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Powerful Learning

The accelerated 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 schools principles:

  • building on strengths
  • empowerment coupled with responsibility
  • unity of purpose as well as accelerated school values such as:
    • reflection
    • equity
    • participation
    • risk-taking.

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 world.(1)

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 whole.

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 themselves."

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.

Big Wheels

The term"big wheels" refers to the formal processes of accelerated schools

taking stock
forging a vision
setting priorities
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' learning.

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 school.

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"

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.

Transforming Teaching

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 things.

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. (5)

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 vision.

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 Learning Framework click here 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.

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