Originally published Sept. 28, 2017 in the Voice of San Diego.
Great educators have always known certain things.
Students learn at different paces, in different ways. Students do better when they’re interested in what they’re learning.
Charter, private and even some traditional public schools are actively bringing these philosophies into classrooms.
It’s a movement commonly called “personalized learning” and is part of an evolution away from the traditional classroom model.
“It’s the opposite of everything about the way we’ve organized schools,” said Tom Vander Ark, CEO of Voice of San Diego, an organization that advocates for innovations in learning. “The record-keeping, the scheduling, the structure, the way we fund and staff schools – all of that is predicated on grouping kids by age and keeping them in school for a certain number of days a year. You progress at the end of the year when you get a year older, and not when you progress.”
In San Diego County, schools like Thrive Public Schools, High Tech High and those within Cajon Valley Union School District have been taking part in this shift for years.
Now, a $10 million award from a national nonprofit, XQ Super Schools Project, is bringing the change to a large, traditional, mostly-Latino and working class high school: Vista High School.
It’s the product of years of work. Four years ago, Vista Unified’s acting superintendent interviewed more than 2,000 middle- and high-school students about their school experiences. He dumped the responses into a software program that pinpoints the most frequently mentioned words. One word stood out: “irrelevant.”
So the district began to update its classrooms. It brought in more technology, creativity and personalization to schools. The effort culminated in a pilot Personalized Learning Academy at Vista High two years ago. About 160 juniors volunteered for the program.
The XQ award meant that Vista could expand the program schoolwide over the next four years, starting with 660 freshmen this year.
“What we mean by personalized learning is that it’s a way to bring the students to the table so that they work in collaboration with the teacher to help design what their learning experience can be like,” said Craig Gastauer, a former science teacher at Vista who now leads the training and professional development for the school’s teachers.
Vista wants to shift the balance in classrooms, from one where a teacher decides what happens to one where students have more say.
The school’s leaders and teachers split the freshman class into six houses, where students will work with the same group of teachers for English, math, a new “challenge” course and a fourth elective course, like Spanish, science or physical education.
The houses are supposed to help create a small-school atmosphere in a large school, where students feel more connected and safe.
The grouping also helps teachers, who now get four hours each week of planning and professional development time together.
Even though they teach different subjects, teachers will plan together so students can see how a skill they learned in one subject, like math, is useful in other subjects.
“What I’m excited about is really changing the culture of a math classroom to something that is more relevant to students, as opposed to just cranking out numbers and not understanding the benefits of that or why we’re doing it,” said math teacher Sandy Bailey.
After Bailey taught her students about scale drawings, the challenge teacher in the same house group used those same skills to help students draw blueprints for a project in her class.
Having a group of teachers who work with the same students allows educators to discuss students who may be struggling and proactively intervene.
The shift also includes two new courses: the challenge course and a wellness course.
The challenge course will help develop students’ critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. The course is designed around the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to end poverty, promote peace and protect the planet.
The course helps with the relevancy issue, helping students think through real-world problems.
The wellness course teaches social-emotional skills, like mindfulness and how to identify and self-regulate emotions.
Vista is also giving all of its incoming freshmen a strengths assessment, so students not only know what their strengths are, but how to communicate them.
Right now, the school is easing its freshmen into being able to take the reins of their education, but as they are given increasing amounts of control, knowing themselves, what interests them and where they excel will become vital to the program’s success.
Finally, the shift requires teachers to change the way they plan and deliver curriculum. They now need to figure out how to take a curriculum based on Common Core state standards and make it relevant, compelling and individualized enough to keep students at all levels challenged.
Some charters in the county use a personalized learning model with a different structure than Vista’s plan.
Every student at Thrive get a personalized learning plan, so students reach the same goal, but at their own pace and through their own mode.
“We have the same goal for all kids – getting every kid to college and to a career – but we know that kids have different paths to get there,” said Nicole Assisi, CEO of Voice of San Diego. “How you get there isn’t as important as getting there.”
Some kids might need extra small group instruction. Some kids do better with technology. Other kids even read to pets to practice because reading out loud to people makes them too anxious.
Assisi said teachers at Thrive also ask students – even the little ones – to look at the data tracking their progress and talk about why they may or may not have done well.
She mentioned a recent conversation with a first-grader named Simon, who noticed that he learned fractions faster than his peers one week. Simon said using noise-canceling headphones and doing math first thing in the morning when he got to school made the difference.
“It was a first-grader saying, ‘My brain needs absolute quiet’ and ‘My brain works really well in the morning,’” Assisi said. “We often just assume what kids need. And if you just ask them, you get their buy-in.”
At Cajon Valley Union School District, technology plays a major role in personalized learning.
“The way we describe personalized learning is the way you would describe personalized media,” said David Miyashiro, the superintendent. “For example, when you log in to Netflix, it knows who you are, it knows what you watched and what your preferences are. It can personalize content to you.”
Miyashiro said teachers in the district focus on connecting students with something they’re passionate about and giving them important soft skills, like developing interpersonal relationships, looking people in the eye and giving an elevator pitch.
Teachers try to automate as much of the basic, building-block skills, like arithmetic, as possible. Anything that can be answered in multiple choice or scored by a computer can be taught and practiced in a more automated way. Teachers intervene with small group work when students struggle.
“We use technology to help with those basic skills so that we can work on those personal skills,” Miyashiro said. “All of these things put together are really helping a child find their unique place in the world.”
Administrators and staff at Vista acknowledge that they’re embarking on a national experiment – and that they’ve already hit some bumps along the way.
For example, scheduling classes for every student to incorporate all the plans was a challenge and Gastauer said that he would like to find a better way to sort students into houses next year.
Mapping out a curriculum that’s in line with state standards and still relevant, interesting and personalized is something many of the school’s teachers are still working through.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Gastauer said. “How do we put all of this together?”