Full STEAM Ahead: Remodeling Learning

Yes, it’s relatively easy to introduce technology and to experiment with project-based learning. It’s not so easy to change the law, norms, and practices that are so strongly associated with high schools in the U.S.A. (for example, sequester students on school grounds five days a week), which is why Justin Bathon added a law degree to his education credentials. Dr. Bathon, associate professor at University of Kentucky, Director of Innovative School models and leader of STEAM Academy, in Lexington, Kentucky, is interested in “the ‘code’ of education which includes things like the legal structure upon which the system is built, the norms of everyday school policy implementation, and the technological architecture of learning.”

STEAM Academy, a collaboration between the University of Kentucky and the local school district in Lexington, Kentucky, currently educates 330 students, with plans to grow to 500 students over the next two years. As Dr. Bathon puts it: “innovation is my primary job.” In addition to STEAM Academy, Bathon works all over the state of Kentucky, “remodeling the learning environment — and I don’t just mean physical structures or digital structures. We do that, but our primary remodeling is about how time is allocated and how people are hired.”

Beginning in their sophomore year, students hire out to internships one day per week. And, when it comes to the academic curriculum, Bathon said, “we want to give students a much bigger voice in the process. Students go through two-week modules that cover not only the academic content, but the application of that content to real-life projects: Project-based learning has become our baseline teaching and learning structure.”

In addition to what many would consider a radical restructuring of the way students spend their time and engage with their communities outside the school walls, expected behaviors of students are part of the remodeling: “We’re big on habits,” he said. “When we see students drop out of public schools, we have begun to understand that it has a lot to do with their academic habits or life habits rather than problems with content knowledge. We think high schools of the future should focus more on getting kids ready for life skills. With strong life skills, they can successfully tackle new academic challenges.”

STEAM Academy specifies six specific habits that students are graded on: engaged learner, intentional collaborator, active and responsible decision-maker, creative and critical thinker. “We ask parents to use these terms in the home. Some schools put an iPad or a Chromebook in each student’s hands, but if you don’t change the teaching and learning, you’re not really changing the school’s underlying structure.”

STEAM Academy is a one-device-for-each-student school, “but the most interesting thing we’ve done is not just putting a device in each kid’s hands, the harder and more interesting step has been getting each teacher to put all their content online. “We use the Canvas LMS, so that assignments and content are one-stop shopping for parents and teachers.”

Bathon doesn’t claim that his kind of deep remodeling is easy: “It’s scary. You have to be bold and start changing fundamental aspects of the school. Parents will freak out. They worry that when you change the traditional model, it will impact their kids’ ability to get into an elite university. Having said that, I’ll also have to say that we’re finding that way more of the traditional model is accessible to change than most people realize. I was an educator and became an attorney because I wanted to know the rules of the game. I found that when it comes to schooling, many of the rules are actually norms and not laws, and that’s a big difference. How you change a law and how you change a norm are two different things. I see a lot of opportunity for educators who want to start changing some of those fundamental norms.”

Banner image credit: projectexploration