“In order to be innovative you have to first accept an essential truth: For students to flourish through having a voice, teachers must give up any notion of control.” – John McCarthy, USA

“Student voice matters,” says John McCarthy. “I try to be reflective of my practice in doing what is best for kids.” Indeed, McCarthy has made it his mission to take learning and put it into the hands – and voice – of the student.  As Director of Programs and Instruction for Widening Advancement for Youth (WAY), an organization with international partnerships that supports reengaging teens into education, McCarthy has seen first-hand how students that were tuned off by traditional education can be turned on with personalized, hands-on project-based learning that uses a balance of on-line and face-to-face mentorship. He has also seen this same change in teachers, as a national consultant on project-based learning for the Buck Institute for Education. 

“Through the professional development that I provide teachers I’ve advanced the idea of voice,” says McCarthy. “I can tell when my audience realizes there are ways to make education about student learning, and they are ready to consider the concepts I’m there to propose. That’s when I tell them that in order to be innovative you have to first accept an essential truth: For students to flourish through having a voice, teachers must give up any notion of control. Reflecting on practice with the focus always on what’s best for students inevitably comes down to students learning when they have a true voice in why, what, and how they learn.”

McCarthy shares this vision of what education can be through national presentations on PBL and Differentiated Instruction, and as a coach throughout the country, in different states, from urban-rural-suburban areas to heavy poverty and highly affluent communities.

Here, McCarthy gives us his viewpoint on why PBL is a necessary step for student engagement, and how teachers can most easily use it in their classrooms.

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

More teachers are having conversations about how to create an environment for student voice. These reflective talks have been rich, leading to an interesting journey. In my own practice working with teens, I’m constantly learning more nuances about voice and engagement. Co-creating projects with students is challenging and rewarding. An important change is that at the WAY Program, many of the students that I work with — either directly or through my responsibilities with over 80 teachers — are reengaging into learning.

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

Get to know students. What are they passionate about? How do they prefer to do work and show their understanding? Set clear criteria for projects and units, and then allow students to demonstrate that criteria in any way they choose. This approach works in any environment, including standards-driven education. Teachers are highly trained professionals who can make a difference for all students by involving them in the process. If doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result defines insanity, educators cannot continue to repeat history. This is why I now work for the WAY Program.

So here are three steps towards a new journey for all students succeeding:

  1. Get students’ feedback at the end of each unit or project. What did they like about the experience? In what areas did they feel more support was needed? What would they suggest as a change or replacement?
  2. Survey students on their interests outside of school, their academic strengths, and how they learn best. Here’s a site I developed to support this process: http://learningclassrooms.pbworks.com/
  3. Base students’ final unit assessments on how they can apply the concepts to an experience beyond the classroom. It’s characterized as Quadrant D by the International Center for Leadership in Education. The rest of the tools will fall into place such as project-based learning and differentiated instruction.

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

Through the WAY Program, my entire teaching and learning journey is steeped in using technology. Instant messages, social networking tools, and multimedia are essential elements to helping my students develop effective global survival skills. Tony Wagner speaks eloquently about the key ones in “Closing the Achievement Gap.” Innovation is using technology tools to enable students to construct their learning, identify their needs, and self-advocate. Collaborating with students on what they learn, and how they will get there is an amazing experience. They teach me much through their decisions around using media and networks to demonstrate in-depth learning without the need for paper and pen, or a word processor.

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

The biggest obstacle is the education system mindset to innovate “inside” the box. It’s difficult for all students to flourish when the starting premise of adults is how to conduct business solely in a brick and mortar building with strict controls (made by adults) on what and how students will experience education. The proof remains in the dialog when educators talk about “covering” standards or curriculum, and “teaching to the test” becomes the de-facto goal. This is a learned helplessness; I help teachers and administrators to liberate themselves from that mindset.

What is your region doing well currently to support education?

Michigan continues to explore how online learning can have a positive impact on students from elementary to college. While there is a tendency to think in traditional terms, there are open discussions with groups, such as the WAY Program, to rethink how learning can take place by beginning with the notion that students are the lead partners in constructing learning. There is a lot of dialog about doing this through project-based learning, and true standards-based assessment systems such as DRIVE.

What conditions must change in your country to better support education?

Many would rightly say there are varying issues that make most solutions complex, and potentially conflicting fixes. Could this be because the priority tends to be adult needs, instead of what’s best for students? Shifting to a focus on Global Survival Skills (GSS) has started but needs to be in the forefront as an embedded means to learning. Blended and online learning is a portal to the concept of student voice, collaboration, and influencing across networks (GSS). The next phase in the process will depend on how our state addresses how to assess a year’s growth. The other component is allowing students to study online and in non-traditional settings. I work for an organization that enables students to learn at any time, anywhere, and any way they want to. More opportunities such as ours will enable more students to find an approach that works for them.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

I’m biased on this. The truth of the matter is that Widening Advancement for Youth (WAY) is the best opportunity. Large portions of our students are disengaged from school, either dropping out, or at risk of dropping out. Not only do we get them to enroll with us, they stay in our program, and they are graduating. Our students work online from home, interacting with teachers and other students in real-time 24/7/365. All work is project-based through a constructivist approach to learning. The assessments are against the common core and state standards. Students use many tech tools to help them with inquiry, learning, and demonstrating achievement.

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

Keep your enthusiasm and belief that all students can achieve. Support students through what you can influence, through relationship building. True innovation in education is to partner with students for their learning needs. To do this, learn about constructivism, differentiated instruction, and project-based learning.

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

21st century skills and 1-to-1 technologies are important in liberating students to access data and interact with more people and resources globally. Adults’ lack of trust that students can act responsibly, or perhaps that adults need to control classrooms through the industrial model, makes it difficult for students to learn content deeply. These artificial limits by adults hurt students’ ability to determine how they learn best. The traditional approach to grading creates grade fog. Such fog — the use of averages and use of non-academic criteria (i.e., participation) — creates false markers of success and failure.

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

I’d give every child a smart phone with an unlimited data, text, and voice package. Students could research, share data, collaborate, and create content for their education. When my kids work on homework while we are driving, they ask to use my (iPhone) computer.

About John McCarthy,
@ JMcCarthyEdS

John McCarthy, Ed.S. is currently the Director of Programs and Instruction at Widening Advancement for Youth (WAY). McCarthy is passionate about all students achieving, having the competitive skills to succeed in a global community. John works extensively with Curriculum and Professional Development for the organization. He also leads PD offerings for schools and districts interested in Project-based Learning (PBL), Differentiated Instruction (DI), Assessment, and Global Survival Skills (GSS).

John has worked in education for over two decades. He’s taught in three different
states including urban, suburban, and rural sites. He consults nationally on project-based learning and differentiated instruction, plus other instructional areas. He has led statewide initiatives for teacher development in unit design and other instructional practices such as Leading PBL. McCarthy’s work also includes School Improvement consulting for Wayne County RESA.

  • Birthplace: Washington D.C. (Grew up in Chicago)
  • Current residence: Canton, Michigan
  • Education: Education Specialist
  • Website I check every day: www.wayprogram.net, and news from Google and Yahoo
  • Person who inspires me most:My Mom on living and my kids on being present
  • Favorite childhood memory: Disneyland with my grandparents
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Delaware (business); San Francisco (pleasure: visit my 99-year-old grandmother)
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why? Just a couple of hours ago. My daughter shared lines for a part in a play she’s performing in. Funny!
  • Favorite book: Several, here are two:
  • Favorite music: U2, Loreena McKennet, and Nickleback
  • Your favorite quote or motto:“Be present for others and myself” and “Breathe.”
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