Cascades Academy Independent School PK-12
Head of School Blog: Teachers Put on their Student Hats for Professional Development Day
Head of School Blog: Teachers Put on their Student Hats for Professional Development Day

Teachers putting their design thinking skills to use in a partner exercise where they had to listen and empathize, generate ideas, and ultimately create a solution for a colleague's problem.

First off, I want to start by thanking our community for the gift that was a full-day of Professional Development earlier this month. These days are such invaluable opportunities for us to collaborate with colleagues, ask deep questions, and learn new skills resulting in lasting benefits for both students and teachers alike.

We approached the day differently than we have in the past, providing a morning session for each division to explore a key area of the mission, followed by a full faculty workshop in the IDEA Lab for the afternoon. The middle and upper school faculty took on the topic of challenging academics, its key role in our program, and how it is woven with experiential learning. The faculty from these divisions first gathered departmentally. Each teacher came prepared with an assignment or project they were currently working on with their students and asked for feedback on how to add more depth and meaning, hence adding authentic challenge. The brainstorming sessions were engaging and spurred lots of pertinent thoughts, including the desire for more departmental meetings.

Following those initial meetings, the faculty split into divisions to discuss and define challenge from a higher level. Some of the questions explored included the following:

  • How do we define challenge? How do students define challenge?
  • What does challenge feel like?
  • What if challenge doesn't necessarily mean "more work"?
  • What can we do as teachers to push students toward purposeful work?
  • How do we help students understand that sometimes challenge means stepping out of their comfort zone?

Teachers shared ideas and insights which resulted in some clear realizations, including the notion that each student experiences challenge uniquely, and therefore like many other areas in academics, it is important to differentiate the area of challenge.

The lower school explored the importance of differentiation and worked with Shelley Gray, a specialist in dyslexia. Their time was equally focused in two distinct areas. On the macro level, LS teachers went through a simulation exercise to gain an understanding what the experience in school might be like for a child with dyslexia. On the micro level, teachers began to fill their toolboxes with "tips and tricks" that are helpful for all students while at the same time addressing the more specific needs of students with dyslexia.

After lunch we all came together in the IDEA Lab to focus on an exciting development in the educational world: Design Thinking. If you aren't familiar with Design Thinking, I recommend this very short TED Talk on the subject. As I have highlighted in previous blog posts, there is a significant shift happening in education, moving away from more traditional teaching and learning methods intended to deliver and master content to a more relevant and collaborative approach that emphasizes the ability to think critically, empathize, communicate, and be comfortable with failure. Design Thinking, whether in a humanities class or a science class, teaches exactly those skills. In the end, it's not about getting the right answer. It's about the learning process and the innovation that results from that process.

As Jessica Lahey stated in her article in The Atlantic earlier this year: "At its best, design thinking incorporates proven-effective teaching techniques such as self-directed inquiry and collaborative problem-solving and dovetails nicely with social-emotional learning curricula that emphasize interpersonal skills such as collaboration and empathy. And the end result of a design-thinking project is often a tangible product, such as a model city, a robot, or a better mousetrap. It's no surprise, then, that many educators are eager to adopt design thinking as a way to plan their own teaching and as a strategy for helping their students learn through solving real-world problems."

We left our professional development day with both inspiration and strategies to help us continue to define and execute a challenging academic program, support the needs of our students through differentiation, and embrace the concept of design thinking - all important parts of our school mission and core values. We couldn't be more grateful to have had this opportunity to wear our "student hat" once again in order to better meet the needs of our students and changing world.

-Julie Amberg, Head of School

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