Each year at our annual Symposium, Matthew Shea and Courtney Belolan manage the Voices Hub. It’s a recording space set in the Innovation Corner where attendees can drop by and share their thoughts, lessons learned, and process the ideas they’re getting through the conference. Over the next several weeks, we’ll share some of the most thought-provoking and engaging conversations. We start with an interview with Shawn Rubin, our 2017 Innovator Award recipient and Chief Education Officer at the Highlander Institute. He shares an innovative educator prep model and talks about what’s missing from the conversation about the shift toward student-centered learning.
Matt: Our guest today is Shawn Rubin of the Highlander Institute. Welcome.
Shawn: Hey, thank you. Thanks for having me.
Courtney: So Shawn, would you share with our listeners who you are, what you do, and why you’re here at the Aurora Institute, your passions for education?
Shawn: I am the Chief Education Officer at the Highlander Institute. We’re a nonprofit in Providence, Rhode Island. We work at the point of implementation with schools and districts. Recently, we’ve really gotten a lot more deep around school change for personalization and formation of design teams that honor local stakeholder voice and really think about the local context in terms of school change and design. Then we work for multiple years with those schools, bringing all the stakeholders to the table and running cycles of continuous improvement around classroom practice and then studying to see what is working and not working with regard to wanting to scale it. And so that’s really the work we do. Closely, we’ve been deep in professional development and coaching, mostly in job-embedded coaching around blended and personalized since like 2012-2013.
So we’ve been working and coming to this conference for years and just always really appreciate the friends and colleagues that we’ve seen and getting to get updates on their work and all the exciting things they’re doing. But also, the sessions really give you a sense for where the field is and where the field is headed, where we may have missed some things that we need to be mindful of and come back to. Just an awesome opportunity every fall to be able to reconnect with people and ideas.
Matt: One of the things that we’ve heard about from some of the keynote speakers is about changing the entire system toward more of a whole-child approach, and some of that starts with educator prep. I know you just ran a session about educator prep, so could you share a little bit about what went on in there?
Shawn: Yeah, definitely. So we actually Skyped in three professors from Rhode Island College (RIC) in Providence, whom we’ve been working with now for almost two full years. They are early adopters of this work. They’ve been very curious at Rhode Island College to think about how they keep up with the times in terms of the changing instructional strategies that are happening in the classrooms where they are placing their student candidates, their teacher candidates. But they also want to make sure that, especially at higher ed, that they’re critical consumers of what it is that we’re bringing to them and what they’re seeing in the classroom. So [they’re] very mindful of not just sticking kids on computers and setting and forgetting and being very mindful of how these new strategies are working across diverse groups of students, students with special needs, students with severe and profound special needs, students who are English language learners. So, there’s a lot of deep questioning that the higher ed professors are having. What we’ve created in Rhode Island, which I think is really exciting; it’s actually built on our fellowship model that we used within K-12 for about the last five years, called Fuse, which is really a teacher leadership and capacity-building fellowship. We did the same thing at RIC, but we found a smaller cohort of these professors who wanted to get out in front and do all this questioning. [We] coached them in their classrooms over the course of the last year and a half. They’ve changed all of their practices in very different ways. They kind of picked select practices that they want to really drive on.
Right now we’re studying what has that impact been for students, so we’re collecting a lot of student feedback, and wanting to now expand and grow it. We have seven new professors who have come on as Cohort 2. They are now at the earliest stages of selecting which practices they want to push on in their own classrooms, and we start that coaching all over again. It’s been a really incredible program. It’s very relationship-built. It pulls all of these coaches, all these professors, plus their administration, and their student feedback together once a month to also look at it and determine what is working and isn’t working—and not just kind of like, “Let’s drive on these practices but not actually think about how we’re actually redesigning as a school of Ed.”
Matt: What is this going to look like in the future for them?
Shawn: For them, the ideal would be that they feel like their classrooms more match what they believe ultimately the end-user, which is the students and families in the schools, are required to know and have in terms of skill sets to be successful. Then you back that up. So those teachers who were teacher candidates, but are now in-service teachers, they need to have the skills. They need to have experienced that type of learning to be able to provide it for their students. And so ultimately, when they’re in their teacher candidate program, they should be getting those experiences. The classroom should not be lectures. No matter how dynamic the professors are, and that was often some of the earliest challenges we faced, where these professors are just amazing storytellers and so they want to hear them. They feel like they’re short-changing the students by not sharing those stories, but really, we want to transfer that cognitive load so that those students are the ones that are having to do the work and wrestle with the work because once they get out there on their own, they’re not going to have those stories to rely upon. And if they’re still using those same pedagogical models that they witness their own professors modeling, then those students are going to keep reinforcing the same models for years and years and years. So we’re ultimately just trying to break those models at the teacher candidate level, when they’re in their experiences, and see if that actually triggers more opportunities for kids at the end to get the better experience.
Matt: You said this was fairly new. Do you have any of these students who are out in the schools yet?
Shawn: That’s a great question. We are attempting right now to put together an IRB to be able to do a deeper study of this. Right now ,all we have is student survey data. They take a pre and post as they do their coursework, but we haven’t actually followed any of them into the field. We haven’t done the IRB yet.
Courtney: Okay, that would be fascinating.
Shawn: Totally and to really be able to see it at this point where we have control classroom teachers, student candidates who are going out who have not experienced these classrooms versus students who have experienced these classrooms going out and being able to look at how those experiences differ for what they’re able to provide their students, and what the principals hiring them feel like they’re bringing to the table.
Courtney: What has the feedback from the pre-service teachers been? I’m curious about, for those of them who maybe had not been in more personalized environments, suddenly being in that.
Shawn: We have done a lot of focus group work with them, and it is a mixed bag. That is actually really challenging for the professors because, unlike in K-12 where you don’t really think about the fact that this is a consumer who’s paying money for this experience, you don’t actually think, “Well, if I’m pushing you on something that you may not want to be pushed on, that’s okay in K-12 because that’s what my job is.” In higher ed, you’re kind of caught in that; you’re actually paying to be here. So if you tell me you would rather have me lecture, does that mean I should be lecturing? Or does that mean I should be pushing back on what you think you want because what I believe you actually need is this, or what I know your students will ultimately need is this. There definitely are some that are just like, “I wish you would just lecture. All my other courses, they just lecture. And now I can just take my notes, go home, read my notes, and then come back and pass a test. That’s what I want because that’s where I can be successful.” Versus having to access your content online before you come to class so that you can have deeper conversations with your peers and be able to do demonstrations and performance tasks and things while you’re in the classroom. Those require more energy and effort on the part of the student and so often you’re going to get people that kind of push back on it.
Courtney: So the pre-service teachers that are in classes, are they also student teaching at the same time?
Shawn: Yes, sometimes. It depends on the professor, depends on what course that professor is teaching that particular semester. Oftentimes, our professors who we’re working with might have a 101 and a 400 course in the same time period. And they may say, “I’m going to use some of these strategies in this course, but in this course, it will be really hard.” The idea is that they’re starting to develop enough of their own muscle memory within this that this will just be their practice moving forward. Some of them have said that. After about a year and a half of coaching, “I can’t go back. I’m not doing it any other way. This is the way it’s going to be now.”
Courtney: That’s good to hear. And there must be some really fantastic conversations among the professors when they’re talking about that push and pull between the consumer and [the idea of] “what should we be doing?”
Shawn: Definitely. And we noticed this also in our Fuse model when we had a statewide model where teachers were coming from all of these different LEAs all across the state—these are early adopters. They oftentimes are living and working within environments where they are in the minority in terms of their mindset for change. So being able to come together with other folks in their school district who are of the same mindset, the conversations are incredibly powerful, the visions and aspirations for where everybody can get to… It’s really just fun to kind of dream in that environment.
Matt: So one thing we always talk about to wrap up our podcasts, we talk about the “Do-Dos and Don’t-Dos” of personalized learning. We always ask our guests for their biggest Do-Do. So what do you got for us?
Shawn: There are so many, but I think the one that is really resonating for us as an organization right now and I think one that lots of people, especially in this space, are really skipping over is, where is the stakeholder voice in all of this work? And how is it not just being tokenized or just a one-shot kind of opportunity? How is it actually at the table in a driving ongoing capacity to make sure that we’re not creating unintended consequences through these changes that we, in our own isolation of being educators in educators-speak, think makes total sense but we aren’t creating enough feedback loops. We aren’t actually co-designing. We aren’t co-constructing with the communities, with the parents, with the families, with the student voices at the table in an ongoing and continuous basis.
Courtney: Thank you so much for coming by Shawn. It was wonderful to talk with you.
Shawn: It was a lot of fun. Thanks.
Matthew Shea and Courtney Belolan are educators who run the Personalized Learning with Matt and Courtney podcast and manage the Aurora Institute Symposium Voices Hub. Shawn Rubin is Chief Education Officer at the Highlander Institute.