Spotlight

A Vermont School’s Rebirth via Four-Quadrant Intelligence

by Joyce E. Stone

In fall 1999, the Vermont Department of Education informed the superintendent of the Colchester, Vt., school district that her high school had been identified as a school “in need of technical assistance.” Once a high-performing school, Colchester High School had evolved over time into a troubled and unsafe place with a faculty culture of discontent and resistance.

 

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Two de facto schools coexisted within the walls of the brick structure of the 875-student building. One school approached students with minimal to low expectations. Students in this school were not expected to go to college. Instead, they would underperform and languish in skill-driven classes.

On the same site, the “school within the school” held high expectations for other students through challenging standards, concept-based curricula and enrichment opportunities to explore individual interests. Even before No Child Left Behind, when Vermont began to make the New Standards Reference Exam a high-stakes indicator of school perform-ance, the problems at Colchester came to everyone’s attention, including the new superintendent and the new high school principal.

Journey to Change
The identification of the school could have been viewed in one of two ways — a self-fulfilling condemnation or an opportunity to seize the moment. Carol Dweck, a Stanford University social psychologist, in her book Mindset maintains that human beings embrace one of two dispositions — a closed mindset or a growth mindset.

In Colchester, a suburban town in northwestern Vermont, the superintendent, Pamela Carnahan, along with a group of early-innovator teachers and I, adopted the growth mindset. That has made a lasting difference.

When I accepted the high school’s principalship in 1999, I did so with three mandates from the school board: ensure school safety, improve student performance and hold teachers accountable. These mandates became integral to the school’s direction.

A small group of teachers and I turned to University of Virginia Professor Carol Tomlinson’s research on differentiating instruction. This philosophy of teaching and learning is predicated on the belief that all students are capable of succeeding when teachers attend to their needs. With the encouragement of the superintendent, we sought training opportunities for teachers who were willing to make changes in instruction.

A Starting Point
Where did we begin? Trial and error provided answers.

Teachers would create a learner profile for each student — noting the student’s interests, intelligences and learning style, in addition to academic achievement. Teachers, guidance counselors and building administrators began to develop a workable template for gathering quantitative and qualitative data.

Unlike the schoolwide performance data, the learner profile was designed to ensure that teachers had access to an array of information to support differentiation. By the end of year one, I articulated my vision of differentiation as the vehicle for school improvement. Two pilot teams went about implementing Tomlinson’s principles of differentiation:

High-quality, concept-based curriculum;

Community in the classroom: This means creating an affective learning environment in which the teacher knows the students well and students are supported with the expectation of success for all;

Learner profile — data collection, identifying the diverse needs of learners;

Ongoing assessment to adjust instruction; and

Flexible grouping and pacing to ensure appropriate challenge.

Intelligence Theory
As these principles began to take root, my leadership team and I brought the pilot teachers’ practices to schoolwide discussion. Faculty meetings and professional days focused on what teachers were learning in the two 9th- and 10th- grade pilot classrooms. As the pilot teachers revised their curricula, created affective classroom environments and gathered and used information about their students as learners, they began to observe and document the improvement in student performance.

Some teachers were familiar with Howard Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences, but the concept of intelligences in general played no real role in their practices. In the pilot classrooms, however, students completed the inventories for learning styles, personality and brain dominance.

Brad Blanchette, a humanities teacher, noted the value of this data had more to do with instruction than the individual students. While students were interested in knowing how they were “smart,” what the teacher did with the information was far more important. Blan-chette recalled that when faculty members were asked to use a teaching-style inventory, he and his co-teacher, Bill Rich, found their instruction favored students who shared their style. They made immediate changes so that all learning styles would be represented in their instruction and assessment.

The pilot teachers considered various theories of intelligence, including Howard Gardner, Robert Sternberg, Bernice McCarthy, and the team of Harvey Silver, Richard Strong and Matthew Perini. They knew brain research would play an important role in differentiating for students. Eventually, the marriage of brain research and experience in the classroom led Colchester teachers to choose the four-quadrant approach to understanding and responding to differences among learners (devised by Silver, Strong and Perini).

Today teachers use this four-quadrant model that consists of sensing-thinking (mastery of information), sensing-feeling (personal involvement), intuitive-thinking (understanding concepts) and intuitive-feeling (creating something to explain a new learning).

For example, in a unit on the Civil War, students might choose among four learning activities based on learning styles.

Mastery: Create a time line of key events before, during, and after the Civil War;

Understanding: Construct a Venn diagram to identify the different and common perspectives of the North and the South;

Self-expressive: Create two posters, one supporting and one opposing slavery, and analyze one of the posters from the point of view of the opposition;

Interpersonal: Imagine that Abraham Lincoln left a letter for his son to read 20 years after Lincoln’s death. What would he have said about the struggles and adversity he encountered as president?

Teachers learned a great deal through this process. First, the student’s age, gender and culture have an impact on style and preference. The teacher’s own teaching style influences his or her perspective. These observations require teachers to step aside and reflect on their practices.

Because most teachers were successful as students, they were drawn to the teaching profession. Some students will share the teacher’s positive disposition toward teaching and learning. Others will not.

Second, when students are encouraged to reflect on their learning style, they experience important insights into learning and making choices. Teachers, by necessity, become keen observers of their students, and these observations should impact the decisions they make.

Sustaining Vision
At the heart of differentiated instruction is the awareness that students bring diverse needs to the classroom and must be taught in different ways. This philosophy has served Colchester students well. Over the last decade, disciplinary interventions have decreased substantially, and significantly improved performance on state tests allowed the school to exit the state’s technical assistance. The dropout rate now is among the lowest in Vermont, and parent and student surveys are consistently favorable.

Today Colchester High School is recognized nationally for high student performance and research-based practices in differentiation.

However, success does not happen in a vacuum. The superintendent and central-office personnel perform several essential functions, focusing the district’s vision on high perform-ance in teaching and learning, supporting principals as instructional leaders, and insisting on quality curriculum, assessment and professional development.

Joyce Stone, a former principal, is an educational consultant in Burlington, Vt. E-mail: jestonevt@burlingtontelecom.net