At 'Applied Learning' Center, Every Lesson Has a Purpose

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When students at the Alice Carlson Applied Learning Center organize school events, run the annual PTA membership drive, and write city zoning officials in support of an outdoor-learning center, they aren't missing out on their curriculum.

For these youngsters, such tasks are the curriculum.

Teachers at the 385-student elementary school here consider such projects the real work of school, and build lessons around them as part of an educational philosophy called "applied learning."

"The idea behind the whole school is that it's project-driven and writing-intensive," said Sally Hampton, a former director of writing and applied learning for the 79,000-student Fort Worth school district, who helped start the Alice Carlson Center in 1992.

"We teach content, but we use not only books but other resources, such as the library and community people," added Principal Maria J. Lamb, who also helped establish the school. "We try to make everything we do a meaningful activity for children."

For the PTA drive, for example, Nancy C. Box's 3rd grade class created posters, made announcements over the public-address system and in classes, collected membership dues and graphed the amounts, and ran a contest to see which class could raise the most money. Ms. Box coordinated the project, but gave the pupils flexibility in how to accomplish the tasks.

In the process, the students improved their mathematics skills and learned about responsibility, teamwork, and public speaking.

"You are covering the curriculum," Ms. Box said. "It's not a side project."

Applied learning means different things to different people. To some, it's the idea of focusing on particular skills--such as communications or organization--that students will need to survive in the adult world.

To others, it means structuring lessons around particular projects and then using the projects to teach specific skills, an idea that has a long pedigree among education thinkers.

'Real' Connections

While some schools use the latter approach on occasion--perhaps in the name of service learning, project-based learning, vocational education, or contextual learning--few follow it to the extent that Alice Carlson does, Ms. Hampton said.

"I believe applied learning to be very much the exception and not the rule," said Willard Daggett, the president of the Albany, N.Y.-based International Center for Leadership in Education. "Most educators think they are doing applied learning, but in reality are not. All you have to do is be in the school and find the connections to be very artificial--not real."

The approach suffers from a perception that involving students in real-life applications takes precious time away from academics, Mr. Daggett said.

"To me, applied learning means academic rigor and relevance. If you don't use it, you lose it," he said. "Unfortunately, to a lot of people, the word 'applied' is a euphemism for vocational or watered-down academics."

Alice Carlson has proved that its students can do well on standardized tests. The school achieved "recognized" status--one step below "exemplary"--from the state education agency this year for its performance on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. To be recognized, a school must have 85 percent of all designated subgroups of children--including Hispanic, African-American, and low-income students--pass the TAAS test. Alice Carlson students reflect the demographics of the district as a whole.

Thanks to the school's success, applied learning has gained a firm, if small, foothold in the Fort Worth district. Parent demand for the approach has spawned an applied-learning middle school as well as a second applied-learning elementary school in the district.

"I don't know what we'd get somewhere else, but I like what we get here," said parent Ed Coble. The lawyer has two children who graduated from Alice Carlson and a daughter who attends kindergarten there.

The Alice Carlson Center has made a mark at the national level as well. The school's positive results helped shape the philosophy of New Standards, a school reform project run by the Washington-based National Center on Education and the Economy.

Alice Carlson piloted performance standards for New Standards soon after opening, and the school's teachers have written curricula for New Standards. The school identifies itself as implementing the New Standards philosophy.

"Much of the work in applied learning of New Standards comes out of Fort Worth," said Ms. Hampton, who is now the director of language arts for the national project.

Finding an Audience

The school's focus on applied learning brings with it some other unusual features. Teachers don't give out grades, for example, but instead work with students to develop portfolios that show their progress and serve as a basis for parent-teacher conferences. Children call their teachers and the principal by their first names. Desks in classrooms are arranged in clusters, where pupils work in teams; the only time the desks are set apart is when the children are taking standardized tests.

Another aspect of the school's philosophy is that, whenever possible, students should present their learning to a "real audience." While that audience is often other classes of students within the school, it is also sometimes members of the community, especially in the case of long-term projects.

"It validates what they do," Ms. Lamb said. Rather than simply putting their classwork in their backpacks and taking it home, they see their work actually used by other people, she said, adding that having an outside audience also helps students see the need for revising and editing.

One project at Alice Carlson that involved a particularly meaningful interaction between children and a real audience was one conducted last year by 3rd graders in Lori Bolling's class that traced the school's history.

Students got in touch with and interviewed adults who had gone to school in the 1920s through the 1980s in the same building that now houses Alice Carlson. Then they wrote and sold a short book about their research, planned an alumni event, and helped hang an exhibit that still stands in the school's hallway.

Caroline Hills, 10, said a big challenge of the project was interviewing adults over the telephone.

"At first, you have butterflies in your stomach. You don't know what to expect on the phone--whether they will be mean," said Caroline, who is now a 4th grader.

The school history project was important, Caroline said, because "we got to learn what [school] was like before."

Ms. Bolling said she didn't worry that the project involved too much class time. "The writing experience in that kind of project is enough to cover the curriculum for three years."

Building Confidence

When teachers aren't working with students on projects, they try to incorporate real-world applications in smaller ways.

They'll have students survey children on food preferences for an upcoming event, for example, and then chart the percentages for each choice. The children also commonly publish "brochures," such as a guide to the "snake museum" set up in the school's basement. The snake museum is a real-world application in itself. Kindergartners created the exhibit with posters of snake facts and model snakes made of cardboard or clay after visiting an exhibit in a local museum.

To teach a recent lesson on the concept of symmetry, Ms. Bolling asked her students to draw pictures on graph paper of items around their homes that were symmetrical.

The following day, a few students were chatting among themselves about how their refrigerators were or weren't symmetrical, depending on how the handle was positioned on the appliance. And one boy volunteered that he himself wasn't completely symmetrical because he had a spot on one foot and not the other.

Teachers here say they don't sweat it when they can't think of a real-world connection for a lesson.

"Not every lesson is applied learning," said Cherrie D. Jones, a 4th grade teacher. "We're studying geometry, but these kids aren't going to go out and build a building."

But once a teacher gets into the applied-learning way of thinking, the ideas for applications flow more easily, she added.

The Fort Worth district has provided teacher training in applied learning since 1991. Mary Marsh, an applied-learning specialist for the district, estimates that 300 to 400 teachers in the district have been trained in the method, mostly at the elementary level.

The lack of such training in other districts across the country is one reason there aren't more schools like Alice Carlson, Ms. Hampton said.

"In today's world of high-stakes assessment, it's much easier to teach skills specifically, and monitor progress around skills," she said. "Schools that do this take a chance."

Ms. Box, who has used applied learning for the past seven of the 26 years she's been an elementary teacher, said it's a chance worth taking.

The approach "enables students to be confident learners--they're willing to believe they can do anything and they can," she said. "They can do a lot of things people never imagine they can."

Vol. 18, Issue 16, Pages 1, 11

Published in Print: December 16, 1998, as At 'Applied Learning' Center, Every Lesson Has a Purpose
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