Last month, I offered an on-ramp for understanding the concept of personalized learning -- the idea that personalized learning is about offering students a choice as they move through different pathways to mastery of skills and competencies. This month, let’s explore what that looks like in an academic class.
Let’s take a learning objective that lets us think of many pathways to create: understanding how a bill becomes a law in the United States.
OK. What would the typical process for meeting this objective look like? Probably something like this: in class, the teacher introduces the topic via a short “lecture.” Then, for homework, the students read pages 123-130 in their textbook and answer factual questions. In class the next day, the teacher kicks off the lesson by sharing the famous Schoolhouse Rock segment, "I'm Just a Bill" -- enjoy that flashback to 8th grade! After that, there are a couple of short activities in order to differentiate the instruction, and some opportunity for students to ask questions.
This is a good lesson. There is some differentiation. There are many entry points into the topic for students. But, was all of the learning meaningful for all students?
What if we approached the lesson from a learner-driven, personalized perspective? That might look something like this: When students arrive in the classroom, the teacher introduces the learning objective, and then offers students multiple pathways to reach the learning objective. Those pathways are simply the different parts of the previously explained linear lesson, but instead of students having to do each segment, they have choice on which pathway (or, likely, pathways) they need in order to meet the objective. Some students will start by reading the textbook, others will start with videos, others will gather with the teacher at the whiteboard for direct instruction, and so on.
We know that we sometimes need to take different pathways in order to learn a new skill. Think back to the headlight example -- we might start by using the manual as a pathway, and then realize that the visuals from YouTube are needed in order to complete our objective. So when designing for pathway choice, teachers also need to understand that some students will need to take multiple paths in order to reach the learning objective--just like we need to.
With summer approaching, I encourage every teacher to think about a lesson from this perspective. Start small, with just one class. Consider the learning objectives that you have for a day and work backwards to create pathways for your students to meet those objectives. This doesn’t have to be an arduous effort. In fact, it can be a fun afternoon activity. Start by working with what you have already, just organize it so that the students have choice rather than your making the choice for them.
“Personalized learning” can seem like one of those educational buzz-phrases that is difficult to unpack and understand. But, let me offer an entry point into this concept. Personalized learning is about approaching learning from the perspective of the learner, rather than the perspective of the teacher, just as we do as adults in the course of our lives every day.
Consider this everyday challenge: the lightbulb in the headlight of your car burns out. How are you going to fix it? Go ahead, write down your first step. Now, write down your next step.
I’ve done this activity with close to a thousand educators this year. The answers they’ve given span a range: “Finding a YouTube video for my car’s make and model,” “Heading to the car manual first,” “Not messing with it; going to the dealership,” “Easy, I already know how to do this,” “I’m just going to start unscrewing things,” “My spouse takes care of these things.”
As adults, we make personalized choices every day about how we learn new skills and acquire new information. We know there are many viable and good “pathways” to reaching the learning objective.
The choice that we make in terms of what pathway we choose for changing the lightbulb is typically based on three factors: the situation (time, speed needed, challenge level, etc.), our prior experience, and our go-to-problem solving strategies (some of us are more comfortable following directions on YouTube, others of us want the step-by-step from a manual).
As educators, we know that there are many good and viable pathways towards reaching the learning objectives in our classrooms, too. There are many ways to understand how a bill becomes a law, or how to solve a mathematical equation. It’s just that we often choose the pathway for our students, rather than giving students all of the pathway options and giving them agency. Why? What if we gave them choice? I’ll explore that next month.
When I was a classroom teacher, I loved teaching Seniors. They were driven, inquisitive, curious, creative, thoughtful, and articulate… Until about this time of year. That post Spring Break time could be dreadful.
I wish I knew then what I know now about student motivation.
Post Spring Break was dreadful because I kept plowing through content the way that I had throughout the year. And, even though the content got more and more interesting (from my perspective) and even though I had some of the top students in the school in my class, the students became less engaged, less motivated, and less interested.
What I didn’t do then, but would do now, is unleash the energy, motivations, creativity, and passions of my students.
Seniors think that they are finished with high school before high school is actually over. So how do we keep them motivated to learn down the home stretch? Here we rely on the psychology of adolescent development and growth mindset. Student motivation surfaces at the intersection of some of our favorite education researchers - Dweck, Ferlazzo, Hattie, Marzano - who collectively show that students want to learn when they are given the freedom to explore what’s important to them. Appropriately supported by teachers who give targeted and constructive feedback, autonomy not only empowers learning by motivating students to ask deep questions and solve real problems but also to stay engaged and finish what they’ve started.
That’s one of the reasons that we’re launching a new type of course for next year: fall semester courses with an option for a guided research project for the second semester. This fall, we will introduce six fall semester courses: Abnormal Psychology, Business and Entrepreneurship, Civics, Culture, and Intersectionality, Creating Tomorrow: Computer Science by Design, Gender and Sexual Identity in America, and Engineering, Design, and Robotics. All of these courses have an optional second semester guided research project.
What does that project look like? Students are expected to engage in sustained inquiry, authentic and iterative research, critical analysis, and rigorous reflection, revision, and assessment. They’re given choice in terms of what pathway to pursue, with options including:
This student experience builds on what we know about motivation and unleashes student creativity, in a flexible, asynchronous learning environment… banishing (as much as we can) the post Spring Break dread.
I’m often asked by independent school faculty members, “How do you know your courses are any good?” We start out by pointing to data: 96% of our students say that their One Schoolhouse courses are as challenging or more challenging than their face-to-face classes, 85% report gaining greater academic maturity, 83% report being inspired to be creative, and 80% report seeing direct ties between classroom learning and real-world application.
Those data points stack up well in the independent school community, but it doesn’t answer one of the assumptions in the question: that online courses can’t be as good as the courses offered on an independent school campus. We know that a great education starts with extraordinary teachers and transforms students’ experiences. That’s why we start with great teachers. Our teacher training program and teacher evaluation and coaching models are more comprehensive and rigorous than any schools we know, and we recruit our teachers based on recommendations from top independent schools from around the country, where many of them teach.
Great teachers open students’ minds and change the ways they see the world. Stories can get to the heart of those experiences in a way that data can’t. That’s why throughout the spring and summer, you’ll be hearing from our students more and more about what it’s like to learn online with One Schoolhouse. You’ll see these stories arrive in your inbox over the coming weeks, and in case you missed the first three, we want to make sure that you hear from Amanda, Isabel, and Miriam.
“What we're learning in class is actually going to relate to real life,” Amanda says about her economics classes at One Schoolhouse. As a junior, she knew she wanted to explore her interest in business, but the economics course her school offered didn’t fit into her schedule. Instead, Amanda enrolled in One Schoolhouse’s AP Macroeconomics course, and she liked it so much she returned for AP Microeconomics in her senior year. “I also like math,” says Amanda, “so [economics] was a nice way to tie business and math together. And I know economics has a lot of calculus... It was cool to combine my learning from different classes.” In both classes, she says, “I've often seen specific concepts, like opportunity costs, that come up in our lives every day… My favorite thing was being able to relate what I'm learning in economics to the real world.” - Amanda from Laurel School
“I wasn't expecting to actually talk to my friends in the class--I call them friends now,” says Isabella about her classmates in Multivariable Calculus & Differential Equations. Before she began the class, she expected online learning would be mostly watching videos. Instead, she discovered connection and collaboration between students and their teacher. “I meet with Dr. Braun on Skype, usually the week before a test or an exam, or just when I have questions,” she says. Her classmates are also resources: “Sometimes I ask questions, sometimes I help others, so it's a good support system… You get to know so many other people in your class. You're not alone, sitting in front of a computer.” The community of her class has given Isabella confidence when she looks ahead to college, where she plans to study biochemistry. “It's collaboration, how to communicate with your teacher, time management, everything--those are life skills you need whatever you do. I think it prepares me well for college next year.” -- Isabella from Westover School
“Math is one of my favorite subjects,” says Miriam, “and I really want to reach the highest level classes.” As a ninth grader in Algebra I, however, she knew she needed to find a new way to move forward. When her teacher recommended One Schoolhouse, Miriam and her parents spent a lot of time researching the program, looking for a class that would have a strong teacher as a ready resource. Taking Geometry at One Schoolhouse “was one of the best experiences I've ever experienced. Once I had my first meeting with Ms. Boudreau, I felt so comfortable. She offered me advice, she told me to just take it one step at a time... The communication that I had with Ms. Boudreau, and the materials that she gave us, really made it comfortable and made it easy and made it understandable for us.” With an A in her summer Geometry course, Miriam jumped into Honors Algebra II for her sophomore year. Her advice to students considering a summer class: “Take it one step at a time... if you really believe in yourself, you can do it.” -- Miriam from Linden Hall
Later this week, we’ll be turning in our reaccreditation report. (It’s hard to believe it has been seven years since our initial accreditation!) At its best, reaccreditation gives a school the chance to be reflective in its practices and careful in its future planning -- thankfully that’s been the case with our process. In particular, we wanted to do a comprehensive reflection that engaged a wide range of constituents from our schools in the process. So, we hired an outside research firm to gather thoughts from the community -- thank you to so many of you for participating! I thought I’d share with you a few things we learned:
It’s clear that independent schools have challenges -- but we’re finding ways to work together to solve them.
Brad Rathgeber, Head of School & CEO