Moving beyond blended learning to optimized schools

The 2011-2012 school year was a transformative one for Summit Public Schools. What started out as a blended learning math pilot in our two San Jose schools has fundamentally reshaped the model of our next generation schools, the first two of which will open in the fall of 2013. The pilot’s success has influenced how these schools will look and feel, as well as how students will interact with teachers and progress through learning levels.

As an organization, Summit Public Schools is focused on preparing all students not only to attend but to succeed in four-year colleges and beyond. To better meet that goal, we began, in the summer of 2011, to explore ways to accelerate our students’ learning. We were especially interested in addressing academic gaps that dated back to elementary and middle school. Our belief was that technology offered us the ability to create a more personalized learning environment for every individual student, delivering exactly what they need, when they need it and how they need it.

Step one: Testing the model

To test this theory, we launched a targeted blended learning pilot in partnership with Khan Academy last fall. We started small, with just 200 ninth grade students in our two San Jose schools. We designed a blended learning curriculum that could support the mastery of ninth grade math concepts including algebra I and geometry. The model also included daily individualized learning time to ensure students could address any academic gaps. The pilot was a success. Our students achieved significant growth, filling academic gaps with a higher degree of success than we had experienced in our previous ten years of non-blended and personalized efforts.

Step two: Optimizing the whole school

However, we quickly realized that to truly personalize learning for all students, we needed to move beyond the targeted approach to blended learning we’d taken in the pilot. We needed to rethink the entire school experience. Every element of the school, from how learning spaces are designed, to the use of time, to the role of the educator, needed to be personalized for, and centered around, our students.

We have come to believe deeply that the most effective way to personalize learning is to provide what we are calling an optimized school model, which we will be piloting in our San Jose schools this coming year and launching in our first two next generation schools in the fall of 2013.

In our optimized school model, we are:

  1. Reimagining the physical classroom and school environment by removing walls to create an open architecture learning space that accommodates all learning styles, as well as individual workstations for students.  This open architecture allows for the natural flow of ideas among teachers and students.  It is a re-envisioning of what a school looks like, as well as of how a student learns and an educator teaches. The school design is completely centered around accommodating the personalized pathways and learning styles of individual students in order to address what each needs to be successful in college and beyond.
  2. Redesigning teacher roles to move towards teams of educators, which can include teachers, learning coaches, intervention specialists and data analysts. These teams work together to provide high-quality, face-to-face learning experiences for students, while allowing technology to drive individualized learning, data and create a robust loop of information.  Teams of educators can provide one-to-one tutoring and coaching, small group learning experiences, workshops and labs, as well as larger group experiences such as Socratic seminars, presentations or case studies.
  3. Removing the restrictions of traditional grade levels to give students the true freedom to move at their own paceStudents are placed in one of three learning phases – High School Ready, College Ready and Early College – and progress through them, based upon mastery of all the standards of a learning phase. Evaluation of this progress depends on mastery of key skills such as goal setting, time management, study skills, persistence, initiative or self-direction, task completion and responsibility, as well as academic standards.
  4. Empowering students to take charge of their own learning by shifting away from the teacher-directed rotations (e.g., between digital learning and face-to-face instruction) typical of most blended environments. In our optimized school model, students can fully self-direct their learning. Students log-on to a learning management system each day to select a customized learning playlist, including online apps and other programs, that helps them move through a set of personalized learning goals. Mentorship from and interaction with educator teams helps ensure they are on the right path.

As we pilot this optimized school model this fall, we’re excited to embark on another year of exploration. Doubtless there will be hurdles along the way, but ultimately, our optimism about blended learning stems from the belief that technology will accelerate the long-overdue redesign of public schools in America, as it has so many other sectors.

About Summit Public Schools
Dianne Tavenner is the founder and CEO of Summit Public Schools, a charter management organization serving 1,200 Silicon Valley students in four schools. 

Read more posts on blended learning here.
Download the case studies here.
Learn more about Summit Public Schools here.