Imagine a small secondary school where students are building a satellite which will launch their country’s space programme, where for over five years students have been working with international partnerships to research, restore, and report on their country’s reefs. A school where students who had not used English language or technology only three years ago are now reaching the podium in global technology awards.
This is Liger Leadership Academy, a school of approximately 100 students in Cambodia which will be joined by a sister school that is being established in New Zealand later this year.
This blog describes five key aspects of the learning approach developed at Liger, and how an innovative approach to authentic assessment has become an enabler and accelerator of learning.
Start with the learning design and a shared language of learning
We don’t spend a lot of time talking about assessment by itself. We talk about authentic learning which for us means that students learn subject content, skills and values through doing. Authentic learning (and assessment) is used extensively to integrate student learning experiences into the real world. Our students are asked to perform real-world tasks that demonstrate meaningful application of essential knowledge and skills. Also, in a New Zealand context, we seek to integrate the concept of ako. In te ao Māori, the concept of ako means both to teach and to learn. It recognises the knowledge that both teachers and learners bring to learning interactions, and it acknowledges the way that new knowledge and understandings can grow out of shared learning experiences. This is us.
Our approach to learning is summarised in the model below. It informs how we think about assessment.
The outer layer shows “where” Liger Learning © can take students – the pathways may choose to follow having attended Liger – we provide the ‘learning passport’, and the student chooses how to use it. The second ring shows “what” beliefs underpin learning design at Liger – It provides us with MAPS for learning design because learning is Meaningful, Authentic, Personalised and Student directed. The coloured ring describes “how” learning is delivered – in our case the 4’Es of Explorations, Expertise, Extensions and Essentials. Finally in the centre is our “why” – which is to give learners the opportunity to experience learning, take advantage and cause impact. When this model all comes together it enables us to achieve our vision of creating socially conscious, entrepreneurial leaders of tomorrow.
Remove the pressure of high stakes testing and traditional assessment (TA)
We are taking away the pressures of high stakes testing and traditional assessments although the outcome of our model is that students are prepared for them – and do exceptionally well when they do. This means though that we need to make sure we accurately design projects that target the standards students need to know and be able to do.
Emphasise engaging and impactful project based learning
A strong feature of our approach is project based learning through which authentic assessment is designed and implemented. There is a saying in Maori:
Mā te kimi ka kite, Mā te kite ka mōhio, Mā te mōhio ka mārama
Seek and discover. Discover and know. Know and become enlightened.
This is what our project based learning does. Each year our school might undertake 30-40 projects. They span the breadth and depth of the curriculum.
Target taught ‘standards’ with precision, but allow for others to be experienced while ‘zeroing’ on the target
Within projects our intent is not to cover all standards of the curriculum, but to get in-depth authentic assessments that are evidenced through the product or outcome they develop through the project. Our facilitators continually assess to ensure our learners are getting the content knowledge and skills that they need to complete the project.
For example, LLA students published a book called The Cambodian Economy that encompassed a variety of content standards. It covers Cambodian agriculture, tourism, construction, and the garment industry. This book was written in two languages and produced through student research on economics, in-person interviews and desktop publishing. All funding for the cost of publication was raised by the students themselves so that the book could be distributed to students across the country and is now being read by thousands of young Cambodians.
Through our projects students will experience other standards – but we do not ‘assess’ everything they experience in a formal sense. As students experience more projects – both individual and group driven – they build up coverage of the curriculum. Our facilitators track coverage of the curriculum across projects, and across years, to make sure that the learning experience is rich, deep and purposeful.
Accept that Learning – like life – doesn’t come in pre-packed boxes
We know that learning is not segmented. In science, you might be working on writing skills. In math, you may be working on speaking skills. That is what makes learning exciting and what allows students to make connections across disciplines.
Another LLA project, Hidden Voices: Lost Music in Cambodia, which celebrated and recorded the oral tradition of music lost during Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge era, crossed many disciplines. Students studied Cambodia’s musical heritage, interviewed and recorded elders throughout the country, wrote scripts, and created a blog and podcast.
At Liger we are also prepared to change the target within a project occasionally in response to student needs. We might also change the project itself or introduce a new one. We call this opportunity based learning. Why? Well if a new opportunity emerged in your own life to take it in a new and better direction would you take it? We hope so. Life is dynamic and evolves in unexpected ways. Teaching and learning should be the same. We encourage this approach with our facilitators as they explore learning with students. When a new opportunity for learning emerges we review, reset and if necessary change course.
During a trip to promote dental health on an island off the coast of Cambodia, a group of LLA students met a group of marine scientists researching the area. This opportunity to discuss marine research with experts led to the formation of the Liger Marine Research Team, which gave rise to a multi-year project. The students have become certified divers and work with scientists from around the world to conduct authentic wildlife and reef research at Marine Conservation Cambodia.
Infuse 21st century skills, values, and leadership competencies development into all projects
Just like we select targeted standards, we also select 21st century skills to teach (and assess). They include collaboration, presentation and critical thinking, but of course technology literacy is always a popular one.
LLA students combined many 21st century skills in a multi-year project called SolarPi. A critical shortage of computing capability throughout rural Cambodian schools led our students to plan and create two fully solar powered, low cost computer labs, in schools with no electricity, that feature inexpensive Raspberry Pi computers and open source software. In addition to raising funds for the entire project, they conducted training for students and staff at both schools.
We have also developed a set of leadership standards. They are a combination of research from Harvard University and our own design and experience. They are embedded in the process of teaching and learning.
Does it work?
Yes. In our first graduating cohort of 50 students approximately 40% of students received full scholarships – often to prestigious universities such as Princeton – while others are establishing their own companies or charities directly from school. Others established their companies in their final year of schooling.
LLA student achievement and growth are tracked through comprehensive digital portfolios and assessments of learning experiences, both numerical and narrative. This information provides feedback to students, and contributes evidence to build academic transcripts for university or other post secondary opportunities. Students who need to take particular exams for university entrance, etc. are given time and support to prepare for tests appropriate to their individual needs.
We believe LLA’s university acceptance and scholarship success is largely due to the extensive, authentic, impactful projects our students have experienced and not merely test scores or traditional subject area measures.
We know though, as a learning organisation, we have plenty of room for further development and growth. Sometimes projects fail, sometimes our aspirations for our learners and ourselves and beyond what we achieve and we need to review and reset what worked and what didn’t.
So back to the opening question – how do you authentically assess launching a space programme? In short: Aim high, develop a plan to get there, break the plan into parts and get the right people around to support it, and then hold on. It will be quite a ride.