Category Archives: AltEd

Chalkboard with alarm with the words back to school

How Significant Will September Be in the Future?

If April is the cruelest month, September may be one of the more complex ones. With the latter part of the month signals the beginning of “meteorological” Fall, the beginning of September represents a paradigm that many people still accept as true but which no longer makes much sense: the beginning of the school year. September is a firm dividing line between summer fun and the months of hard work ahead. Summer, for many kids, means much less structured time, more time outside, more time pursuing personal interests, whether that means reading whatever you like, perfecting a favorite sport, or spending a few weeks in rock and roll camp. Sounds like an ideal setup for self-directed learning!

Think about the way our kids access information these days. Consider the availability and promise of personalized learning. There are so ways kids can learn when they have to or want to. “September” may be losing some of its previously assigned cultural significance.

Questions Raised by the Beginning of the New School Year

As the Fall engines rev up, here are some simple questions to ask yourself about the very paradigm of “September,”

  1. Has your child been looking forward to the start of the school year?
  2. Did your child learn anything new this summer? If so, how? In what setting?
  3. How does your child spend his or her time outside of school?
  4. How does your child enjoy spending his or her time?
  5. Does your child talk to you about school? What is a typical conversation like?
  6. How much homework does your child have every day? To what end?
  7. Do you help your child with homework? Is it easy to get your child to do homework? Can you do the work?
  8. How much art or music is included in your school curriculum? If it isn’t a lot, or none at all, do you supplement?
  9. Does your child play a team sport in school or participate in sports outside of school?
  10. If your child did not start school each September, what would he or she be doing?

It’s important to ask these questions of ourselves as parents, and vital to reflect honestly on the answers, and not take for granted that the current way that your child is being educated is the only way.

Alternatives to the September Paradigm

The September Paradigm is really just another way of referring to School as Usual. These are very tough times during which our kids are returning to school, and we certainly can’t underestimate the multi-faceted workload that teachers face now and every year. Teachers are working harder than ever to make school a meaningful experience. Even though there has been much progress in terms of integrating technology into the schools and with that some personalized learning tools and methodologies, the construct of school remains antithetical to “real life.”

I’m all for kids (and their accompanying adults) getting a break, but I’d like to see less of a line drawn between learning and whatever else we do every day. This is what is happening in the corporate world, with more support for continuous learning and hopefully what will start happening at the college level. In other words, learning will be designed so that graduates can more easily find their place in an increasingly complex world. Do we need to start in Kindergarten, you ask?

Well, yeah. K-12 needs to let more of the real world in as well. We have traditionally referred to or identified specific schools within districts as “buildings,” reflecting the institutional nature of our educational system. Even taking the safety of our children into account, these “buildings” can be extremely closed off, again forming that barrier between child and family, school and the outside world, learning and summer vacation, etc.

It’s great to hear that projects such as the Beam Center in New York City, for example, are coming into the classroom, or bring teachers and students to their location in Red Hook, Brooklyn for maker workshops. Longer terms projects instill a greater sense of community and connectivity while introducing great skills across curricula.

Tools at Schools is another real world, project-based group that partners with corporations to bring design thinking into the schools. Six-month projects result in products designed to solve real problems, including the sneaker of the future with Puma, and furniture for the classroom produced by Bernhardt Design, whose manufacturing facility the students visited as part of the project.

Less Could Mean More

Less time in the actual . . . buildings could mean that kids are synthesizing what they are learning into activities that take place in the “outside world” every day. In addition to experiential, project-based learning partnerships such as the examples given above (and many others), including online learning either in the classroom or out, and for older (high school) students, more apprenticeships earlier on and independent, community-based learning activities could alleviate so much of the “school fatigue” we see in our children.

We could even play around with the calendar! There really is no season for learning. So there, September!

Hop Scotch Board with Colored Chaulk Dollar Signs

For free. For everyone. Forever. For $23,000 a year?

The news that one of my heroes of learning, Sal Khan, opened a brick-and-mortar school in Silicon Valley in 2015 made me push pause. Well, figuratively. What business does the leading advocate of free, on-demand, online learning have opening a full-year, full-day school? Moreover, how does the $23,000 -$26,000 a year price tag synch with what we understand are the hallmarks of the Khan Academy approach: For Free. For Everyone. Forever?

Paradigm shift aside, it makes sense that one of the more creative minds in the business of education today would want to explore alternative models of what we think of as traditional school. But at what cost?

Harnessing innovation in education without strangling it

According to its web site, “The Khan Lab School was founded to develop new, personalized practices that center around the student. With this in mind we hope to develop and test new types of learning experiences and practices that can be shared with the world.”

For those of us dedicated to the task of disrupting conventional educational practices, finding the means by which to test new types of learning is perhaps more of a challenge than designing the experiences themselves. It becomes less a question of equity than one or potential impact. Publically funded lab schools simply cannot push the boundaries of education as we know it as effectively as a Khan Lab School or an Alt School can. Even if we can agree with the general direction that alternative education is taking, more student-directed learning, more technology and data-driven support of personalized learning, can we agree on how to get there?

  • How broad a set of parameters are required to maintain a truly agile learning environment?
  • How do standards fit into an effective model for driving innovation?
  • Given that great potential for innovation, how can we best transfer these evolving best practices to the broader audience of K-12 education?

Are today’s alternatives really experimental?

Having straddled the worlds of Alt Ed and traditional schooling for much of my professional and personal life for many years now, I find myself skeptical about the vision for change portrayed by some of the key players in the world of education today. How far can they push the limits of education as we know it?

I’m watching the Alt School closely to see how their playlist approach to daily learning impacts student engagement and learning. Second to my fondness for their approach to personalized learning is their belief in extending of the classroom to the greater community, leveraging the expertise of local experts and the local environment to provide truly hands-on, real-world experience. Yet, I wonder how agile the overall model is and how much room there is to adapt the model moving forward.

With the Khan Lab School, the spirit of experimentation seems strong and the willingness to adapt almost extreme. As Khan noted in a recent NPR interview, “It’s an engineering mentality,” Khan says. “You start with a solid baseline, but then you’re always willing to observe, measure, and iterate, and through those improvements you come up with something amazing. It worked for the car industry, computers, software. Can we do that with the school?”

While this mentality is more likely to be accepted in Silicon Valley than many other places, it may be a large part of what we need to do in order to evolve into effective alternatives over time. Khan Lab reminds me in some ways of the practice of de-schooling that many families engage in when transitioning from a traditional model of education to a homeschooling or unschooling model. Letting go of paradigms, and accepting rapid change and shifting priorities is not something many providers of education can deal with, or better yet offer as part of their working model.

The Khan Lab School bills itself as an open source model of education, openly sharing their work through the Center for Learning Innovation, created for that specific purpose. But the question remains as to how well these innovations can transfer to K-12 at large.

So, yes, let’s keep an eye on Khan Lab School and see what we can learn about truly experimental models of education. And better yet, let’s work on understanding how to most effectively transfer their learning to the broader landscape of K-12 so that everyone benefits.

Let me know your thoughts on this latest venture and its potential to impact on K-12 beyond Silicon Valley.

Blackboard with colored chalk

Why Send Your Child to School?

20 years ago, when my first child was about 18 months old, we joined our first “Mommy and Me” class and thus began a couple of decades of enrichment programs and education.  We did not follow a straight path. All did not go as we had planned in terms of the standard trajectory that typically begins with pre-school and ends with graduate school. There were periods of diversion, years when we fought with and left the system, and alternate paths we took to goals that my daughter felt were necessary for her to achieve.

We initially embarked on that typical educational path because that’s what most of us did back then, and that’s still what most people do today. That being said, there’s a lot to questions about today’s educational models. There are also a growing number of alternatives.

The Short List

What are the reasons we send kids to schools and how valid is school-based learning in today’s world? The most common answers are:

  1. To learn the basics
  2. To get socialized
  3. To prepare for college
  4. To prepare for the working world

If we take a look at the short list, we can start a dialog on whether our kids’ needs can be met in a school-based environment.

It’s Not That Basic Anymore

Whether you are a STEM or STEAM advocate, you probably agree that there are at minimum a core set of skills children need to learn in order to function in the adult world. And while we don’t know what all those specific skills will be by the time this year’s kindergarten class graduates high school, there are essential practical and critical thinking abilities that support ongoing learning and different career pursuits that make sense for everyone to be exposed to and master over time.

The question we should be asking is: Does the current environment enable someone to use these skills once he or she leaves school? What methods are designed to encourage applications of these skills while being taught them and thereafter?

Socially Awkward

While we are all aware that socialization occurs in many different environments  (the not-so-secret agents of socialization: family, school, peers, mass media, religion), so many people fall back on the paradigm of school as one of the main means by which kids can be socialized. And while in theory, schools should be helping children learn to work together, to both support each other and respectfully challenge each other’s thinking,  there are many kids who feel marginalized or even victimized within the social circumstances of their particular schools. And while families are still largely responsible for how their children become socialized, today’s media, so readily available by technological means, is becoming a much larger part and a driver of how people socialize.

Does the school-based environment today effectively help young people learn to negotiate relationships, support peer efforts and work as teams?

You May Pass Go on Your Way to College

Advocates of school-as-usual may still believe that you need to have attended a public or private K-12 institution of learning in order to attend college, but that is not really the case. Homeschoolers and unschoolers who choose to go to college have been doing so for years, either starting with community college at young ages and transferring to a four-year institution if so desired, by taking and typically excelling at standardized tests required for direct admission to many four-year schools, or by portfolio and other alternative requirements at other schools.

School-as-usual has been seen by the majority as the means towards college, but many families have sent their kids to college using alternative routes.

We Can Work It Out (or Can We?)

The last few years of high-stakes testing in schools that feel obliged to teach to the test, have lost much in the way of connecting what one learns in school to what one needs to do in the workplace. With so much emphasis on how to take a test, and how to do well on the test, students have lost precious time to engage in extended projects through which they can begin to apply critical thinking and problem solving skills that reflect how things play out in the workplace.

Will your child be able to draw on her K-12 school years to succeed in college and in the workplace?

It Doesn’t Add Up (Yet)

Today’s schools should be designed to prepare students for the adult world and the workplace of tomorrow. If we remove the simple paradigm of school-as-usual, meaning this is the way it has been and should continue to be, we can see many areas and opportunities for improvement in overall design. Technology, design thinking, and project-based learning are three of the ways our kids’ needs can be met. School design is another; it’s shocking to see how many classrooms of today resemble those of the early 20th century.

Look at AltSchool and Intrinsic for examples of how school design in both the physical and the curricular sense can impact heavily on the status quo. Beam Center or Breaker projects provide examples of programs that incorporate the principles of project-based learning and design thinking into their work on alternative learning design. Let’s take a break from school-as-usual and see how things add up then.

 

Lego children surrounding a Lego heart

Now that Mindcraft Is So Popular with the Schools, Will Kids Still Love Learning from It?

This is the game that, among other distinguished awards, has won:

  • Most Popular Game Beta: Over 10 million players between December 20, 2009 and November 18, 2011.
  • First Country Modeled at Full Scale in a Video Game: All 16,602 square miles of Denmark
  • Most Concurrent Players in one [game-created] world: 2,622
  • Most-Played Xbox Live Game: 1.75 billion hours (or 199,722 years as of May 2014)

According to the ticker on the game’s website, over 20,691,246 people have bought the game so far . . . wait, no, 20,691,252 . . . oh wait . . . ; well, you get the point.

Common Sense Media gives the game 4 out of five stars, rating it highly for learning math, science and hobbies; promoting thinking and reasoning, creativity and collaboration; and using design thinking and problem solving as part of its design approach.  Scholastic says the game helps kids learn:

  • Science
  • Math
  • English
  • History
  • Art and Architecture
  • Economics
  • Language
  • Social Skills
  • Geography
  • Technology

So, when school-as-usual shows increasing interest in how to apply Minecraft in the classroom, you think this is probably a good thing, right? I’m torn.

What happens when creativity is institutionalized?

As Education Weekly points out, “While the game’s power to engage children has made it a compelling draw inside schools, there have been hurdles to its growth.” The main hurdle reported, and this is echoed on Common Sense Media and elsewhere, is the open-ended nature of the game and how to incorporate it into instruction.

Therein lies the rub.

Minecraft can be played in two different ways, Survival Mode and Creative Mode. In the first, your main goal is to survive by building shelters and protective armor with the resources you gather and construct. In the second, you build virtual communities and worlds by building blocks, and as indicated above, that can get pretty sophisticated and can require a large range of skills and knowledge in addition to creativity. The game can be played in single player mode or with multiple players, allowing you to enter and explore worlds created by others.

While some people despair of the lack of instructions on setting out on the initial journey, resources have been developed over time to help people get started, ranging from the Official Minecraft Wiki, a compilation of open-source resources to MinecraftEdu, TeacherGaming LLC, the customized classroom version of the game.There are hundreds of Minecraft communities offering help and advice as well as over a million YouTube tutorials for all levels of play from other players.

Playing at home, a child will turn to family members, friends or online resources to get the help they need. It’s a learn-by-doing experience that is driven by the players’ need to know as the game progresses.

This can change when the game is introduced in a classroom environment and becomes a tool for driving standards.

How open can play be in the classroom setting?

Minecraft evolved from the basic survival mode to the creative and users began building more and more sophisticated shelters to protect themselves. Online communities started forming for exchanging ideas around the game and for helping each other.

All of the literature stresses the open-ended nature of the game, with the site’s teaser video telling us “With no rules to follow, this adventure is up to you.” And it is just this notion of openness that makes me question the potential to leverage this game in today’s grades-obsessed and standards-driven classrooms.

Take for example, the following comments from a video testimonial provided on the MinecraftEdu site.

“At home, computers, TV, it’s purely entertainment. In my classroom, it’s the very first time these kids have ever come up against boundaries on a computer. I definitely do teach the kids how to play before we really do any sort of meaningful educational content with it. If I just bring the kids into the room and say sit down and play, it’s not going to have the desired results.”

There are no desired results built into Minecraft. But there are many learning outcomes.

When informal learning is transitioned to a formal learning environment

Are the results of a structured learning experience better than when learners struggle to master it and muster the resources to help increase their level of play?

While there is definitely much to be gained by adding Minecraft to a school-based curriculum, there may be much lost in terms of the true value of the game played outside of a traditional school setting.

Home/Unschooling families have had similar debates over the years as Minecraft communities grow and users introduce more structured learning materials. Many kids who learn at home have access to Minecraft, with different structure around the experience. Groups such as Minecraft Homeschool, rebranded this summer as GameEd Academy’s Minecraft School, started out providing support and instructional materials for circles of friends playing together. Now their business has expanded to offer formal instruction for a fee. Another variation, called HomeSchool with Minecraft, promises secure servers, projects, instructor time, graded quizzes upon parental request, video links, etc., with “all information laid out textbook style.”

One of the most interesting discussions I’ve read between parents regarding formal versus informal Minecraft learning is on Amy Milstein’s UnschoolingNYC blog “Why we don’t do Minecraft homeschool” where she shares her rationale for Minecraft free play while her readers debate the pros and cons of more structured play.

At the end of the day, there is a tension that comes from trying to harness the power of an open-ended experience that has resulted in story after story of kids learning how to read, jumping into coding to set up their own Minecraft servers and mods, teaching parents to play, and expanding their own knowledge set in order to complete their own projects.

With Microsoft’s 2014 purchase of Minecraft for $2.5 billion, there will be diversification of the game and it will be interesting to see how the school’s use of the game impacts on its native ability to help kids learn.

3 Ways to Avoid School-as-Usual

50.1 million children will attend school in grades PK-12 this fall, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Of those, approximately 1.3 million will be entering prekindergarten.

Expectations and tensions run high in many families as their only or youngest child enters the public or private school system. Whether or not their child has attended pre-school prior to this, it is still a major transition, and most kids struggle with the change, as do their parents.

What’s different this year is the degree to which the basic premise of our educational system is being questioned and the number of alternatives being offered, explored or in the process of development.

Why question something so basic?

That we offer and avail ourselves of free, compulsory education in this country is something that most of us take for granted. But what we’ve also taken for granted for too long is the model itself: an essentially one-size-fits-all helping of test-driven “pedagogy” that is failing so many of the kids it is supposed to be serving. One indication of resistance to school-as-usual is the 20% of kids (roughly 200,000 of an eligible 1.1 million, or one in five) kids who opted out of the spring 2015 New York State standardized tests.

Is it all gloom and doom?

In addition to the vast amount of financial resources and brainpower being devoted to technology in the name of school improvement ($1.61B in funding for educational technology so far this year alone), there is a huge range of alternatives in the types of schooling choices that people are making these days.

1. High-Priced, Well-Designed Alternatives

One of the schools I’m rooting for is the AltSchool, which promises its attendees “personalized learning plans, real world application, community connection, and whole child development based on Social Emotional Learning.” I appreciate that this school believes in the power of technology to transform education, using digital tools to create Personalized Learning Plans; support collaboration between teachers, parents, and students; and to support student learning activities. But with an annual tuition of over $21,000 at its San Francisco location, for example, it’s accessible to everyone who might like to try it (tuition assistance is available).

But we should keep our eye on AltSchools. They will be having a big impact moving forward.

2. At-Home Remedies

Another alternative to schools-that-ail-us are the growing homeschooling and unschooling movements. According to the NCES, the number of homeschooled students has been increasing, with 1,770,000 students (or 3.4% of the school-age population for that year) reported homeschooling for 2013. This is a substantial increase over the 1.5 million reported for 2007, 1.1M in 2003, and 850,000 in 1999.

Homeschooling efforts are growing both nationally and internationally, supported by both online and local resources, groups, schools and communities. Some groups are fairly traditional in their approach to learning while others are contributing to increased support for learner-centric and self-directed learning.  

Concerns over transitions from a home- or unschooled environment to higher education or the workplace are dispelled by a lot of the research.Peter Gray’s study, for example, on families who unschooled their kids revealed that in 83% of families surveyed, their kids went on to college. Other studies show that kids who are educated at home tend to score higher on college placement tests and are more apt to complete college than other students.

3. Is there any middle ground?

I wouldn’t compromise too much when a child’s future learning is at stake, but it is fair to ask what you can do if you can’t afford an AltSchool or are not disposed to or able to homeschool, or unschool. Here’s a few ideas:

  • Charter schools: Intrinsic is another example of an interesting alternative, in this case in the form of a charter school, that is really pushing to make a difference. Located in Chicago, Intrinsic leverages technology and architectural design to support personalized learning. The overall design of the learning environment, called “The Pod,” includes the Coastline for independent work, the Shade for collaboration and project-based learning and the Big Board, for direct instruction and discussion. EdSurge has a great write-up on the story of how Intrinsic got built.
  • Schools with smart partners: If you don’t want your child to attend school-as-usual, look for schools that utilize technology to support personalized and blended learning, or who partner with great programs such as Tools at Schools, Beam Center or Breaker projects, to name a few.
  • Online alternatives: There are fee-based and public online alternatives. One well thought-out private, somewhat traditional online program is the Laurel Springs School. org offers classes (called “Camps”) that can be used to supplement at-school or home-based learning experiences.

Consider the alternatives if you are hesitant about the school your child is entering or already attending.  There are reasons to be concerned and there are options.

 

What Did You Do This Summer?

When people ask “How’s your summer going?” it reflects a paradigm built around a traditional school year calendar but which applies to a subset of the population who can really take advantage of that model. Of course, I remember the beach-filled days of my childhood with great fondness. My parents provided wonderful summers of abandonment that sharply contrasted with the “regular” part of the year when I was in school. So now, when people ask me the question, I simply say, “It’s just like any other time of the year,” which may be true for many working adults. But recently, upon being asked the question, by a smiling mom accompanying two sun-drenched, towel-clad kids into our building’s elevator, it got me to thinking about the dichotomy that is our children’s lives.

Real Life and the Classroom

For ten months a year, and five days a week, most kids spend 7 hours or more inside of the school building, and for many of our youngest learners, in a single classroom led by a single teacher. This is the reality of their days. Sitting in neatly aligned rows for most of the day, they move according to plan through a series of carefully planned, monitored and evaluated activities.

Contrast that to the annual summer vacation and the shift in routine, the change in pace and often location, as well as the expansion of freedoms. Which of these feels “real” to the average kid?

Bringing More Reality to the Routine

The well-sought-after and usually hard-to-get summer internship opportunity presents itself as perhaps the antithesis to those halcyon days that typically define the summer vacation. Placing your high school or college students into the rigors of a fast-paced and often chaotic workplace environment will definitely boost employability upon graduation. But will it seem like you are taking something away, denying them the pleasures of abandonment?

Internships immerse young people in situations that are unlike anything they can experience in most school environments. This summer, LinkedIn is publishing student stories of internships, and there are some fantastic revelations of what they are encountering. This one, by Brian Higgins, is particularly illustrative of the challenges and rewards. Brian compares his engineering internship at Pixlee to playing baseball at the college level for the first time, discussing the need to up his play in both arenas as well as the realities of encountering failure as part of the process of engaging in both these environments. That Brian has grown from both experiences is clear as is the fact that he could not have experienced or learned any of that inside of a classroom.

There’s the dichotomy. And that’s what those questions about summer and summer vacations make me think about.

So, what if we were to incorporate more of the internship experience insider of the classroom? What if we were to engage students on all levels to the challenges of real-life tasks throughout the school year? At the very least, there are a few actions we can take to ensure that once students leave school, they won’t experience the type of culture shock so many kids often do. We can do more to prepare them than we do now in programs entrenched in the high-stakes testing mode. These alternatives include:

  • Project-Based Learning introduced into curricula at all levels
  • Internships incorporated into senior year curricula at the least (as much of the school year is wasted once students apply for college)
  • Mentorship programs using outside experts to introduce students to the diverse opportunities that await them outside the classroom
  • Peer mentorship programs that help students to apply critical thinking and decision making skills to supporting their own community of learners

What Did You Do This Summer?

I’m not looking to deny your kids their days in the sun. We all need a break from the rigors of any regular routine, whether that’s school, work, childcare or elder care, for example. So why not bring more reality into the routine that is still school-as-usual and at least better prepare our kids for the ever-changing workplace of their future? Then our kids can have their cake, and their ice-cream, too.

Start AIMMING for Success

It’s time to start AIMMing for success. AIMM is a simple acronym for Academics Integrated with Making and Mentoring, a straightforward formula for achievement. It requires the blending of academics, a maker curriculum, and mentoring to help build the knowledge and skills to succeed in an uncertain future. Each of these three components reach, of course, across wide swaths of territory. But they present a means of preparing our kids for a future hinted at but not yet fully defined.

Academics

Taken as they are today, the core requirements of most traditional educational approaches make for a very dry and untethered set of skills. That being said, the ability to understand the relationships between numbers, to be able to analyze a piece of text, to see how chemicals interact under certain circumstances and to learn from our past all contribute to the analytical skills we all need to function in an adult world.

Putting together a simple budget, responding to an email request or complaint, preparing a meal or fantastic dessert are perhaps the simplest of tasks that many kids leave high school unable to complete. The simplest.

But by integrating this knowledge building and skills development into more practical learning experiences, we will see longer-term retention as well as ability to apply learning than in the test-driven school environments many of our kids are living in today.

Maker Curriculum and Project-Based Learning

Implementing Project-Based Learning, where students engage in real-life life problem-solving activities over an extended period of time is a great step toward applying those seemingly disparate sets of skills to something of lasting value. Doing this within a maker framework, where students create a tangible prototype, receive feedback and complete a real deliverable takes our kids one step closer to being able to function in the real world.

Mentoring

Many of us remember a teacher, coach, or advisor who took a special interest in us either through a single incident or over an extended period of time. But not everyone does, and until we integrate this type of one-on-one support into our educational models as a regular practice, few people will receive the type of long-term, ongoing support and expertise that can help kids navigate their early years and transition into adulthood.

There are some great mentoring programs out there for kids considered to be at risk, those who may be on their way to dropping out of school and not attending college. While these programs provide a valuable service, for the most part, they serve a school as usual model. The type of mentoring mentioned here is part of a disruptive model to change school as usual for all kids, mentors that can be integrated into the curriculum as we bring more outside expertise into, or take more kids outside the school room through ongoing PBL and maker activities.

How High Can We AIMM?

K-12 is the place to begin integrating academics with more hands-on, real-life, extended learning experiences. Schools like AltSchool, programs such as Breaker,Beam Center, Tools at Schools and DIY.org are amongst those who seek to bring more meaningful learning experiences to kids inside of school and out. Higher Ed is also searching for ways to connect more with what their students need outside of the college experience. I’d say, AIMM high.

 

Are You Planning on Sending Your Child Back to School as Usual?

What if the school to which your child returned in the fall was so different from what the industrial age, traditional school looked and behaved like that you could barely recognize it?

What if instead, your child was welcomed into a building without classrooms, a community of learners centered on a foundational set of learning standards and was provided the tools and resources with which to meet those standards?

In such a school, there would no longer be the need to:

  • Report to the same classroom each day
  • Stay seated for 50 minutes at a time focused at the front of the room
  • Move around all day with the same group of 25-30 kids

Instead, your child would look forward to:

  • A school day engaging in different environments with different students and teachers depending on the activity
  • A day designed according to an individual learning plan co-authored with school officials to best meet your learning goals and learning style
  • A week where some days you spend more time out of the school building than in it

Where Learning Proceeds According to an Individual Learning Plan

Until very recently Individual Learning Plans (ILPs) were designed mainly as tools for students who were considered to be struggling and were associated with what were considered to be disabilities. However, creating a specific set of goals and activities according to a child’s unique learning goals and competencies makes sense for all children. It also allows for more individual attention by teachers and other practitioners focused on individual children’s’ interests and needs.

While the implementation of ILPs in their more recent iteration is in its infancy, there are some interesting applications that we can look to as we explore this new alternative.

Mass Customized Learning

Chuck Schwahn and Bea McGarvey write about Mass Customized Learning(MCL) as the transformational change required to make education meaningful to individual students. Schwahn and McGarvey see individual learning plans as the delivery system for today’s learners living in the Information Age, as opposed to the mass produced education designed for those living in the Industrial Age. Recognizing the amount of change required to enact such a practice in today’s schools, these educators talk about leap frogging over rather than tinkering with the current system.

In advocating for MCL, Schwahn and McGarvey ask us to “Let’s do for learners, what Apple does for music lovers, what Amazon.com does by profiling our reading interests, and what Google does by organizing the information we want.”

Schwahn and McGarvey have written extensively on the value of individualized instruction and work with schools and teachers to apply the principles of mass customizing technologies to the public school experience.

Alt Schools

Taking the concept of the playlist as the heart of its pedagogical approach, the Alt Schools “curate our rigorous curriculum in partnership with students and parents, allowing children to learn at their own pave and in the ways they learn best.” Playlists, designed around individual student profiles, include individual, small group and whole class experiences.

AltSchools will be present in three cities in Fall 2015: San Francisco, Palo Alto and Brooklyn. Each location boasts open classroom design, mixed aged groupings, and connections with the community.

What a Difference a Building Makes

It’s impossible to think of changing the level of engagement for learners without considering the environment in which they are expected to learn. Many of our kids experienced the flow of the Montessori Pre-K classroom, moving from practical life to sensorial, math and language activity throughout their half-day introduction to school. Moving on to kindergarten, there was perhaps an extension of that environment, with play, reading, resting areas and the like. But by the time most kids hit first grade, they are placed in classrooms with rows of desks and expected to engage when sitting for long periods of time focused on one part of the room.

Intrinsic Learning; New Design

Of course, many schools have moved beyond this, but for the majority of students it has been the norm. Now, with the advent of schools such as Intrinsic, we are seeing buildings designed for learning in the 21st century. Intrinsic boasts being the first school of its kind: a school built specifically for blended learning. In a recent two-part write-up on EdSurge, Michael B. Horn wrote about new design for schools and specifically about Intrinsic. Larry Kearns, who worked with Intrinsic on the design of the school, notes that the blended learning curriculum on which the school is based helped to dictate the requirements for the physical space:

  • Personalized learning individually through digital media or in small, interactive groups
  • Peer-to-peer or teacher led activities
  • Students rotating through activities and spaces on a regular basis

Kearns also notes that the final design is based on multiple pilots and that without the iterations they would have ended up with an entirely different space.

Breaking Down Barriers and Walls

This spring, a landmark school, P.S. 31 in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx was demolished. Despite its landmark status and its title as “The Castle on the Concourse,” the building had fallen into extreme disrepair. While years of debate preceded the demolition, many former students and preservationist were shocked by the final blow.

While there is growing dissent against school as usual, as a society we still seem to cling to old school notions of how and where kids should learn. Whether discussing new approaches to learning or new structures within which kids might better learn, change is slow as people cling to paradigms that no longer fit the constituency schools are meant to serve.

While we can’t and shouldn’t be tearing down all existing schools, as new schools are considered, so too must the space in which they are housed. Whether creating entirely new buildings, extending school to the neighborhood spaces, and reconfiguring existing space, we need to think mainly about how kids can best learn.

As Kearns notes “One part of the ecosystem that directly challenges architects is the extent of codification and standardization that is engrained in district policies and city building codes. In order to complete Intrinsic, we had to apply for every kind of code relief possible. Since the codes only referenced the egg-crate school, no one knew how to apply the rules. So the major trap to avoid is the impulse to design schools literally by the books that exist now. The books need to be edited for the 21st century. That is the first thing school districts need to rethink—how spaces in schools can be designed to mediate learning more effectively.”

To effectively implement blended learning environments where individual, peer and whole group interactions are rotated throughout the day, we’re going to have to break down both pedagogical and physical barriers.

So, should you send your child back to school as usual?