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Gifted Educators- Wes Vanicek

November 15, 2012

This month, our “Gifted Educator” series profiles New Tech High School facilitator Wes Vanicek; a teacher who is not afraid to try new things, who understands that teaching subjects in isolation is not really preparing them for real world challenges, and who believes that there is no better tool to learning than practical, relevant, hands-on knowledge.

Wes Vanicek facilitates Biotech Ethics at New Tech High. “Biotech ethics is the normal biology curriculum integrated with psychology. The thinking is along the idea that ethics and morality play into so many aspects of our lives; especially with science, there are so many new scientific advances happening all the time, that we should probably stop and evaluate what we’re doing, why we are doing it, and look at its impact on the world. In a traditional biology class, there is usually a lot of factual information but there may not be as much of an evaluation piece, there may not be as much discussion on how this affects the rest of the world or even the local community. Having that perspective really gets our kids thinking more critically. They still do lab work, we still have the same curriculum but from a different perspective, and that includes the ethical discussion”

A graduate of Texas A&M University, he originally planned on pursuing a career in medicine.  “I initially went to A&M with plans to attend medical school, but when the realization hit, that I am not willing to sacrifice family life for a job, after much discernment and long conversations with friends and family, the choice was clear; at the time I was tutoring elementary and high school students so when suggested by a friend that I teach, it seemed like the natural fit.”

His typical approach to the subject is project based and student driven. “The format of my class is all project based. Whenever we launch a project, the students start discussing what they need to do, and what they already know about a project. They then set down parameters that they are going to operate under, a “social contract”. For instance, no facebook, no gaming, basically rules within their small group. Their last step of planning is a to-do list, a list of next steps for the project. At that point they have shared what they need to know, and we figure out a way to approach the subject. Sometimes we do some direct teach, a lot of time we use student directed learning, where they get some information and then share with another group and then come back to their home team, we call it “jig-sawing”. So it is more of a self-directed learning, rather than me standing in front teaching them.”

Teaching in a project-based or self directed environment is rewarding, but not without its challenges. “One of the most frustrating aspects of this kind of environment is that there is no pre-packaged plan or curriculum. This, in a way is a blessing and curse, you have to play with the material and figure out what’s going on in the world that makes sense, for instance, right now elections make sense, two years ago not that was not as relevant. Two years ago we talked about the nuclear disaster, we were talking of ecology and it worked perfectly with that. So you have a plan but something you cannot let go off comes along and you have to throw the plan out of the window. So yes it can be frustrating, but the learners are engaged in more relevant learning.”

New Tech’s inherent culture of trust, respect and responsibility finds its way into his classroom. “Trusting the learners is key. The students are used to a model of being told what to do, when, how, why to do it, why it matters, and with this model, yougive them an opportunity to realize all that for themselves. You are trusting them and instilling confidence in them, that they can handle it. They are directing their own education, they are the ones challenging themselves and all you have to do is get out of the way and let them be passionate about what they want to learn. You are trusting the learner to be a learner.”

Grouping and group dynamics can be complex, but in this kind of environment it is key to learning success. “We have regular check-ins, structured collaboration evaluations. Some kids would rather not collaborate with their group but we have to get them to realize that when you have more brains working on the product it can be better. It goes back to trust, that they are all capable, and all of them have something to bring to the table. You have to instill in their mind the value of collaboration, and you have to build in structures for individual accountability”

If Wes Vanicek could, hypothetically speaking, “redesign” education, his approach would be to make it a lot more practical, a lot more relevant to the real world.  “I am a pretty firm believer that school subjects taught in isolation really don’t make sense. You walk out of college into the real world and you’ve got to be able to put everything you’ve learned in isolation and integrate it. Few places are teaching you how to integrate it, or teaching it in an integrated manner. So I would design an education system that worked very cohesively with the real world, a school setting that allowed for full integration of content. A model in which the students are doing real world projects, where they are actually working with many different corporations. School would become a kind of headquarters, a sort of checking-in place and almost a hub and the real world would be their classroom. There are obviously tons of logistical things to think of, it would take a whole paradigm shift, a whole societal shift.”

Always ready for a challenge, not afraid of pushing the envelope for change and reform, “This model of teaching requires one to have a kind of a reformer’s or transformer’s mentality. Some people teach with the mindset to become good and settle, but that would lead to complacency. You want to keep improving, not necessarily changing the wheel, so you want to retain what is great but push the envelope all the time, and try to do new things. The teachers that I look back at in my own education, that I value, are the ones that were risk takers, the ones that were very transparent, that trusted us as learners, those teachers that always pushed the envelope, you could really tell that they cared about what they were doing, they were trying to make a positive impact, not just doing their job. In teaching, a lot of my inspiration comes from my colleagues around me, they are doing great things, we all secretly push each other further, and it just inspires you to do more. The collaboration that we have is such an inspiration, to do more and never settle, and never become complacent.”

“There are a lot of people that may argue that they were brought up in the old system and that they are just fine. I won’t disagree with that, but today is not the old way. Our learners are different, they are being raised different, the influx of technology and the stimuli they face on a daily basis, everything is just so fast paced and always changing, that if we don’t meet the needs of our learners we are doing them a disservice. Why take a learner out of their natural environment and try to educate them in an artificial environment? Educate them in a way that makes sense for them rather than what makes sense for me. In terms of my future in education, I definitely do not foresee employment in a traditional setting unless perhaps to lead the wave of reform towards more real world and engaging learning.  I am looking forward to future developments in project-based learning and the transformation of public education as a whole.”

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