Four takeaways from the visionary principal who used concept maps to lead a learning transformation
In 1983, Otto Silesky founded the Instituto de Educación Integral (IEI) in Costa Rica. He wanted it to be a place of inclusive and “avant-garde” learning.
IEI was a diverse school serving a multicultural, multi-race student body from 4th through 12th grade with a variety of learning abilities. It promoted a culture of innovation amongst its staff and creative thinking amongst its students.
However, despite noble aspirations, in 2002 the outlook of IEI’s high school senior class appeared glum: only 65% passed their National High School Graduation Exams, and ZERO passed their university admissions tests.
After attending a lecture on applications of concept mapping by Joseph Novak and Alberto Cañas at the University of Costa Rica, Dr. Silesky decided to try something different. He designed a new curriculum based in principles of concept mapping for instruction and assessment.
The results were astounding.
Within just five years, IEI high school students were passing the National High School Graduation Exams at a rate of 100%, a 35% overall increase. Even more remarkable, 75% of those who took university entrance exams passed, opening the door for higher education opportunities that did not exist at all for the previous class.
These results did not happen automatically though. Dr. Silesky committed to an intentional and, at times, challenging change management process touched everyone connected to the institute.
Here are four takeaways from his program that can guide educators and administrators seeking to innovate in similar ways at their own schools:
1. Create staff buy-in
Before making the school-wide shift to concept mapping-based instruction and assessment, Dr. Silesky had extensive conversations with IEI teachers about the practical implications of his program. He did not force the program on them, but persuaded them to implement it by presenting the beneficial and meaningful learning opportunities for students.
Without buy-in from teachers, implementation would have surely suffered and compromised the initiative’s results. Their input, questions, and eventual enthusiasm bolstered the program’s resilience, efficacy, and appeal to students.
2. Make sure students are well-equipped
Before making the transition to concept map-driven learning, IEI secured laptops for students to use in the classroom. Introducing new technologies can require hardware investments, and ensuring that students had access to the resources they needed to make use of concept mapping software was imperative to its successful adoption.
In addition to tools, school administrators who are considering new program pilots must consider the attitude and expectation reframing that students will almost certainly need in order to embrace radical learning shifts.
3. Anticipate and persist through learning curves
The success of Dr. Silesky’s program was due in no small part to his ability to stick to his plan and lead through short-term failures, of which there were several. In fact, after the first year of implementation, high school graduation exam pass rate declined by 10%. However, knowing that some confusion and mistakes are inevitable when acclimating to new systems, he kept the program on course, and the following year graduations increased by 37 percentage points, from 55 to 92%.
In many education settings, the pressure to boost student performance quickly and drastically often leads to a revolving door of new curricula and technologies before any one of them has a chance to truly take hold. Though stellar results are never guaranteed, without persistence and determination, failure is inevitable.
4. Include morale in success metrics
Even when challenges abounded and scores dipped in the program’s first year, Dr. Silesky noted that enthusiasm amongst the IEI community had markedly improved. Students demonstrated observably higher self-confidence and investment in learning, which he noted as the most significant program outcome.
As Albert Einstein is credited as saying, “Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.” Dr. Silesky embarked on his concept mapping-based program to make learning more meaningful for his school’s students, which is something that is harder to measure than right or wrong answers on a multiple-choice test. Qualitative check-ins and feedback surveys are one potential way to gauge the learner experience, but there is also much to be said about the palpable observations of classroom culture and engagement.
Transformation requires experimentation
Concept mapping-based learning and assessment activities lend to a culture of dynamic, holistic, and authentic learning that is essential to academic achievement. Because they challenge the predominate models in education, the cognitive benefits may not always be immediately measurable on standardized tests. However, with tenacious planning and commitment, visionary education leaders like Dr. Silesky can navigate those temporary challenges to outstanding long-term student outcomes.
Novak, Joseph. “A Sample Case That Illustrates the Possible.” Learning, Creating, and Using Knowledge: Concept Maps as Facilitative Tools in Schools and Corporations, 2nd ed., Routledge, 2009, pp. 8–11.