Essentials of Learning

An article in the Times-Record and Star-Democrat recently highlighted the visit from Michael Toth, the CEO of Learning Sciences International. Article written by Abby Andrews, staff writer:

RIDGELY - Parents of Caroline County Public Schools were invited to North Caroline High School on Thursday, March 30, to learn about a new method of teaching to which county schools will convert over the next two years.

The method, developed by Learning Sciences International, shifts from traditional teacher-focused methods to a student-centered model that encourages the development of skills needed for good-paying jobs in the new economy: Teamwork, face-to-face communication, critical thinking and persistence in the face of failure.

Interim Superintendent Dr. Patricia Saelens said the school district decided to make the change after two years of research and site visits to other schools already using it.

Michael Toth, founder and CEO of Learning Sciences International, said just since the 1950s, the economy has not evolved - it has transformed completely.

In the 50s, people could support a family by working on an automotive assembly line, for instance, Toth said, a job that required being able to complete repetitive, directed work in isolation and valued conformity, accuracy and efficiency.

Today, those jobs are being replaced by automation, Toth said; of the remaining task-orientated jobs, half are expected to be automated in the next five to 10 years.

Instead, people make good money in jobs like programming and designing, working as teams with little supervision.

But classrooms, on the other hand, have stayed largely the same since the early 1900s, Toth said. Students sit in rows facing the teacher, mostly working individually. Technology has advanced - smartboards have replaced chalkboards - but teachers use the same techniques they have for generations.

"The world outpaced education's evolution," Toth said. "We train teachers to teach old skills, but we have to catch up with the economy now."

Toth said his method uses team-based learning instead of lecture-based. Students work in teams, offering their opinions, learning to accept criticism, giving constructive feedback and finding out failure is not the end, but rather a pathway to learning.

"It sets them up for success for life," Toth said. "It's the same academics, taught in a different way."

Saelens said in Caroline County, all teachers will undergo a day of training and two days of in-class coaching.

Learning Sciences International will have a team in the county to work with teachers, in grades kindergarten through 12th, and help principals learn how to encourage their teachers. Each school will get a personalized implementation plan and its own coaches.

One of those coaches will be Amy Dujon, the principal of a Florida elementary school that adopted the new teaching method over a two-year period.

Dujon said the shift transformed not only how the students learned, but also the relationships between students and teachers, parents and teachers and even parents and students.

One of the most remarkable outcomes, Dujon said, was how the team-based learning encouraged students with special needs and learning disabilities to speak up, participate and learn at the same rate as their general education and gifted peers.

"This journey your district is going on is a gift," Dujon said. "It will be a muddy first year. You will get frustrated as administrators, teachers and parents. But as you persist, students and teachers will grow exponentially."

Saelens said most of the cost to implement the program will be covered by a $3.75 million grant over the next five years and Title II funding.

"The cost to the district will be minimal," Saelens said. "But we are investing in people."

A parent asked how the Common Core curriculum fits into the new teaching method.

Saelens said the curriculum and standards have not changed, but the new teaching method will make it more likely students will be able to achieve them.

"We (as a school system) haven't gotten there yet," Saelens said. "It's not the teachers' fault, because this is how they were trained."

"We need to let students engage each other," she said. "These are all things Common Core wants, plus skills we hear from businesses kids need (for employment.) Test scores are important, but they're not everything."

Caroline County Board of Education members enthusiastically support the move.

"This is a systemic change in the delivery of instruction in Caroline County, " said Vice President Tolbert Rowe. "This will touch every teacher, every classroom."

"I wouldn't have voted for this if I didn't believe in it," said board member Louise Cheek. "Talk to your neighbors and friends, and tell them we're making good changes that will help students."