Adventures in Learning – The Microsoft School of the Future

I’ve never visited a school named after a corporation before.  It must be really amazing!

Our second visit during our Philadelphia trip was to the Microsoft School of the Future.
We weren’t really sure what to expect during this visit.  I anticipated, quite frankly, visiting a school where millions of dollars had been invested but that the sustainability piece was missing.  On that count, I was wrong.

The school itself is quite amazing.  It’s a beautiful facility, built as a green school in one of the worst areas in Philadelphia.  Entrance into the school is done by lottery, so it is a random selection of students who are chosen by nothing more than pure luck.  The very notion of lottery reminded me of Waiting for Superman.  They have therefore a varied population with a large number of students who enter into the school not achieving at grade level.  The facility itself is stunning.  It is a ‘green’ school so they have large windows and lights that are energy efficient.  Parts of the building are built from recycled wood from the trees that existed in the lot prior to the building.  There is a green roof.  The school uses both local farms and has an urban nutrition initiative (meaning they have a farm that helps grow produce).  They use these to supplement the free lunch program (the indicator of poverty in Philadelphia).  One hundred % of the kids at School of the Future qualify for the free lunch program.

Here are some pictures of the inside of this beautiful school:

The facility is designed as an interactive learning space for kids.  While there are traditional classrooms, there is also a large learning commons area designed for cross curricular projects and flexible groupings. (They referred to it as a competency center).  They have a performance pavilion that blew us away – beautiful, state of the art equipment, with two small openings at the back with seating that was on hydraulics and could be lifted and turned to form a classroom.  The music program included a full recording studio and four practice rooms.  Programming offered in the school includes a variety of Special Education programs, a varied music program, traditional courses, and the recent focus was a digital media course offered in co-ordination with a school out of Winnipeg.  There is also the junior and senior projects where students have to go out into the world and create a ‘real world project ‘ – inquiry based learning.

The basics supports for students include the advisory program, where teachers follow students for all four years, although they did specify that they did traditionally ‘homeroom’ type work in that class.  They have two support counselors, a technical help desk, an after school tutoring program, a college resource program, and a school resource officer.

Classrooms and hallways:

The technology piece was significant at the School of the Future.  It was one of the main reasons we included it on our tour.  Microsoft invested human capital in the design of the school.  Each student receives a laptop in grade nine as they have a one to one laptop program.    As we toured the school we saw evidence of careful planning.  Speakers and document cameras were integrated into the ceilings.  Promethean boards were on the walls of the classrooms.  Lockers opened with pass cards.  Every dollar designated to technology comes out of supplementary funding that they must access themselves through sponsorship.   The design and function of the school is designed to be replicable and as such, they receive only the same funding as other schools in the School District of Philadelphia.

The instructional technology piece was what we most hoped to discuss and possibly replicate.  According to the teacher who talked about the integration of technology into good teaching practice, the teachers in the building are meant to be innovators.  Teachers are meant to act as a designer rather than a facilitator, indicating that good technology integration requires time and energy as you design your course and materials.  He emphasized repeatedly the amount of time it required to create successful lessons that integrated technology.  One key point, that we discussed at length, was that… “Technology must support knowledge building and must exist in a way that learning could not occur without it”.  We had some debate over this.  He believes that teachers have to be prepared to change their pedagogy before they can integrate the technology piece.

The visit was interesting.  The school is designed in such a way that the entrance and main area of the school is not a student area so a lot of the hallways were empty as we wandered.  The competency center they described (and in which we sat and had our discussion) was rarely used and seemingly not in the way that it was meant to be used.  The feeling was that much of the teaching that occurs in the school, despite being done through or with the aid of technology, may have been done in a traditional way.

The information we read after the visit indicated that the school had some issues during the start up.  Mainly, the idea of technology integration is fantastic, but teachers have to know how to integrate technology into their classes in a meaningful way.  And, like they said, teachers have to be prepared to make those changes.  There were also difficulties equipping students with new laptops and sending them out into their more dangerous neighborhoods without proper discussion around safety and security and purpose.  And finally, the last issue seemed to be that the school lacked strong leadership (5 principals in 3 years) and seemed to have no clear vision about where to go.

However, it appears as though the Microsoft School of the Future has done much to transform in the 6 years that they’ve been open.  They reinforce and support their one to one laptop program.  They now offer professional development opportunities around technology integration into teaching practice.  The leadership seems to be more consistent and the gentleman who talked to us about the school seems to have a role in creating a vision, a structure, and in helping to support teachers, staff and students, as they work with technology.

And, additionally, 100% of the students that graduated from the school that first year were accepted into post secondary institutions.

We learned a lot on the trip.  Lots of questions still, and room for discussion, but the school tells me that meaningful technology integration CAN be done IF you support teachers and students in that endeavor.  Technology integration doesn’t come easily and teachers need support in learning and adapting as they make that switch.

Next up.. The Science Leadership Academy.

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