Re-inventing the Re-invention

David Pacchioli
May 01, 2000
kids with egg drop apparatus

The day of the Great Egg Drop dawned cold and clear. By 10 a.m. it was not much warmer. Still they stood patient: small in stature, but thickly bundled; teeth chattering hardly at all. Twenty round faces turned upward, to the sixth-story summit of a campus parking deck: The launch pad.

"It's a little too windy," Mark Toci muttered, with a fleeting grimace. The kids didn't hear him.

At the top, the first pair of young Newtons signed themselves ready. They were both holding their specially designed "containment unit"—a small, bulging, cardboard box—out over the railing.

Toci gave the all-clear.

Loosed in thin air, the box dropped without tumbling for one second, two . . . then hit concrete with an unmistakable thok.

The crowd went wild.

Back in their warm classroom, each pair of students had built a Web site. Along with careful descriptions of the physical forces involved in bringing an egg down safely from great height, there were blueprints for the various containers designed to meet this challenge. One, modeled on the Mars lander, deployed plastic bags filled with packing peanuts around its payload. Another nested the egg in a frame strung with rubber bands. A third relied—too heavily, as it turned out—on the cushioning properties of layered gym socks.

Web sites and containment units alike were elements in a six-week science project ("Machines, Motion, and Energy") undertaken by sixth-graders at the Centre Learning Community charter school of State College, Pennsylvania. Toci, a Ph.D. student in education at Penn State, is both science teacher and one of the school's co-founders. The other co-founder is his adviser, Penn State associate professor Kyle Peck.

Nine years ago, Peck hatched a plan to radically alter public school education at the middle-school level, "rebuilding it from scratch" as a place where computer technology would free teachers and students from the old stand-up-and-lecture model and make them partners in active learning. (See "Re-Inventing Education," in the March 1991 Research/Penn State.) With the help of a dedicated team of graduate students, and backing from the Hershey Foods Corporation, Peck's "R.E.A.L." Initiative ("Reinventing Education as Active Learning") was deployed in a handful of school districts. Its students showed measureable gains in creativity, formal thinking, and motivation. Center Learning Community, Peck said, is the next step.

In the fall of 1997, he explained, sitting in his small, cluttered office in the building that CLC shares with a massage school, "a group of parents got this idea for a school going, with Mark and me as advisers." Soon, however, "It got to be too much work," and the parents opted out. "At one point," Peck remembered, "I asked Mark, Are we going to let this fold?"

"We had been thinking about it for a long time," Toci said. "Not a charter school specifically, but taking a school and molding it to our vision."

"Within the larger public school system," Peck said, "it's a lot harder to get somewhere with the technology. We didn't have the resources. I saw a charter school as an opportunity to test ideas in a more pure way."

As a charter school, he continued, "We can do whatever we think is best for the students. We decide—but we have to do the job or we get shut down. We receive autonomy in exchange for higher levels of accountability."

dropping eggs from high up

The school district provides funding, the same amount per student that the district spends on every other child, Peck explained. "So we have just the same amount of money to work with—or a little less, when you factor out transportation and other services the district is providing—but we have chosen to spend more on technology than they do."

Every CLC student, accordingly, is given a personal computer to take home. ("One reason for this," Peck said, ""is to do a better job of communicating with parents." In addition, the school's teachers—Toci, Josephine Pirrone, and Glenn Johnson—could opt for either a classroom computer for every student, or shared computers and a teacher's aide.

The school's guiding concept, Peck said, is held over from R.E.A.L.: "Knowledge is important, of course, and that's what the standardized tests measure. But we also stress skills—what you can do with what you know—and attributes, which determine what you will do. Attributes are things like self-discipline, respect for others, confidence, creativity."

Other aspects of R.E.A.L. have been discarded. "We left behind the series of multi-disciplinary modules," Peck said. "They were still teacher-directed, traditional, a unit you worked through. Here, we are project-based. Instead of units, we have activities. It's more open-ended."

aerial view of children on sidewalk below

"I don't provide a lot of scaffolding," Toci explained, leading the way upstairs to his classroom, where students were quietly working away on their computers. "I don't do any lecturing other than providing assignments. Instead of a warehouse of knowledge, we want our kids to be able to find whatever knowledge they need very quickly."

or a project recently completed, he continued, "I said, We're going to create a museum. It was up to them to figure out how do we get there, and to solve the problems that arise along the way." For another project, on weather prediction, "The students first had to learn enough to know what they were talking about. To do that they had to know how to go find the information they needed. Then they decided how to present it—as a TV weather forecast. So they had to write a script. It's all in there—use of technology, subject matter, writing, public speaking . . ."

"This isn't that far from what a lot of public schools are doing," Toci acknowledged. "It's just that we can do more—through our access to technology, and having the time."

For his Ph.D. dissertation, Toci is working on developing better measures for some of the intangibles the school seeks to foster, things—like intrinsic motivation, confidence, the ability to work together—that don't show up on standardized tests.

CLC is after all a research project, Peck had noted. Its research mission, he suggested, should deflect some of the criticism that charter schools tend to face.

"We've had meetings with the community," he said. "At one of them, a guy stood up and said he loved what we were doing. 'I think it makes so much sense,' he said, 'that we should do it for everybody, the whole district. But if we can't do that, we shouldn't do it for anybody.'"

"I don't buy that. We need to learn some lessons, to test ideas and prove them. That's how research works."

The State College school district, Peck noted, far from being an adversary, has been "a very good partner. We have a rare constructive relationship that I think is mutually beneficial—and I think that the reason is that the district is secure enough in the knowledge that it is doing a good job itself. And they want to know what they can learn from us."

"There are lots of right ways to educate kids. It doesn't have to be one size fits all. I would like to get to the point where parents can match their kids with the learning opportunities that are best for them. The thing we want to show is that alternatives can work."

You can't give kids the best possible education, he might have added, without breaking a few eggs.

Kyle Peck, Ph.D., is associate professor of instructional systems in the College of Education, 314 Keller Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-4316; kpeck@psu.edu. Mark Toci and Glenn Johnson are doctoral students in instructional systems, and Josephine Pirrone recently earned her Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction, all in the College of Education. Centre Learning Community Charter School is on the Web at www.clccharter.org.

Last Updated May 01, 2000