October 17, 2015

A Year in the Ideas Lab

Year One in Focus, Preview of Year Ahead at Tang Institute: Experiments, Explorations
by Jenny Barker

Where can a teacher test strategies for helping students to embrace struggle and challenge as means for meeting their academic and personal goals? What is it like to learn Russian language—in Russia, with local teachers? Can you imagine students designing a mobile app, developing the business plan, and presenting both on a world stage? What do these questions have in common? They are just a sampling of the initiatives that have been supported by the Tang Institute during the first year.

We are designing the Tang Institute to be an ideas lab to turn innovative thinking and practices into tangible projects and transformative experiences,” said Caroline Nolan, the Institute’s Currie Family Director. “We aim to provide faculty and students with time, support, space, resources, and connection to a network of educational partners to test and grow their ideas. We then help bring what works into the classroom or into real-world learning environments.

Innovation Starts Here

Since launch in October 2014, the Institute team has been supporting community-driven efforts to explore potential responses to a common question: How can we prepare students for a technological and increasingly complex, interconnected world? Early initiatives are grounded in Andover’s commitment to connected learning, an educational approach that makes learning relevant to real life, work, and our digital age and global society.

Connected learning is a set of possibilities,” said John G. Palfrey, Jr., head of school at Phillips Academy. “And what I want most is for our faculty here to be engaged in this inquiry, and to be engaged in testing, exploring, assessing—really carefully assessing. Asking ‘Does it actually work? What works? What works better?’ Because ultimately, what we’re trying to do is to serve our kids better.

Strength in Numbers

One manifestation of connected learning at PA is a partnership between the PA math department and Khan Academy, a global leader in K–12 online education, which began in 2013 and developed further in 2014–2015 with support from the Institute.

William W. Scott, chair of the department, along with PA administration, met with the visionary Sal Khan on campus about an idea to provide Khan’s worldwide network of learners with access to Andover-caliber teaching content. Following a trip to California to visit Khan Academy–a trip from which Scott said he returned with his “eyes wide open”–and a series of planning meetings, Scott began working with colleagues and students to write math problem sets and create instructional videos for an undertaking that would be the first of its type for both PA and for Khan Academy.

As the work progressed, Scott and his colleagues decided first to test their online content internally with PA’s AP Calculus track courses. Ninety-three students participated in hybrid AP calculus classes. When surveyed, they overwhelming felt that PA should—and must—continue using hybrid approaches. Students had especially appreciated the instant feedback: At all hours, they were a click away from answers written by PA faculty. The reception by worldwide learners has also been encouraging. According to Scott, at last check, there were roughly 1,000,000 attempts per month on problem sets that PA faculty and students had uploaded to the site. But it wasn’t just students who benefited. Faculty learned a few things, too.

“I had been planning to tell a particular student to try harder, but when I looked online I could see he had been the number one user of study materials,” said Scott. “Instead, I figured out exactly what he was struggling with and planned a lesson accordingly.”

Global Interaction

Another manifestation of the Institute’s focus on connected learning is its Learning in the World (LitW) program, which aspires to provide every PA student with the opportunity to participate in a global or community-based learning experience. As the Learning in the World Coordinator and a Tang Institute Fellow, faculty member Carmen Muñoz Fernández is leading these efforts. New programs last year were the Berlin History, Culture, and Language Week, which is built upon an interdisciplinary course supported by the Institute and launched collaboratively by the German and History departments, and the American Civil Rights Movement Immersion Program, which brings students through the American South to engage them in the complex history of oppression and fight for social justice. Other programs include the HUACA (Human Understanding through Archaeology and Cultural Awareness) Project in Peru; Brazil PLACES (People, Landscapes, Art, Culture, Environment, Sustainability); a service-learning trip to South Carolina; Pecos Pathways in New Mexico; BASK in ASK in China; and the Cantata Music Tour in Shanghai, China, in which more than 70 participated. A common thread is that students return from their travel abuzz with stories of meaningful, firsthand experiences and interactions that gave them new perspectives and that broadened their world view.

“In terms of personal growth, I love that my sense of history has expanded,” said Alexandra Kim ’17, who recently participated in the Piette Program in France, which provides 10 students with the opportunity to spend two weeks in June traveling back in time to study French history, art, culture, and language. “From amazing visits to the inside of caves to ‘talking rocks,’ history has not only deepened, but it has also become more tangible–something that is not so far away and not so irrelevant and something that is extremely important to our lives today,” said Kim.

External Partnerships, Diverse Audiences

Eric Roland, Precourt Director of Partnerships at the Tang Institute, describes the first year as one in which both the ideas the Institute supports and the concept of what the Institute represents have evolved and grown in exciting ways. He cites Institute Fellow Noah Rachlin’s involvement of the PA and broader educational communities in his learning disposition project and a visit from psychologist Carol S. Dweck, a pioneer in research on growth mindset, as some of the highlights. He also says that engaging external partners and diverse audiences has been and remains a core focus for the Institute, as it serves multiple purposes: in inviting new perspectives and collaborations to Andover and in bringing Andover into a larger forum on innovative teaching and learning.

New, Existing, Connecting

Even as the Institute keeps its eye on the future, it remains rooted in tradition. As Oscar Tang ’56 said at the Institute’s launch: “I’ve always believed that Andover is blessed with superb intellectual talent. Our faculty and the school are at their best when they share those gifts beyond campus.” With non sibi as its guide, the Institute’s work is collaborative—and has an eye toward the greater good of schools and students everywhere.

As the Tang Institute looks to the year ahead, the themes are again new, existing, and connecting. There will be a number of exciting collaborations, such as one with library director Mike Barker to launch a makerspace where students can roll up their sleeves and create. There will be a hybrid learning pilot with middle-school aged children led by Visiting Scholar in Connected Learning, David Rea; new and continuing fellows’ projects on a range of topics, from mindfulness to the reimagining of Chemistry 250; and new and continuing learning programs domestically and in various regions of the world. The Institute is also bringing back its lunch and discussion series, which provides community members with an opportunity to connect with Institute fellows, internal and external collaborators, and other thought-leaders. All the while, the Tang Institute remains steadfast in its founding vision:

I think it’s high time that we have a Bell Labs for secondary education, and I think Andover is perfectly suited to help build that,” Palfrey had said upon the Institute’s launch. “I see the Institute as being Andover’s contribution to what will be a highly distributed, global conversation about the future of secondary education, and it allows our teachers and our students to tap into that excitement.

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