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Secretary's Column
By Dr. Melody Schopp
Department of Education

This month’s Secretary’s Column is an editorial written by the secretary and submitted to the Argus Leader for publication.

Innovation Labs paving way for 21st century learning

The ambitious effort of four South Dakota rural schools to transform the delivery of education is raising eyebrows. In fact, this newspaper’s editorial board recently cautioned them to proceed carefully and to measure results before deciding if this is the “right kind of innovation.”

I want to publicly commend these four school districts – South Central, Wessington Springs, Platte-Geddes and Armour – for their vision and commitment to searching out solutions for their students. These four small districts have taken on a challenge to transform the educational model into one that fits the needs of our 21st century society. For that reason, we have dubbed them the “Innovation Labs.”

In the 1880s, the mark of quality education was the ubiquitous, one-room school house. This model was an efficient solution for the time – educating greater numbers of children simultaneously with the available tools and resources. The school-day schedule and the academic calendar were reflected by the needs of the greater agrarian community. This model provided both knowledge content and life skills that helped sustain and evolve the American economy.

Fast forward 130 years to the Information Age, where our economy is fueled by instantaneous access to information and advances in technology that have dramatically changed the way we do business. And yet, many of the 1880s tools, methods and concepts have not been realigned. It does not mean these practices and resources should be discarded, but rather retooled. This retooling is the vision of the Innovation Labs.

While the final educational experience will look different in each of the participating schools, there are some common themes.

Under this model, schools will be looking to deliver rigorous and relevant content through engaging, hands-on methods. Education will not be limited to traditional classroom experiences. Students will not typically be sitting in straight rows with a teacher at the front of the classroom. More often, they will be engaged in project- or problem-based learning experiences that have meaning and relevance to the students. Instruction will be delivered in a variety of ways – in mobile labs, online, via distance and in the participating communities.

Under this model, schools will be moving from a traditional “silo” mentality of learning and approaching curriculum holistically – using science as a central pivot point. Concepts from several academic content areas will be interwoven into lessons and learning experiences. So, as students are studying a particular science standard, they are also being exposed to standards from the language arts or math, or both. Students are better able to see the relevance and connection of what they are learning to what they are interested in as lifelong skills.

Also under this model, the role of teacher shifts from instructor to facilitator, and the pace of learning is student-driven. The Innovation Labs will provide content experts who will carefully guide students to filter out information they need to support their learning. In our traditional classrooms, all students are expected to learn at the same rate. In the Innovation Labs, students will not move on until they demonstrate mastery on all standards. While students direct their learning in areas they are interested in, they will have continual feedback through formative and summative assessments to guide students through knowledge or content rich projects that are relevant and rigorous.

This work will be supported by partners who have significant resources that will ensure that the learning experiences will be rich and robust, and follow the state content standards.

Transformation of this kind will not happen overnight. The Innovation Labs are starting small, bringing in interested teachers to take those first steps toward changing the educational model.

Education should not be a one-size-fits-all approach. We are not working with factory widgets to which we can apply a prescribed set of steps and instructions for learning. Instead, we have these wonderful, squishy objects that walk through our doors with individual personalities and needs. Let's embrace the uniqueness and individuality of schools and applaud those who are willing to step up to the challenges of 21st century learning.