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8.7.2019 | Katija Aladin

Tyler Thigpen On Designing Learning & Building Communities That Encourage Students to Explore their Purpose

Tyler Thigpen is a partner at Transcend. Transcend is a national US based non-profit that has a mission to accelerate innovation in the context of school. Tyler’s innovation for this HundrED conference is called the Graduates Aims Database. It is a collection of summaries of innovative learner outcomes that teachers, school designers, school leaders and schools can use to apply cutting edge research to make improvements to their learning design, whether it’s a classroom or a whole school model.

Tyler Thigpen is a partner at Transcend.  Transcend is a national US-based non-profit that has a mission to accelerate innovation in the context of school.  Tyler’s innovation for this HundrED conference is called the Graduates Aims Database.  It is a collection of summaries of innovative learner outcomes that teachers, school designers, school leaders, and schools can use to apply cutting edge research to make improvements to their learning design, whether it’s a classroom or a whole school model.


How can the database improve a student’s educational experience?

So our role at Transcend, we partner with a number of different local communities across the United States to really go on an innovation journey that starts with interviewing families and students about their dreams and hopes for their students and what they want to be true when they’re 17 and 18 year olds and graduating from that particular community.  Then taking that empathy research and translating it into a blueprint for school design. It’s a very very detailed blueprint, you can almost think of it as a blueprint that you make for the iPhone, we make blueprints for innovative learning schools that are just very detailed so that a team of builders can then take that blueprint and make it come to life in a place. That usually takes multiple years and quite a bit of investment of time and human capital, financial capital to make it happen. Eventually, we test out and improve various aspects to that model and then when it gets to a place where it’s delivering really promising results, we codify it and etch something in stone so that they can be shared to other communities in the United States.  So what we’re trying to do is, we view ourselves as an r & b engine in the education field. We are trying to build both the supply and the demand side for innovative learning models and what we’re finding throughout that whole process from design all the way to scale and spread is we’re finding that increasingly communities are signing up their schools to cultivate a much broader more holistic set of learning outcomes so not just math, science, language and history anymore. Instead, yes some academic outcomes but also some social-emotional factors like grit and perseverance and tenacity. Also some global competencies like social justice and intercultural competence and also some transferable skills like creativity and collaboration and the Graduate Aims Database which is the innovation, is a tool that helps those schools and it helps those teachers and it helps those design teams at the school, know how to create an environment that will actually cultivate a much broader more holistic set of learning outcomes, not just academics which is what traditional school is meant to do and what traditional teacher preparation is meant to do and it’s what students frankly are used to. The Graduate Aims Database helps communities get unstuck from that whole model and instead really look intentionally at their learning environment in order to create something, design something, improve something that will deliver on the promise of academic outcomes, social-emotional outcomes, global competencies, and transferable skills.  


What advice would you give to those who are new to the idea of designing for learning outcomes?

So I think the advice I would give to folks who were just thinking about designing for learning outcomes for the first time would be that it is a complex process but if you think of yourself as a designer of an experience or actually a designer of a set of signature learning experiences then it’s possible to create for young people a set of experiences that are best suited to cultivate that particular learning outcome.  It's important for us to sort of name what the outcome is, and not to only name it but to actually clarify the trajectory of what development of that outcome looks like over time. So defining what it is, clarifying that trajectory of what the development of that outcome looks like over time and then imagining a set of signature learning experiences that students can go through that will take them on the path of practicing, understanding, making sense of that developmental trajectory over time.  Where it gets complicated is as we do in education, we have more than one learner outcome that we are going for, and so naming all of the outcomes at once, not naming too many is important because we do have a limited amount of time, but naming ones that genuinely reflect the shared values of the families and the communities I think is a critical component as well. So to narrow down that suite of learner outcomes and then sort of working backward from that and designing those specific learner outcomes to cultivate that would be a little glimpse into the process that we undertake without communities.


What is the role of parents and caregivers in education?

As an organization, though we care about innovation and the context of school,  we don’t have a particular model that we are advancing in the United States, rather we’ve identified what we call great leaps for innovation that we think schools communities should be making in the information age.  One of those leaps is about the role of the adult, the role of the parent in a traditional model, at least in the United States. The adult and the parent has and the caregiver has been on the periphery and not involved and it’s almost like an afterthought to incorporate them in the learning and the experiences of schools and of the student.  Whereas we think that in an information age and now the parent should be fully integrated in a way that both adds value to the experience of the student as well as adding value to that family. And so as an example our very first partner is a high performing charter network in the North East called Achievement First GreenField and with that particular partner after going through the design process with families, that school community came up with the idea of what is called dream teams,  and dream teams, which is another HundrED innovation actually. Dream teams are teams of 5 or 6 caring adults including the parent or caregiver, that rally around one child in order to support them in goal setting, to support them in dreaming about what their passion is and to meet with them on a regular basis to listen to them. These are student-led meetings, to listen to them, to give them feedback, to give them encouragement to hold them accountable and those happen on a regular basis.  That’s one example of the kind of involvement that we are increasingly seeing in our partners, where the parents are playing an active role and you know are a part of that learning conversation. It’s embedded in the school rather than being on the periphery.


How has the Graduate Aims Database helped to design your forest school in Atlanta?

Recently, my wife Joy and I set up a micro school in southeast Atlanta called the Forest School.  It’s in a neighborhood called Pinewood Forest and the mission of our schools is that each person who enters our doors will find a calling that will change the world.  So our vision very much centers around purpose, we understand from the research that and actually, the Graduate Aims Database is what taught us this. So there's a Graduate Aims entry on purpose and so what we did as a team is we read the entries which were about 10 pages and very user friendly, practitioner facing, a synthesis of all the best research from learning science to Youth development that we understand about purpose so we learn some key things after we read that.  For example, we read that most folks don’t find their purpose in life until our late twenties so despite the fact that our mission of the school which is for ages 6- 18 very much before the late twenties is about purpose. We realized that what we need to be doing as a school is not helping young people find their one and done fixed purpose in life but rather help them build purpose seeking skills and so that became a real focus of our school as we continue to read the Graduate Aims Database, basically what we did is we crosswalked the Graduate Aims entry on purpose with the actual design and experience of our school model.  As we crosswalked that research with our school design model a number of things happened: one we affirmed some of what we had designed and thought that’s great, the research affirms this let’s etch it in stone, let’s leave it to let’s do it. We also realized some greater nuance from the research and we made a few tweaks and changes and added a few things, we also subtracted a few things, one of the key takeaways from the Graduate Aims entry on purpose had to do with the role of artistic self-expression in finding your purpose and when we looked and found that insight, we looked at our school model and realized that we actually haven’t given our young people enough time to have that kind of self-expression on a regular basis.  If we are going to cultivate purpose on our school we need to embed artistic self-expression pretty regularly throughout, so we actually changed our budget and we hired more of an art teacher and now we’re sort of implementing that. We added things, we subtracted things and then we also became aware of some tensions that we just needed to kind of keep an eye on. When we looked at the research, we noticed as just an example that when it comes to purpose just because someone finds their purpose in life that’s not necessarily translating into academic achievement but they’re both important for us as a school, so for us that’s a tension that we want to be aware of, we don’t want to have the pendulum swings too far one way or the other,  that’s just an example and so there’s another Grad Aims entries such as self awareness, empathy, that we also cross-walked against our model but that practice was very helpful for us in founding this school. One of the other things we did was after we crosswalked it, was that in order to double check our understanding and make sure that we were accurate in our application of the research, we reached out to a few educational researchers and youth development researchers and said this is how we’re making sense of this Graduate Database entry in our learning environment, can you give us feedback on how we’re making sense of it and is that accurate or not? And they gave us great feedback and affirmed most of the changes that we made and helped us tweak a few. 


To learn more about Graduate Aims Database, visit their Innovation Page.