How HP is leading change in one school district

Initiative supports 4,500 students in grades K through 6
By: | December 1, 2018

Q & A with Laura Spencer, Executive Director, Innovation and Design, Del Mar Union, San Diego, California

How is your district driving innovation?

We are in an unrelenting pursuit of the extraordinary school experience. With technology, you can never say, “OK, we’re done; we got there.” It’s constantly evolving. And the only way to get there is to really ignite students and empower them. Students need personalized learning experiences to know how to collaborate and have cultural intelligence. What we are doing is trying to get to those principles through design thinking. When we look at technology, we are trying to figure out how we can make this seamless. It’s about creating this experience in which kids feel like they have a voice, that they’re valued, and that they’re actually contributing and not just learning stuff to learn stuff.

Does the initiative only apply to core fields of study?

No, not at all. It’s in everything we do in our district. For example, our physical education teachers are focused on physical literacy. They don’t just go out there and play softball for a month and then switch to another sport; they’re trying to teach kids how to be active and how to be connected to the world outside. They’re on Twitter, posting what they’re doing and how they’re getting out in the world, and they’re asking students to post their pictures and talk to their parents. You’re not just on the field, but you’re also using technology. We are exploring different ways to record what kids are doing so they can go back and look at their pitches, for example. We’re really trying to figure out how all these elements work together instead of as separate pieces.

How would you say technology is revolutionizing learning?

Back in the day, if the teacher didn’t know the answer, there was no answer. It was either the textbook or the teacher, or it didn’t exist. Now, even if I don’t know what a kid is passionate about, I can still guide them to places where they can get that knowledge and get that passion ignited.

Can you share an example?

Last year, we had fourth-graders in social studies learning about California. They’re learning about agriculture and nonrenewable energy sources. On their own, they decided they wanted to really figure out renewable energy. They came up with ideas of how we could use solar energy to charge our laptops instead of plugging them in at night. The technology came into play when students had questions that the teacher could not answer. We used a website called Nepris that connects students and teachers with industry experts around the world. The students, through video, were able to connect with a guy who’s a mechanical engineer in Lebanon. He’s a foremost authority on renewable energy sources. And he answered every kid’s question, looked at every kid’s prototype, and talked to them about what pieces they were missing, how feasible it was, and what they needed to do to modify their prototype. It truly blew me away. He said he had so much fun with those kids, and he kept in touch. They started writing letters to one another after the project was over.

It sounds as though you’re emphasizing the human aspect of technology.

We have some programs that kids use to practice their skills, but to me, that’s not the revolutionary aspect of technology. It’s about connecting kids to the world and having them see how they are a part of it. When we’re talking about design thinking, it’s that human-centered approach, right? It’s like we want our students to know how to solve problems, but also how to find them.

So we’re really focusing on building empathy, and I think that’s just another way technology is helpful. It gives them access to people around the world, and they’re learning how to build empathy and have a deeper understanding of why people do what they do. It’s not just when you grow up that you can do these things, but you have the power right now. You have a voice, input, and you can help guide the future just with that Chromebook in your classroom.

What role has HP played?

We have Chromebooks in all our classrooms, but for me, the bigger connection is HP’s intelligence. The tools and the technology are great, but more important has been the relationship. They’ve been helping us look at virtual reality and what that’s going to look like in our classrooms, and how we can play out the idea of having students create and not just participate in virtual reality. So they’ve connected us with think tanks, and one of the teachers who works for me is now part of this focus group that’s working on virtual reality with HP. It’s really just building and seeing the bigger picture. I can buy tools every day, but if I don’t know the bigger picture of how we’re using them and why, it’s just money being spent.

Our students use their Chromebooks for everything. They’re writing, they’re connecting, and they’re giving feedback to one another. I also see students creating movies that showcase their learning. When we teach students something, we don’t say, “OK, now here’s your test.” We say to students, “How are you going to showcase what you’ve learned?”

How are you preparing teachers?

We have a technology specialist at each school teaching creative applications of technology, such as coding, robotics, and video production to all students. We also have two design engineers who are teachers on special assignment working with classroom teachers to co-design innovative learning experiences. We work together to provide a deep level of understanding. So for example, a principal might say, “Let’s really work on the fourth-grade team for a while.” So we plan with that team, and we talk about what you are trying to achieve and why that is important. And then we talk about how we can get there.

Technology is changing. You just have to jump in. But if you can jump in with somebody, it’s easier. It’s OK to fail or to fall. Our professional learning is a lot of modeling and coaching. It’s very intentional deep-level learning. If teachers know that somebody at HP is there to support them, they’re willing to take it as far as they can go.

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