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February 05
Student Choice and Classrooms of the Future

​In the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, a little west of San Jose, California, Hillbrook School has been providing an experiential education for PK-8 students since its founding in the 1930s. At the heart of the campus stand several carefully crafted wooden forts built by students in the school’s first decade, when architecture and carpentry were among the practical skills engaging the students. When I recently visited the school, traditions remained evident. A physical education teacher taught first-graders how to ford a stream that cuts through the idyllic country campus. A woodshop, obviously in use for decades, overflowed with new student creations. Old bicycles painted a variety of bright colors stood outside awaiting use in a theatrical production.

Lately, Hillbrook has been experimenting with new student experiences. Like most every school, Hilllbrook is asking how online resources and individual communication devices should be used to promote learning. Hillbrook has taken its experimentation a step further, collecting systematic data on new ways of organizing teaching and learning. The school emptied its old computer lab of everything, replacing it with completely mobile whiteboards, writable work tables, and mobile furniture. The Idea Lab—or iLab—is equipped with engineering tools as well, much like the innovation labs or maker labs that are increasingly common in schools today. But the space is not about engineering. Teachers working in a wide range of subjects use the lab to create “blended learning” experiences—with students learning through interaction with technology, teachers, and one another.

But what distinguishes blended learning at Hillbrook is something that has nothing at all to do with the introduction of technology. The focus at Hillbrook is on student choice. The faculty at Hillbrook conjecture that the more students have some control over how they learn, including how they organize every element of their work space, the more engaged they will be. So, the iLab appears rather chaotic, students grouping themselves how they wish, setting up furniture, and accessing devices and information according to individual preference. The space has a haphazard feel, but not the work or the work products. A recent data-rich report by the school shows student engagement and performance enhanced by the infusion of student control. The overseer of the lab, Christa Flores, cautioned that it took time and patience for teachers and students to bring organization to the initial chaos.

Fully realized, this is the vision that educators are pursuing for classrooms of the future. After I left Hillbrook, I spent two days at Stanford University attending a conference on blended learning. Michael Horn, head of the Clayton Christensen Institute and co-author of the unsettling bestseller Disrupting Class, opened the conference with a look at blended learning models throughout the nation and a definition of what blended learning is and is not. Blended learning is not part of some dystopic future where students sit for hours interacting with computers—or with human beings only through the screens of their devices. Blended learning is part of a future in which students learn through new mixes of technology-based and teacher-facilitated instruction. But this is not all. Essential to blended learning is that “students have some degree of control over the content and pace of their learning.”

The conference gave attendees a chance to see Horn’s version of blended learning at work in two local schools, Eastside Prep, a philanthropically supported private school for low income students in East Palo Alto, and the Summit Public School: Denali in Sunnyvale in the heart of the Silicon Valley. A sixth-grade teacher from Eastside spoke eloquently of how a blended classroom enabled her to provide far more effective differentiated instruction for her gifted and remedial students—once she was confident “giving up some of my control.”

At Summit Denali, I observed students choosing their lessons from “playlists.” And much more. Teachers at the Summit Schools (there are seven in the Bay Area managed by a charter management organization) have built a middle school core curriculum of online resources, mostly open source. A custom-designed computer program maps the standards and objectives of each subject into units that include numerous lessons, and employ a range of online media and instructional approaches. Students choose from playlists the lessons that help them master skills and concepts—as each student sees fit. Students move through the core curriculum on their own personal pathways, giving lessons thumbs up or down, contributing to the “intelligence” of the online system—and at their own paces.

When students are engaged—and I do mean engaged—in personalized learning, the entire grade level works in a huge open space. I observed 130 sixth graders sitting in groups or working individually, with teachers roaming the room, offering help as needed. I sat with numerous students, all new to the program this year. Every student offered the same opinion. They liked having control over their learning—moving as fast or as deliberately as they needed, a contrast from the classrooms they had experienced in their various elementary schools. They liked using online assessments—when they were ready to take them. They liked the variety of online lessons. Only part of a student’s day at Denali is occupied by personalized learning. Much of the day is also devoted to group project-based learning, integrating subjects, and to the fine arts and physical education. Learning is a rich blend of experiences, over which students have increasing control.

In schools throughout the nation, teachers and school leaders are experimenting with classrooms of the future. I left California to visit NAIS schools in Hawaii. Kamehameha Schools, founded in the late 19th century to educate native Hawaiians, just opened a new middle school on Oahu. A school steeped in tradition, its new facility stunned me. Looking down the long “corridors” of the beautiful facility, I saw nothing but open space. Where there would normally be classroom walls, there were none. Hundreds of students were engaged, sometimes in traditional-looking classroom groups led by a teacher, sometimes in small groups or as individuals working independent of direct teacher instruction—in all cases, accessing resources via technology. I asked the school director about the total absence of walls, and she explained: not knowing what the future holds, the school did not want learning options constrained by architecture.

Too often, discussions of future schooling get hung up on the relative merits of teachers and technology. Of course, the future is about both. But the future is about empowering students, too. Students must ultimately leave school fully capable of learning on their own, and motivated to do so for a lifetime. This is nothing new; great teachers have always cultivated independence in their students, giving them more choices and control as they grow more self-sufficient. The greatest contribution of technology to future classrooms may be the many ways that it enables teachers to help students develop the intellectual independence and engagement that we prize so highly.

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Are you familiar with Montessori schools?

John, this is a beautifully written piece.  Inspiring, actually.  As I read it I wondered if you are familiar with Montessori education?  Montessori is an educational philosophy/pedagogy that reflects the very things you discuss in this post.
Marilyn StewartNo presence information on 2/5/2014 4:43 PM

Student choice at Hillbrook and connection with Montessori and Reggio Emilia

When we look at, think about, and test these prototype learning environments at Hillbrook, choice rests at the center. Whether students are designing their space for a particular activity or choosing to access resources in the room without needing to ask permission, choice lies at the heart of student engagement. My children went to Montessori Center School a little north of Santa Barbara for 4 years before we moved to the Bay Area, and I'll never forget the independent, focused learning that happens there, with children just a few years old to 10 or 11. One morning I was chatting with my son's teacher in a grade 1-3 classroom before the children arrived and I remember turning around 30 minutes later to see the room filled with children already intent on their work, without teacher direction. The teacher's role in spaces that allow student choice is vastly different than in a teacher-owned classroom. The Reggio Emilia approach identifies the environment as the Third Teacher, recognizing the impact that the learning spaces play in engagement, interest, and ultimately learning. And the environment is more than just the stuff. It's about the freedom, creation, inspiration, and choice built into that space. I wrote a little more about it here:
Donald OrthNo presence information on 2/6/2014 12:40 PM


Marilyn and Don,

Thanks for noting the Montessori precedent, which I might well have made myself--and from personal experience. Two of my children began their formal schooling in Montessori programs, both at age two. The schools engaged each of these very different children differently--and equally well--largely by catering to their unique interests and motivations. I'm a long-time believer in today's "new" ideas.
i:0#.f|crmmembershipprovider|chubb@nais.orgNo presence information on 2/6/2014 2:56 PM

Re: Student Choice and Classrooms of the Future

Great piece, Thanks, John!--interesting that as we think about how to make secondary learning more relevant we see the classroom walls disappearing, text books put aside, and the clocks turning "back" to a future that essentially emulates the best in primary education models that have always focused on learning.

So the more we change schools in the service of blended learning and the integration of mobile technology, the more we reclaim project based, personalized learning that has always been the hallmark of our best elementary models. --Lou
Lou SalzaNo presence information on 2/6/2014 4:10 PM

Re: Student Choice and Classrooms of the Future

Great piece, and I cannot help but think of progressive schools and their missions.  All vary, of course, but I encourage folks to check out The Common School (where I am Head), Fayerweather Street School, Touchstone Community School, Atrium School, Park Day School, plus so many others across the country, who have had student choice at the heart of their missions since their beginnings. "Choice" is a powerful bit of learning, and when available to children from a very young age (including my own, now in their 20's), it builds independence of thought and being, and a maturity and capability that reaches far beyond elementary or high school.  I see it in the 50-something graduates who have stayed in touch at my school as well as in the comments from our local high school that they can "spot a Common School kid a mile away."  Great article!
Christine LindemanNo presence information on 2/6/2014 5:10 PM

Pendulum Swinging Back to the Acoustical Disasters of the Open Classroom?

While we pursue improvements in curriculum to increase student engagement, let's recognize that our "classrooms of the future" need improved acoustics to be sustainable.  Open classrooms rarely meet students' acoustical needs.  The rejoinder that ambient noise forces students to concentrate is not supported by the research.  Furthermore an introverted student may have a difficulty thinking well in an open room of 130 students as described above.  Students will also respond if they can choose their study environments as well as their projects.
Roderick WolfsonNo presence information on 3/1/2014 7:59 PM



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