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.
Peter Gow was a mentor for me before I ever met him in person.
I loved reading his articles in Independent School Magazine, his blog posts in Education Week and on “Not Your Father’s School,” and his books. I’m an independent school nerd – growing up going to independent schools and loving independent school communities. And yet, I also began to see from my earliest days teaching that independent schools could be much more and had to evolve to meet their missions today. In Peter’s writings, I found a kindred spirit.
That’s why I’m thrilled that we can announce today that One Schoolhouse is partnering with Peter and the Independent Curriculum Group to offer their Academic Leaders Retreats in 2018.
To some who have been around the independent school world it might seem odd that One Schoolhouse is partnering with the Independent Curriculum Group (ICG). ICG started its existence as “Excellence without APs,” and One Schoolhouse offers about twenty AP courses to supplement independent school on-campus offerings (and another 20+ non-AP courses).
But, we are both progressive-minded groups that love (really love) independent schools. One Schoolhouse firmly believes in the Principles of Independent Curriculum. And, we both honor, respect, and revere the contributions that generations of educators before us have made. We know that the independent school community is strongest when engaging in dialogue, listening to each other, and learning from each other. That’s why the Academic Leaders Retreat – 2018 (ALR18) has generous time set aside for formal and informal conversations and unconference activities.
We also believe that what was great yesterday is not necessarily great today, and that we are doing our schools (their missions, their founders, their communities) wrong if we do not constantly strive to be better and to evolve. That’s why the program that we have worked together on for ALR18 has a content focus on both new models for education and change management.
Peter and I hope that you will join us in conversation in Austin, New York, or Seattle next year, as we work individually to help our schools reach their missions more fully and in a contemporary context, and as we work collectively for the betterment of independent schools that we love.
In my last two posts, I’ve written about the two core competencies at One Schoolhouse: engaging constructively in a diverse and changing world; and, gaining academic maturity. These two competencies form the foundation for competencies that students work to complete in each course – these competencies are the promise that One Schoolhouse works to deliver upon for each student enrolled, regardless of course taken. What I haven’t written about are the two additional layers of competency work beyond school-wide competencies.
We like to think about our work in competencies as a bullseye. School competencies form the center of the work – they are central to our program and worked at in each course. In addition, teachers build competencies for each class—areas of focus for development that are central to the study and successful ability to apply learning in that course. This level of the bullseye is unique to each course.
And, the outer layer represents the goals that each student brings to the program – you may remember that earlier this summer I wrote about the importance of student goal setting.
To help bring this to life, let’s look at what this bullseye looks like in for a student in a course:
This one comes from a student in our macroeconomics course: My goal is for this course to help me in my passion of politics. This can be measured by the information connections I am able to make, the real life applications I can use, and my full understanding of the economics knowledge itself. I believe that this goal will help me in my future career goal as a member of the Department of State because I will be able to understand how economics influence countries.
This one comes from our statistics course: Gaining fluency in the use of data. Students explore data by describing patterns, departures from patterns, and anticipating patterns through analyzing and designing studies, simulation, and creative problem solving. Testing ideas and hypotheses. Students plan, design, and conduct studies through sampling and experimentation. Estimate population parameters and test hypotheses drawing connections between all aspects of the statistical process.
Engaging constructively in a diverse and changing world
Students develop an inclusive world view when they encounter people and ideas that are different from their own, practice empathy, work collaboratively, defend their position with facts respectfully, and demonstrate mastery through real-world application. By engaging in activities that make learning relevant, students practice intellectual curiosity as they assimilate facts to solve an interdisciplinary problem, analyze a new situation, create meaning from a range of sources, or build a tool.
Gaining academic maturity
Courses are scaffolded to promote iteration and designed to reward persistence. Students practice responsibility, intellectual adaptability, interpersonal flexibly, self-regulation and organization, and a range of communication skills. Because students are given voice and choice in how they access new knowledge, practice new skills, and self-assess for understanding, they set measurable goals around efficiency and effectiveness.
Certainly, there is an extra level of complexity (another layer or two of the bullseye) that is present in non-supplemental schools, and yet, the bullseye approach could still work within those schools. And, it might help us stay focused on what is central and unique to our schools.
I used to make the argument that it was essential for secondary school students to take an online course before heading off to college. At some level, given the number of students who take online courses at the college level, I think that is right. But, I don’t believe that thinking is complete anymore, nor is it descriptive enough of the rationale for online course work.
Taking an online course just for the sake of learning online misses the point. And, if you listen to students, their parents, and teachers involved in online courses, it becomes more clear.
Listening to these voices has helped us to re-define the competency and has also helped us be more purposeful in this work – establishing it as a core competency for all students in our course to master. We’ve restated this competency as “gaining academic maturity.”
Gaining academic maturity: Courses are scaffolded to promote iteration and designed to reward persistence. Students practice responsibility, intellectual adaptability, interpersonal flexibly, self-regulation and organization, and a range of communication skills. Because students are given voice and choice in how they access new knowledge, practice new skills, and self-assess for understanding, they set measurable goals around efficiency and effectiveness.
This competency along with the one that I wrote about last month – “Engaging Constructively in a Diverse and Changing World" – form the core of our work with students, and the promise that we make to schools that engage their students in our online courses: your students will work towards these competencies, and we will support them in their journey to master them.
Brad Rathgeber, Head of School & CEO