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Washor: Education begins with assessing interests

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What is a typical school setting and is there room for improving the textbook-based, traditional teaching model?

Elliot Washor, co-founder and co-director of Big Picture Learning, expounded on that particular issue at the annual Business Summit Aug. 29 at the Greenbrier.

Washor, who along with Charles Mojkowski wrote Leaving to Learn, opened the presentation by challenging the notion that learning can, and does, occur only inside a school setting by explaining an education-based model with direct student engagement as the building block.

According to Washor, treating each student as an individual and zoning in on their particular interests and passions, rather than establishing a homogeneous standard, is what drives success and quality of education.

"You have to ask a student what they're interested in and they'll tell you," Washor said. "Do schools ask that question? No, they keep turning the pages."

Through a lack of active engagement and learning the particular passions and interests of students, Washor says students' true assets are sometimes overlooked and students are measured by what they can't do instead of what they can do.

"The thing about that is, and I'm arguing this, we measure what students can't do, not what they can do. And they're doing a lot of stuff outside of school," Washor said. "They're taking care of people at home (or have) actually done a lot of academic work the schools don't know about. They have a lot of assets and we don't know about it to take advantage of those assets."

In a video done by a student in one of Washor's more than 200 schools, the desire to be addressed and treated as an individual is reiterated from whom the whole concept of engagement applies.

The student in the video states, "Schools try to fit us all into the same mold. But we're not all the same. We have our own interest and passions. We don't want to be told what should be important to us. We want to learn what is important to us and about expectations." 

In addition to engagement, Washor also expounded on the importance of having involved and supportive parents and mentors who encourage students on a regular basis and who the students trust.

"They have to trust you. It has to be a produciary relationship where what you're doing as a teacher, educator or parent is what's best for that child," Washor said. "Not what's best for you but what's best for the child. That child is an agent in their own world."

Through Benjamin Bloom's book, "Developing Talent in Young People" which looks at prominent people in the fields of sports, medicine, science and the arts, Washor learned three things that stimulate educational growth: the young person has a little bit of talent, there are adults in their life who encourage that talent and bring them to an outside organization or mentor and that organization or mentor, in turn, acknowledges that the child has a little bit of talent and encourages them to go further.  

Washor described those people not as becoming prodigies but as people who work extremely hard and persevere through challenges with the help of the adults who support them.

"They need supportive parents and adults in their lives. Nobody does it alone," Washor said.

Having faith in the students themselves and their capabilities is another important aspect of engagement-based education Washor says is very important.

"People say we've got to teach children how to learn. We know how to learn," he said. "Outside the world of school, of informal learning, we all either trial and error something, go to a text, Google it, talk to somebody about it and move those pieces around until we find answers."

Not only is trusting capabilities important to Washor but also showing trust through the physical environment by not over-restricting.

While Washor believes self-assessment is the most powerful form of assessment, he also believes in the importance of standards and tests, but with possibly a little tweaking. 

"Research shows that if you're 15 years old, you're an owl. You're staying up all night and you're at school at seven in the morning. Why can't we change that? Why can't we test students later in the day?" Washor said. "We have decision-based evidence-making in education. You make a decision and then you find the evidence to support it with some randomized control study. Go to bed sooner. Make sure every child goes to bed and gets nine hours of sleep. Make sure everybody gets 40 minutes of exercise every day and lowers their intake of sugar, fat and salt. I don't care what your system is, the scores are going to go up because the people in front of you are paying more attention. They're awake, not asleep."

"Fit" is a word Washor uses to describe what he views as the most productive relationship between students and schools.

Washor's schools cater to K-12, with them mostly being at the high school level.

The typical school structure involves two days a week where students are out. Every student chooses a mentor for their interests, which Washor says doesn't necessarily lead to a job but does many times.

Approximately 70 percent of students work in the fields they had internships in.

Washor said the reason for this is because the students "built social capital around their interests. They know people who are doing the things they want to do. These are informal relationships that are built by a school that outlasts the four years of high school."

Three days are spent in school getting necessities for their education, including tutoring, online services, small group courses and college courses. 

The parents, or advocates from outside the school community, represent students on the learning plan. Learning is refocused every quarter based on the curriculum and students' interests and needs. Every quarter, students have to present their learning to their parents, school community and mentors. 

Important to the school is the "anywhere, anytime" policy.

"If you wanted an outside school to give you credit for it, we are competency-based. It doesn't matter what system we're in. We just do it," Washor said. "If you can prove you can do it, I don't care. Learn it on your own at home. We give that type of credit. When people say anywhere, anytime, they really have to mean that." 

An advisory system is also in place.

There are 60 schools in the United States. There are also schools in New Zealand, Australia, Italy, Bulgaria, Turkey, Romania, The Netherlands and soon the United Kingdom.

For his closing advice, Washor said to ask students what their interests are and to be serious about it. He also suggested making a learning plan for every student and inviting parents in to use it as a resource. 

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