Try Experiential Learning to Educate Your Board


Why do we forget the basic principles of learning when school leaders provide professional development for board members?

Educators have known for years that students learn best when they explore concepts, construct their own knowledge and are actively involved in the learning experience. Now school board members in Plainville, Conn., have the same opportunities.

We have transformed traditional board work sessions in our district into learning-based opportunities so our nine-member board can experience the programs about which they will sooner or later make important policy decisions. No longer does an administrator stand in front of the board, deliver a lecture, perhaps distribute a handout and leave two minutes for questions.

Instead, Plainville board members take tests and play roles. As superintendent, my job is to change the nature of board in-service activities and motivate program administrators to be creative in using learning strategies to engage our board.

Role Playing
The first experiential opportunity this year came when board members were invited to role-play an Individual Education Program meeting for a special education student.

To explore the decision-making issues, the director of special education assigned each board member a role to play during a hearing. Two were psychologists, one was a social worker, two were special education teachers and two others were regular classroom teachers. The director played himself, and special education teachers filled the parts of the student and the parent.

Approximately two weeks before the work session, board members received a packet of information with their assignments and other details that would be covered during the meeting. They were asked to prepare for playing their roles.

The role-playing scenario was based on a genuine file with names changed to protect privacy. As the board moved through the hearing process, members were able to slip in and out of roles, ask questions, discuss frustrations they felt playing their role and inquire about options that might be available for the student.

The board members left engaged, informed and asking for more learning opportunities structured in this manner. Their request was met when it came time to present results on mandatory student testing.

Test Taking
Test performance often is reduced to a few numbers that have no significance other than they were higher or lower than the previous year. So when board members appeared for a February work session, they were given sharpened pencils and standardized test sheets.

After a brief introduction by the director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, each board member was asked to go to one of three tables, designated elementary, middle or high school. There they spent 10 minutes to take a portion of an actual student test. At each table a teacher administered the tests following the authentic guidelines. Teachers also answered questions before the test-taking.

At the elementary reading table, board members were assigned two different types of tests. One represented a test more familiar to adult test takers. It consisted of a short paragraph followed by questions and multiple-choice answers. The second reading test reflected our state’s current expectations for measuring students' reading comprehension. Test takers had to read a lengthy information passage with key concept words deleted. Readers must select the proper word to complete each sentence. The entire context of the passage must be understood to respond correctly.

"This is scary," one board member commented.

The comparison of the two tests helped board members better understand the rigorous requirements of the test.

For high school mathematics, test takers had word problems to solve, and they were required to show their calculations. One board member was surprised at how hard the examples were.

At the end of each 10-minute test session, the board reconvened. Board members were asked to share their feelings during the test-taking process and to compare the actual test to what they had expected. Finally, the district's student results were reported by teachers.

Future Activities
Plainville’s board members are enjoying the experiential learning approach to professional development and are asking for more.

This fall we plan to let them experience tool identification as a way to learn about the district's school-to-career program and our three-year plan to develop a technology education program. Just as the students will do, board members will be asked to identify similar concepts between such basic hand tools as pliers and wrenches and more sophisticated tools such as power hack saws.

Also ahead will be a trip to another planet as board members experience our school readiness initiative. Using computer simulations they will travel to a new environment to experience the feelings of young children as they enter school for the first time.

Max Riley is superintendent of the Plainville, Conn., Community Schools, 47 Robert Holcomb Way, Plainville, Conn. 06062. E-mail: