The following is “Notes from the Board Table,” the regular update from Bruce Likly, chairman of the Wilton Board of Education

What would you think about giving our Cider Mill students an opportunity to take a yoga class during the day as a way to relieve stress? Or how about putting up chalkboards in our school restrooms to encourage doodling and positive messaging?  These were two of the student-driven research projects presented to the Board of Education at our meeting last week.  Other students chose to look beyond Wilton, and focused their research on social topics including gender pay inequity and LGBTQ acceptance, while another group looked at increasing student participation in the curriculum development process.

The students were demonstrating an innovative approach to learning and assessment, called PADI — Performance Assessment Design Initiative. Through PADI, students take an “all of the above” approach to learning and assessment, using traditional and non-traditional learning methods. Students conducted surveys and interviews, produced videos, formulated budgets, and created displays. They developed theories, performed research to test those theories, and then wrote about their findings in carefully developed reports. The PADI approach to learning is a departure — a good departure — from more traditional venues. Not all learning happens through textbooks and lectures. Through PADI, we essentially turn our students loose to explore a subject about which they are curious, and encourage them to avail themselves of every tool in our learning toolbox. It is the future of learning in Wilton, and it is always a highlight when students share their projects.

The Board also received an in-depth presentation from our “Chromebook Cohort” program, which was piloted this year at the high school  The pilot was developed as a way to help pave the way for what we believe will eventually be a 1:1 computing environment throughout the Wilton Public Schools. With each student armed with an internet-connected device (which is the definition of a 1:1 computing environment), it is critical that we develop a strategy for how those devices will be most effectively used in the classroom. Rather than becoming the “go to” option when faced with a challenge, we want technology to be seamlessly integrated with other methods of learning. This was the purpose of the year-long Chromebook cohort.

The cohort consisted of 40 freshmen who were selected randomly, and a group of five teachers.  Each student was issued a Chromebook for their sole use, and encouraged to be open to new ideas about learning. Of course none of this would have been possible without the enthusiastic support of our participating teachers. Barbara Lyons, Ken Dunaj, Cindy Cherico, Matt Hoyt and Lauren Kantor signed up for the project, and embraced it with enthusiasm and gusto.  Each dedicated dozens of hours — beyond their normal workload — to the planning process. They worked tirelessly learning and developing new ways to embed technology into the classroom, and developing a process for cross-department collaboration.  Teachers had to become Google certified, an intensive training process that required roughly 50 hours to complete.

Keep in mind, the concept of a technology-based classroom really requires a completely new approach to learning. Since technology allows students instant access to facts and information, teachers no longer need to use classroom time strictly for those purposes. Instead, teachers focus on critical thinking — helping students understand those facts and information. It’s not enough to understand “what” happened, but to also consider “why,” “how,” and “what if.”

The pilot’s teachers, along with assistant principal Rich Sanzo and IT instructional leader Amy Korn, provided the Board with an overview of their year. It was fascinating. Social Studies teacher Ken Dunaj said his work with the cohort was the “most positive and rewarding experience of his career.” The teachers spoke about the benefits of the team approach to learning, the importance of collaborative planning, and its positive effect on students.

Going forward, the size of next year’s cohort will double to 80 students, and course offerings will be expanded. By all accounts the pilot was a tremendous success, and we are grateful to our teachers, administrators and students, who took a risk in helping build a process that will have a lasting impact on instruction at Wilton High School.

With graduation just a few days ago, I am mindful of how much amazing learning goes on in our buildings throughout the year. Our teachers and students truly are compatriots in creating an exciting, forward-looking approach to learning. It’s exciting to watch, and for our graduating seniors, I hope that process never ends. Congratulations to the Class of 2016!