Innovation Alley: Taking it Personally: What it Really Means for Students to Own the Learning

What’s the big idea?

Who owns the learning in a school?

The teachers? The principals? The board? Those who create and mandate standards? In order to unleash the potential of our children, the answer that is resonating deeply with a wider number of schools, including many Jewish ones, is … the students. Shifting the unit of measurement in a school from a “class” to a “student” is truly significant. Progressive ideas such as “differentiated instruction,” where a teacher adapts her material to the different learning styles and needs of her students, still leaves the teacher at the center. Personalized learning puts the student at the center. Everything about the ways schools structure the educational experience, even our basic understanding of how schools use time and space, are subject to re-conceptualizing if our starting point is the individual student. To be fair, there are longstanding philosophies of education, Montessori most notably, which put the child at the center. Advances in technology, however, allows for a type of personalization unlike anything we’ve seen before.

“Personalized learning” is one of those educational phrases that run the risk of misuse or overuse. I find it easier sometimes to look at the extremes because they paint the most vivid pictures. Personalized learning in its extreme puts the student in control of what they study, when they study, where they study, why they study, and how they study. According to Andy Calkins, deputy director of Next Generation Learning Challenges, we have achieved innovative and disruptive personalized learning when the student has control of “time, place, path and pace.” Although technology is not a requirement for personalized learning, there is little doubt that it allows for enormous new possibilities. What might a school look like where teachers used technology to give control of time, place, path and pace to each student? In one word: AltSchool.

Who’s doing it?

“We started in 2013 by exploring a wide swath of the school experience, to determine where we could offer the most value,” said Max Ventilla, CEO and founder of AltSchool. “Through the past three years of testing and iteration, we have determined what we think is the most transformative combination of tools and services: a technology platform that helps educators offer a whole-child, personalized education that fosters student agency.“

AltSchools are small communities ranging from 30 to 130 students. Each is dedicated to personalizing the school experience to benefit each student, from the school environment, school-day schedules, academics, parent interaction, and more. Educators use AltSchool’s technology platform as a resource to support their work with students, working in partnership with its engineering team to test and improve tools on a daily basis. The platform enables schools to change and adapt in real time, continually collecting and iterating on feedback from teachers, students and parents. The effect is continuing improvements that happen in hours and days, not years. There are currently eight AltSchools, with two additional schools under development for the 2017 school year in Chicago and New York.


How can I learn more?

AltSchool has launched a new program “AltSchool Open” to partner with existing schools.

Read AltSchool’s blog.

Watch an interview with founder Max Ventilla.

What’s the charge?

Thanks to the support and leadership of the AVI CHAI Foundation, the Jewish Education Project, the Kohelet Foundation and many others, a growing number of Jewish day schools are experimenting with technology-driven personalized learning. Examples include the BOLD Schools, Digital JNetwork Network and Yeshiva Lab School. As more and more schools consider personalizing the learning experience for its students, Prizmah is interested in serving as a means to connect fellow travelers, facilitating conversation and linking to organizations in and outside the field.

Schools interested in “Innovation” or learning more about personalized learning are encouraged to continue the conversation across any and all of Prizmah’s channels. Look for specific links and suggestions on Prizmah’s website, including the launch of “Reshet Innovation.”

Dr. Jon Mitzmacher
Jewish Inspiration
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning