21st-Century Learning Conferences: Innovating Authentic Learning

What if you turned off the bells in your school and threw away the traditional schedule for the day? What would you do for an entire day with students? How would students want to spend their time learning?

Change has to begin somewhere. As I visit classrooms and speak with students about their learning experiences, I find myself continuously asking, “What if?” It really is a powerful question that allows us to reimagine, redesign, and reinvent traditional practices in education. Last week, I wrote a blog post about the STEM Scholars program at Nipmuc Regional High School in Upton, MA. That program was the stepping-off point for my school community to tackle the bigger “what if” questions about teaching and learning. The STEM Scholars program was a small, essentially extracurricular program that served one-sixth of our student population. The success of the program encouraged us to ask the questions, what if this programming was built into our school day? What if it was available to all students and not just some students?

In response to these questions, Nipmuc Regional High School developed a model referred to as 21st-Century Learning Conferences, where we turn off the bells and throw away our traditional high school schedule in exchange for a professional conference for students. Through collaboration with educators and business professionals, the conferences offer a variety of sessions that are built around a common theme. The purpose of the conference is to provide authentic learning opportunities for all students built upon student interest and geared toward helping students develop skills for future success.

Providing authentic learning experiences is essential to ensure that learning in schools is relevant, connected, and meaningful for our students. The actions below will help you develop a 21st-Century Learning Conference that meets the needs of your individual school community.

Cultivate a common vision: Be sure that the vision for your 21st-Century Learning Conference is aligned to the core values and beliefs of your school community. Take the time to establish a common purpose and goals to ensure all stakeholders have an understanding of the day.

Build community partnerships: Build partnerships with professionals and local businesses that will help support and drive programming. Tap into the wealth of knowledge and expertise that exists within your community to partner with educators and offer sessions during the conference.

Promote the collaborative work of faculty: Find time for faculty members to work together to develop sessions that meet the needs and interests of the school community. Whether partnering with an outside professional or a teacher in another department, educators will need time to plan engaging hands-on activities for their session.

Replicate a professional conference: Take this opportunity to make the day feel different. Our students come dressed for success with the understanding that they could be meeting professionals that may be key players in their future success. We use professional software for our schedule (sched.org) so that students have digital access to all sessions and can choose the sessions of most interest to them. Don’t forget the food and even some free swag for students to keep them excited about the day.

Promote the conference: Things are changing in education and great work is being done in schools every day. Be sure to not only market the success of the conference after it takes place, but also to communicate the vision behind the day before the conference. It is important that students, parents, and community members have a clear understanding of the purpose of the conference.

To learn more about our 21st-Century Learning Conferences and to access additional resources, visit http://21stcenturylearningconference.weebly.com/. As you browse the website and learn more about the program, I challenge you to continue to ask, “What if?” Think about what could be possible in your school if you threw away the schedule for the day, partnered with local professionals, and allowed students the opportunity to choose meaningful, authentic sessions.

Mary Anne Moran is the associate principal at Nipmuc Regional High School in Upton, MA. Passionate about reimagining, redesigning, and reinventing education, she was named the 2016 Massachusetts Assistant Principal of the Year. 

1 Comment

  • Michael Thomas says:

    Well done, Mary Anne! Thanks for giving me another great idea for my school. I love how you ask the students to come dressed for success.

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