December 12, 2014 — Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy (SLA) is well known for its one-to-one initiative—providing each student a laptop—but computers alone aren’t the reason why students at this high school succeed.
In her new book, SLA English teacher and 2008 Penn GSE graduate Larissa Pahomov explains how the public magnet school became a national leader in transforming classroom structure with an inquiry-driven curriculum. With Authentic Learning in the Digital Age, Pahomov provides a guide for teachers interested in developing an inquiry-driven practice.
Readers with some teaching experience — or even a teacher in training — will be able to understand how their approach can evolve. Each chapter, for example, ends with a brainstorming exercise to get teachers thinking how they might be able to incorporate the chapter’s principles and techniques into their own lesson planning.
Pahomov started at SLA seven years ago, soon after graduating from Penn GSE. Research shows that the amount of time spent student teaching has a significant impact on a teacher’s long-term retention in the profession. Students in Penn GSE’s full-time M.S.Ed. program spend nearly twice the average amount of time student teaching, and are trained to be teacher-leaders such as Pahomov.
“Penn GSE prepared me do a good job at SLA,” Pahomov said. “The teachers there showed me the path and what was possible.”
As students have more access to technology, from home computers or those provided by a school to increasingly sophisticated cell phones, their ability to search for information has multiplied. What’s more, students are using these tools in all areas of their life. Teachers need to recognize this reality, Pahomov said.
“The research, problem-solving, and content creation skills that students are developing on their own time can reap big rewards in the classroom, provided that time and space are allotted for such activities,” Pahomov writes in Authentic Learning in the Digital Age.
Many SLA classes are built around student projects. Rather than lecturing, teachers guide their students to learn about a subject, with an emphasis on problem solving.
“If you’re used to being looked at as the expert in the field, you’re going to have to give up some of that space,” Pahomov said. “When you’re inviting students to explore areas of expertise you might not have explored, you’re going on a journey with them.”
While SLA is a high school, Pahomov said the methods she discussed in the book can work for all grades.
Children enter school with an intrinsic interest in learning, Pahomov said. Teachers can use that to foster reasoning and problem-solving skills, instead of offering traditional memorization-based lectures, from the earliest grades.
“If anything, the inquiry-based model is stronger at the elementary level,” Pahmov said.