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(This post originally published on March 18, 2018, and was updated on Feb. 23, 2021.)
In a corner of their high school fabrication lab, Amy Tran’s students are building a model of London. But this isn’t just any London.
It’s a futuristic smart city where garbage-collecting robots use sensors to navigate the streets, smart lights turn on and off depending on the sun and moon, and each 3D-printed building has a QR code you can scan to learn more about its purpose.
“We’re trying to simulate what a smart city should be – what a city of tomorrow should be,” says the computer science and math teacher at Collège Beaubois, a private high school in Quebec, Canada.
In a way, the multidiscipline project, which encompasses everything from geography to computer science to math, is a microcosm of her own mission as an educator – to help design the school of tomorrow.
“I’d like to change how we assess, how we learn and how we create the environment of school,” says Tran, a 2017 ISTE Emerging Leader Award winner. “If you ask my colleagues, a lot of people would say it’s not thinking outside the box we need, it’s actually thinking as if there are no boxes.”
Striving for innovation in education
In her third year of teaching, Tran already has a clear vision for what the future of education should look like. The school of tomorrow, she says, doesn’t have four walls or rigid schedules. There are no exam days or multiple-choice tests. Students aren’t segregated by subject or grade level. Instead, everything is flexible. The curriculum is modular, the pacing is fluid, the environment can adapt to different learning needs and students can take their assessments when they feel ready.
She’s aware that’s a tall order, and she doesn’t expect it to happen overnight.
“In order for my dream to be realized, the whole thing has to change,” she says. “I hope in my lifetime I’ll get to see that.”
In the meantime, she’s working to lay the groundwork for that future, bit by bit. At the forward-thinking Collège Beaubois, where educators are collaborating with multiple partners to write a curriculum for developing digital age skills, Tran has room to innovate.
Tran’s passion for transforming education came as a surprise even to her. She initially studied actuarial math, working her way through school as a tutor before realizing she had too much energy to be an actuary.
“I wanted to do much more than compute probabilities,” she says.
She decided to become a teacher instead, earning her bachelor’s degree in education in 2015 and later her master’s degree in learning assessment at the University of Montreal. She's developing a system for assessing student competency through project and portfolio work rather than knowledge-based tests.
Assessing competency, not knowledge
Changing the way schools assess learning, she believes, is the key to developing the skills students will need in the future.
“I believe we’re assessing knowledge right now and not competency,” she says. “Instead of judging whether students know the number of an element in the periodic table, we should judge what they can do with that element. We should give them a complex problem to solve and see what they can do with the resources they have.
“Let’s stop assessing knowledge. If Siri can answer the question, that’s not a good assessment question.”
That’s not to say Tran has anything against artificial intelligence (AI) in the classroom. One of her passion projects is helping to bring AI into education “correctly and adequately.”
“AI will never replace teachers,” she says. “As educators, we have to be the engineers of a learning environment that will let students develop their competencies, and AI can never do that. But it can definitely help me give knowledge to my students. AI can become a teaching assistant; it can grade papers while I make judgment calls about my students’ competencies.”
It's those relationships that keep her engaged as a classroom teacher.
“I feel like one of the things that drives me every day is the fact that I’m in the classroom with students,” she says. “Their curiosity, their thirst to learn, to succeed, to change the world – I find their energy contagious.”
Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick. This is an updated version of an article that first published on March 18, 2018.