“If we want young people to be prepared for a rapidly changing, dynamic, and interconnected world, schools must foster the skills necessary for this environment.” – Rody Boonchouy – USA

Rody Boonchouy has been a tireless advocate for project-based learning for years, as a teacher, a school leader, a member of the national faculty of the Buck Institute for Education and a coach with the New Tech Network.  But he knows that without the right kind of professional development for teachers, this new way of learning can’t succeed. “This is my obsession as an innovative school leader,” Boonchouy says. “If we expect schools to provide rich, meaningful learning experiences for students, leaders must provide rich, professional learning for teachers.”

The approach seems to be paying off. Teachers at Da Vinci Charter Academy were recently recognized with a “Best in Network” at the New Tech Network Annual Conference for their project, “America at War,” which required students to research and report on American policy and involvement in wars ranging from Afghanistan to World War II.

Boonchouy acknowledges that retaining the enthusiasm teachers had in the early days of his charter school’s existence isn’t easy, but he’s convinced that innovative professional development, along with constant collaboration, will help to sustain the school during its implementation phase. Today, Boonchouy shares his philosophy on professional evelopment for teachers and project-based learning. Enjoy!

Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?

As principal of an innovative, project-based learning (PBL) community, my goal is to lead a program that fosters skills and traits students need to succeed in a fast changing world. Nine years ago I was a founding member of Da Vinci Charter Academy. With guidance by the New Tech Network, we built a school framed by redesign principles characterized by a culture that empowers students, a project-based instructional approach that engages learners, and 1:1 technology rollout to enable rich communication and collaboration.

Since then, my personal achievements include serving as a National Faculty member for the Buck Institute for Education, training teachers in the PBL methodology, and more recently, training administrators for leadership in PBL schools. With the emergence of Common Core, there is increasing interest and demand for an instructional approach that is better aligned and appropriate to these standards – PBL fits the bill. Over the last five years, I have trained and coached educators in design, assessment, and management of PBL as a means for reimagining teaching and learning. Moreover, I served as a School Development coach for the New Tech Network, closely coaching and supporting the launch of new New Tech Network schools across the country.

As a principal, my achievement has been the design of professional development rotations for staff meetings. My teachers lead a system of weekly workshops for each other, including rigorous analyses of student work and research-based practices, which focus on developing their design and facilitation of project-based learning.  Innovative schools are easy to start, but sustaining them over the long term requires rich, ongoing professional learning.

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

As an innovative project-based school in its ninth year, we are beyond implementation
of core PBL practices and now focused on stimulating creative systems to sustain our progress. Through our system of rigorous, staff-led professional development, we have generated an approach to teacher learning that builds both capacity and collegiality. As a result, teacher leadership and morale remain high, similar to our level of engagement during the exciting early days of the school’s launch. Recognizing the power of this professional learning, our school district is sending teachers from other school sites to be trained in PBL. We have evolved from an innovative school for students, to an innovative institute for professional learners, too.

How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

School leaders must recognize the importance of a strong professional culture; innovative programs rely on a collective relationship built on trust, respect, and responsibility. To engage professionals in meaningful experiences that challenge assumptions and transform schema, there must be explicit efforts to build team and share a moral obligation for the work. We do this through ongoing staff skill-builders, use of staff-designed protocols/processes, shared language, and on-going celebrations. Before diving into the hard work, we must first build team.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

We are technology enabled school, meaning that we have a 1:1 student/computer ratio. Our curriculum is delivered entirely through an online learning management system (Echo). Students communicate and collaborate through this platform, which provides them opportunities to discuss, research, connect, and turn in work virtually.
Moreover, as a project-based school, student demonstrations of understanding typically manifest through videos, podcasts, digital modeling, and formal presentations. We are a tech-rich school intent on replicating a professional work environment.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

One of the obstacles we face is a broader culture of accountability through standardized testing. School accountability for student learning is critical, but the measures must be aligned to the values and practices on campus. Although we perform well with comparable schools, state assessments are not wholly reflective of the inquiry-driven learning of a New Tech school. Standardized testing does provide important data, but our program also values and measures student growth in collaboration, communication, work ethic, critical thinking, and problem-solving. Moreover, local/state governing bodies and the community evaluate the quality of our school based on these limited measures. One of our challenges is messaging to families and community partners the innovative approach to learning that happens at Da Vinci. This is good for building relationships, but it takes enormous efforts to dispel myths and educate the world about what we do.

What is your region doing well currently to support education?

California’s adoption of the common core is a step in the right direction. Standards that focus on complex problem-solving and higher order thinking reinforce the traits and characteristics educators want to see fostered in students. As content standards require richer and deeper learning, the more relevant our project-based practices become. Our years of work promoting PBL, at Da Vinci Charter Academy, the New Tech Network, and Buck Institute for Education, are validated by the trend towards inquiry-driven, collaborative learning.

What conditions must change to better support education?

The traditional paradigm of public education (rows and regurgitation) is so deeply engrained in the American psyche that efforts to reform schools face enormous resistance. At both the local and national level we need more rigorous dialogue about the type of teaching and learning our students need to be successful and competitive in today’s college and workplace reality. As society evolves, so should education. In the end, education policy must reflect modern economic, intellectual, and civic values.

Furthermore, the uncertainty of our state’s economy and funding for education are most immediate conditions creating consternation in schools. While teachers passionately want to focus on teaching and learning, looming budget cuts, reductions in personnel, and large class sizes pose an undeniable distraction.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

Each other. Innovation is the product of collaboration and bringing minds together to make ideas better. At the site level, we can connect and build strong cultures of collaboration. The best opportunity for innovation in education will be when students network globally to collaborate on projects, learn from each other’s expertise, and share a common vision for a global community.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

Love your students, and leap into the profession with reckless abandon.

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

Project-based learning is reshaping how students learn and engage their world. This “trend” is an effort to make learning purposeful, engaging students in real world problems and contexts that, at the same time, require them to develop skills and content mastery. For over a century, schooling has been modeled after an efficient and compartmentalized factory line. If we want young people to be prepared for a rapidly changing, dynamic, and interconnected world, schools must foster the skills necessary for this environment. PBL is the methodology that lends itself to this kind of learning experience.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

Permission. For so long, schooling has been a process of social and intellectual conformity. I’d like to give children permission to invent themselves, define their community and world, and rely on creativity and reason to innovate.  A healthy meal, laptop, and safe environment are good educational tools, too.

About Rody Boonchouy

  • Birthplace: California
  • Current residence: Vacaville, California
  • Education: BA English UC Berkeley, M.Ed. Education UC Riverside, M.Ed. University La Verne, Ed.D (candidacy) UC Davis
  • Website I check every day: Edutopia
  • Person who inspires me most: The perseverant
  • Favorite childhood memory: Jumping off the roof with a trash bag parachute
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): New Mexico for PBL summit
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why? Yesterday when my 4-year old said, “Otter Pops make me crazy!”
  • Favorite book: Favorite as of last night is my son’s book, The Encyclopedia of Animals.
  • Favorite music: 1950’s Cowboy ballads
  • Your favorite quote or motto: “Ready, Fire, Aim.”
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