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HowFailureandSolvingRealProblemsHelpsThisSchoolThrive

ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2016/09/06/howfailureandsolvingrealproblemshelpsthisschoolthrive/

KatrinaSchwartz
WhenMichaelStonewasconsideringajobattheSTEMSchoolChattanoogahewasalittleskepticalatfirst.Hehad
beenasuccessfultraditionalhighschoolcalculusteacherandhewasnttotallysureheboughtintotheprojectbased
learningmodel.Proponentsalwaysdescribedittohimasthoughstudentsshoulddoalltheworkwithnohelpfromhim
somethinghecouldntimagineincalculus.Butatouroftheschoolledbyastudentwasallheneededtosee
whataneducationtherewasallabout.
Thestudentstartedoffbyexplainingthatthegradingpolicyencouragedstudentstoattemptanassignment,messup,
identifythefailurepointsandtryagain.Thissameapproachwasappliedtoteaching,andstudentssawhowPrincipal
TonyDonenandteachersmodeledthissameapproachineverythingtheydid.Theotherbigemphasis:assessing
processskillsalongsidecontentknowledge.Stoneknewthatifasophomorecouldsoclearlyarticulateavisionof
educationsodifferentfrommanytraditionalhighschools,heneededtobethere.
StonetookajobastheFabLabDirectorandProjectBasedLearningCoordinatorandbecameintimatelyawareofthe
processskillsthatformedthefoundationforeverythinghappeningattheschool:collaboration,criticalthinking,and
innovation.HisjobwastofindpartnersintheChattanoogabusinesscommunitywhohadrealproblemstheyneeded
solvedandtocoachstudentsastheyworkedtogetherdesigningsolutions.Hismaingoaldirective:growstudentsinto
adaptableproblemsolvers.
GradingtopromotefromPEFSTEMInnovationHubonVimeo.
Stonereachedouttobusinessesandtoldthemallheneededwasanauthenticproblemtheyneededsolvedandtwo
hoursoftheirtime.Hewassurprisedathoweasyitwastobuildpartnershipswhenhewasntaskingformoney.Oneof
hisfirstbigtakerswasEPB,abigelectricutilityandtelecommunicationscompanyinChattanooga.EveryyearEPB
createsholidaythemeddisplaysintheirofficewindowsfeaturinglotsoflights.ThecompanyaskedSTEMSchool
Chattanoogastudentstodesignprototypesforthewindowdressings.
Afternineweeksofdevelopingtheirideasandfabricatingintricatesmallscaledesigns,thesixstudentgroups
presentedinfrontofapanelofEPBexecutives.Thecompanywantedtofundeachgrouptomaketheirdesignsatfull
scaleandwanteditdonequicklyfortheunveilingofthewindows.
OriginallyStonehadonlywantedanauthenticproblemandaudienceforhisstudents,butnowthestudentskickedinto
overdrivetomaketheirdesignideasareality,someofwhichwerenoteasytobuildatfullscale.Themostdifficultwas
anicecastle,thatwhenfinishedwas30feetdeepandmadeofplexiglassbricksthatstudentsengineeredonCADand
printedwiththe3Dprinter.
WorkingontheseprojectswithhisstudentshelpedStoneseesomeofthemagicbehindamotivatingprojectlikethis
one.Onestudentontheicecastleteamwhowasnotthetypeofkidtobeinthebrochurerealizedthatwhenthe
spiresonthecastleleanedtheywouldlosesomestrength.Sohepulledouthisphoneandlookeduphowto
recalculatehowmuchweighttheycouldbear,whichinvolvedtrigonometry.LaterStoneheardhimtellafriend,Hey,
thattrigstuffisprettyuseful.Thisstudenthadneverbeenparticularlysuccessfulinmathbefore,buthisdedicationto
theprojectcreatedanopportunityforhimtodiscoverthecontentheneededtosolvearealproblemhefaced.
Anothermemberoftheicecastleteamwasatypicalgoodstudent.Shealwaysturnedherhomeworkinontimeand
demonstratedleadership,butwhenfacedwiththeprospectofactuallybuildingtheicecastletheyhadimaginedat
scale,shewasparalyzed.

Imonlygoodatschool,Icantmakeanythingthatactuallymatters,Stonerecallshersaying.Hehadtocoachher
throughherfearofcreatingsomethingrealandintheprocessbecamecompletelyconvincedthatthesekindsof
challengesarenecessaryintodaysschools.AndEPBwassodelightedwiththestudentsworkthatithighlightedthe
partnershipinitsannualreport.
COACHINGSTUDENTSTOSUCCESS
StudentsdontentertheSTEMSchoolChattanoogawiththeskills,experience,andselfconfidencetobuildincredible
lifesizedwindowdisplaysformajorutilities.Theyarecoachedthroughouttheirtimeattheschoolinintentionalways.
PrincipalTonyDonensaysscience,technology,engineeringandmath(STEM)educationisnotabouthavingmoreof
thosethings,itsaboutteachingthosethingsthroughprojectsthatintegratethemandtheprocessskillsrequiredto
worktogether,figurethingsoutandcomeupwithauniqueideainthefirstplace.
Collaborationisprobablyoneofthemostdifficultskillsforapersontolearnbecausetheressomanyfacetstoit,
Donensaid.And,whilemanyschoolsprofesstoteachcollaboration,Donensaiditdoesntreallymatterunless
educatorshavethoughtcarefullyabouthowtheskillbuildsasstudentsprogressthroughhighschool.Inotherwords,
whatspecificthingsmakean11thgradestudentbetteratcollaborationthana10thgradestudent?
Sincecollaborationisacorevalueoftheschool,educatorshavedevelopedaschematobuildupthoseskills.Inninth
grade,studentsfocusondiversity,learningaboutwhotheyareandhowtoworkwithpeoplewhoaredifferentfrom
themselves.In10thgradetheyworkonholdingoneanotheraccountable,adifficulttaskifyoudontalreadyknowthem
andtheirpatternswell.In11thgradetheyfocusontimemanagementbothindividuallyandasateam.Studentswork
oncarvingouttimeandspacefordifferentstagesofaprojecttoensureitallgetsdone.Bytheirlastyearinhigh
schoolstudentsareworkingoncollaboratingbeyondthewallsofschool,networkingandconnectingwithexpertsin
areasofinterest.Theyaredevelopinganentrepreneurialventureandgettingadvicefromoutsideteachers.
Thesameclearcutpathexistsfortheothertwopillarsoftheschool:criticalthinkingandinnovation.Donenrecognizes
thatkidswalkintoschoolwithphonesthatcantellthemalmostanything,buttheyalsohavelearneddependenceon
teacherstotellthemtherightwaytodoanassignment.Thecriticalthinkingprogressionisabouthelpingthemto
understandthetoolstheyhaveandhowtoapplythemtoproblemstheyface.
Nowtheyvegonefrom,Icantdothiswithoutmyteachertellingmewhattodo,tomyteachersnoteventheexpert,
Donensaid.
Intheircontentwork,studentsaredoingprojectsthatoftenoverlapinthemewithothersubjectsandcouldevenbe
relatedtothebiggersemesterlongprojecttheyreworkingonintheFabLab.Studentsaregradedbasedonmastery,
whichallowsstudentstotry,fail,tryagainandimproveboththeirunderstandingandtheirgrades.
COACHINGTEACHERSTOSUCCESS
ThrivingSTEMSchoolChattanoogateacherswerentnecessarilychosenfortheirexistingknowledgeofprojectbased
learningorhowtousetheequipmentintheFabLab.Instead,Donensaystheonequalityheslookingforinevery
goodteacheristhattheylikekidsandcanrelatetothem.Hecallsthistheitfactor,theonefundamentalqualitythat
hecantteachaneducator.Fromtherehesayshecanteacheducatorstheclassroommanagementskillstogetkids
workingproductivelyonatask.Andoncetheycandothat,hesayshecanteachthemtomaketheactivitiestheyare
workingonengaging.Andafterallthatheworkswiththemonhowtogiveeffectivefeedbacktostudentssotheirwork
goesfromgoodtogreat.
Asacoachforteachers,Donenemploysmanyofthesamepracticesheexpectsteacherstousewithstudents,
includingrecognizingthatteachersareindividualswithstrengthsandweaknesses,tendenciesandpreferences.
ImreallythinkingabouttheirpersonalitytypewhenImcoachingthembecausethatplaysintonotonlytheirstrengths,
butalsowheretheyneedtoputinmoreeffort,Donensaid.Forexample,somepeoplearebigpicturethinkers.They
getexcitedaboutideasandhowtheyconnectandcancomeupwithamazingprojectsthatengagekids.Butthose

peopleareoftenlessdetailoriented,sotheamazingideacanfallapartintheimplementationphaseduetolackof
planning.WhenDonennoticesthat,helltrytopointitoutandhelpthatteacherthinkaheadaboutthedetailssothe
projectturnsoutaswellasheorsheimaginedit.

DONENSCOACHINGTIPS
ThenumberonecoachingmisstepDonenseesiswheneducationleaderstakeaneffectiveteacherandtrytoturn
everyotherteacherinthebuildingintothatteacher.Thatstrategydoesntworkbecausepeoplearedifferentandwhat
worksforonewontworkforanother.Itsthesameproblemtheeducationsystemhaswithstudents:standardizationis
notthesamethingaspersonalizationwhetheritrelatestogoodteachersorsuccessfulstudents.
Youhavetobeabletohighlight[teachers]strengthsandmakesuretheirweaknessesarenttakingawayfromtheir
strengths,Donensaid.Thatsthekeytobeingagoodcoach.Healsosaysmodelingeffectivecollaborationisabig
partofensuringthatteacherscollaboratewellandinturnstudentscollaborate.
Whenyouhaveasharedvisionanditsembeddedinyourculturetheteachersdonttalkaboutmorework,Donen
said.Theworkjustbecomesdifferent.Andtheculturebecomeslesscompetitive.AttheSTEMSchoolChattanooga,
Donenhasallthetraditionaljobsofaprincipal,sohecantbetheonlypersongivingteacherfeedback.Instead,every
teacherisaresourceforotherteachersintheareaswheretheyarestrong.And,thekidsgettoseeteachersworking
together,runningintodisagreements,strugglingtofindanswersandcompromising.
Wecannotexpectstudentstocollaborateeffectivelyifwerenottryingtodothesamething,Donensaid.This
equitablestanceandlackofhierarchyextendsallthewaytothesimplestthingsintheschoollikedresscode.Students
andstaffhavethesamedresscode,asmallwayofindicatingthateveryoneinthebuildingisonthesamelevel.
Explore:BigIdeas,DesignThinking,TeachingStrategies,FabLab,ProjectBasedLearning,STEMeducation
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