Over the past year, I’ve written about our lessons learned from ten years in online education. I hope this sharing has been helpful to you, as you work on similar topics at your school from increasing student engagement to designing inspiring learning environments to solving financial challenges to valuing the understanding that every student learns differently.
This month, I’d like to look forward to the future and share a bit about where we’re heading next year.
Earlier this year, the Independent Curriculum Group (ICG) merged with One Schoolhouse. Many of you know that the ICG created a treasure-trove of good resources for schools on topics ranging from moving beyond standardized advanced curriculum to living out the mission of the school in the classroom to hiring to schedule changes and more. Since our merger, we’ve been hard at work organizing the ICG resources and creating new resources to share in 2020. Next year, each month we’ll release these resources on our website. You see new podcasts, ebooks, on-demand programs, and more! We’re excited to share this good work with you.
We’ll also be expanding our course catalog even more. Next year, we’ll focus on increasing language offerings and semester elective offerings. As you know, our goal is to be a partner in innovation to schools around the country and around the world. Increasingly, schools are moving language courses online and looking to expand language offerings for students. At the same time, more and more of our schools are looking to take advantage of our exciting semester program -- last year, semester program enrollment grew 50%. Schools love that students get to explore an area of interest first in the fall semester and then identify a compelling question in the spring semester, exploring the possible answers through research or design. This coming year, we’ll add a third option to increase student agency! Look for all of this to be announced with our 2020-2021 course catalog in January.
I also want to let you know that we’ll be hiring two new staff members at One Schoolhouse, starting in January, as we expand our administrative team. We’ll be adding an additional Assistant Head of School to join our team to lead our professional development program and non-credit student programs. And, we’re also in search for a Director of Student Support to join our current academics team, as we double our commitment to supporting schools and students in online course work. If you have any questions about these new positions, let me know. They’ll be posted online by the start of next month.
2019 has been great. Thank you for your partnership during ten years in online education. Here’s to starting the next 10 years strong in 2020.
In the last 10 years, we have harnessed the research on and witnessed for ourselves the powerful connection between student agency and motivation. When students are given the ability to make even small choices around how and what they learn, their engagement with the course changes in a range of positive ways. We see students work more efficiently, be driven to perform to the best of their abilities, and find space for creative exploration or time to foster a tangential curiosity. Quite simply, when students have choice, they do better across a range of success metrics. Armed with this awareness, how do we leverage choice to inspire learning and growth? There are two primary ways that we work to increase choice for students: within the class itself, as Brad wrote about earlier this month, and within the curriculum as a whole.
One Schoolhouse builds courses and programs based on the needs of consortium schools. Increasingly, this has meant schools asking us to extend their course catalog via advanced semester electives, in order to give students more choices in what they can pursue, including topics like business and economics, civics and politics, computer science, engineering, gender identity, global health, neuroscience, psychology, social entrepreneurship.
As we build more elective options, we wanted to go an additional step further in relation to choice, and to make courses even lower risk on the all-precious “time-consumption” meter. Our fall semester courses are interactive survey courses where students get a sense of the subject by exploring via project-based learning and case studies. For some students, this is all they want - an engaging single semester experience with a college-level topic; for others, they then want to do something with what they’ve learned in the fall. Enter a second level of choice: to stay for the second semester or to ease into spring with a lighter load (a choice we are happy to encourage for some seniors!). If they choose to stay on, they enter seminar tracks where they get to research a challenging question or design and build something that solves a real world problem. The structured deadlines of the spring seminar, combined with the flexibility pathways for deep learning, create a learning environment borne of the intersection between student agency and motivation.
Students and families get more from your school when they feel like you have the choices that they want; and we’re working hard to respond to your requests for more choice in advanced electives.
Beth Teske, Assistant Head for Academics at Linden Hall, on how One Schoolhouse's pedagogical model has been a helpful resource in transforming teaching and learning at her school.
Over the course of this year, I’ve written about ten lessons that we’ve learned in ten years of online education at One Schoolhouse. This tenth lesson is perhaps the most relevant for classroom teachers, because it is directly transferable to the face-to-face classroom and is easy to implement starting on a very small scale (it can be tried in a single class period). We learned that when students have choice in what, how, and when they learn, they are more engaged in their course work.
Honestly, we had a hunch about the “when” part even before we started in online learning. We knew that student schedules were crazy… and that it was unrealistic for us adults in the school community to ask our students to go from 45 minutes of calculus to 45 minutes of discussing Shakespeare to doing a chemistry lab for the next 90 minutes. How could our students concentrate the way they needed to and engage fully with that type of expectation?
What we didn’t know was the "how" or "what"… nor did we know that there was good research about giving students choice in “how” and “what.”
Larry Ferlazzo identifies four qualities as critical to helping students motivate themselves: autonomy, competence, relatedness, and relevance. These are central to engendering student agency because they build a culture of choice in your classroom. By empowering students to manage themselves, we invite them to the table as partners in their learning, rather than as recipients of our teaching. As a result, students feel respected and safe, which promotes a growth mindset of risk-taking and learning. Daniel Goldman describes this internal motivation as, “a passion to work for internal reasons that go beyond money and status - which are external rewards, - such as an inner vision of what is important in life, a joy in doing something, curiosity in learning, a flow that comes with being immersed in an activity. A propensity to pursue goals with energy and persistence. Hallmarks include a strong drive to achieve, optimism even in the face of failure, and organizational commitment.”
This research helped us ask questions about how we could enable student choice within our classrooms — and whether we had more opportunity to do so in an online space with extensive resources abounding.
Our first foray into this work was in developing content pathway choice for students… that’s the example you see below. When a student first explores content in a class with us, they are given choice in how to begin… Here the options include a number of online resources, video resources,
and textbook resources. Many students find that they have to complete multiple pathways in order to fully grasp the content.
Moreover, we were asking these questions at a time when the field of personalized learning was just starting to take shape. We embarked on a long term project on transforming our online classroom to be learner-driven and personalized.
Teachers used what they learned over the years about differentiation, creating pathways for students to choose how to access new content, assess their understanding, and apply learning to the real world. This gives students agency — and, importantly, it also gives students relevance, another key factor for engagement that we learned from Ferlazzo.
Harvest season is a time for reaping what we’ve sown. What is better than coming back to school to discover that the young teacher in the classroom next door has found her legs and is well-prepared for the new year? Or how about the magic of summer during those tough middle school years? We invest heavily to keep the new teacher afloat and to get through the navel gazing of seventh grade, and we deserve a moment to celebrate the fruits of our labor when shining faces get fresh starts each fall.
Which brings me to gardening. I grew up on a farm, and gardening remains my avocation. I learned how to be a good teacher by tending my plants, and to this day my most inspired education ideas come while digging in the dirt. Both practices come down to these simple truths:
The start you get impacts your entire trajectory: The research is resounding on the value of a strong start in academics - it’s why the board book industry exists! - but this extends to new endeavours across the learning arc. When students come into an online class, the onboarding activities they do are intentionally targeted towards teaching them how to manage themselves in a new learning space. Just as in my garden I cover seedlings so they don’t get burned by the spring sun or fall frost, in our classes we take care to ensure that each student gets the support they need to adjust to online learning. Every student (and every plant) depends on a good start.
Being known matters: One of the first week’s activities in our classes asks each student to meet individually with their teacher to discuss goals for the year and talk about the type of support they’ll need in their online class. Instead of the online course feeling sterile, this practice creates immediate connection between student and teacher. Knowing how to support each student empowers our teachers to be responsive and to personalize the course for their learners. For example, one student this year told her teacher that her goal was “to learn how to read how to do things because at [my school] my teachers spend a lot of time telling me how to do things.” Aware that college will likely be different, she wants to focus on this academic skill deficit. Her One Schoolhouse teacher was able to suggest a regular, standing meeting while she is developing this skill so that she can learn to identify what is confusing and ask for clarification. In my garden, different plants have different soil and water requirements. If I plant my blueberries (which need slightly acidic soil) next to my strawberries (which need more fertilizer and water), the blueberries won’t produce. Every student (and every plant) has different needs, and we need to take time to learn what those needs are so we can respond appropriately.
A healthy environment is crucial for growth: Children can’t learn if they don’t feel safe, and cultivating a physically and emotionally healthy classroom is the job of every educator. Online, this means structure: structures that make learning pathways easy to access, routines and rubrics that make expectations clear, formative assessments that let teachers and students identify struggles, and opportunities to try new things safely. In my garden, this means investing heavily in healthy soil, managing pests naturally, and ensuring that each plant gets the right amount of water. Every student (and every plant) can only thrive when conditions are just right.
Perfect doesn’t pay: High achieving students - and this applies to almost all One Schoolhouse students - strive for excellence. While we don’t want to undercut the teaching of grit or the encouragement of hard work, it is a slippery slope from persistence to perfection. Here at One Schoolhouse, we are implementing practices that help students make holistic academic choices, such as recognizing when to move on. For example, our late work policy helps students to stay on track, catch up quickly if they fall behind, and occasionally realize that it’s ok to let something go. The process of learning can be messy, but the outcome can still be successful. Like students’ learning trajectories, my garden doesn’t always look tidy but the plants grow deep roots and strong shoots, and I regularly let a vine crawl out of its bed or prune back a sick plant to give it a fresh start. And if you sat at my dinner dinner table, you’d never guess that all the delicious food comes from such a tangle of vines and bushes. No student or plant looks perfect, but perfect isn’t necessary for a satisfying harvest.
It isn’t just about the harvest: We forget that this work is seasonal. The structure of school is predicated on the expectation of outcomes - transcripts, resumes, college acceptances - but as educators, we want to raise lifelong learners. That’s why One Schoolhouse teachers design courses backwards from competencies, which we define as aptitudes that capture what we value. We want students to engage with the world using the practices essential to the discipline they are studying, and we measure mastery by their ability to transfer these competencies beyond the course. In my garden, what I do after the harvest - composting, mulching, pruning - is the most important factor in the longevity of my farm. Every teacher (and every gardener) should always be designing for the next season.
So while you’re out picking pumpkins or planting fall lettuce this month, think about your students. Are they off to a good start? Have you taken time to have a one-on-one conversation with each student? Is there safe space for each student to grow? It isn’t too late to cultivate the soil for a fruitful year!
Brad Rathgeber, Head of School & CEO