An Experiment in Learning with Open Boundaries: Urban School, San Francisco

What’s exciting about Mind/Shift’s report on Urban School’s history of and continuing passion for experimenting with pedagogy and curriculum is that it captures so many of the moves the school has made, even though its current initiative takes center stage: an emphasis on a new form of blended learning, working off site in authentic settings and taking real world data back into school settings. This beyond the contained field trip or one-off special project.

Respondents interviewed from Urban School emphasize a school without boundaries, that allows for fluid learning, that takes chances. I finish feeling that I want that in K-12 schools everywhere, now. But the skeptical reader in me assumes that all this takes a great deal of structure and planning to pull off, that it requires the constant stress of assessing what works and what doesn’t, and accepting those times when things don’t work as a matter of course, without stopping to blame or entering into energy-draining internal or external controversies. I’m left inspired, but also wanting to know more about that.

Then too, once again, we find this kind of experimentation working in an environment of limited size (around 300 students, grades 9-12) and privilege (private school with current annual total cost: $35,320 — even if just over a quarter receive tuition assistance, 84% white, teacher to student ratio under the national average, merit-based admissions, 56% of teachers with advanced degrees).

So, I’m also left to wonder whether this approach would scale and whether it would work for other populations, including more diverse and challenged ones —  or is this only something that really takes in a heavily resourced and highly curated environment?

And that, finally, takes me to the larger question of whether we, in our efforts to improve learning outcomes through innovation, ought to look at such intensely tended hothouse orchids as our leading lights or rather to thoughtfully farmed fields where many different kinds of crops flourish, sometimes in tough environmental and local conditions. — Kelly Searsmith

Urban School

Learning that Happens Online and Off, In and Out of School

by Kyle Palmer / MindShift /17 May 2012

Field trips have always been a staple – some might say the best part of — school. But those trips are typically special occasions and happen only a few times a year, if budgets and schedules allow for them.

At the Urban School, an independent high school in San Francisco, off-site learning is going to be a core part of a few of the classes next year.  For students who take statistics and elections  the classes will incorporate a chunk of time spent at companies and organizations that are relevant to the class topic.

For example, in the statistics class, Urban School staff is looking to partner with companies and organizations that have data they’d be willing to open up to classes to analyze. For the elections class, students would ideally work in local field offices.

“With technology, we start with ‘yes’ and then put boundaries on it, instead of starting with ‘no’ and having censorship,”

Time spent in the field would be part of a broader, comprehensive curriculum that includes time spent in class, project work with other schools – perhaps even in other cities and countries that will eventually become part of a larger network, guest lectures and speakers, group work, and online work done at home.

Taken all together, it’s a combination of “flipped,” “blended,” “experiential,” “authentic,” and some of the other buzz words we hear in education circles. This experiment for Urban is what some educators envision would exemplify the future school day: learning that happens outside of fixed boundaries, in fluid environments, applying real-world applications to concepts and theories.

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