Summary of Better Together by Lydia Dobyns and Tom Vander Ark

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of Better Together by Lydia Dobyns and Tom Vander Ark

Schools and teachers are faced with a dilemma year after year. Do they stick to the norm of preparing students for an exam or do they prepare students for life beyond school? Ultimately, it is not up to them to decide and parents are often more concerned with their kids achieving good grades to get into a good college. If graduation rates fall, principals are penalized, so no matter what, they are all forced to follow a system that they know is not doing the kids any good in the long run. 

Kids remain focused on academics that leaves most of them unengaged and demotivated. However, there is a system that can change this. It’s called learning networks and there is one out there for everyone to try.

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • The benefits of learning networks
  • Why online learning does not cut it
  • What students really need
  • Choosing the right learning network 

Key lesson one: The benefits of learning networks

School learning networks have become a valuable resource for teachers dedicated to their student’s learning. They focus not just on getting them ready for exams but also on how to keep them engaged in the classroom. What is even better with these networks is that teachers from different schools can find support amongst other like-minded teachers. This means that no matter where you teach, you can share strategies and tools that everyone can try. In fact, amongst the 7000 charter schools in the USA, a third of them belong to school networks. To top it off, those that are part of a network perform much better than those that are not. 

There are two main reasons for this. The first being that networks don’t have a single leader. Instead, each network has its own vision for what education should entail. For example, maybe one network uses the Montessori method and another strongly believes in teaching interpersonal skills to kids. It does not matter who is leading, the vision of the network remains the same and thus provides stability. There is no danger of having to change visions when a new leader is elected who had a different agenda. Thus, teachers are subjected to fewer disruptions in their teaching practices and can implement their learning models with stability. 

The second reason is that networks are a place for teachers to exchange ideas and are encouraged to do so. They can learn from the experiences of others and adapt accordingly to their classrooms. This means that they are continuously improving and in the process can share their improvements with others. It is a system that encourages and support everyone’s learning and improvement. To teachers, this kind of support is means so much. Being a teacher is never an easy job but being part of a community like this ensures that they stay energized and motivated. 

Key lesson two: Why online learning does not cut it

Online learning is an alluring concept. However, developers don’t always see the business potential in helping them. Think of it this way, online ads are specifically customized because of our online behaviours but student behaviour is often non-fluctuating and this makes it seem less exciting. It is because of this that technology for social media is almost five years ahead of that for education and learning. Imagine what learning could be like if teaching was customized just as our online experiences are?

The other reason online learning is not optimal is that just like any other classroom it values proficiency over the actual growth and improvement of a student. For example, a student opted to convert to online learning to avoid the bullying he experienced in middle school. This change put him behind a few years in both literacy and math. Even though he enjoyed online lessons more, by the time he received his spring grades, he was still lagging behind. Online schooling is not easy when students start at later grades having started off in traditional schooling. In addition, students find motivation when they work within a community. It is why the relationship between a teacher and student is so important. Because of this some children studying online actually need more support than those studying traditionally. 

There are education platforms, however, that when combined with face to face teaching, can be extremely valuable to those involved. They encourage continuous progress and collect data during every lesson that lets teachers know how a child is developing. The only downside is that these platforms are expensive and therefore not truly sustainable. Networks can help in this area as some of them allow access to these platforms by their members. 

Key lesson three: What students really need

When Aaron Brengard first joined Katherine Smith Elementary as principal, he could immediately see that the school needed to make some changes. It was stuck in a cycle of non-engagement and low-level tasks that left students stuck. Brengard visited Napa New Technology High School and was immediately drawn to their way of teaching that was as a result of the New Tech Network.

New Tech Network or NTN schools as they are called believe in education models that are based on personalized and project-based learning. This means that each student’s growth is analysed and used to develop their individual learning program. In a single classroom, students go through different projects or tasks that have been specifically assigned to them. In this manner, each student learns at a pace that has been deemed suitable for their learning. Following these models, students can develop soft skills in addition to project management skills. So, in addition to being more engaged, students are also able to be somewhat prepared for a life outside of school. This is evident in the way NTN schools are graded as they include not only test scores but also their critical thinking, determination resilience and the responsibility taken for their learning. Brengard adopted this network at his school. It was a huge overhaul as basically everything had to change to accommodate this new education model. However, NTN provided the school with everything they needed to make the change from the curriculum to resources for teachers. As a result, Katherine Smith Elementary is now thriving.

Another popular education model is design thinking. Design thinking originated at Stanford University and encourages a flexible mindset that enables students to discover solutions to new problems. It begins with empathy so students learn to think like the user and better understand their problem. It is then followed by research to develop various solutions and finally by designing prototypes that can be tested. After this process, they can decide which prototype performed the best. This type of model encourages students to explore and innovate without having to fear it affecting their grades. If something does not work, they do not fail, they just have to keep trying to find a solution. In addition, it is not only students that can benefit from design thinking – teachers can as well! By evaluating their teaching methods from a student’s perspective, they can come up with new solutions.

Field education programs as promoted by the Teton Science Schools network is also a great way for students to experience learning in the real world. The projects they work on are rooted in real-world examples – like testing water quality in their neighbourhoods. With this type of learning students become more connected to their communities and surrounding local landscapes. This further motivates their learning as it becomes relevant to the world around them. Another way to connect learning to the real world is a cross-curricular approach whereby teachers encourage the integration of subjects. The thinking behind this is that nothing in the real world is isolated. Biology inspires art, math is needed by an architect when calculating scale and scientists need to know how to present their findings. 

Students also benefit when there is more than one teacher in the room. Not only can teachers combine subjects and forces to better support each other and students, but they can also ensure that all students get what they need. At times, having two teachers in the room can help that each student is taught at the level they require and allow teachers to give each other feedback on their lessons. 

Key lesson four: Choosing the right learning network 

When deciding to join a learning network, you will be undoubtedly overwhelmed by the number of networks that exist. Each one has its advantages and disadvantages so you have to have an idea of what you are looking for. You also have to consider how much you are willing to adhere to some networks strict protocols. 

There are networks that have a singular focus and leave no room for innovation or flexibility once you join the network. If this is not something you think your school would be willing to adapt to, you can look at other networks that focus on design thinking or learning principles. You have to understand that networks will completely change the way your students learn and teachers teach. Thus, it is worth doing some research before you decide which one is the best fit for your school. 

Once you have decided, it is imperative that you let everyone involved know what will be happening. This includes parents who often need reassurance that the shift to a non-traditional learning model will benefit their child. They need to understand the change to be able to be comfortable with it. It will be a whole lot easier to implement when everyone is on the same page. The last thing you need when implementing new learning models is resistance from parents, teachers or students.

The key takeaway from Better Together is:

Traditional educational models focus mainly on grades and leave most kids unprepared for what awaits them after high school. In order for kids to be prepared to think critically, be innovative and creative and be fully engaged in learning, schools need to encourage non-traditional learning models. Learning networks are able to facilitate this and have become a valuable resource to many schools around the world. There are many different networks that exist and each one has its own focus as well as benefits that are offered to members. If you want to make the transition to a new learning model, be sure to do your research to find the one best suited to your school.

How can I implement the lessons learned in Better Together:

If you are a teacher but do not have access to a network, you can still share your experiences online by starting a blog. This will attract other like-minded individuals who will no doubt appreciate your information but also possible share their own!

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