I’m a PK (Pastor’s Kid), so I know a spiritual revival when I see one. On this California trip, we have not entered any makeshift churches out of white tents, but in equally inspiring, open, and creative spaces, we have been challenged to respond to a call of action to join a growing movement in our educational system.
I started to realize that the 22 of us Fellows were beginning to convert to the “gospel” of personalized learning when Gisele Huff spoke to us on Tuesday about how irrational it is to expect one teacher to reach the myriad of academic needs for 30 students simultaneously. When she commended us as teachers for working so diligently at an impossible task, there were audible sighs of relief and gratitude for the truth she spoke. What Gisele did for the soul, Brian Greenberg followed up with for the mind by reframing our current factory model of education with one question: Why do we assign 18 years of curriculum to children simply based on the day and year of their birth?
The good news of personalized learning is not just that students learn and achieve according to their individual pace and interests, but also that teachers are able to leverage technology to increase face-to-face time. It is in this time and space that they can focus on fixing misconceptions using real-time data and pushing cognitive skills through challenging tasks teachers. Ultimately, teachers are freed from the burden of ineffectively teaching to an “average” child that rarely exists, and it is the possibility of lifting this burden that I sense within our cohort.
Out of the nine schools we visited in California, three epitomized my vision of a school where teachers and students seem fully liberated. At Saint Anne School in Santa Monica, students participated in a station rotation blended learning model like many of our other site visits, but the sense of purpose and community felt most authentic. I didn’t sense that adults were stressed about how to measure dozens of metrics to ensure students close the achievement gap or engineer social skills that will lead them to success in college. I did, however, see tons of evidence that these students will close the gap as I watched students manage their own behavior and learning, collaborate around a student playing “Stay with Me” on a piano after choir class, and advocate for their learning (one boy did so four times within ten minutes because he wanted to know how to play “Hot Cross Buns” on his violin despite being absent the previous day).
On a secondary level, the students at Alliance BLAST and USC Hybrid High impressed with their sense of ownership over their education. Students knew what assignments they needed to complete, how to access information and had proof of work products that were thoughtful and relevant (ex. connecting the landscape of Mesopotamia to the current rise of ISIS). In both visits, we were led around by students who could explain the benefits of their flex models, not central office personnel well versed in the art of selling a school. In both cases, I had no doubt that these kids would be ready for college primarily because there already “practicing” college in the way their schools are physically and instructionally designed. These settings already resemble the autonomy of campus settings, which trust students to rise to the occasion of living and learning in peaceful harmony.
Unfortunately, I am already sensing this mountaintop experience coming to a close. In the upcoming weeks, the light of this alternative way to imagining “school” will likely fade as I return to the same environment with a different mindset and I worry about how effective I can be at spreading this good news in the valley of everyday school life. How do you create buy-in to a learning model that many kids cannot even imagine? How do I narrow down my priorities in rearranging my classroom to better facilitate learning? How do I stay disciplined in measuring progress along clearly defined goals?
Post-Revival Stress Disorder can strike here because you can A) CONTEMPLATE forever as the possibilities for change are overwhelming, B) CRASH because you attempted every idea all at once, or C) COPE with the status quo because its familiar.
I am prone to option B, as I have no fear trying new things—but if there’s nothing I’ve learned over the past five days, you don’t innovate for innovation’s sake. You must take the time to define the problem according to your consumer (hint: the student). Consequently, I will not rush into designing an elaborate combo model of every edtech tool I’ve gotten excited about, nor will I plan out how to make online playlists that will allow students to move through a unit’s content at their own pace.
I am ONLY committing to the following next steps:
- EMPATHIZE: Interview at least six students from each of my classes using the following prompt: “Could you describe a time you felt excited to be in class?”
- DEFINE: Prioritize no more than THREE key levers for moving towards personalization in my classroom based on student experiences, not mine.
- IDEATE: Not until Step 2 is done because I must know what problem I’m fixing.
- PROTOTYPE: Not until Step 2 is complete because all tools don’t build the same thing.
- TEST: If it’s not already obvious, Step 2 comes first; otherwise, I have no idea what I’m actually measuring as success beyond a warm and fuzzy feeling.
So, fellow disciples, next time you see me, I should have three clearly defined components for what students need from my class. Should I fail to have this, please feel free to reiterate to me the importance of not just believing in personalizing learning, but taking the time to model the entire design process and not just trek back to the valley without a compass.
Desiree Smith, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Center City Public Charter Schools—Congress Heights Campus