Problem Based Integrated Curriculum

At The Community School, we’re teaching students to engage with the world like no other school. We immerse ourselves in the very real work of learning through doing, of tackling problems that are affecting us all, on micro and macro levels. For this work to be relevant, impactful, and truly useful to all involved, our model is largely integrated, blurring artificial boundaries between subjects and skills.

By combining water and soil sciences, physics, chemistry, engineering, botany, aquaponics, and horticulture with advanced maths and introductory construction technologies, along with daily work in critical skill and disposition development, social justice understanding, extensive reading, and history, our students are currently tackling problems around climate change, economic parity, and social justice. Currently, we’re addressing these issues through project work to establish regional food security; to build stronger individuals and communities through supporting the basic human needs of food and shelter; and to develop scaleable regional models of sustainability and hope which can be shared throughout largely poor and rural parts of our country.

In 2017-18, our multi-age pilot group embraced the challenge of addressing the question: how can we sustainably provide our own food locally, year round? The answer they tested included designing and building model systems for a bioshelter, a four-season greenhouse which uses permaculture and solar design to grow crops without added amendments, fossil fuels, or external power sources, and which includes the growing of carbohydrates and proteins, making the outputs not only environmentally sustainable but able to meet the nutritional needs of a community.

At The Community School, students are learning concepts and skills, and figuring out how to put them to use, first through modeling, then with scale construction, and finally, doing an actual build-out of their plan.

In 2018-19, we took a cue from Finland, the leading educational hotspot in the world, which is embarking on one of the most radical overhauls in modern education. By 2020, the country plans to phase out teaching individual subjects such as maths, chemistry and physics, and instead teach students by topic or broad phenomena (Macdonald, 2015). Our current pilot has expanded into a full-school, 3.5 hour per day integrated program. The challenge at hand, literally built on last year’s work of developing functional systems to sustain a bioshelter, addressed the question of waste, especially given the news that China would no longer accept our recycling.

Students chewed on the concept of privilege while addressing the question: is it ethical to sell our waste to someone else, and does this absolve us of responsibility for the planetary repercussions of this waste? We’re also tackling the waste issue by exploring, inventing, and designing a way to use locally-sourced recyclables as the building materials for our bioshelter and intentional co-housing community of tiny houses.

In 2019-20, we will delve into three essential questions:

  • do the actions of one person matter?
  • what does local work to shift the trajectory of climate change look like?
  • is social inequity inevitable?

With this in mind, we will do the ground work of building a full-scale aquaponics and four-season growing system to provide food for our school community; design and build three tiny houses which can provide sustainable and affordable homes for individuals and small families; and begin the work to explore the benefits of building an intentional co-housing community in our region.

One group will travel to Copenhagen to explore climate resilience, intentional co-housing communities, and innovative waste management. management. After spending a week in Copenhagen, they will lead our efforts to develop a model for an intentional co-housing community of tiny homes which could be built on our property to support the very real human need for community, provide affordable work force or retirement housing, and connect people to a place.

Our second group will travel to Hunt County, Alabama, arguably the poorest county in America, to explore the work of Rural Studio, Auburn University’s design/build program which has entirely transformed a region through its work with –not for– local people in need. From there we’ll travel to New Orleans to meet with grassroots organizations which are taking climate resilience into their own hand. The final leg of the trip will take us along the length of the Texas border, to El Paso. We will visit border crossings and detainment centers, both to bear witness and to help restore humanity to the process of immigration where we can.

The third group will visit Biosphere2 in Tucson, an example of what can come of thinking really big and way out of the box. We instill in our students the concept that we learn, too, from our failures. These students will also visit the border, crossing into Nogales for the day.

Slow Down, Dig Deep

This philosophy might be uncommon but is increasingly appreciated as essential to a vibrant and relevant 21st Century education. Think about how top colleges now seek their best and brightest:

  • Trinity’s checklist for their admissions application readers contains the characteristics we’re nurturing here at TCS: curiosity, empathy, openness to change, ability to overcome adversity, risk taking, delayed gratification.
  • Olin’s required two-day building challenge interview looks a lot like our integrated math and science class, focusing on problem solving and collaboration to bring to life science and math concepts while tackling real problems.
  • MIT’s Maker Portfolio shares qualities of our new portfolio system, designed to have students showcase and reflect, over time, on their growth in areas above and beyond traditional academics, including critical thinking and dispositions.
  • Yale includes the option to submit a short video on the prompt describing, “A community to which you belong and the footprint you have left.”

While we’re maintaining The Community School’s founding commitment to hands-on, real-world learning, we’re definitely making sonic shifts to a completely modern way of educating the generations who will solve the myriad problems of our fine world. We’ll be in good hands….

Assessment and Evaluation

We believe that assessment and evaluation are tools to help learners plan, grow, and to record that growth. To that end, we assess in many ways–from extemporaneous conversations to formal presentations; journaling or lab notes to annotated plan; pencil and paper tests to problem-based projects. Students learn to assess themselves and to trust their own insights rather than to rely fully on extrinsic observation. Areas assessed include specific subject content and understanding; abilities to use skill sets to solve problems or do something; dispositions; and critical skills: leadership, creative thinking, organization, problem solving, communication, ownership, and critical thinking.

Evaluations are narrative. We do not use a traditional alpha-numeric system, but instead note on individual transcripts whether a student has met basic class criteria (Pass), has done so in an exceptionally vivid way (Pass with Distinction), has marked some impressive personal growth (Pass with Personal Honors), has not met basic expectations in the most half-hearted of ways (Pass with Concern), or has failed to meet even basic expectations (Fail).

We neither assign grade point averages nor rank our students, not only because it isn’t possible to translate our narrative system into letters and numbers, but because we, at our core, do not believe in ranking. We are happy to offer individual narrative recommendations for scholarship consideration, college course prerequisites, or in other areas which typically rely on standardized norms.