinds of changes we're talking about do not happen overnight,
but are the result of the school community's continuous discussion,
reflection, and practice of the accelerated schools philosophy and process.
This means that as the school community works together to transform
its school, it begins to reexamine the way learning and teaching
take place, then develops a shared understanding of the kinds of
educational experiences it wants its students to have and decides
how best to address these goals.
As the school works towards this transformation and begins to
internalize accelerated school practices, the culture of the school
also transforms.(3) For instance, as it begins to identify and build
on the many strengths the different members bring to the school, a
more trusting and caring environment develops that encourages collaboration,
interaction, and risk-taking This emergence of a new way of thinking
is reflected in classroom practices. Sometimes this happens in the
initial stages of an accelerated schools transformation.
In one accelerated middle school in California, the school staff
decided in the fall of its first year as an accelerated school that
instead of giving only eighth grade gifted and talented students an
opportunity to see a Shakespeare acting troupe perform (the way they
would have done it in the past) they would provide this opportunity
for every eighth grade student at the school. In preparation, every
eighth grader read A Midsummer Night's Dream. This fundamental change
in the kinds of educational opportunities the school wanted to bring
to all its students occurred as the school began to discuss and
reflect upon issues such as equity and participation.
Transforming students' learning experiences is a continuous,
evolving process that comes about through the internalization of the
accelerated schools philosophy and process and leads to new practices
within and outside of the classroom. This transformation is the result
of two key processes that we refer to as "big wheels" and "little
wheels"(4) (see Accelerated Schools Newsletter, Fall 1992). In order
to bring about long-lasting and meaningful change in the kinds of
educational opportunities students receive, these two processes are
integral and necessarily linked.
The term"big wheels" refers to the formal processes of accelerated schools
forging a vision
forming governance structures
using the Inquiry Process
that bring about long-term institutional changes through the careful and
collaborative efforts of the whole school community. These changes are
geared towards bringingpowerful and long-lasting improvements to the
school's learning environment.
As a school takes stock together, for example, they identify and build
upon the different strengths and challenges that are a part of the
school community. For many school members this can be a powerful
learning experience in itself as they decide what they want to know
about their school and then actually collect and analyze the data.
One accelerated elementary school in Texas had the students come up
with key questions they wanted to ask the parents and staff members.
As a result, students surveyed their parents and teachers, then
designed graphs and charts that reflected their findings. In deciding
how to present their data, they developed a short skit that they
performed before the entire school community. While the students
enjoyed the activity and learned a great deal, the school also took a
step forward in recognizing the many strengths that students bring to
the school community.
The way accelerated schools make long-term systemic changes in the
students' learning environment is through the cadres' use of a
systematic problem-solving process called Inquiry. In the cadres,
groups of school community members work together to find the best
possible solutions to the priority challenge areas they have identified,
challenges that often address the what, how, and context of students'
In one California accelerated elementary school, the Curriculum Cadre
was charged with looking at how the current reading program was not
meeting student needs. As cadre members defined their problem area more
closely and began to test their hypotheses, they found that there was
little connection between reading and language arts across grade
levels and that students were not particularly excited about what
they were doing in these areas. After brainstorming solutions, the
cadre decided to develop an action plan, focused on using
the performing arts as a means of strengthening language arts and
reading, since it would draw upon the different learning styles of
students as well as build upon their strengths and interests.
Building upon this idea, the school hired a performing artist
who works with teachers and the school's artist-in-residence
to integrate what students are learning in the classroom with
the arts. The cadre is looking at how to develop an action
plan that would incorporate this person more fully into the
Schools developed more powerful learning experiences by building
upon their own expertise and creativity. Sometimes a cadre's
researching efforts will lead them to examine preexisting programs.
While there are many instructional programs and curricular
packages developed in the past decade that build upon a constructivist
learning approach, an accelerated school does not simply adopt and
implement them. Instead, after extensive research and information-gathering,
it carefully examines the program to see if it fits its needs and
reflects the philosophy of accelerated schools. The school then
formulates, shapes, and adapts the program as needed. In this sense,
powerful learning does not just become powerful in and of itself,
but within the context of the whole school environment.
Many school community members find that while the big wheels processes
lead to the creation of powerful schoolwide educational innovations,
they are part of a deliberate and systematic process that, although
crucial, moves rather slowly. Often, teachers, parents, and students
find that they are ready to make immediate changes in their practices
which can help lead to more powerful learning. These kinds of innovations
are the"little wheels" of creating school change.
Little wheels refer to the individual innovations and changes in
attitudes, beliefs, and practices that may bring about new ideas
and strategies in the classroom, on the school playground, in the
office, or at home. Whether a teacher designs a new thematic unit
based on a constructivist framework or students take a more active
role in choosing the topics they want to study, an accelerated
school community creates an environment in which every member has
the opportunity and support to try new ideas.
Little wheel innovations come about as individuals begin to
internalize the accelerated schools philosophy and process. This
may occur as the result of an individual reexamining his/her own
practices and determining how these practices build upon the
accelerated schools principles and values. A teacher who feels
more comfortable voicing her opinions as a result of an
increasingly open and participatory environment, may create more
classroom activities that allow for students ideas and opinions
to be voiced.
In one accelerated middle school in California, a special education
teacher working mostly in isolation decided to approach the
"regular" humanities teachers about designing lessons together.
The teachers now work together to bring the same exciting curricula
and instructional strategies to all students.
Oftentimes, little wheel innovations take shape as teachers and other
staff work together to create exciting new curricular units for their
classroom that grow and develop into larger schoolwide efforts.
In an accelerated elementary school in Texas, two fifth grade teachers
wanted their students to develop a greater understanding of the
local community. Since both teachers had farming experience (one
teacher had grown up on a farm) and part of the local economy was
rooted in agriculture, they decided to design an interdisciplinary
unit on farming. After reading and discussing the history of farming
students and parents planted and cultivated cabbage, radishes, sunflowers,
and squash, among other items. The school custodian, who had
experience in farming, talked to the students about how to ca re
for and harvest crops. Employees at the grocery store came in to
speak about produce and how it got from the field to the grocery
store to the students' homes.
As students tended the plants and recorded their growth, they noticed
that the plants had become infested with pests! This led to research
on pest control and the discovery that Texas law prohibits the use of
chemical pesticides. Once students had harvested their crop, students
and parents made a Thanksgiving caldo (vegetable soup) for teachers,
parents, and students to enjoy. As a result of the farming unit,
students became more aware of their environment as they saw the benefits
of caring for the world around them. The fifth grade students began
to notice the amount of trash thrown out in the cafeteria and started
a recycling and composting project.
In some cases, a little wheel innovation may occur as an offshoot of
an individual's participation in a cadre.
At one accelerated middle school in California, a campus assistant
who had been responsible primarily for reporting student misbehavior
and organizing student cleanup crews began to see from her
participation on the Family Involvement Cadre that her responsibility
to the students went far beyond her previous disciplinarian role.
Now her work with students includes teaching them English and
building on their language skills. In recognition of her work, the
school-as-a-whole has named her an honorary English teacher.
The accelerated schools principles and values such as risk-taking,
experimentation, participation, and reflection are the bedrock of
powerful learning experiences. These behaviors and values do not
simply "appear" when a school decides to become accelerated.
Instead, these attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs begin to emerge as
individuals reexamine their practices and seek out new ways to do
In identifying how these kinds of transitions occur in teaching and
learning, school community members explain that the accelerated
schools philosophy and process create a more open and accepting
environment that allows for greater creativity and collaboration.
A teacher says that the focus and practice of building on
strengths has been instrumental in shifting her practices away
from remediation toward using the same curriculum and instructional
approach for all her students despite the differing ability levels
of the students in her class. She now believes that all students can
learn if the curriculum is presented in a manner that allows all
styles of learners to succeed. Her teaching style has changed to
that of facilitator and coach; she builds upon a variety of ways for
students to exhibit their knowledge and skills, including peer tutor
ing and cooperative grouping. "I now see it's okay to let some of
the other students become more of the teachers because that's building
on their strengths. It doesn't mean I'm not doing my job as a
teacher, it means that I'm finally relying on the strengths that
they have to help the other students."
While the change process can be difficult for many, there is an
increased camaraderie, accountability and responsibility that
develops as school members begin to take an active role in their
school's transformation. School community members feel a greater
stake in what is happening throughout the school as they start to
realize that they are the ones that are going to make change happen.
They develop a greater understanding of what they want for their
students and begin to truly collaborate and build upon their
strengths and expertise to move them towards their school community's
As the accelerated schools values and principles begin to emerge and
take hold, schools become more student-centered and constructivist
learning becomes the norm rather than the exception. Accelerated
schools truly look and feel different. There is an excitement and
energy that flows throughout the school. The walls, halls, and
auditoriums come alive with student writings and projects.
Students and staff are excited to come to school and talk proudly
about what they are learning and doing. In essence, accelerated
schools become places in which every member of the school works
together to create a powerful learning environment where every
classroom is the kind of classroom we would want for our own child.
For more information on Powerful Learning or for the Powerful
to link to the National Center.
1. . Brooks, J. & Brooks M. (1993). In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
2. Hopfenberg, W., Levin, H. M. et al. (1993). The Accelerated Schools Resource Guide. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers.
3. Finnan, C. & Levin, H. M. (1994) "Using School Organization and Culture to Raise School Effectiveness." Paper presented at the Annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.
4. Brunner, I., & Hopfenberg, W. (1992)"The Interactive Production of Knowledge in Accelerated Schools: Big Wheels and Little Wheels Interacting." Paper presented at the Annual meeting of the American Educational Association.
5. Keller, B. M. & Soler, P. (1994) "The Influence of the Accelerated Schools Philosophy and Process on Classroom Practices." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association.