Future of Learning

What if personalized learning was less about me and more about us?

A quarter-century-old school network offers some team spirit to the new push for personalized learning

A Crew of seventh graders at King Middle School in Portland, Maine, play a conflict-resolution game called “Is This Seat Taken?”

A Crew of seventh graders at King Middle School in Portland, Maine, plays a conflict-resolution game called “Is This Seat Taken?”

PORTLAND, Maine — On a recent fall morning in the library of King Middle School here, four seventh-grade girls interviewed an immigrant from Peru named Luis Millones, now a Spanish professor at Colby College. One girl asked Millones what he missed about the country he left nearly three decades ago.

“I miss the sound of the language, because it kind of fades away,” he said. “I miss the sunset over the ocean. I miss the smell of earth in the highlands right after it rains. I miss also some tastes, like Peruvian chili and fruits like the lucuma, which I can never find anywhere else.”

The girls took turns asking Millones other questions. Why did he come to America? What were his first impressions? Did he ever feel mistreated as an immigrant? They split up other tasks, too, such as note taking, video recording, requesting photographs and emailing follow-up questions.

In the weeks ahead, the girls would weave the interview and their own research into four individual narratives about Millones, one of several immigrants telling their stories at King, where nearly a quarter of the students were born overseas. The writing and photos would be bound into a book and sold to parents and others, with proceeds donated to a local nonprofit helping new immigrants.

The project typifies the mix of personalized and social learning that’s been a mainstay for 25 years at King, a founding member of a school network called EL Education. It sets these schools apart from a more recent wave of personalized learning, which is often dominated by technology and dogged by  criticism that it isolates students from each other and from learning’s larger purpose.

“We’re at a very important moment, because personalized learning is everywhere right now, and it’s been taken up by big funders, so everybody wants to say they’re doing it,” said Ron Berger, EL’s chief academic officer. “But there’s no common definition yet for what personalized learning actually is.”

EL’s definition puts two elements at its core: “expeditionary learning” projects and small groups of students called Crews who stick together from grade to grade and meet daily along with a teacher adviser to support and challenge each other. The model won’t work everywhere, But it’s now used in about 150 schools in more than 30 states, and the nonprofit’s leaders have recently stepped up efforts to spread their approach.

Elsewhere at King, about a dozen seventh-graders sat in a circle of chairs, the desks pushed against the walls. For the next hour, they weren’t classmates, they were crewmates, aka “crewbies.”

In their daily gatherings, Crews sometimes brainstorm about personal goals and academic struggles, or they debate tough issues such as free speech and school shootings. On this day, in the wake of recent student fights, the Crew played a conflict-resolution game called “Is This Seat Taken?” and another called “Instigator,” in which two students tried to identify a “leader” surreptitiously chosen by the rest of the crewbies who milled around the classroom aping the leader’s gestures and gait.

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After the games, one student, Elizabeth Martinez, explained what Crew meant to her: “It sets the example for us of how to work together and be cooperative. And how to listen to each other.”

According to Berger, Crew fosters a schoolwide “culture and spirit of being on a team and looking out for each other.” Put another way, Crew links individual success to collective success.

Seventh graders (clockwise from top) Emilia Faustino, Skylar Cook, Samantha Flynn and Rose Clews interview Luis Millones, a Colby College professor of Spanish, about his experiences as an immigrant from Peru.

Seventh graders (clockwise from top) Emilia Faustino, Skylar Cook, Samantha Flynn and Rose Clews interview Luis Millones, a Colby College professor of Spanish, about his experiences as an immigrant from Peru.

The EL motto, “We are crew, not passengers,” is a quote from Kurt Hahn, the German Jewish educator who fled the Nazis in the 1930s and went on to start Outward Bound, which co-founded the Expeditionary Learning network (later renamed EL Education) in partnership with Harvard’s Graduate School of Education in 1991. Ten schools began using the model in 1993.

“Kids in traditional schools sometimes act like they’re on a cruise ship, where they sit on deck and teachers bring them stuff to do,” Berger said. “We think of school more like a sailing schooner, where everybody, both kids and adults, are pitching in and swabbing the deck but also charting the course.”

Overall, the approach gets good academic marks. After three years in an expeditionary learning school, students outpaced traditional school peers by 7 months in reading achievement and 10 months in math, according to a 2013 study by Mathematica Policy Research that EL commissioned. A 2011 study by University of Massachusetts researchers had also found standardized test-score gains by students in two EL schools in Rochester, New York, compared with peers in other city schools.

Meanwhile, in 2005, the Gates Foundation helped EL open several high schools, including Portland’s Casco Bay High School, with a mission to get every student into college — a goal these schools have rarely missed.

EL partners with both existing and newly opened schools, nearly all of them public, that remain under district or charter control but fully invest in Crew and expeditionary learning. The network was purposefully capped at about 150 schools, because the partnerships rely on intensive, in-person training and coaching. Every year, about 10 new schools join EL and a similar number leave.

New EL schools must first go through several months of professional development, classroom observation and co-teaching — both at the schools and at three-day intensive “institutes” off-site. For a school to be eligible to join, at least 40 percent of its students must be from low-income families. Just as important is teacher buy-in. “If the teachers and staff are not truly on board,” said Berger, “then we say no.”

Curtis Chapin, a Crew advisor and language arts teacher at King Middle School in Portland, Maine, reviews the “Crew Contract” signed by each member.

Curtis Chapin, a Crew advisor and language arts teacher at King Middle School in Portland, Maine, reviews the “Crew Contract” signed by each member.

Some teachers balk at leading a Crew, for instance. “There are a lot of teachers who will say, ‘I was hired to teach math, not to be an adviser or a therapist to a bunch of kids,’ ” Berger said.

Among reasons a school might leave the network: the fee, which starts at about $50,000 a year for new schools that need a lot of support and drops to about $15,000 for more seasoned members; a new principal who wants to champion his or her own approach, or simply a poor fit.

This year, for example, Harvey Elementary School in Kenosha, Wisconsin, parted ways with EL after five years, because teachers struggled to align EL lessons and progress measures with the separate standards and reporting required by their district. Harvey’s principal, Ursula Hamilton-Perry, said she still “believes fully in EL,” and hopes to rejoin them, but had to step back when the extra time and other challenges of making everything fit “started to get in the way of students making progress.”

Occasionally, Berger admitted, “we’re simply not able to turn a school around. We’re not providing them what they need, and we get divorced.”

That divorce rate is far lower among schools that were founded in partnership with EL, such as Casco Bay, than it is among schools that adopted the model after many years as a more traditional school. Casco Bay’s principal, Derek Pierce, credits much of the school’s success to the way Crew culture personalizes each student’s journey over four years.

“We have three big questions in Crew: Who am I? How am I doing? And what are my plans for the future,” said Pierce. The questions crop up explicitly at the twice-yearly student-led conferences with parents and Crew advisers. “We’re prepping for those now,” Pierce said. “We’re looking at each of their classes and what they’re proud of, what their targets are and what they need to work on to meet them.”

Students tackle the three questions again in short addresses to their Crews at the end of freshman year, in sophomore presentations about a personal passion to students and staff and in the reflective “Final Words” remarks they give as a prelude to graduation. According to Pierce, all this self-reflection actually bolsters the team-focused mission.

“Kids are social beasts, and they’re at their best when they’re asked to help each other,” he said. “They can’t get enough of helping each other. It motivates them.”

The Casco Bay Crews also have online (teacher-monitored) chat groups. “We’re in contact with each other all the time,” said Phoebe Kolbert, a senior. “Crew is like family. It’s about getting to the top of the mountain with a little help from your friends.”

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During a recent lesson on square roots, King’s eighth-grade math teacher, Ann Young, was quick to call out, “talk to your neighbor!” whenever her questions drew hesitant and confused murmuring from the class.

“I like to have kids talk in class, to me and to each other, about how they’re trying to figure out a problem,” Young said in an interview, and that makes for an ambivalent relationship with education technology.

Young gets the utility of online lesson plans geared to math standards and targeted to students at any level. Indeed, this year, the district’s new math curriculum is aligned with units from the web-based Khan Academy, and Young started directing students to the site’s online videos and lessons for extra practice or new challenges. But she doesn’t want students disappearing into their own digital worlds, so she only lets them go to Khan Academy at home, never in class.

As a prelude to discussing leadership, peer pressure and conflict, a Crew of seventh graders at King Middle School in Portland, Maine, played a game called “Instigator.”

As a prelude to discussing leadership, peer pressure and conflict, a Crew of seventh graders at King Middle School in Portland, Maine, played a game called “Instigator.”

While no guidelines on classroom technology govern the network, according to Berger, there is a shared wariness of anything that might undermine EL’s collaborative ethos.

“I’m skeptical of personalized learning that is too much about kids spending a lot of time on computers marching through discrete tasks at their own pace,” he said. “It pulls kids too often away from doing meaningful work and having meaningful interactions with peers, and it can value the individual needs over the idea that we’re all in this together.”

The sentiment is echoed by Jason Krause, principal of Denver’s Columbine Elementary School, which joined the EL network in 2018. He had been disenchanted with his school’s previous personalized learning initiative. “I started feeling like we weren’t talking about people as much as technology and infrastructure and very solitary, parallel learning that created almost a disconnect,” Krause said. “We were looking at a lot more data points, but there were fewer student voices in the room.”

That said, EL’s leadership now relies heavily on technology to spread Crew and expeditionary learning concepts more broadly. Until five years ago, efforts were limited to word-of-mouth. “We would go out and talk about what we did, and invite people to come see our schools,” said Berger, and that was about it. But when the network reached its growth target, EL’s leaders opted to spread their model piecemeal through a web-based library of books and videos and an open source K-8 English and language arts (ELA) curriculum.

“We woke up to the fact that we can’t reach enough people through these in-person gatherings. We have to get some stuff online,” Berger said.

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Berger said that there are now 10 books and around 250 videos covering everything from student-engaged assessments to learning showcases to examples of expeditions. The only major topic still not featured is Crew, and two books and several videos to cover that subject are now underway and should be ready by the fall of 2019.

Meanwhile, EL’s open source curriculum combines literature, nonfiction and historical documents to teach ELA standards with deep dives into topics such as the sustainability of America’s food supply and the American Revolution. At the close of each unit, students do independent research for a final project they present to outside audiences, just as EL students do with learning expeditions. For instance, fifth-graders learn about natural disasters by reading and analyzing a book about a Haitian boy in his country’s 2010 earthquake; they then write an opinion essay about the critical items for an emergency preparedness kit and present a public service announcement to an audience.

The lessons “bake in a focus on collaboration, character and personalization in terms of kids showing evidence of their own learning,” Berger said.

In the fall of 2018, Detroit’s public schools adopted EL’s English language arts curriculum throughout the district, joining several other districts that use it in some schools or grade levels and, EL reports, more than 40,000 teachers who have downloaded at least part of it. With EL sponsorship, Mathematica is now studying these districts to see if the curriculum boosts test scores.

“There’s lots of importance in these lessons that have nothing to do with standardized tests,” said Berger. “But, none of that will matter unless scores go up.”

As her 11th-graders filed into the classroom, Casco Bay English teacher Susan McCray paired them up at tables labeled “Healthcare,” “Criminal Justice,” “Housing,” “Addiction” and so on. The categories roughly matched the policy topics her students had chosen within the larger class theme of America’s widening wealth gap.

Ultimately, every student would write a paper on a proposed policy solution to a societal ill, and then present their proposals to a panel of experts. For now, however, they were mired in the initial research and needed to get out of their own heads.

The students took turns explaining what they’d learned so far about their chosen topics and potential solutions. Their partners’ job was to ask a bunch of questions. “How much would that cost?” “What statistics back you up?” “What else has been tried?”

“You need questions to move your research forward,” McCray announced.

All expeditions follow a similar pattern, weaving personalized choice and collaborative effort. Students start together with teachers directing them to background knowledge on a larger topic such as “The Four Freedoms” or invasive species. Then, they do independent investigations of their own choosing, while reconvening periodically in class and Crew for peer feedback and advice.

The final products, known as culminations, are another shared experience. For example, if students are expected to write scientific reports about field research on a polluted local ecosystem, they can’t ditch the report in favor of, “a dance or a diorama,” said Berger. “We have a vision of kids working together to create something of high quality. We want all of us working in the same format, so we can bring in outside experts to help us get really good at it.”

The schools also regularly host events, such as kedTALKs (for “King Engineering and Design”), where students present projects and inventions to peers, parents and experts. Two years ago, Casco Bay’s juniors screened their documentary about Maine’s unsung heroes, produced by stitching together their individual mini-documentaries on the subject.

Expeditions are interdisciplinary. Before engineering their own alternative energy machines, for example, King students met the grade-level science standards on light, energy and natural resources. They dug into the history and economics of different energy sources in social studies and read a book in English class about a boy in Malawi, Africa, who electrified his village with do-it-yourself wind power.

Also, expeditions are embedded in the real world. At Casco Bay, for example, an entire wall of the school’s “Great Room” is plastered with senior photos and summaries of their expedition projects. Their goal is to offer a “slice of the solution” on issues ranging from hunger in Maine to jump-starting the state’s aquaculture industry to Portland’s need for affordable housing. Personalized learning and shared endeavor aren’t at odds here, according to Pierce, they complement each other.

“The goal of this work is to find the intersection between a personal passion and a need in the world,” he said. “That’s the intersection where we want kids to live their lives, and as adults, too.”

This story about personalized learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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