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The Personal Touch: Classroom Innovations for Personalized Learning

One size does not fit all when it comes to learning, and a variety of innovative educators are honing in on that idea to bring a more customized approach to teaching our children. Find out how New Classrooms' Teach to One: Math, Avenues: The World School, and The Bronx Guild, a Big Picture Learning school, are doing just that.

 new classrooms teach to one: math
Students at William P. Gray Elementary School in Chicago check master schedules on big screens before beginning a rotation of varying teaching methods during Teach to One Math, a pilot educational model from New Classrooms.

America’s education system is evolving. Traditional teaching styles, the ways children learn, and even the once-sacrosanct paper-and-ink textbook are being called into question by progressive innovators ready to move our country’s learning system into the future. Local academic leaders are changing classroom layout, teaching technology as a native language, and urging students to take control of their passions more than ever before. What’s the common denominator here? “P” no longer stands for a “pass” on your gym-class report card. Education is rapidly, necessarily becoming personal again. 

According to a 2012 report published by the New York State Education Department, graduation rates across the state are on the rise, but slowly. Only 74 percent of students statewide who began ninth grade in 2007 graduated on time in 2011, a slim increase from the 69.3 percent of freshmen who began high school in 2003, and a negligible increase from the 73.4 percent who began in 2006. The percentage of students in NYC who graduate on time is even lower, at 60.9 percent. While narrowing in on causes behind the statistics may have experts running in circles, there is one clear variable educators are examining—and proactively tweaking: the ways in which students learn.   

As each individual student listens to a different genre of music and participates in different extracurricular activities, each, too, has a unique way of learning. Here’s the catch: The traditional model of education caters to one style, an impersonal one at that, which involves a uniform lesson plan—one teacher instructing at a strictly-measured pace, hoping that the entire class retains enough to progress to the next lesson the following day. Expecting uniform success and actually yielding successful results are two different ball games, however. There is no quick fix, but it is imperative that education appeal to multiple learning styles to ensure success across the board.

Space Matters: Classrooms Redesigned

Joel Rose, former chief of staff to the deputy chancellor at the New York City Department of Education and then-CEO of School of One, an NYCDOE initiative, knows classroom struggles firsthand from teaching fifth grade in Houston for three years. When he returned to check in on old students after they had progressed beyond fifth grade, Rose was alarmed. “There were kids on different levels in the same class,” he says. Frustrated with the system in place, Rose set out to change what he found to be the biggest problem: the delivery model.

Now co-founder and CEO at New Classrooms, a budding organization implementing its pilot program Teach to One: Math in 15 schools nationwide (six in NYC), Rose and fellow founder Chris Rush are finding that bringing creativity to the traditional classroom goes a long way. “The American education system has become quite unimaginative,” Rose says. The lack of imagination, according to Rose, is what makes or breaks a successful learning environment. “We haven’t designed models that are positioned for success.”

Just how imaginative is the New Classrooms approach? The program brings different modalities to an existing classroom, giving students the freedom to learn at the pace and in the setting in which they will most likely succeed. “Not all kids come to school at the same level. Not all kids learn in the same way,” Rose says. New Classrooms honors each student as an individual, striving for personalized learning—a departure from the “one-size-fits-all approach” employed in many classrooms across the country.

“We set up different stations in the classrooms that allow students to learn different things in one learning environment,” Rose says of a New Classrooms layout. Students check a schedule upon entering their classroom to see which modalities they will interact with first. Throughout the math period, they engage and learn at different stations, working with teachers for a set timeframe, then moving on to software lessons, collaborative projects with other students, and time spent with virtual tutors from around the world.

At the end of each period, every Teach to One: Math student must complete a software assessment; the curriculum and modalities the student will work with the following day are dependent upon the previous day’s assessment and delivered in alternative ways, giving those who need extra work on fractions the time and flexibility to master those skills, lessening the risk of kids falling further behind as others move on to more advanced lessons.

Creating a seamless educational environment, which supports multiple learning styles, a respect for a student’s learning pace, and the ability to receive attention in one-on-one and group settings all adds up to New Classrooms’ fundamental goal: “We want all students to realize their potential,” Rose says. And while New Classrooms and Teach to One focus exclusively on math education, Rose and Rush are exploring the expansion of their model into other subjects in the future. 

Wired for Success: Transforming Technology’s Role

Technology is an integral part of the educational experience at Avenues: The World School, an independent school in its second year in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. “Technology is part of our DNA,” says Dirk DeLo, chief technology officer at Avenues—and that fact is evident from the moment one walks through the school’s doors: The main lobby features a large digital screen showcasing student work, information about world cultures, and even a computer-generated web illustrating students’ interconnectedness based on their personal interests. There are more than 100 screens and 2,000 supported mobile devices in use at Avenues. With plans for international campuses in the works, technology will be the thread that continues to link all students together.

Even preschoolers at Avenues are regarded as digital natives. “The little kids have iPads in the classroom, but it’s not one-to-one yet,” DeLo notes. In fact, the one-to-one child-to-tablet ratio takes effect in kindergarten, where “we let students personalize their device,” DeLo says. This offers several benefits. Practicing a “new every two [years]” guideline for purchasing up-to-date technology, students claim ownership of their specific device for that time period. “The iPad is assigned to a particular student for two years, so he or she can develop a digital portfolio.” As early as kindergarten, Avenues students are proficient in note-taking and content-archiving apps such as Evernote. By using this technology, DeLo says, “they can start to curate what’s important to them.”

When students reach fifth grade, Avenues introduces a “1+1” initiative, which provides both iPads and MacBook Air laptops. “We don’t have any textbooks,” DeLo says. “All classwork is pushed out via the cloud, iTunes U Course Manager, Haiku Learning, and a variety of cloud-based tools.” With digital coursework, students always have their work at their fingertips. Plus, sharing their ideas with classmates is easier than ever. Apps such as Subtext allow a whole class to share their individual annotations and ideas on a specific text with each other. The “1+1” initiative also gives students a choice when it comes to the delivery method of their learning. “Some students will use their laptop, some will use their iPad, and some use both,” DeLo says.

All this connectivity is promoting rich, engaging conversations between peers on devices—and, incredibly enough, face-to-face. “In class, someone can present their work on the board without taking five minutes to write it up,” says Geoffrey, a sophomore at Avenues. “Many people present things from their computer to the entire class, which is exceptionally useful when you are working on a visual project.” The wired campus ensures that conversation does not get interrupted due to mundane scenarios like a teacher’s absence, too. Geoffrey cites as an example the time his teacher traveled to China: “We were able to discuss the book we were reading with him over the Internet.”

Catherine, the mother of another 10th grade Avenues student, has also noticed a positive correlation between technology and socialization. “The kind of learning students are doing is very collaborative. Rather than separating students from one another, using technology actually encourages sharing and communicating,” she says.

Yes, human interaction is crucial even in such a technologically rich environment, and as such Avenues, like New Classrooms, has personalized the way students interact in the physical learning space. Many classrooms use Harkness tables, an oval setup where students and a teacher sit around the table rather than in rows with a lecturer at the front. Harkness tables deeply encourage group interaction, where equal discussion and participation is expected. “No one’s in the back row. Everybody is participating,” DeLo says of the layout. “You don’t see teachers in front of the class here. They work with the students.”

The Avenues model fully embraces the underlying need for change in today’s educational system. “It’s more of a student-centered learning model,” DeLo says. Learning is “more collaborative.” That collaboration, and a respectful relationship between teacher and student, is giving kids the confidence they need to take what they learn in their curriculum and apply it far beyond the walls of a classroom. 

children at a harkness table
Students at the independent Avenues school in Manhattan engage with each other and a teacher around a Harkness table; the oval shape promotes equal participation and conversation.

All the World’s a Classroom: Beyond School

Nothing’s more personal than deciding what to be when you “grow up,” so bringing personalization to kids in a way that takes heed of their passions and interests is an educational innovation that makes sense. Big Picture Learning, an organization dedicated to making real-world connections through personalized experiences, helps students channel their individual interests into internships within their local communities.

Jeff Palladino, former co-director and founding staff member of The Bronx Guild, the first Big Picture Learning school in New York City, and current assistant principal at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, a Bronx-based Children’s Aid Society school within the Big Picture Learning network, understands the impact of teachers truly connecting with students to help them harness their passions.

“The idea of knowing your students and knowing what their interests are—what they’re passionate about, how they’re learning, and how their work connects to their lives—is important. It inspires kids but also inspires teachers to work with students,” Palladino says.

Internships and community work are at the crux of Big Picture’s mission. “Students learn inside and outside of the classroom,” Palladino says of the teens who are “making continued connections between real-world learning and the academic life of a student” with after-school programs that connect to their curriculum. At Fannie Lou, ninth and 10th graders do community outreach one day a week, while 11th and 12th graders will benefit from new internship programs currently being implemented.

“I think when kids are working deeply on something that they’re very passionate about—that focuses their academic skills around a passion, that is contextualized, and that has an impact on not only the student, but the place that they’re serving and the people they’re working with and for—it really helps students see that the work they’re doing is valued,” Palladino enthuses.

And how parents, teachers, and students relate to one another can make all the difference when planning for life after high school. “We think of the relationship as a triangle, with the student at the top and the parent and advisor at the bottom, holding the student up, communicating, and connecting about the student’s life at school,” Palladino says.

Also see:

Are Smaller Classes Better?

The Common Core Effect: Resources for Parents


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