Making an Impact: One District’s Approach to Deeper Learning

As part of the Alliance for Excellent Education’s (the Alliance’s) ongoing series about how districts and schools are fostering deeper learning outcomes for students, the Alliance contacted Chad Ratliff, director of instruction for Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS) in Virginia, to discuss his efforts to bring Maker-centered work to the district and its connections with deeper learning. ACPS is one of the first school districts nationally to recognize the value of Maker-centered learning, an instructional approach that encourages students to solve problems by tinkering, building, inventing, or otherwise creating physical or digital artifacts. ACPS started its efforts three years ago when the district’s Monticello High School converted its library to a Makerspace. The district also reimagined the elementary remedial summer school programs as Maker academies. Below is an excerpt from the discussion with Ratliff.

Alliance: How does ACPS define Making? What is a Maker?

Ratliff: We are committed to young people getting opportunities to construct knowledge and skills through the processes of imagining, creating, designing, building, engineering, evaluating, and communicating learning. We believe that it is essential that our students learn how to be Makers in all phases of their lives, rather than just consumers. We are committed to Making as how we learn, not as an add-on or event, and we understand that both learning to make and Making to learn are essential in everyday classroom practice.

Alliance: How does this approach work in a school district? How did it start in ACPS?

Ratliff: Our approach to Making begins with grassroots educators who value young people of any age, color, gender, or background getting the chance to answer the question, “What do you want to make?” When administrators from the superintendent to building principals support experiences for students to ask questions, be curious, explore interests, and pursue passions, then Making takes root as a path to learning in which our young people actively participate in what we call a “search, connect, communicate, and make” model, rather than what education has been defined as being in the past—more of a passive “read, listen, write, and recall” content model. Making became integrated into Albemarle’s culture through a project called Design 2015 that began in 2012 as a way of accelerating shifts in practice that were more likely to engage our kids in learning for life, rather than just to pass tests and courses. We’ve allowed Making as a big idea to scale across the district rather than to force fit it into a program that we attempt to replicate or scale up in schools.



Alliance: How does Making support deeper learning?

Ratliff: Making is deeper learning. Kids who make often find themselves delving deeper into the rabbit hole of their interests. For example, a student interested in learning more about sign language in one of our schools ended up learning how to create a specialized, Arduino-controlled glove that allows an American Sign Language user to have their hand-generated symbols translate into text on a device. What started as a simple social good interest generated learning that went much deeper into the context of design thinking, engineering, programming, and signing.

Deeper learning for us is simply ensuring that students don’t skim the surface of context, competencies, or content as they work to accomplish something that’s important to them and us. In deeper learning experiences, our kids go far and wide in figuring out what they need to learn to accomplish big challenges. This year, as another example, a group of kids decided to launch a high-altitude balloon. It took them all year to accomplish this task, learning everything from meteorology to programming to the physics of flight. They learned to work as a team and undertook the challenges of communicating precisely with the [Federal Aviation Administration] FAA about their project. When the launch failed initially, they problem-solved on the fly, almost Apollo 13–like with duct tape and the tools they had at the launch site. From the beginning of their interest in this idea during an eighth-grade science class to recovering the balloon over fifty miles from their launch site, this group of students never gave up and continued learning even beyond the school year’s end, when the balloon’s controller notified them it had landed.

Alliance: How do you prepare teachers for this different approach to the classroom? What do teachers need to ensure its effectiveness?

Ratliff: Teachers need opportunities to engage with Makers, and so we’ve taken teams of teachers to some of the national Maker Faires. We also cosponsor a local faire and give credit to teachers for participating. We set up site visits to Makerspaces, some of which are in our own schools, allowing teachers to learn from each other. We’ve had teachers visit museum spaces such as the New York Hall of Science and the Tinkering Lab at the Chicago Children’s Museum. We integrate Maker opportunities into our professional development offerings and work with schools to support their build-out of Maker spaces—not simply as destinations but as support spaces for Making everywhere. Our learning-technology integrators support Makers as do instructional coaches. We have my position as a director focusing on expanding nontraditional learning experiences such as integrated curriculum, customized pathway options, Maker-centered learning, STEAM [science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics], and entrepreneurial opportunities across the K–12 curriculum as part of our emphasis on student agency and lifelong learning.

Alliance: How does ACPS measure the effectiveness of this approach, beyond typical year-end testing?

Ratliff: We use a performance-based assessment model in which student assessment spans a continuum from traditional assessments to authentic construction of portfolios, project-based learning, and performance tasks. Making becomes a part of that because ultimately our Lifelong-Learner Competencies are the end game for learning, not passing state tests.

Alliance: How does a district ensure that Making is for all kids, no matter their socioeconomic or racial status?

Ratliff: We’ve had a tradition in American education of reserving the most interesting and intellectually challenging work for some children but not providing access to all. Our Maker spaces and Maker culture support all children to have an equity of learning and in access to rich experiences. We don’t want either project-based learning or Maker-infused learning to be seen as what the “top” or “gifted” kids get to do while other kids get something less challenging and more compliance-driven. We find that the more the full range of kids get access to Maker work, the more engaged they become, the more they see their voice as mattering, and the more they become agents of their own learning who have influence in their classes, school, and community. We need to keep focused on working to do the right thing for kids and that means ensuring that all means all when it comes to a full range of active-learning experiences. Making to learn does that.

(This is the first in a series that will feature district- and school-level practices that the Alliance wants all students to experience; it also continues the Alliance’s efforts to identify and highlight a variety of schools, school districts, and approaches.)

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