New Designs for School
New Designs for School

We’ve all had the experience of truly purposeful, authentic learning and know how valuable it is. Educators are taking the best of what we know about learning, student support, effective instruction, and interpersonal skill-building to completely reimagine schools so that students experience that kind of purposeful learning all day, every day.

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With the International Baccalaureate program at this middle school, learning relies on a cycle of improvement in every subject and every new level of understanding. Inquiry. Action. Reflection. Repeat.

In the gymnasium during physical education at Thompson School District’s Lucile Erwin Middle School, students set their goals one by one.

“It’s all based on your fitness plan,” P.E. teacher Chad Walker reminds his students, most clad in gray school T-shirts emblazoned with a simple slogan: Physical Education is For Everyone.

Some students focus on muscular endurance. Others on a full body workout. Playing cards plucked at random from a loose pile on the gym floor send students scurrying to various stations for exercises—forearm planks, calf raises, or jumping rope.

In Karen East’s science class, students are scattered about the low-lit classroom learning about the essence of DNA. Each student chooses a level of learning—diamond, square, or circle, akin to how degrees of difficulty are rated on Colorado ski slopes. Circle is the easiest and it increases from there, says East. Soft jazz music creates a soothing background as students huddle in groups, pursuing different projects. “They choose what level to tackle,” says East. “And they choose their activities and what pace they want to work at.”

Lucile Erwin Middle School hosted the sixth stop of Thompson School District’s “Seeing is Believing” tour this year, which affords district staff and district partners an opportunity to see how schools are adapting under Thompson School District’s push to personalized learning. At Lucile Erwin, the visitors found that personalized learning is pervasive, thanks to the student-by-student approach embedded in the core values of the International Baccalaureate program. ‘IB’ seeks to develop critical, creative, and reflective thinkers and, by design, it’s one student at a time. Learning relies on a cycle of improvement that repeats over and over in every subject and every new level of understanding.

Inquiry. Action. Reflection.

We know that developing the learning mindset in each student is the paramount concern of ‘IB.’ Asking questions. Planning out the path of learning. Pursuing the study. And understanding the results from each inquiry.

And repeat.

If every 15 minutes a kid goes through this same process, beginning with ‘I don’t know,’ that’s authentic learning.

Throughout Lucile Erwin, the IB mindset upends the traditional look and feel of student-teacher interactions. In Hope Morales’ sixth-grade Introduction to World Language class, students are running a colorful Christmas Market, using beans as currency to purchase home-cooked Mexican dishes. It’s a language and cultural studies class. The energy in the room is palpable. When she’s teaching Spanish, Morales emphasizes use of interactive notebooks, an approach to organizing each student’s thinking and learning. “If you teach a second language, that is the best route,” she says. “They write as I speak. It’s theirs. It’s personalized to them. When I open the notebooks to check for grades, I’m ‘wow, they really got more out of it than I thought they would.’ It can’t get better than that.”

Outside Aubrey Marquez’ sixth-grade literacy classroom, students are working together constructing a board game based on the book The Watsons Go To Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis. “It’s kind of hard because you have to go back in the book and find stuff,” says one of the students. One of the requirements of the game is to develop questions based on the story. Marquez explains that each team first had to plan out their idea for a game and have it approved before proceeding. Marquez moves from group to group, checking on progress. Last year, students made posters based on the book but Marquez knows the board game approach is better. “Eleven-year-olds have to move,” she says.

In an Individual & Society classroom, students decide how to present their research into disabilities. The teacher gives them a variety of methods. They can produce a brochure. Or develop an infographic. Or write a short story. Or compose a song.

Students in an English class use iPads and cell phones to respond to a series of True/False questions about plagiarism. Class responses instantly appear as collected survey data on the front board.

In Matt West’s literacy classroom, students are finishing stories about superheroes started by fellow students in another class. There’s so much laughter in the room that it could be a comedy club on a raucous night. Students praise the lack of a heavy drilling on skills and homework.

“There are less worksheets, which means we don’t get so under pressure and all of that,” says one student. Says another fellow student, “We get to choose what we want to do in this class. We have to do the assignment, but we get to make it our own to make it more fun.”

During last-period PRIDE class, students who don’t need extra help in core classes pursue a variety of interests from drama, to jazz band, to honor choir, to art club and Fuel-Up, a fitness club. In her MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science and Achievement) class, one student built a solar-powered model airplane that is soon to take its first test flight. “It’s all based on what you want to do,” says the student. “And it’s not graded, which is nice.”

That is personalized learning, that is authentic learning at it its most fundamental level. That’s what IB believes in.

Take the Seeing Is Believing Tour

Tim Ridder headshot

Tim Ridder

Principal, Thompson School District

Tim Ridder is a principal at Lucile Erwin Middle School in Thompson School District in Colorado.