Kevin: In the wake of the pandemic and online learning, many are rethinking the traditional model of public education. Educational innovators are increasingly incorporating project-based learning as an alternative to standardized curriculum and testing. Some argue that it can lead to more equitable outcomes for all students and better prepare students for team-based professional work. How is the traditional learning model shifting? Which teaching methods benefit all students and teachers alike? And how can we mold our curriculum to produce the creative, innovative leaders of tomorrow? This is What I Want to Know.
Kevin: And today, I'm joined by Trish [Millines] Dziko to find out. Trish [Millines] Dziko is the co-founder and executive director of Technology Access Foundation, a nonprofit that partners with educators and school districts to challenge ineffective teaching methods. Trish and her team help schools develop innovative, collaborative, equitable environments that enable all children to thrive. Today, she joins us to discuss the inequity in education and how project-based learning is a first step toward the solution. Trish, welcome to the show.
Trish: Thank you. It's an honor to be here. I'm excited about our conversation.
Kevin: So am I. And I have to say from the very beginning, wow, what a career. You have been a trend setter for many years, but your journey into STEM and education really started back when you were a scholarship athlete at Monmouth University. So talk a little bit about how you embraced that field, and it led you to want to stay in it once you got out of college and began to work.
Trish: So, I was always good at math, so it wasn't a difficult subject for me at all. The challenge was that there were not many of us of color who were in the major. So myself, Fred, and Herb — I could name them all. The three of us were in the same grade, and we supported each other through the work. But I really liked it, and what I liked about it is that you got your answer right away, even though we were using punch cards, and I hit that dup key I don't know how many times correcting my code, but it was really satisfying to know that you can get some results right away, and it's your work. I like the logic of it all. I like the simplicity of either you got it right or you got it wrong. And then also at that time, it was starting to be a lucrative career.
And when I say starting, I mean starting, because it was mostly military-contracted companies and larger corporations that were using technology. And I ended up getting my first job at Computer Sciences Corporation, which was a military-contracted company. And my first two jobs were around software for military for either weapons or radar systems. And, once I understood the impact of those things a little differently, as I got older, I moved over more to the business side of computing but still had that satisfaction of learning new things and meeting new people in the work. And there were also the challenges, being the only Black programmer in almost every company I worked for early on in my career. That was the challenge.
Kevin: And you ended up at Microsoft, where you were one of the first African Americans. In fact, I think you founded the diversity group at Microsoft. Talk a little bit about that experience and as a follow up to what you had learned with the Computer Sciences Corporation and just being immersed in that tech field, right on the eve of a massive explosion in terms of the way the industry — it just blew up in the eighties and nineties.
Trish: It blew up really quick. The first time I had control of a PC was when I moved up here to Seattle in 1985. Prior to that, everything I did was on a mainframe. When I went to Microsoft, I was already 30. And I tell people that if I was right out of college going to Microsoft, I wouldn't have survived. Going in as an older person, having some experience and being very clear about who I am as a person really helped me survive there. There weren't that many African Americans. In fact, when I got there in '88, that’s when I started, there were 40 of us in the whole company in all the sites that the company had.
Kevin: And how many employees did they have at the time?
Trish: About 3,000.
Kevin: Wow. 40 out of 3,000.
Trish: Yeah. And a good friend of mine, Ron Simons, got all of us together and started talking about creating a group. And he led us through the creation of Blacks at Microsoft. And it really was a way for us to survive personally and professionally, but mostly personally at first because we had people coming from historically Black colleges or they were living in mostly Black neighborhoods. And you come out to the Pacific Northwest, which is white, white and more white. So, where do I go to church? Where do I meet people? Where do I get my haircut? Just the fundamentals.
Kevin: Those connections run deep. And being such a small group, you had a spotlight on you, and you seemed to thrive under the spotlight because at Microsoft you continued to gain and garner respect. What led you to... I guess, Trish, I want to ask you to look more externally at the whole STEM field as it relates to the education of kids of color, because you were on the business side. But at some point you said, wow, we've got to do more to get more of our kids involved in STEM and make sure classrooms are more conducive to a diverse set of kids.
Trish: So that came from a group of us who always went out on recruiting trips for the company, and it wasn't our job, but it was something that we wanted to do to make sure we got more people of color into the company. And at some point, it just got to this realization that we're not really going to change what that pipeline looks like until we change what K through 12 looks like. So, my last two years at Microsoft I had changed my career and moved over to the diversity department. And one of my jobs was to manage the high school internship program, and I turned it into a technical program. Even though we knew kids didn't have the technical skills, we hired them for potential. And it was a very successful program that still is going on today.
But what I learned there was that our public schools weren't really preparing kids for this new economy, for these new kinds of jobs, or even the notion that they existed. So I just said one day, okay, if I'm really going to do this, then I need to leave the industry and create an organization in the community that I had been recruiting from for these high school internships and create a program that can get them actually ready for these types of jobs.
So it was a challenge at first because a lot of the kids didn't know anything about programming. So we had to really go out to the schools and get them to see that we had this opportunity for them. Plus we were asking them to come two days a week, three hours each time, while their friends were playing their sports or whatever. But we were successful. We recruited 32 kids the first year, and then once they all got internships with the local companies, we had wait lists. So when you have something good, the kids know it. They know it, right? And they knew what they had to put in it to get out of it, but they were all willing. But one of the things that we noticed is that our high school kids, who all went to college, by the way; they would go to college and couldn't major in computer science or engineering because when they were in high school, they were tracked into the lower math track.
So they didn't have the prerequisites to take those classes, and we couldn't control what was happening at their individual schools. So one of the things we just asked ourselves: Could we actually create a school model and partner with a public school to co-manage a public school together and develop something that's completely new that actually gets kids ready for whatever career they want using the STEM skills that all kids need to have? So we spent two years building the model. We got some funding to do it, and we shopped it around to a couple of districts. And Federal Way [school district] was interested, and that was the beginning of what we called TAF Academy. It was the sixth through 12th grade public school that was co-managed by TAF and the school district.
And what we brought was all the expertise from educators we partnered with, because none of us were educators. All the expertise we got from them, plus what we already knew with working in the community. And we melded those two systems together and created a model we call Standby TAF. And it's a way to get student voice and choice in the mix of teaching and also develop teachers along the way so that teachers and students are co-creating and learning together.
Kevin: It is a brilliant concept. And by TAF, it's Technology Access Foundation. And how many kids have benefited from this?
Trish: We're at well over 4,000 now. So we have eight school partnerships right now. So we have well over 4,000 students that have benefited from this. So we were looking at working with willing schools and school districts that were more than ready to take on the task of learning our model, and we provide for them a full-time instructional coach. And for five years, they go through the process as opposed to our co-managed schools where we have something to say about pretty much everything that happens in the schools.
Kevin: And one of the reasons why I'm asking about this is there are a lot of great programs, STEM programs, that are tailored toward smaller schools, boutique schools, charter schools, but it's harder to maintain the quality when you try to get to scale. And when you get to about 4,000 kids being served and multiple schools being involved, then you know you obviously have put together a structure that can absorb the right growth. How were you able to maintain that year in and year out?
Trish: So I'll start by saying that we really wanted to work with public schools because 90% of the students in our country attend public schools. So running a parallel system just wasn't going to work. And the other adjustment we had to make around the whole focus of STEM is that you can't force kids to be in a particular program. They're going to want to be whatever it is they want to be. And so what we looked at STEM is as a way for them to get the kind of skills they need to communicate, to ideate, collaborate, present their ideas, et cetera. So no matter what they wanted to be when they grew up, they had that core set of skills.
So starting there with exposure to STEM itself is how we present our work. We don't scale very quickly. We set ourselves to add three schools per year because it takes us about eight months to a year to build a relationship with a school. We're not a model where we come in and plop it down and say, here, okay, work it. We have to know who you are. You have to know who your students are, who your community is, et cetera, if you're going to run this model.
Kevin: I wanted to shift a little bit to this notion of project-based learning. As I've mentioned to you before, I'm a big believer in the notion of problem-solving, collaboration. But that in and of itself is a transition point for traditional teaching and teachers because they're not trained in most of our ed schools to engage in project-based learning. Let's talk a little bit about that and why you think it's important, and first of all, defining what it is.
Trish: So PBL has been around for a while, and mostly it emerged through science classes and then eventually humanities classes. But essentially, what it is is taking those compulsory skills, those practical skills, and math, reading, writing and science, and putting them to practical use, showing kids how you apply all those skills that you were learning. We take it a step further and look at it as also a way to develop kids to help them discover their own strengths and weaknesses, to give teachers an opportunity to equitably teach kids, making sure that all the students have roles that work for them as well as roles that challenge them, making sure that the learning is connected to something that the kids are interested in. And for us, it's important that it's standards-based, and it's interdisciplinary. So we don't do a single science project.
We don't do a single humanities project. It is a project that all of the teachers, including sometimes the elective teachers: They come together, and they use the standards that they're trying to hit in their respective subjects and combine that with the interests of the students to form the project. And in order for this to happen, you need time. So teachers need to dedicate time for the students to work on projects. And teachers can also use that project-based learning cycle to do direct instruction. They don't have to use the entire cycle, but they can use pieces of it. So it's not just about projects; it's also about direct instruction where they're giving those compulsory skills and then helping the teacher understand how kids learn or many ways that they can meet the standards that they're supposed to hit instead of filling out a bubble test.
Kevin: Thank you so much for sharing with us your insights about what a PBL classroom looks like. I'm reminded of a conversation I had with a great teacher who said to me that they know that they're a good teacher, that kids are always generally engaged, but over the years, kids have fallen asleep during her lectures. She said once she learned how to operate a PBL classroom, she's never had a kid fall asleep in a PBL classroom. Which, I think, speaks volumes. And she self-admitted that this is one of those things where when you get kids involved and they have ownership in the process and the end goal, it's a whole different dynamic.
Trish: Yeah, totally. When you think about what it takes, though, to transform your teaching, it's very difficult, particularly for teachers who've been teaching a long time. So I really admire the ones that have that growth mindset and are willing to change their teaching and to cede some control to the students. When you have kids active — I remember when we first opened TAF Academy the second year, we had kids that were almost getting hit in the parking lot because they were trying to run to the class so they could meet with their classmates to work on their projects. So kids can like school; they can actually love school, but it takes a lot of work on the part of the adults to create that kind of environment that students can thrive in and that adults can thrive in. It's not just about the students. The adults are learning something too.
Kevin: I just have a couple more questions, Trish. One is this notion of equity in the classroom. You've been an advocate of that. Explain what you mean by that.
Trish: So, equity kind of shows up in the pedagogy itself. And what it means is that every kid can bring their authentic self to the classroom, their experiences in the classroom. And the teachers can use that in a way with their instruction to draw more out of the students, to help the students solve different problems or create whatever it is they want to do. It's really about students being seen and heard and having a voice, and it's a choice in how they do the work, but that can't show up unless the pedagogy itself is designed for that. It doesn't show up in racial equity training only. It doesn't show up in DEI methods. It's really about honoring who kids are, valuing who they are, letting kids be seen as who they are. And the moment teachers start to invalidate kids, equity goes away.
Because what it says to kids is that my experience doesn't matter in your eyes, and what I bring to the table doesn't matter in your eyes. So therefore, I'm just going to act out, and I'm going to shut down. So having an equitable classroom really helps move kids along the spectrum of whatever it is that they are learning, and it keeps them engaged in class. It's hard for teachers in general, I think, because we as humans have a notion of who has value and who doesn't. And everybody walks into the classroom with that idea, and we want to remove that because every kid has value, every kid has issues, every kid has assets, and we need to make sure that teachers see that and that they connect with kids so that they can use all those things in their learning.
Kevin: So one last question. This is what I really want to know, and it relates to this teacher training, because a lot of what we talked about really speaks to the need to reorient our approach to what a classroom looks like. And if you were talking with school district leaders who are engaging, enterprising, entrepreneurial types of superintendents who want to move in this direction, what advice would you give them on how to make this adjustment and, at the same time, get the buy-in from teachers to move toward PBL and other equitable classroom approaches?
Trish: I would say first: Get out of the rut that you're already in. Even though you have this mindset that you want to change things, it is filtered by all the things that you as a superintendent know you have to do, all the people you have to have relationships with, and who's going to buy in and who's not. You’ve got to just set the vision and just go for it. And when I say just go for it, I don't mean just implement it, but set the vision. Say: this is where I want to go. Don't worry about who's going to think what. Sit down and have an authentic communication with the teacher's union, with the teachers themselves, with the principal's union, the city, anybody who can be involved with this transformation of an entire district.
And I think that, number one, I don't believe that TAF needs to be in every school, in every district, but I know there are a lot of models out there that superintendents would love to do, but they're afraid. But I just think it's really a bold conversation that you just have to have. It's a difficult conversation, but it just has to be had.
Kevin: Yeah. Well, Trish Dziko, you've done amazing work. I certainly appreciate you joining us on What I Want to Know.
Trish: This was great. Thank you very much. And I hope everybody that's listening talks to their schools about doing PBL at least in some classes and maybe in the whole school eventually, because it does add value to your kids' education.
Kevin: Thanks for listening to What I Want to Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education and write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK. For more information on Stride and online education, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining What I Want to Know.
Trish Millines Dziko is the co-founder and executive director of Technology Access Foundation, a nonprofit that partners with educators and school districts to challenge ineffective teaching methods. Trish and her team help schools develop innovative, collaborative, equitable environments that enable all children to thrive.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.