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!
Last month, I wrote about the intentional onboarding necessary to set students up for success in the online space. We’ve also learned that simple design and technology are key to student success too.
I should note that this philosophy worked against impulses of the technology leaders in 2009 (the year we were founded), and still against many technology leaders today. Technology leaders can be excited about the next new gadget, and work to bring new tools regularly into all classrooms. Our approach was different… in part because of necessity.
As a consortium of schools, we couldn’t make assumptions about the types of devices and platforms that our students would come to our class with. So, we couldn’t require add-ons (software or hardware) in the ways that many schools would. We settled on two pretty simple requirements: high-speed internet access and a computer with a webcam. This meant, by necessity that almost all of the work that students did, had to be in the learning management system.
There was another reason for the simple design, and that was philosophical: we believed that in good learning design, learning should be at the forefront, not technology. We wanted to make sure that our students were not concentrating on learning a new technology, but instead on the learning happening in the class.
This also meant standardizing the look and feel of our courses so that a student would not have difficulty navigating the online learning space. At first, we worried that this may stifle the creativity of our teachers, but instead we found that our teachers appreciated that their creative efforts went into curriculum design instead of the visual design of classes.
We found great applicability of this concept in face-to-face schools as well. When teachers are given choice in course design, students need to learn how to navigate each teacher’s choices… But when design is standardized, the student can concentrate on the learning of the course, not learning how to navigate (or game) a particular teacher.
Earlier this month, Brad wrote about how every student can learn online. Online learning provides opportunities for student growth because it teaches academic maturity. Do students encounter challenges when they take their first online class? Of course - and that’s a good thing! Challenges beget growth. Not only are these the sort of challenges that are easy to manage early in an online course, they are also developmentally appropriate challenges for college-bound adolescents. But if you don’t address them early by putting positive structures in place, they can spiral. To help students stay on track, let’s talk about a few of these challenges, and the type of supports that help students get off to a good start when they encounter the unfamiliar in their online class.
The vast majority of our students are high achievers. They often “do school” very well and have a well-developed set of school skills that have never let them down. Enter the online class, which taxes this precarious system and often requires students to grow in their academic maturity. This is why “academic maturity” is a school-wide competency at One Schoolhouse, and something that we work hard to scaffold.
One inefficient strategy students often develop is filling up “extra” time to boost achievement. This polishes their resume, but at the expense of flexibility and balance. When something new gets added to the mix (e.g.: college applications, a concussion, an online class) there is no slack in the system to absorb the disruption. As Lisa Damour talks about in her recent book, Under Pressure, “slack” is essential in a functioning system. To help students manage time efficiently and nimbly, teach students not only to schedule their work in advance but also to prioritize their tasks so they do the most important thing or the hardest thing first. It may seem counterintuitive to them to build in slack time each week, but no one ever says, “I wish I didn’t have that extra hour on Thursday afternoon!” Instead, it’s a huge relief to have that extra time if it’s needed to complete an assignment or meet with their online teacher.
Diligent students don’t like to ask for help until the final hour, but this can leave them wasting time perseverating before running out of time to get the support they need. Teach students to anticipate challenges - whether skills-induced or schedule-induced - and to build in the time that allows them to book an appointment with their online teacher to work through it together. A well-crafted question and a ten minute conversation is almost always an excellent and efficient use of time, because it allows the teacher to pinpoint the problem and guide the student to a solution. Bonus lesson: every time you direct a student back to their One Schoolhouse teacher you implicitly teach that student how to use the most effective resource available to solve the problem at hand.
Generation Z doesn’t believe in the myth of multitasking, but the research is deep. With an average attention span of eight seconds, many teens struggle to stay on one task for any sustained period of time. Online learning invites students to divide their concentration between all the apps and tabs open on their devices, providing distractions that can entertain or isolate. So what happens when they have to take an hour-long test or have just one hour to work with their partners on a project? An underdeveloped ability to concentrate on just one thing compromises their ability to complete the task to the best of their ability. College professors - people who often research a single topic in minute detail for their entire careers - are unsympathetic to this concentration deficiency so we need to teach now. A key element of college readiness is surely improved singularity of focus, and the online high school course is the perfect place to practice.
Most of the challenges that students encounter in the online learning space have less to do with the online platform and more to do with the fact that the online nature of the class is surfacing self-management strategies that are inelastic - there’s no slack to absorb the new challenges. So what tools can we give students that reduce distractions and improve concentration? A good place to start teaching self-regulation is with media consumption - have students set goals around limiting use of particular apps or devices, and to replace that time with something more constructive, such as meeting with their online teacher or working ahead on a deadline.
Your partnership is integral to the full realization of this important element of academic maturity, because - for better or worse - you see daily what Damour calls the “stress olympics” of today’s adolescents. There’s no better time for high flying students to learn these lessons than in high school, and we’re glad to be part of the team that helps students summit this peak.
Over the last ten years, we’ve come to the understanding that online learning is part of the college preparatory experience — something that our students have to be guided and led into like so many other experiences while they are in high school. In 2017, 33.1% of college students took at least one online course, and that percentage continues to grow steadily. Online learning isn’t at the fringes anymore; it’s built in to the college experience.
For most of our students, their online course with One Schoolhouse is their first online course. So, in the same way all educators support new experiences, we put structures and safeguards in place for support. Most importantly, we’re intentional about the on-boarding process. One key to building success has been to engage our students in a deep goal-setting process that creates regular reflection on the metacognition of learning.
We’ve all experienced futile goal-setting exercises and we have prodded advisees through the goal-setting process. (Actually, let’s be honest: we’ve bribed them with donuts.) Even as we plod through those moments, we know we’re not reaching the goal of goal-setting! Goal setting needs to be authentic and engaging to each learner, so One Schoolhouse students begin by creating their own learning profile plan and understanding growth mindset. What makes goal setting meaningful is the usefulness and effectiveness of the accompanying plan to achieve the goals. MIT does a good job of giving us framework in the SMART goals approach, which we adapt here at One Schoolhouse as part of our quarterly goals and reflection cycle with students. We also integrate Jordan Peterson’s research that shows the powerful link between motivation and achievement, and promotes a goal-driven approach to motivation.
Setting goals and devising a plan to achieve them motivates students because the exercise helps them envision how they want to show up in the class and how they plan to tackle challenges. In essence, the students’ goals become the primary metric for their growth We begin the year with SMART goals, and establish a routine for reflection. Teachers invite students into metacognitive reflection, asking them to reflect not only on their own growth and success, but also on the process of learning: Was the unit inspiring? Did they make the best choices? What do they want to do differently? Finding the right balance between goal-setting and reflection is essential. When goals boost motivation, we’ve gained traction.
Reflection and goals are also embedded in our formal quarterly student report cards. Teachers report on the student’s progress towards her goals and often include the student’s own reflections in the narrative comment itself. It also helps teachers write authentic, meaningful comments. The benefits? We get to reinforce that we take our students’ goals and progress seriously as an institution, and parents love the comments they receive from our teachers. Comments bring the goal-setting cycle full circle--we celebrate achievements, honor growth, and build essential skills.
Brad Rathgeber, Head of School & CEO