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.
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)