A blueprint for the future of relevant schools


Teaching | Thursday, February 12, 2015

A blueprint for the future of relevant schools

This school district is rolling out a plan to let students choose the pace, place and process of their education. Here's how. (Google Hangout screenshot)

George Philhower’s school district is rolling out a plan to let students choose the pace, place and process of their education. Here’s how. (Google Hangout screenshot)

Let’s see if you’ve heard this story before.

Students enter school in the morning and go to a class with dozens of fellow classmates. They all receive the same instruction. When class is over, they all frantically move to another room, where they all receive the same instruction with dozens of classmates again.

If a student learns quickly and gets ahead — or if a student struggles and falls behind — it’s tough to get the individualized attention he or she needs to thrive. Struggling students fall farther behind or fail. High achievers usually end up bored or frustrated.

Sound familiar?

Let’s compare it to this story.

Students arrive at school, but the start time is flexible. They have some small-group meetings with classmates and teachers. They do some one-on-one studying with friends in a public common area. Some classwork is delivered online. They might have a more traditional class, but not with as many students. Elective classes are more available in their schedules because they aren’t tied down to a 45-minute block of time for every class.

When some students complete work quickly, they continue to move forward in the curriculum for the class. If other students struggle, they meet with teachers or counselors to reconfigure the plan for their learning and get back to work on classes on their level.

Does that sound like a flexible, motivating school model? Or does it just sound like lots of chaos?

George Philhower is betting on it being a more relevant way to do schooling, and many of his students and teachers are agreeing with him.

(Watch the interview I had with him about this model of schooling to see extra details not included in this blog post.)

George is the assistant superintendent of Western Wayne Schools, a school corporation in eastern Indiana. Just over 1,000 students were enrolled K-12 in Western Wayne’s three schools in the 2013-2014 school year.

He has been frustrated with the traditional school paradigm that so many schools across the United States and the world are sticking with. Graduation rates in his corporation are around 80 percent, but he sees potential for more.

“We feel like, in order to reach the point where we’re at a 95 to 100 percent graduation rate, we really need to change the rules that we’re playing by,” he said. “We’re questioning what we do in the traditional setting and looking at putting things in place where we put students in the center.”

Rethinking the concept of school has George and others in his schools considering some key concepts:

  • how class schedules should look
  • how bell schedules should look
  • what it means for a student to earn a credit

The model they’re patterning their work from is a school in Salt Lake City, Utah, called Innovations High School, which considers itself a “personalized learning school.” Philhower and several of his teachers have visited the school, and Philhower has been working one-on-one with principal Kenneth Grover.

Western Wayne Schools is basing its innovative model of school on three key components:

Process: Students get a choice in their path to educational success — during school and post-graduation. Their plans are based on their goals and what they want to get out of their time at school.

Philhower has already seen success in this component with students in their alternative education program. An example: A student who struggled in the traditional school setting was finishing credits quickly in the alternative program, where he worked at his own pace. Philhower asked him why it worked so well.

His response, per Philhower: “He said, ‘I’ve always known the stuff. I’ve taken this course three times. I’ve just never taken the time to do the homework.'” This new model gave him control.

Pace: Working for a set number of weeks for credits isn’t as motivating as passing a course when competency is reached, Philhower said. Students move on to the next level of a course as soon as they complete the previous level, whether it takes 10 weeks or 20 weeks. This opens up community college opportunities during high school for early finishers and flexibility for those that take longer.

Place: Some students prefer a quiet lab-style place to work. Others prefer the comfort of a favorite teacher’s classroom. With the plan Western Wayne is pursuing, students will be given some flexibility in where they meet to learn. One way to achieve that is to package the four core classes — math, science, English and social studies — in one large four-hour block instead of individual class periods. Teachers for those classes can schedule small-group meetings and individual conferences during that time. Students can complete coursework between those meetings.

Teachers are at the center of the success of this new school concept, Philhower said. Their roles won’t be presenting content to large groups six or seven times a day anymore.

“If we think of teaching as finding out where students are, where they’re having trouble and helping them overcome those steps, meeting them exactly where they are and helping them take the next step of whatever that is, that’s how we’re kind of redefining what that teaching role looks like,” he said.

Western Wayne’s vision includes rolling out more student choice and options within the next year. Philhower knows that the transition process will be the toughest part, but it’s worth it to provide relevant education to his students.

“These times are different. Our students have changed, too,” he said. “Students know … ‘I’m not going to have a career that’s compliance-based.’ That’s not how these students are programmed.”

This plan for how education is done is a first step that schools can take to ditch the textbook concept of education, one that’s providing less and less value for students as time goes on and the world changes. It’s a small school in eastern Indiana that’s leading the charge.

Contact George Philhower by e-mail at philhowerg@gmail.com and on Twitter at @gphilhower.

[reminder]What do you like about this model of school? What concerns or questions do you have? Leave a comment below and George Philhower will answer questions as they come in.[/reminder]

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  • Suzanne says:

    I love the idea. And it sounds as though a much lower student/teacher ratio will be needed, which is a good thing. I look forward to following your progress.

    • George says:

      Thanks Suzanne! We currently staff these classrooms similar to how we do our traditional classrooms. What we are hoping for is an increase is the high-quality, individual time each student gets from the teacher. We’re seeing some success so far and are looking forward to our next steps!

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