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Reimagining K-12 Education: KCAD and the GRPS Public Museum School

Posted August 1, 2016 in PublicArt EducationCollaborative Design

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Portfolio magazine. View the complete issue here

For 6th graders at Grand Rapids Public Schools’ (GRPS’) new Public Museum School, traditional classroom walls and physical boundaries do not exist. The space they call “school” spans the entire downtown Grand Rapids community, turning conventional young learners into creative and critical thinkers.

“What I’ve learned more than anything else is that there are so many assumptions, so many walls and barriers in education that don’t have to be there—and we can tear them down,” says Dr. Christopher Hanks, Museum School principal.

Throughout the Museum School’s inaugural year, its 60 students have been introduced to a new world of learning, significantly enhancing not only their education but also their way of life.

While students may begin their school day on the 3rd floor of the Grand Rapids Public Museum, their daily learning adventures continue at various locations throughout the downtown area. They often eat lunch on the Blue Bridge, enjoy class outdoors at Ah-Nab-Awen Park, ice skate at Rosa Parks Circle, or visit the YMCA for gym class and check out books at the Grand Rapids Public Library.

“They are city dwellers,” says Kim Rowland, GRPS curriculum integration specialist and Museum School teacher. “These are great resources for the students to get out and about in the community.”

In order to create the school’s unique curriculum, GRPS tapped into the knowledge and resources of both Grand Valley State University (GVSU) and Kendall College of Art and Design (KCAD) of Ferris State University. GVSU contributed broad expertise in place-based education, while KCAD faculty played an integral role in framing the design-thinking aspect of the curriculum.

GRPS Public Museum SchoolZoe Carmichael, who teaches in KCAD's Collaborative Design program, helps Museum School students maximize their collaborative potential during a student retreat held at KCAD.

For the past two years—before the Museum School opened its doors last September—KCAD faculty Gayle DeBruyn, chair of the Collaborative Design and Furniture Design programs, and Dr. Cindy Todd, chair of the Art Education program, worked cohesively with GRPS Museum School staff in designing an innovative curriculum that stretches the minds of its students and blends Common Core and additional K-12 standards with the design thinking process.

“You have to know what your constraints are—just as you would with any design problem,” DeBruyn says. “You know that you have to teach Common Core and 21st-century skills and all the accreditation requirements that exist within GRPS. You have to meet all those expectations. But it’s the ‘how’ you’re going to do it that is being reimagined.”

Dr. Todd explains that staff and students alike have learned to pace themselves through this innovative process, focusing on mastering one component at a time.

“Everyone is learning with each other and because of each other— and that dynamic has been phenomenal,” she says. “Students here are having a very different learning experience than the average student. The city has become their classroom.” 

The objective of the Museum School is to nurture authentic learning and let the students drive the process as much as possible, according to Rowland. Rather than teaching “siloed” subjects, Museum School faculty commonly weave various subjects together within the same lesson to create a fluid learning connection.

Each school project stretches the students’ independence and critical-thinking skills and helps them “unlearn” previously ingrained habits, such as the constant need to succeed and a tendency to refrain from taking risks.

“One of the hardest things for them to learn is to think outside the box,” Rowland says. “We’re teaching them that failure is okay and taking risks is okay.”

Grand Rapids Public Museum School studentsCollaboration and experimentation are cornerstones of the Museum School's innovative curriculum.

Museum School staff attribute the school’s risk-taking and uncustomary culture to Hanks, a former associate professor at GVSU’s College of Education who has a background in education philosophy and school reform and experimentation. He believes the negative perception of failure has been a flaw in the traditional education setting.

“You only learn at the edge of your ability, and if you don’t go beyond the edge of your ability, you’re not going to stretch the limits of your learning,” Hanks says. “If you try new things at the edge of your ability, you’re probably going to fail. But if we focus on the process and the lessons from messing up, that’s when learning happens.”

Since September, Hanks has seen his students become more confident about stepping outside their comfort zones and dreaming up ideas that some might consider unconventional.

“I’ve watched them grow significantly, make connections with each other, and be willing to speak up and question each other,” he says.

The school’s first year has been an experimental learning environment for everyone, including Hanks and the entire Museum School staff. Despite first-year challenges, staff and students have gained significant insight and knowledge that will lead the Museum School into the future.

“We’re putting everything on the table,” Hanks says. “Our partnership with KCAD helps us take a look at everything and ask, ‘Is there a different way to accomplish these goals?’”

As Museum School staff look forward to seeing this year’s students become 7th graders next fall, they are excited to welcome a new crop of 6th graders and strengthen the partnerships among GRPS, KCAD, and the school’s other collaborators.

“We’re building something brand new and we’re hoping this school is truly a new model for American education. And we can’t do that without KCAD as a partner,” Hanks says. “The relationship between GRPS and KCAD is fantastic. The KCAD faculty and staff we work with are completely supportive.”

Grand Rapids Public Museum School studentsMuseum School administrators say the school's inagural cohort has developed a close-knit, collaborative culture. 

Along the way, the curriculum has been tweaked, parents have given feedback, and the school’s lottery admission system has undergone changes—all to improve the Museum School’s nontraditional education setting and its mission.

“I think it’s one of the most interesting schools that we have. The school has become a true community school that belongs to KCAD, GVSU, the Public Museum, and GRPS. We all own this school,” GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal says. “What KCAD brings to the table in terms of art and design is helping students and will literally change the lives of these children. There are no boundaries for these kids.”

Neal hopes the Museum School’s progressive concept expands beyond the city of Grand Rapids.

“There are opportunities for these schools in every corner of a community,” she says. “As KCAD has stepped up, it’s allowed other institutions in the community to ask, ‘How can we play a part in students’ learning?’”

Looking ahead, Hanks hopes the Museum School will blur the lines between high school and college. He would like to see future high school students have the ability to dual enroll at KCAD.

“We’ve learned a great deal about KCAD and the deep pool of talent among KCAD’s students and faculty,” he says. “I hope our partnership becomes tighter and the Museum School becomes a meaningful place for GRPS and KCAD students alike to have a great experience."