In Episode 45, we had a conversation with Joe Erpelding, Principal at Design39Campus in San Diego, CA, and two learners, Sydney Huber and Riya Anand.
Learner-center leaders lead with empathy, listening to stakeholders. As Principal of Design39Campus, Joe is constantly listening to stakeholders. This is a big part of the design process to empathize with stakeholders in supporting change. It is also critical in supporting correction when change does not go as planned.
What does teaching and learning look like at Design39Campus? Design39Campus is located within a public school district. The goal of Design39Campus is to create learners who are life-ready thought leaders elevating humanity and, thus, creating an impact for others.
We started by asking the learners what it was like to learn in this learning environment. They shared students get creative freedom, and can work wherever they choose – outside, office, collaborative spaces. Students work on impact projects and collaborate with many other organizations. After a certain period of time students choose Explorations and Deep Dives thus applying the core knowledge from content classes to areas of passion, specifically in science and engineering. This allows students the freedom to be curious about many topics.
Why did you choose Design39 Campus instead of your home school? Learners reflect they had the opportunity to see the evolution of the campus as it was being developed. They noticed the differences right away. Instead of the standard library and classrooms, there are collaborative spaces and outside workspaces. They utilize principles of design thinking, and the projects are different. Learners feel very free academically.
Joe has been principal for four years The initial principal was released for 2 years and 5 teachers were released for one year to investigate and research the possibilities of designing a school from the ground up. They visited other sites and employers. There were 17 different design process opportunities for parents to connect.
Joe shared he had to “re-route his whole firmware” about education. Joe doesn’t have an office and teaches a class two times a year to continue to understand what the design learning process looks like.
What is an Impact project? The teacher assigned a simple writing assignment that turned into an event. Students reached out to companies that they admired. Sydney shared about her work on a beach clean up in San Diego. She talked about the process of creating an event and how it moved quickly and easily. The organization sent $2000 worth of bracelets. Instead of selling the bracelets, Sydney gave the bracelet as a token of appreciation to the volunteers who helped with the clean up process. The team cleaned up about 40 pounds of trash at the beach.
Reeya shared her process for developing a NPFH application. She pitched the idea to every teacher so they could understand their perspective. The learners also had the opportunity to visit Disney for a leadership experience. In that experience, they learned about the 4Cs and how to apply them into their mission.
What is an impact project? Anything that can impact the community in a positive way. Examples include a clothing drive, canned food drive, etc. Basically it is your perspective on a problem and how you want to fix it. The projects are passion-driven. Sydney shared she is passionate about the environment and how it connects to her Oceans Impact project. Students need to think globally and act locally. It starts small.
What is the role of the LED – Learning Experience Designer – in the impact projects? A teacher is someone who is guiding students. He/she has to have the courage to let the students take the reins sometimes. “The LED is there to show me where to look, but not what to see. They don’t tell me what, when and how to do it. Instead they offer support and guide me.”
At the heart of their guiding principles at Design39Campus is design thinking. Design39Campus has 8 guiding principles. Creative confidence, growth mindset, collaboration, opportunity to connect globally and act locally, etc. Teachers may not integrate all 8 principles, but they are intentional about technology integration, planning for creation, etc. The principles are a structure to remember that learning is complex, and it allows teachers to be designers throughout the process.
The learners reflected on seeing the principles in action. Reeya reflected she really needed growth mindset when working on her robotics project. Having a growth mindset means you are willing to grow from mistakes. Sydney used a lot of guiding principles during her projects. She couldn’t get enough of working with her peers and teachers – collaboration. She also developed creative confidence to get up and talk about her project as a guest on another podcast. Guiding principles permeate the culture. Learners reflect on the principles as they complete projects and learning experiences.
The school created a schematic about the knowledge, skills, and dispositions, a dramatic piece of the evolution of Design39Campus. Without this, they may not be as successful in the learner-centered environment. Learners need the skills to avoid frustration when communicating their message. Without the dispositions, they could end up with apathy.
How is leadership different in a the learner-centered environment? Joe filled up 3-4 notebooks at the start of his principalship. He did a lot of listening The first year was not easy. One hundred and fifty kids left the school. Twelve teachers left, and Joe needed to hire more. The school wasn’t meeting the expectations, and he needed to learn more by listening. The context was what mattered. He had to give people grace to be good with what they were currently doing. He asked them, what is your 10% to move forward?
Leaders need to be vulnerable and bring teams together to have input. There is now a distributive leadership model, and making decisions was super complex. The team had to come to an agreement on decision-making and collaboration. This environment needs everyone to be invested. It’s a little messy but it is the best work you can do because you are doing it with others.
How do you enroll people in this movement? Joe reflects the best way to enroll others is with tours and tours – both outside and inside the school. They called it Project Beep Beep! The team hopped on buses and toured other schools, resulting in ideation coming out of that space. Touring internally is also important, and the school hosts over 150 tours each year. They are now re-investing in parents. He asks them to notice. Before, we would have tour guides, but now we just ask parents to “tour in”. Ask any learner what they are working on and understand where they are in the journey.
Finally, think about your priorities. What is driving the system? Design39Campus is a learner-centered lab school. They want their learners to be life-ready thought leaders who are curious and inquisitive. It is not about GPA or how many AP courses. Instead, what is your impact?
There are 150 tours per year at Design39Campus to learn about what is going on at Design39Campus. With so many micro-successes and major successes, they need to develop a culture of sharing. They are touring each others building, taking Instructional walkthroughs, and connecting to learn from each other in the various campuses.
\What advice would you give to others who are making the shift to a learner-centered environment. First, you need adaptability. In Disney, the students learned Walt Disney was shut down so many times. Not everything will be perfect. You have to be willing to work through it as a leader and a learner. When working on impact projects, students experience productive struggle. Perseverance is always important to answer his/her question. Information has to be clear and not false. Sydney persevered through getting over her presentation challenges. She shared how she has grown out of her shell. Joe shares the learning environment is amplifying opportunities and providing grace to make mistakes is critical. As the principal, Joe realizes ultimately, you have to launch. If you wait, you are delaying the time you are going to make mistakes. Instead, shorten the time period, launch, iterate, and make it the next best version.
Connections to our Practice
- Our high school is also a NPFH, and some of our learners have had the chance to participate.
- Staff know their superpowers and how they can best support work. Our teachers and leaders have had a chance to uncover their superpowers. Should we revisit and celebrate?
- Do all of our learners have opportunities to impact locally and think globally?
Questions Based on Our Practice
- Do our teachers show students where to go or what to see?
- How does the role of teacher need to evolve?
- Do our teachers, leaders, and learners have time to collaborate?
- Do we link everything back to our Profile of a Graduate and Learning Beliefs?
- Are we “rerouting our firmware”?
Next Steps for Us
- We need to make some site visits and figure out how to take staff on a Project Beep Beep!
- How can we tour each other’s buildings?