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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:

  1. Report to the same classroom each day

  2. Stay seated for 50 minutes at a time focused at the front of the room

  3. Move around all day with the same group of 25-30 kids

Instead, your child would look forward to:

  1. A school day engaging in different environments with different students and teachers depending on the activity

  2. A day designed according to an individual learning plan co-authored with school officials to best meet your learning goals and learning style

  3. 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 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:

  1. Personalized learning individually through digital media or in small, interactive groups

  2. Peer-to-peer or teacher led activities

  3. 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?


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As of January 2024, Rewriting Paradigms is back and I'm writing about today's  issues, those that most test us and our humanity.

Designs2Learn blogs were originally published on a separate site devoted solely to educational issues. 

With the release of the Rewriting Paradigms site, we' ported them over to their new home.

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