USA: Mark Thimmig

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Mark Thimmig - Mavericks in Education

Mark Thimmig, Founder and President of Mavericks in Education outlines his vision of 'Next generation' Learning for the 21st Century

Mark Thimmig is the founder, CEO and President of Mavericks in Education Florida, which operates 4 schools across the state of Florida serving 1,600 students.

Founded in October 2007, Mavericks in Education is dedicated to the education of at-risk, dropout youth, ages 15 to 21. To date, three school districts within Florida - where this interview took place - have approved a total of 5 Mavericks High Schools. Mavericks opened 4 schools in 2009. There are an additional 8 Mavericks High schools currently in the works for the 2010 / 2011 school year that will serve another 3,200 students.

A genuinely progressive thinker, Mark Thimmig outlines his radical approach to providing those who struggle in mainstream schools with valuable, high quality educational experiences.

Change In Education - Start With The School Day

Mark Thimmig is an articulate and persuasive man who is putting into practice what many are just beginning to talk about. With a background in senior management and leadership of Fortune 500 companies, Mark brings an interesting fusion of customer focus - the customers being the students - and business savvy to his mission to educate those all to often left behind by more traditional approaches.

This capacity to think differently about how we educate our children started by throwing out assumptions that have arguably inhibited education reform for decades:

"The Mavericks model is next generation and we educate for the 21st century. What we have done differently is throw out the institution, take a clean sheet of paper and frame an educational model that is designed to support the student rather than the institution"

This is manifested most obviously in a rejection of the standard school day, which is replaced with a 'three shifts a day' structure. This 'lifestyle approach, Mark argues, has a profound impact on the attendance of students who are held back by a more rigid timetable, particularly those who need to accommodate childcare or a job in their schedule.

Additionally, there are clear financial benefits:

"A result of the three shift schedule is that you need a smaller building, you don't need a cafeteria - this means you're also lowering expenses such as heating, cooling, maintenance"

and, as importantly, more opportunities to create a school community and close relationships between teachers and students as the number of students attending at any one time is significantly reduced.


Delivering Truly Personalised Education

Mark Thimmig's core contention is that the model of organizing children into large groups by age or ability inherently limits the ability to deliver tailored education experiences. He argues that

"A standard delivery model of classroom is totally ineffective and out of date at delivering to each individual person in that room exactly what they need in that moment".

and is convinced that the answer to the challenge of giving higher numbers of students a useful and meaningful education requires a personalised approach.

The teaching in Mavericks schools is therefore configured in a different way, with three teachers and two assistants in a classroom of forty children. Those teachers and assistants also specialize in different subjects, which gives scope for project work rather than a more narrow focus on purely topic-specific curricula. This, Mark says means there are five educators in any classroom who can give the personal attention that any student needs - one of the most intractable problems facing any school.

The Mavericks model also exploits technology to deliver a personalized experience, and Mark is passionate about the power of a blended approach that uses the web and face-to-face instruction:

"The benefit of online delivery of the curriculum supported by direct teacher instruction, remediation and direction is a deeply personal interconnection and relationship. Teachers can monitor progress and work on problem areas"


Assessing To Understand

Mark describes the fundamentally different approach of the Maverick model, noting how those coming into a Mavericks school are assessed in an holistic way to better understand their needs outside - as well as inside - the classroom:

"Mavericks Schools undertake a lot of assessment at the very beginning, realizing that we need to capture that child and make them part of the school in a week or they will leave". Mark explains that they go "beyond typical assessments... our assessment is social, emotional and academic". Crucially, assessment includes

"...emotional and resiliency assessment because we want to know when they come in what emotional state they are in as they will need an educational program to meet them where they are".

He identifies issues with assessment as key to the high drop out and failure rates endemic across the US education system, and explains that regular reviews of an individual's progress against their expected performance provides more meaningful measurement data than annual testing:

"What we want to do is measure where they are and then take measurements at quarterly intervals to see how they are doing against their expected levels of growth. Quarterly measurements help you realize if you have the right teaching methodology, curriculum or structure in place and allows us to change course accordingly".

He adds that:

"In Mavericks we measure academic performance against their expected growth and not against a single point test because the test is a measure but not a good measure".




An Integrated Learning Environment

Interestingly, Marvericks schools attempt to tackle some of the wider social problems that are recognized as crucial to an individual's academic success, bringing in expertise usually found outside the typical school setting:

"...we have a social worker as all young people may need some counseling at some point, as well as social services such as health care, social care, child care, help with clothing and housing".

Additionally, there is a focus on preparing individuals for the world of work:

"We have a workforce development person who offers students additional job preparation skills or help to find a better job... students have fields of career interest built into the curriculum model and career development is part of their educational requirement for graduation"

all of which helps play a major role in ensuring extremely high attendance and retention of students.

Mark speaks passionately about classroom dynamics and how important it is to keep individuals in a positive emotional or psychological state:

"Issues such as anger, fear and shame can create a total mental block... we are particularly concerned with avoiding shame and humiliation in the classroom"

and argues that disciplinary problems in the classroom are a direct result of a failure to fully understand and then engage children. The Mavericks approach is to 'take the time you need' and social workers and other support staff are deployed to help "integrate behavioral aspects" of education into school life.

Whilst Mark clearly opposes what he calls "punishing children into conformity"as such approaches "completely overlook the internal disparity that is occurring in that child", discipline is very much in evidence in the form of an off duty police officer, also called a resource officer, who acts as "a presence of order and discipline that keeps everyone comfortable". He explains that whilst such individuals are part of creating a strong sense of structure, they are also part of the instructional program, providing drug education, life skills education and helping build a sense of respect others.


Traditional Schooling Is 'Simply Not Working'

To hammer home the Mavericks message, Mark points out that the traditional school system is

"not working not only for a few kids but for 30%, 40% and 50 % of kids in metropolitan society... It is so far off the mark".

He believes that the innumerable attempts at reform fail because

"(they) are designed to preserve the core model and address the student as the problem... we must now address the process as the problem, not the student".

He emphasizes again that "it is the model you need to change and not the customer" and concludes that "we don't have reform because people believe that kids are the problem".

So, in summary, Mark Thimmig supports a hybrid model that allows students to earn credits in one of three ways: either fully distance learning or partially online and partially in the building or a course that is all done in the building, and he believes that "this is the future of effective education for kids".

Given the ambitious expansion programme for Mavericks in Education, Mark's compelling theories are about to be put to the test.


CASE STUDY: The Mavericks School Gaming Revolution

For many, technology enhanced learning still means completing coursework with the help of Wikipedia or using computers in the classroom. Students' relationship with technology has altered beyond recognition in the past ten years, and the leaders of Mavericks in Education are determined to exploit the ubiquity and ever-increasing sophistication of gaming experiences to help them achieve their aims.

CEO and President Mark Thimmig's interest in the potential of gaming in schools started when he observed how his sons and their friends learned and enjoyed gaming the more they played, and with the recognition that "the harder a game gets, the more they like the challenge". He argues that this defies the notion that kids don't like things when they get difficult, and from this viewpoint, the educational potential becomes obvious.

Mark also noticed that

"...when kids play games they don't have a teacher, they assume responsibility and they learn through experience and are excited by the fact that it is their level, their pace".

and concluded that

"... games are cool because recognition and reward is built into them".

Mavericks Schools will be the first high school in the USA to offer a full cyber athletics and club game program, and Mark Thimmig is convinced of the benefits of integrating gaming into the classroom and school life.

He believes that current athletic programs in traditional schools do not allow wide student participation and that by introducing cyber athletics, Mavericks will have high school athletics competitions that get greater numbers of students actively involved in sports.

To test his hypothesis, Mark went to Florida and looked up course requirements for golf. He realized that at least half of the requirements of the course code actually appear in Tiger Woods Wii Golf, so he set about identifying the supplemental curriculum requirements needed to have a student play the game and ultimately earn half a credit in golf. Mark then met with the president of EA Sports, the video gaming giants, and requested that the team that designed the Tiger Woods game help figure out how to help develop it further to meet specific curriculum requirements.

Mark also visited the Tiger Woods foundation and discovered that Earl Woods, Tiger Woods' father, developed a character-based curriculum around golf, and he now plans to take some elements of the Earl Woods curriculum and offer Mavericks students a half credit in golf. Importantly, Mark's aim is to find a way to transition a student from a cyber golf experience to a practical golf experience, and he has partnered with a nationwide organization called The First T who operate courses for a small amount of money based on a golf mentoring experience. He explains that as students learn golf before they get out on the golf course (through the gaming experience) they

"... avoid the humiliation of the first play and go out into a safe area where they cannot be emotionally harmed because failure is just built into the game". "...go out there and hurt themselves or embarrass themselves and diminish the real potential".

Mark believes that this approach mitigates against the barriers to participating in sport such as the substantial time commitment for kids and for parents, transportation, insurance, uniforms and all kinds of costs involved in participating in athletics.

He further explains that by creating

"..the coolest gaming environment, with gigantic wall screens and surround sound, we immerse kids and build enthusiasm".

and admits that they are using the gaming angle as a hook to reinforce high attendance levels, as games are seen as a way to get 'street credit'. This is not to undermine the use of gaming, however, and Mark clarifies that Mavericks students will not play any human action or combat games and that there will be common sense restrictions around time spent gaming. Mavericks schools are also exploring gaming for their music and dance programmes, and are looking at Rock Band, Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution as options.

For Mark, gaming can enable team projects, introduce fun in the learning process and enhance the learning experience, in order to "break down the opposition that kids have to learning as it seems like work" and he concludes:

"We are about core academics - complete your high school diploma, get the job skills and develop that path for continual education - and we are going to mix it up with some fun, some cyber athletics, cyber gaming and we are going to explore the world in a way that kids feel part of that".

He expands this thinking, saying that he wants to see a 'dual track' in school athletics, where coaches take the first week into classroom and practice cyber play before they


The Mavericks Green Initiative

There is growing awareness of the environmental impact of increased computer usage in schools, and Mavericks schools have introduced 'green' workstations in schools as a way of saving both energy and costs. The workstations used are supplied by N Computing and connect a single computer 30 terminals. The system allows students to plug in keyboard, mouse, screen, headphones and microphone and uses no more electrical consumption than a cell phone charger - 10% of a typical PC.

Reported cost savings are significant, and additional benefits of having a single PC per classroom are that there are no moving parts, no noise, power consumption and vastly tech support needs.

Mark explains that:

"Because there is no programming done here, when I have fixes, patches and upgrades, they are done one time and not thirty. When I want to refresh, I refresh 10 and not 200 units".

Finally, he considers the environmental cost of PCs going to landfill, stating

"These workstations don't need to be replaced because they are not the brain, so all upgrading happens on PC".