Protected: Jamie Steckart – How a traveling school has redesigned its curriculum in the pandemic

ADi Online International Meeting - February 2021

Welcome to “Think Global School”

Flash of two Italian presenters



Lene Jensby Lange’s interview to Jamie Steckart
former headmaster of Think Global School, NewYork


13aLene: Hi, Jamie, I’m so happy to have you here talking about your experience with virtual education and what we need to look out for. You are the former director of Think Global School and you have a lot of experience that you could share. That’s really valuable for teachers today. Could you briefly introduce yourself and share that experience a little bit?   


Jamie: Yeah, that’s great, thanks for inviting me. I was sad that we couldn’t meet last year due to the pandemic.
Think Global School was one of the most amazing experiences that a head of school could ever have. It’s a traveling boarding school with two cohorts of 30 kids in different countries that get to do their high school education before they graduate, go to university and they get to visit four countries per year. They are all project based learning and based on standards that the kids meet to graduate, and it’s all advisory and relationship running, which is super, super important, in my opinion, for getting kids to stay motivated and engaged.

13aLene: And could you just briefly explain, how do you manage the whole engagement piece and the projects and authentic learning experiences with also meeting standards?

3aJamie: Yeah, so, right now I’m writing a book on just those kinds of things. And what we’re finding is that engagement  decreases over time when a kid goes through school, ultimately ending in the worst engagement during their eleventh grade year. And so what we found is that motivation is increased dramatically when you give students autonomy, choice and a sense of purpose. And so we started measuring those qualities at Think Global School and we get great research over the long term. What’s important is actually giving kids choice and relevance when they’re designing their own projects that are based on standards.
I always tell people that Think Global School isn’t unstructured, it’s just a different kind of structure that’s truly student centered by the school’s time. We actually put that to practice.

13aLene: Yeah. And I think that you focus on engagement and motivation because that’s where we really grow. But then we all had to go into a virtual environment. And I know you had to do that a little bit before everybody else and got to grow your experience around that. Could you just briefly share what happened?

3aJamie: Yeah. So, when I first got to Thing Global School, there was the first country shut down due to a geopolitical or natural disaster. But we would do online. I asked to my teachers the question: have you ever practiced that? They did it. So we immediately embarked on practicing those events because I knew it wasn’t a matter of when it was going to happen or if it was going to happen, it is just a question of when it was going to happen. And so we’ve had a number of events where we’ve had to change our course due to catastrophic events or riots or war, or we weren’t able to go to a country. And then when we adopted the four term calendar, we actually put online learning a priority. And so the first 10 days of a term are spent in their home countries online, learning about the country that’s about to drop into. And so with the covid hit, our staff had been trained and up skilled to deliver online learning and our students had been trained and upskilled on how to interact in the online world. So it wasn’t anything new for us. And so we didn’t stumble. We were just like “Oh, this sucks because we can’t go to a country, but we can deliver effective curriculum”. And so, what does a good online learning look like at Think Global School? You really have to prioritize. Do you want it to be in synchronous, which is what we’re doing right now, or do you want it to be asynchronous where kids do their work, they get some marching orders and they go off and do some things and then come back. And so we focused on like a 30 to 70 split, 30 percent synchronous and 70 percent asynchronous because we had kids in 30 different countries. So you’d carefully plan for supporting them and their learning, but in a way where they could manage that themselves as independent learners and manage their time.

And then you have the 30 percent. The key is that we don’t do a lecture format with students on PowerPoint. Our students are designing their own curriculum. They’re doing things. They really just need a mentor to guide them, to make sure that they’re meeting the standards. And really what we need to focus on, doing online learning, in my opinion, is that you really need to focus on relationships and building those. And so they have one-to-one checkins, they have group meetings and they do some curriculum. But that’s based more on “OK, this is kind of the theme we’re doing today. OK, go off and do that on your own”. But our students are well versed at doing that independently learning.
Most schools have never done that. And so it’s really hazardous to throw the kids into the deep when they don’t know how to become independent learners. You actually have to coach kids. And we’ve been fortunate at Think Global School to be able to do that over the long term.

13aLene: And, you know, if you want to start to build those good, I guess, habits of learning independently, where’s a good place to start?

3aJamie: You know, one of my favorite films is The Wizard of Oz, when the Wicked Witch shows up talking to Doroty and opens the curtain. She reveals the curtain. So what you need to really do is reveal what’s behind the curtain of learning to students and so demonstrating good projects. That’s why Think Global School have teachers designing projects and we have student designing projects.
But metacognition wise, we teach the students why our projects are good projects. They’re the template for what we want them to be able to accomplish. And so, that’s a kind of professional development, it is not what they’re trying to teach, but how they’re actually teaching, it is the methodology behind teaching the students so that when they go off and do their own projects, they have examples, really good examples, good templates like “Oh, this is a good project because my teacher did a project similar to that”. And so you begin these things and you don’t have the kids do projects that are so all encompassing at the beginning. You save that as a development sequence into being better project builders. And so a lot of schools try to start project based learning off the bat but what happens is that they start too big, too bold, and then their kids feel like “We tried project based learning. It was a failure. Our kids can’t do it”. That’s because you implemented it incorrectly. And so you have to do those baby steps teaching students what good projects look like and then developing that over the course of time.

13aLene: You told us that the data you have on the level of engagement and motivation for your students are really something that we all want to see in our students. What do you think is a key component in that when you work online, what’s important to a student?

3aJamie: You need to have a relationship with the kids, we measure peer to peer relationships in this study. We measure faculty student relationships and those are always high engagements. We measure if engagement with the kids is externally motivated or internally motivated. We know that external motivation or carrots and sticks is good for compliance, but it doesn’t really inspire kids to do really good stuff.
So if your online format is based on, you know, behavior, as models of like “You get an A” or “You get a good grade” or “You get bad grades”, you know, that’s the negative side of grading. That really doesn’t motivate kids, they’ll comply to chase that score but they’re not doing really deep learning. And so what we really want to see kids do is be internally motivated. They want to learn because they’re curious to create those kinds of things. So those are the kinds of aspects in online learning that you need to implement. And so less is more. Don’t try to, like, throw a whole bunch of stuff at them. Really maintaining those relationships and offering those feedback loops: those are really important in an online world because we know that when kids are not engaged, you lose them.

13aLene: And how do you keep them connected with their peers, with the other students?

3aJamie: So, you know, there’s a lot of ways that we utilize in online learning because of the nature of the school that we have group projects where kids actually meet and we have group activities that they have to actually do. We hold group advisory meetings with each other, you know, in some creative ways. We actually had the teacher do physical workouts, dance parties online with kids and they show up. And so those are the kind of creative things, or we would elicit Tick Tock video like contests for kids to do. Those are some of the creative ways that you can use with the technology that the kids are doing to actually participate.
So you give them a task and they have to do it on Tick Tock and they have to submit the video. Those are some of the asynchronous ways that kids can stay connected. And then you can also create kind of group movie, group tours, those kinds of things.

13aLene: So what I hear is like being playful with it, with a sense of humor, you have a lot of variety of things that you’re doing so that you have experiences together and moments together. And what would be your advice for, if I say, I was a teacher in a public school and now everything is happening online, and so what would be one or two pieces of advice you would give me?

3aJamie: I would definitely argue for you all to be able to check in with a small group of kids continuously. So be assigned 15 kids where you’re the one who’s checking in with them. I would argue that you should have an amazing group activities with kids at least once a week. I think you need to loop with your kids.
So if you taught the second graders this year, you need to have those same kids in the third grade that you maintain those relationships. That’s the simplest way to maintain the relationships. It’s really hard for elementary school kids to get to know somebody via the Internet. But if they already know you from the previous year and you just take them to the next year, then it’s a lot easier. You know what they’re good at because you’ve seen it in real time and you know what their strengths and their weaknesses are. So that’s an amazing opportunity.
And you mentioned the word playful. You know, we learned so much through play. I don’t think playing in school is a bad thing. I think playing in school is an amazing learning tool. And so the more playful you can make learning, the better it is. I mean, if we look at gamification of things with kids… for instance my my daughter, my youngest daughter is actually in a forensic science class.

13aLene: Really?

3aJamie: Yes, she is in a forensic science class and she’s so excited about this online class because her assignments are basically on murder mystery using real science so she’s going around the house talking about different clues and things like that.

13aLene: And she’s a ninth grader, right?

3aJamie: Yes, ninth grader. And she’s doing this murder mystery forensic science class online. And, you know, the previous term, it was all PowerPoints. She hated school. Now she’s doing this amazing forensic science class that she loves.

13aLene:So that’s a very playful way to learn  about STEM really and get engaged and see what you can use it for in real life also. But not that I hope she will ever be in a situation like that!  

3aJamie: My son,  he’s actually doing a game design class.  And so he’s learning how to code games, you know, and he’s really enjoying that class.  He’s also doing an outdoor class where  he has to do outdoor activities and he’s learning  a whole bunch of safety subjects for hunter safety and vehicle safety,  like for snowmobiles and all these things.  And so those are fun ways to learn.  I mean, he was outside doing the filming  of training our dog, it is an outdoor activity,  so these are things that get kids engaged.  And these are traditional kind of schools.  These aren’t like Think Global School.
These are really highly creative ways  of getting students engaged.

13aLene: Yeah, well, it’s about getting out there,  thinking about what can they do at home?  What can they do outdoors?  And how can you also do things that are meaningful and have fun  together online and feel you’re part of a group? So do you have any advice also for parents who have their kids at home  all day while they might be working themselves?

3aJamie: Right, parents… you know, in  Italy you can schedule coffee meetings with the kids,  ask them what’s on the schedule, have it be a one-to-one session,  you know, having coffee, figuring that out  on a weekly basis with your kids and then be part of their plan.  I mean, don’t you take time off to play with your kids?  You know, we’re all stuck in this really  trapped environment.  And someone asked me recently what was one of the unexpected joys of covid that is not work related.  And I said, well, one of the most unexpected joy is that I like to go out and do things, I’ve been forced to really like hanging out with my family.  And it’s not a chore.  It’s not a burden.  It’s actually this amazing opportunity  to build relationships within our own family that, you know,  because we were all so busy before we weren’t able to do this.  And now we have time to actually say “Oh,  this is important” and we should stay home and be together as a family  and play together as a family and live and learn and love our lives.  So that’s amazing.

13aLene: Jamie, it was such a pleasure talking with you here.  Thank you so much  and see you hopefully this year sometime.

3aJamie: Thank you so much.  Be well, be safe, play and have fun with each other.  And  this will end and it will change.  And so we’ll get back to normal.  Don’t be afraid that you’re falling behind.  That’s a false premise.  Don’t fear that. Thank you.  Thank you so much.



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