An “Epic” Second Day

What an incredible second day of the Education Innovation Fellowship (EIF) 2015 California trip!  We had an epic morning, in more than one sense of the word.  We visited two schools run by the Oakland-based CMO Education for ChangeASCEND and (the aptly named) Epic.  ASCEND is a K-8 school with a model that leverages blended learning (and, increasingly, personalized learning), project-based learning, and arts integration.  The school is an impressive example of a smoothly executed blended rotational model with a strong school and staff culture.

The Fellows were highly engaged in the classroom observations, and the ensuing discussion with the principal and CMO leadership was refreshingly frank and thought-provoking.  Central to the conversation was the question of how to sequence a move from blended learning to personalized learning, a challenging exercise in change management.

I think it’s safe to say that Epic is a school unlike anything our Fellows and team had ever seen before.  The model is innovative in numerous ways—it is “gamified” (with its “Hero’s Journey” narrative), it places a substantial focus on “design thinking” and real-world problem solving, and it leans heavily on personalized, student-driven learning.  Student agency pervades the building and manifests in a dynamic—albeit sometimes noisy—school environment that contrasts sharply with the “no excuses” model.  The vision of the school and its implementation playbook are complex, but something that Principal Michael Hatcher said at the end of our discussion made things “click” in my mind:  He explained that each of the non-traditional aspects of the school model (the “gamification,” the “maker space,” the emphasis on student agency, etc.) is in service of Epic’s goal of creating a culture of active problem-solving among its students.

After these school visits, we headed to a conference room at the East Bay Community Foundation for a series of compelling conversations with local thought leaders Greg Klein, Gisele Huff, and Brian Greenberg.  Greg articulated a clear framework for the way the Rogers Family Foundation conceives of the field of blended and personalized learning:  Tech-enabled models are on the far left of the spectrum in the field, personalized learning models are at the far right, and blended learning models are in the center.  Three years into the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) blended learning pilot project, Greg explained that “our north star has shifted from blended learning to personalized learning.”

Gisele Huff, Executive Director of the Hume Foundation, made a remarkably strong case for personalized learning, couching it in the history of the education reform movement since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983.  Gisele has been deeply engaged in the field of blended and personalized learning since its inception and posited an elegant frame on future of the field.  She explained that blended/personalized learning has two big things going for it: it’s non-ideological (in contrast with something like the current Common Core debate), and it’s inevitable (i.e. how long can education be the only American industry not transformed by the digital revolution?).

The Fellows grappled deeply with the issues presented on day two in an hour-long debrief (the first of many!) in their learning teams.  The learning team that I was embedded with embraced the “bias towards action” approach emphasized yesterday at the  Each Fellow articulated how he or she was planning to tweak his or her classroom model after returning to school on Monday based just on the learnings of the first two days of the trip.

In his characteristically eloquent fashion, Brian Greenberg shared the potential that personalized learning models can unlock in the hands of excellent educators, citing one example after another of what the most promising models look like in practice.  Brian tells the story of “radical innovators” like Summit Public Schools in a clear and empowering way—as a story of thoughtful educators tirelessly testing hypotheses about how to take each one of their students to deeper levels of mastery.

My verdict on day two?  EPIC!

Jon Extein, Director, Research
CityBridge Foundation


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