While small schools create the necessary conditions for personalized learning, academic rigor and relevant curriculum, the structuring of small schools is never an end in itself. Rather, small schools are able to capitalize on their small size to focus on professional development and targeted teaching practices that are closely aligned with the small school’s vision and instructional framework.
Schools participating in the Oregon Small Schools Initiative were given latitude in designing their instructional models and curriculum. Over time, the applied practices at the schools grew to include Arts Integration, Expeditionary Learning, Project Based Learning, Community-Based Learning, Professional Learning Communities, Distributive Leadership and .Proficiency-Based Instruction and Assessment.
A small sampling of applied practices is provided below. Specific school examples may be found on their respective web sites. (See The Schools for a listing of schools.)
- Re-imagining High Schools Part I: Theory and design of small schools. Video.
- Re-imagining High Schools Part II: Samples of innovation in the classroom. Video.
Arts integration is a term applied to an approach to teaching and learning that uses the fine and performing arts as primary pathways to learning. Arts integration differs from traditional arts education by its inclusion of both an arts discipline and a traditional subject as part of learning (e.g. using improvisational drama skills to learn about conflict in writing.) The goal of arts integration is to increase knowledge of a general subject area while concurrently fostering a greater understanding and appreciation of the fine and performing arts. The impetus for arts integration is a growing body of research that demonstrates how learners experience success when taught why and how to use music, visual art, drama/dance, theatre and the literary arts to both express and understand ideas, thoughts and feelings. See examples of arts integration in Initiative schools click here.
Expeditionary Learning builds on the educational insights of Kurt Hahn, the well-known European educator and founder of Outward Bound (OB), and other leading educational thinkers, from William James and John Dewey to Howard Gardner. Hahn believed that adventure, community service and other forms of direct and engaging experience could be used to teach and motivate people. At the heart of today's Expeditionary Learning Schools are learning expeditions, "real world," long-term investigations in which students and teachers examine compelling and relevant topics through fieldwork. Each learning expedition ends with a presentation to an audience beyond the classroom.
Project-Based Learning grew out of a need to help students make connections between school and life, a need to help students find relevance in academics, a need to help students feel valued and gain deeper understanding of academic and technical concepts. Students and teachers engaged in project-based learning demand greater responsibility for their own learning.
The learning experiences are designed as complex, authentic (real-world) projects. The contexts for many of the projects are found outside the school walls. Projects emerge from needs in the community or home; they arise from social issues, or perhaps physical, emotional, or recreational needs; and from authentic industry or business activities. Fundamentally, the learning of content knowledge and skills is given an opportunity to develop and grow through project-based learning.
Project based learning is a philosophy and a practice; it is what we believe about education and how we act on those beliefs in the classroom.
Community-based learning helps students connect what they learn in the classroom to the world they live in. In addition, it helps build a sense of connection to their communities. At the same time, it challenges students to develop a range of intellectual and academic skills in order to understand and take action on the issues they encounter in everyday life. Community-based learning can take a variety of forms. Students engaged in project-based learning often use the community as their ‘classroom’, tackling an authentic issue or problem and using the project-based approach to develop a solution to the problem. In other cases, students may present their findings to a panel of community experts, getting feedback from practitioners with expertise and experience directly related to the project topic. Some schools have a service learning component, requiring students to contribute a certain number of hours in service to their community.
Many schools use internships as a way to connect students with employers in the community. Student interns take on authentic work or projects at the work-site, and work closely with an employer ‘mentor’ to learn specific work-related skills and to develop professional attributes, such as work ethic, teamwork, and problem-solving.
The professional learning community concept follows the assumption that as educators, our core mission is not simply to ensure that students are taught but to ensure that they learn. This simple shift—from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning—has profound implications for schools.
Many, if not most, school mission statements promise "learning for all". But when a school staff takes that statement literally—when teachers view it as a pledge to ensure the success of each student—profound changes begin to take place. The school staff finds itself asking, “What school characteristics and practices have been most successful in helping all students achieve at high levels? How might we adapt those characteristics and practices for our school community? What are some of the barriers we might face, and what can we do to eliminate those barriers? What commitments do we have to make to one another? How will we assess our progress?” When the staff has developed shared knowledge, understanding and agreements around these questions, the school has a solid foundation for moving forward with its improvement initiative.
Professional learning communities, or PLC’s, can take a variety of forms. They can consist of an entire staff, particularly in a small school. Or they can be determined by grade level, subject area, or teaching teams. Professional learning communities, at their most efficient and effective, have the following elements in place:
* Time is structured so that professional learning communities can meet regularly within the regular work day
* Conversations in professional learning communities are open, honest, and focused on teaching and learning
* Classrooms are open and practice is public
* Teaching and learning is observed and feedback is provided by colleagues
* Data, including achievement data, observation feedback, and perception data, is utilized for the purpose of improving student learning
Distributive leadership spreads decision-making authority throughout the school, creating a “flatter,” more representative governance structure. Unlike traditional, principal-dominated school leadership models, distributive leadership provides opportunities for everyone—including teachers, students, parents and community members—to participate in key decisions. There are many advantages to this type of organization. It fosters community engagement, provides opportunities for professional and personal growth, and enables sustained progress despite inevitable changes in leadership over time.
Effective small schools avoid traditional “top-down” organization and instead create a shared sense of community that nurtures active engagement in learning and collaborative problem solving at all levels. With more people involved, everyone quickly learns that there isn’t a “somebody else” who will make decisions for them. The result is greater involvement and ownership. Creating a flat leadership structure is not a guarantee of effective governance; leaders need to establish clear structures and guidelines to function efficiently.
Proficiency-based education is guided by principles of student-centered teaching, standards-based achievement, ongoing assessment, engaging students’ initiative and collaborative professional learning for instructors. Proficiency-based education is a collection of practices and has several distinctive attributes. It links curriculum, learning targets, and lesson plans to high postsecondary standards. Skilled teachers transform their work so that students become active, intentional partners in the learning process, developing strong intellectual habits, academic knowledge and content knowledge. Proficiency-based education involves students in understanding learning targets, rubrics, and the assessment process. It gauges student progress on an ongoing basis through formative assessment. It allows students to learn at their own pace – time becomes a variable. Achievement of standards becomes the new constant. In a proficiency-based system, student grades and transcript credit are based on demonstrated proficiency.