Reflections on Philly's Science Leadership Academy

at the Science Leadership Academy
at the Science Leadership Academy

I visited SLA for Educon 2.5 last weekend with MVS Upper School Division Head Rachel Moulton attended Educon 2.5 on Jan 25-27. One of the leading progressive education conferences in the country, Educon is a product of the hard work of the faculty, students and families of The Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA.

Daniel Pink writes in his book Drive that the last 30+ years of research into motivation have shown that engagement - our students' or our own - has everything to do with what he calls "Motivation 3.0," and it hinges on three things:

  1. autonomy - people must be in control of their own work, time, focus, etc.
  2. mastery - as Pink puts it, people need "ample opportunity" to pursue mastery of their interests
  3. purpose - monetary compensation is great and necessary, but long term engagement and satisfaction comes from feeling that what you're doing is meaningful

As I toured the halls of SLA and dropped in on numerous classes last Friday, it was overwhelmingly clear to me that principal and founder Chris Lehmann and his faculty believe deeply in the power of those three motivating factors. What did I see?

Students - bright and confident, willing and able to explain what they were doing, and more importantly, why they were doing it. This is important because most of the work that a student does at SLA is designed and driven by the student herself. Students were working everywhere - in the halls, in the classes, in tiny alcoves and meeting rooms (there are no teacher rooms and student rooms at SLA - everywhere is everyone's); working on figuring out the environmental and nutritional impact of the food they brought to the term-end Spanish party; debugging a 3'x3' robot that they designed, complete with webcam and data collectors; role-playing characters from the French Revolution and the 1960's "hippie" movement in a class simply called, "-isms." In their freshman year, students work one half-day a week at The Franklin Institute, and as sophomores and juniors they spend that time working on projects with businesses and organizations all around the city, from courts and law offices to hospitals and community leaders, from non-profits to Fortune 500s. They are well aware that the work they do in high school is relevant to the real world. You will not hear, "Why do I need to know this?" coming from any SLA student.

Faculty - twenty-five teachers strong (SLA is 9-12 and has ~500 students), this small and mighty group of educators is so skilled at fostering the students' pursuit of their own interests and learning that it was often not entirely clear, upon entering a classroom, who was the teacher and who were the students. Teachers were not at the front of the room, and they weren't speaking to a room full of students seated in rows. Faculty were actively engaged in the learning process themselves, which is a bigger deal than it sounds and requires huge amounts of trust from everyone involved: Students need to trust that their teachers aren't leaving them stranded, that following their own learning pursuits would be both engaging to them and be able to teach them the content they needed to move forward and eventually graduate. Teachers are not the experts in their students' projects (that's the students' job) and therefore must learn along with their students, from their students, and trust their students to have followed their teachers' guidance on best practices during their independent research. Faculty are not only encouraged but are expected to collaborate with their colleagues and further their C21 education leading skills, and they are given dedicated time every week for the process.

Most importantly, what I saw most was joy - on the faces of the students, teachers and parents welcoming hundreds of Educon attendees to their school; in the energy of the classrooms as the students excitedly jockeyed to share what they had learned and what they were working on; in the colors of the walls (none of which were institutional beige) and the student work and posters lining those walls (if they're proud of some non-digital work, they are encouraged to hang it on the walls - no need to ask anyone to validate their pride).

Everyone at SLA - from the incoming freshmen to the most senior faculty member, to the principal and founder himself - designs their own learning experiences, is rewarded with time to increase their skill and understanding, and knows without a doubt that the work they are doing is real and has relevance outside the school walls. The whole setup is perfect Motivation 3.0, and it is changing the face of education around the world.

The great benefit to travel is also true for visiting other schools: getting outside your own world for a bit can help revitalize your own life (personal and/or professional), teach you new modes of thinking and working, and validate your current modes. Rachel Moulton and I spent the entire weekend in conversation with education leaders from around the world and while the substance of those conversations will be percolating in our planning for MVS for some time, I think the most impressive immediate take-away for us both was probably SLA itself: the community's culture of inquiry, the way they sustain an ethic of real caring for and about the whole community, and the trust and prioritization of input from everyone involved in the learning process. It was actually reminiscent of The Miami Valley School in many ways, yet offered many lessons we can learn from and use to improve what it is we already do.

Do you feel that your school adequately handles the challenges and requirements of autonomy, mastery, and purpose for your students? How about for your faculty? For your administrators? Please leave your thoughts in the comments!