Two years ago, I wrote about a New Year’s Resolution for 2016, to “honor the understanding that every student learns differently.” Since stating that goal, it has been a constant beacon for me and for the team at One Schoolhouse. Back in 2016, we had just started the work to get there. Today, we’re a good way along in this journey, and constantly trying to find new ways to reach this goal. It’s time to reflect on our journey.
In 2016, I wrote: “Increased choice in the learning process leads to increased engagement, and engaged students learn more and love learning more.” That was theory then. We’re seeing this in practice now. Teachers at One Schoolhouse have built pathways for students so that they have choice at all stages in the learning process. When students learn new content, they pick the pathway or pathways that help them reach the learning objectives. Choice doesn’t stop there, though. Students also have choice on how to check their understanding of learning (in almost always ungraded formative assessments), and then apply their knowledge to new (almost always real-world) situations, cases, and opportunities.
Agency and choice are important in the classroom. So is design. And, that’s the purview and role of the teacher and coach in a personalized classroom. For personalization to work, design must be intentional, thoughtful, and purposeful; focus is placed on developing competencies for the school, the classroom, and the individual learner. At One Schoolhouse, that has meant a reorganization of our classrooms towards two key competencies: engaging constructively in a diverse and changing world and gaining academic maturity. Moreover, we’ve trained faculty to build competencies for their individual classes and organize their courses around them.And, most importantly, we’ve focused time, energy, and attention in classes on student goal setting. Students work with faculty at the beginning of the year to develop goals, and then reflect on progress towards those goals quarterly. We even devote an entire week of class now at the mid-year point to review, reflection, goals, and growth.
Adult Learners Are Different, Too
We’ve found that personalized approaches to learning work well for adults as an andragogy. In 2016, we started to implement badging in our courses and saw immediate benefits.For years, we’ve had a strong and successful partnership with the National Business Officers Association (NBOA), including exceptional participation within courses. After we implemented badging in courses, participation in discussion boards and activities doubled from 1.1 posts participant/week to more than 2 posts participant/week. We also introduced pathway choice for professional development participants. Plus, we’re building out a professional development ecosystem that includes new choices for adult learners to engage in person and in targeted more flexible ways. (More on that in an announcement next week!)
What’s most exciting, though, is that there is a long way to go to “honor the understanding that every student learns differently.” What started as a year-long resolution has become an invigorating long-term (dare I say, lifetime) pursuit to reach every learner and amplify the work we’ve tried to do in independent schools for generations.
In 1999, I was named academic dean at an independent school that had committed itself to a grand strategic vision around the evolution of its curriculum and pedagogical practices. I became the point person for managing this evolution, and fortunately we had a brilliant and extremely collegial leadership team engaged in putting this work into practice. But in the end division heads, the chief diversity officer, tech folks, and of course the school head had their own worlds to manage, and so I was the only person focusing full-time on the big strategic picture and grappling with the structural and human resource challenges of putting it into practice.
This was sometimes very lonely and isolating work, even in the best of places, and so my discovery of a few listservs and later Nings provided me with not just access to others’ ideas and resources but also with a virtual community of people engaged with the same challenges that energized and sometimes vexed me.
But what really mattered was building the human, flesh-and-blood connections. I was always thrilled to meet a listserv colleague or an “email buddy” at a conference, but best of all were the events like the conferences designed and led by the late David Mallery, who several times a year assembled “just right”-sized groups of peers for a couple of days of learning and a ton of personal and professional interaction.
In 2014, the Independent Curriculum Group offered our first Academic Leaders Retreat, and I will say that I tried hard to channel the incomparable David Mallery—who was among other things a compulsive extrovert who remembered and cared about everyone he ever met—as we worked to balance formal learning, social time, and opportunities for participants to bring forward their own ideas and questions. With the help of guru extraordinaire Jonathan Martin, I felt as though we succeeded in creating in each of our Academic Leaders Retreats unanxious, mutually supportive, and energized short-term microcultures of which even David would have been proud. On those few days I would even feel a bit like an extrovert myself, as the events invited everyone involved to a new level of professional and even interpersonal accessibility and engagement.
In designing the new model of Academic Leaders Retreat we are offering this year with our dear friends and colleagues at One Schoolhouse, we’ve tried not just to preserve but to intensify the personal and professional immersion experience of past retreats. The time span is shorter but the “contact hours” are the same, and we’ve traded the expense of a residential retreat-center setting for more flexible and affordable venues. We’ve even added learning sessions with our One Schoolhouse colleagues while maintaining the unconference sessions that were often cited as retreat highlights.
I left David Mallery’s workshops with whatever I might have learned about doing my work more effectively, but the more important takeaway was always that I was not alone in my concerns, my ideas, my struggles, and my joys. But inevitably most important were the person-to-person connections—lifelong colleagues whom I might never see again in person but on whose friendship and support I could always draw.
With three ICG-One Schoolhouse Academic Leaders Retreats to choose from the first months of 2018, I like to think of all the new relationships that can be forged and all the brilliant ideas to be shared and discussed—and all of the students whose lives will be forever changed because of insights and maybe even the courage to try something new gained at an ALR.
Today, we are happy to announce our call for teachers for the 2018-2019 school year. Consider applying yourself, or encourage a colleague to do so for a simple reason: it will make your bricks and mortar school better. Don’t just take my word for it, consider the thoughts of some of our current teachers about what they have brought back to their face-to-face classrooms.
Improving relationships with students. Yes… you read that correctly. Strong relationships between teachers and students have been a hallmark of independent schools for generations. In the online classroom, building that relationship has to be even more intentional. Sarah Wright, a history teacher at Buffalo Seminary explains:
"One of the biggest things I've learned from teaching with One Schoolhouse is, ironically, how to interact with students and build relationships with them. I always took building relationships for granted in my face-to-face setting, whereas my nervousness about teaching online and connecting with students made me more intentional in getting to know them. As a result of teaching online and learning how to engage students in accountable goal setting, I've learned how to better get to know my students in my face-to-face classes, not just as students and members of my school community, but as learners."
Becoming an on-campus leader in innovation. Teacher-leaders are the lifeblood of innovation on campus. One Schoolhouse coaches teachers to be experts in some of the most innovative approaches to teaching and learning, including personalization and related work in competency-based education (a necessary component for any school thinking about work such as the Mastery Transcript Consortium). John Daniel, French teacher at York School, explains:
"Although I consider myself a career learner as well as teacher, I focused primarily on expertise within my subject matter in the years leading to my work with One Schoolhouse. One Schoolhouse courses incorporate lesson plans designed from the pedagogy of personalized learning. New to this important and transformational model of learning, I now view the teacher as a partner in planned learning, a coach and a guide to students who determine their own best path for accomplishing the learning objectives. I found this pedagogy so relevant, exciting, and transformational to the student experience that I applied for and was awarded my face-to-face school's inaugural research grant in order to imagine how personalized learning could be incorporated into our own program. My colleagues and I are excited about what we can learn and implement, and we have the leadership of One Schoolhouse to thank for the inspiration."
Creating choice for students. We know that students learn differently, and yet, even in a highly differentiated classroom, students will engage in activities and assignments that are more or less meaningful to them. By giving the student-learner the opportunity to choose meaningful learning pathways, we increase course engagement and maximize learning. Elizabeth Allen, the World Languages Chair at Harpeth Hall School explains:
"Because of my teaching with One Schoolhouse, I’ve brought elements of student choice, back to my face-to-face classrooms whenever possible. Choice has become an element of all student produced work. I've had to think carefully about how particular assignments and activities enrich learning. Incorporating options for creativity, even in the production of formal tasks like essays, has made the face-to-face classroom richer. Teaching online has encouraged me to be more intentional as a teacher, and encouraged me to rely less on my instincts because that is not possible in the online environment."
Building courses through intentional design. The online classroom has to be intentionally built using backwards design principles and relying on research related to student engagement and learning. Face-to-face classrooms can greatly benefit from employing these same principles, as Jacqueline Muratore, math teacher at Mount Saint Mary Academy, explains:
"One of the many things One Schoolhouse focuses on is the actual learning process of each student. Through goals, reflection, discussion, and interaction with me and their peers, my students take more ownership of this process and develop a strong awareness of their own learning. Once I began using the skills I learned at One Schoolhouse, I was surprised and excited by how much my students enjoyed these new pathways to learning. Also, as a math teacher, I’ve always appreciated and focuses on the importance of applying our course content to the real world. But, One Schoolhouse has inspired me to bring application to a whole new level which I find is more thoughtful and meaningful."
We hope that you will consider joining our faculty or encouraging colleagues to join us to make your school better.
Students can and should construct knowledge in school. No educator would dispute this, and many can even produce evidence that it is actually happening. But for nearly two centuries, the construction of knowledge has been driven by everyone in school except the students -- from school districts to teachers; textbook publishers to standardized test companies; curriculum consultants to college admissions officers. Independent schools claim indemnity by virtue of our small class sizes, teachers who really know our students, and social-emotional co-curricular programming. But parents want 4.0 transcripts, internships on resumes, and ultimately college acceptances, so we’re still beholden to external metrics, regardless of how misaligned they are to our school’s mission.
And therein lies a slippery slope: if we take our eyes off of our mission, we will lose enrollment traction and, ultimately, market share. This is where Dewey comes in. Look up every independent school you love -- you work at one, send your children to two others, have a dream school where you hope to work someday -- and you’ll find elements of Dewey embedded in the mission and sprinkled across every page of the website. But sit in on the monthly Parents’ Coffee or visit a few classes and Dewey is notably absent. Because Dewey isn’t paying the bills. But if you’ll stay with me, I’ll do my best to convince that he can.
We have spent the last two decades moving from teacher-driven to student-centered pedagogical approaches. In this time (the exact amount of time that I have been teaching in independent schools), we have trained teachers in inquiry-driven learning, station rotation models, Montessori principles, the Harkness Method, formative assessment, flipped classroom, project-based learning, block scheduling, experiential education, brain-based learning, gender differences in the classroom, differentiated instruction, social-emotional learning, the Whole Child approach, blended learning.... Exhausted yet? Me too. That’s why I left the classroom to learn and teach about personalized learning. And here’s the thing: there’s not much new in personalized learning, so don’t make the mistake of writing it off as another pedagogical fad. Personalized learning done well is Dewey’s dream come true -- it empowers learning through student agency, redefines the essential role of the teacher in the process, and raises up ethical, capable learners. As a classroom teacher, summer after summer of professional development gave me an overflowing toolbox but no blueprint. I would read Dewey over and over in an attempt to see my new pedagogical tool as the catalyst to a learner-driven pedagogy but the activation energy was never enough (not every student learns well around a Harkness table) or there were still missing tools (letting students choose what they want to learn leaves them grossly underprepared). Until now.
Personalized learning is the disruptive innovation whose time has come. It works by simply -- and I do mean that it is not hard because teachers already have so many tools -- giving the teacher the framework she needs to (1) develop a learning experience custom designed for each student, and (2) ensure that learning really is happening. Whether the teacher is a tech early adopter or a Luddite, in the personalized classroom instruction is flexible, students have pathway choices that increase efficiency and effectiveness, data gives teachers insight into the learner experience, and ongoing student reflection and self-evaluation promote ownership. Dewey would like this because he believed that a teacher’s job is to cultivate an environment for autonomy, inquiry, and curiosity; and he wanted our educational system to produce responsible citizens. Independent schools have done this all along, but we’ve done it by asking more and more of our teachers. Giving teachers the chassis to personalize their pedagogy brings Dewey back to life, and everyone -- from Dewey, to students, teachers, and parents -- is over the moon when students are motivated to learn and can demonstrate measurable progress in school. I think that might just be what school is supposed to be about.
This school year, 129 independent schools from around the world are enrolling students in courses at One Schoolhouse. And, every one of them seems to handle somewhat differently the question of whether to pay for student enrollment in online courses or pass on some of all of the costs to the families of students. In working with schools on this question, I’ve learned that there are three primary lenses to consider: mission, strategy, and priorities.
Start with Mission
Every great independent school is guided by its mission. Decisions about online learning should be no different. Over the last ten years, many independent schools have added to their mission statements language about preparing students for a globally connected world. In turn, they have created exceptional programs abroad and in their own communities to expand students’ worldviews and deepen communication skills and empathy. But, students do not need to leave campus to connect meaningfully with those outside their community. Some independent schools have followed the path of higher education, and used online learning to expand opportunities for global connectedness -- meeting this new mission directive in part through programs that can be done anywhere.
Consider Your Strategy
We know that potential independent school parents will not visit or apply to schools if they don’t offer the courses or programs desired. That’s a challenge for any independent school in an age of increased demand for customization and thinner resources. For many schools, this is where online learning can fill in the gap between what is offered on campus and what is not. At some schools, this means offering a language online or quickly increasing computer science opportunities. By offering the opportunity online, the school can strategically add programs or courses to enhance value or meet market demand by expanding opportunities on a per student basis, rather than a per employee basis (for example, $1500 per student/per course versus $60,000-$80,000 per employee/per program). This mitigates the risk that the school takes on for program expansion.
Question the Priorities
At the average independent day school, 60-70% of expenses are directed towards employee costs. That fact is a testament to the values that we hold: relationships between students and teachers matter greatly and students should have expansive opportunities. And, at the same time, schools can find that they are spending significant resources on opportunities for a limited number of students. For example, an upper level math course like Multivariable Calculus might have only three or four students, but be taught by an experienced faculty member. Schools might question whether that is the best use of limited school resources, or whether the school is better served by redirecting the experienced faculty member to a standard, full section of math. In that case, a school may decide to move the course instruction online, and thus pay for what would be the next course in a math progression for high achieving students.
If we use these lenses to decide how we should handle payment for online courses, we consider how online courses and programs enhance the work that we do on campus, rather than compete against that work or simply add to our costs.
Brad Rathgeber, Head of School & CEO