From Traditional High School Learning to Co-Creating Learning Experiences

Craig Gastauer

Craig Gastauer is currently Internal Director of Pedagogy at Vista High School in Vista, CA. He is proud to be working with great teachers and students to create a more learner-centered public high school experience.

And so we begin…

August 11, 2017, the first day that the ninth graders came to experience Vista High School 2.0, we witnessed the beginning of our evolution from a large traditional high school experience to an experience in which students will be invited to the design table to help co-create their learning experiences. This means that as a site, we are working to ensure that students have the opportunity to:

  • Personalize their learning experiences
  • Develop and refine the Habits of Mind
  • Engage in a contemporary curriculum
  • Work together within a restorative learning community.

But what does all this exactly mean?

Students have the opportunity to personalize their learning experiences

At Vista High School, we understand that there is a wide range of ideas as to what personalized learning could be. Therefore, we defined personalized learning as increasingly putting students at the center of the design of the learning experiences where they leverage growing strengths, interests, passions, and ideas to engage in authentic problems and challenges that are aligned to standards and students’ personal goals.

Through the efforts of teacher and student collaboration, we want to grow student voice in a way that helps students to understand that their ideas are valued and that they may evolve as they hear the ideas of others. We are inviting students to the design table so that they may help to co-create their experiences in order to attach their interests, passions and ideas to the curriculum so that their learning becomes relevant, authentic, and meaningful.

We want to ensure that students work with other students but also engage with the community so that they may socially construct meaning as they build ideas, receive feedback from multiple sources, and continue to refine their ideas as evidenced by a cumulative body of work. Additionally, we will help students to engage in reflective processes to understand their strengths as learners, how to build on these strengths, and how to strengthen all aspects of their learning abilities.

Students have the opportunity to develop and refine the Habits of Mind

Andreas Schleicher, Director for the Directorate of Education and Skills for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development (OECD), stated,

“The world economy no longer pays for what people know but for what they can do with what they know.”

Therefore, we must ensure that we are preparing our students for a world in which students acting upon their learning is the new normal.

To accomplish this work, we understand that the role of teacher and student must change. Students may no longer play the role of passive recipient in which teachers flood them with information and demand that they memorize facts for regurgitation on future exams. Students must understand how to think.

By asking students to learn about specific Habits of Mind as they are also engaging in a process to build content knowledge and skills, we believe that students will become better learners. For example, if students are explicitly taught strategies around the Habit of Mind known as Listening for Understanding and Empathy, and are conscious of how they employ these strategies as they are working with community members in an effort to solve a challenge in the community, students will begin to become better listeners, become more empathetic to different perspectives, and construct more robust knowledge to solve community challenges as a result.

Students have the opportunity to engage in a contemporary curriculum

Our students are no longer living in an isolated world. They are exposed to digital and media sources originating from around the globe. And all of these messages are biased to some degree by the group producing them. Therefore, our students need to learn how to examine the intent and bias of the message in order to make sense of the flood of information inundating them on a daily basis.

They also need to understand how to generate their digital and media messages in a focused manner to reach their intended audiences. Additionally, our students must understand how to craft a digital footprint that communicates to the world that their learning has led to their positive impact on the world.

Students have the opportunity to work together within a restorative learning community

In order for students to engage in these more rigorous learning experiences where students must be prepared to make mistakes, receive feedback from a variety of people, reflect on the varying perspectives as well as their own process, and make refinements and revisions then students must feel safe, secure, and ready to take these responsible risks.

Therefore, students and teachers must create an environment in the classroom in which this is possible. An environment in which poor decisions are only punished activates the fight/freeze/flight response in our students. In an effort to allay students’ fears and promote a safer learning environment, Vista High is promoting the ideals of Restorative Practice to build a tighter learning community in which everyone works to help students recognize that their choices and actions impact everyone. From this understanding students become more aware of how to interact with others, build positive relationships, and develop collaborative communities in order to build a more safe, supportive, and productive environment.

Additionally, we are a relatively large comprehensive high school of 2650+ students. We must ensure that all students transition from middle school to high school feeling welcome and safe. Therefore, we are developing “Houses” in which students have four teachers in common to create a comfortable “home base.”

These teachers can then collaborate to build a more multi-disciplinary curriculum creating deeper learning experiences as well as finding those students who may be struggling in order to provide them with the appropriate supports before they begin to fall behind. These same supports can be integrated into all classes and revised or removed as students learn from their mistakes and move toward success.

Beginning our Year

Finally, the transition to our new way of engaging students in understanding how to drive their own learning will continue to evolve throughout the year and following years. Teachers will try strategies and implement new ideas that may succeed or may need to be rethought and revised. Therefore, we asked our teachers to share promises with their students so that no matter what is happening, there would be constants in the students’ learning experiences. Three of our teachers, Katie Lavoie, Lexi Kunz, and Allison Witman shared examples of their promises to their students:

  • I promise to collaborate with you to develop a safe space for students to discover some of their passions and probe into deeper questions through meaningful challenges.
  • I promise to challenge you to think not only about your immediate world but also our neighborhoods, our state, our country, and our world.
  • I promise to show you respect and never give up on you.

We know we don’t have all the answers but we are willing to learn by doing and are asking for your feedback along the way. Therefore, I am reaching out to all of you as I share our story. Please help us as we strive to do our best to help our students become creators, inventors, and innovators – students prepared to learn, grow, and take ethical action to solve authentic problems – through exploration, analysis, debate, imagination, collaboration, and calculated risk-taking.

Thank you for joining us on our journey!

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