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WW Academy: Challenge-based Learning

You’re a first-year teacher and have just given your first test. During your 20-minute lunch period, while inhaling a sandwich, you start going through the finished tests—only to find that your entire class has failed.

Was this a problem with your lessons? Was the test formatted wrong? What do you do when the parents start calling?

In designing a new approach to teacher preparation, the Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning is using examples of “curveballs” like this to rethink how prospective teachers learn about teaching and learning, and to personalize the curriculum to their needs.

“The curriculum and the assessments are focused on real problems of practice,” says WW Academy Executive Director Deborah Hirsch. “And what happens in the real world of teaching is that things don’t go as expected.”

The challenges that make up the WW Academy curriculum are designed to allow prospective teachers to move through them as many times as necessary to show an understanding of the required skills. When things go wrong during a challenge, “you figure them out and then test what you’ve done, and try it again. If that doesn’t work, you do it again,” says Dr. Hirsch.

Because prospective teachers must work through these challenges in combination with practice in actual classrooms, they not only put to use what they’ve learned from the curriculum, but also learn how to pull together different information and skills on the fly.

“When you’re teaching, at any given moment your brain is thinking of relationships. It’s thinking of content. It’s thinking of the space you’re in. It’s thinking of all these things and having to put them together,” says WW Academy Director of Clinical Practice and Student Support and former teacher Rupal Jain. Creating a challenge-based curriculum that mimics this, says Ms. Jain, encourages prospective teachers to approach learning in a different way, developing an integrated teaching practice from day one.

“Building these challenges around a real-world situation gives us the opportunity to assess the necessary skills, but do it in the context of the real world,” says WW Academy Director of Learner Assessment Jonathan Haber. “The hypothesis is that by learning in context you would then have experiences that are more like what the real world is like, which would allow you to practice and then retain that information better.”

In the WW Academy, everything—how a candidate learns, what he or she learns, how it is applied to what that candidate already knows, how it reveals what’s yet to be mastered—is tied together through the challenges. This is very different from the traditional model of teacher training, which, according to WW Academy Research Fellow Peter Laipson, is “very siloed.”

Instead of having one challenge that focuses on teaching methods and another on theory, “each challenge draws from several different competencies,” says Mr. Laipson. “When you get to the end of the challenge curriculum, you can show your mastery in each competency area.”

The program being built by the WW Academy will offer a richer simulation of the experience of a teacher of record. Through the challenge-based approach “you’ve had practice doing the real work of teaching and integrating all these different competing priorities,” says WW Academy Faculty Mentor in Mathematics, Dr. Julianna Stockton. “I think it’s going to make a real difference in the confidence and success that our graduates have in the early years of their teaching profession.”

“We’re trying to create a program that will prepare our graduates really well not just for classrooms that they face right now, but also for classrooms where they’ll be in the future,” says Dr. Hirsch. “We think that the future will be very focused on outcomes, time will be an independent variable, learning will be adapted to individual needs and interests, and technology will be a big part of all of that.”

By creating the challenge-based curriculum and a program that truly draws on the real-world practice of teaching, the WW Academy hopes to reshape the way America prepares its teachers. “We want our teachers to learn in a different way,” says Dr. Hirsch, “so that they’ll teach in a different way.”


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