The Cutting Edge School Design Bill Gates Loves

How personalized learning can help students excel

cutting-edge school design
(Image: GatesNotes.com)

It’s amazing how little the typical classroom has changed over the years. Picture a teacher standing at a chalkboard, lecturing to 25 or 30 students. The kids all learn at different paces and in different ways, so some are bored while others feel hopelessly behind. This system was designed decades ago, and it doesn’t reflect what educators have learned about helping students and teachers do their best work. It’s what I had in mind when I said, years ago, that America’s high schools are obsolete. And it’s one reason why so many students show up for college unprepared for rigorous work.

Fortunately, a growing number of teachers and schools around the country are breaking the mold by finding different ways to connect with students. (I wrote about three especially impressive teachers I’ve met here, here, and here.) One approach that I’m excited about is called personalized learning: combining digital tools, project-based learning, and traditional classroom work to let students move at their own pace, which frees up teachers to spend more time with whoever needs more personal attention.

Back in May, I spent two hours at Summit Sierra, a personalized learning school in Seattle’s International District. I had seen this approach in action before and been impressed. But I left Summit Sierra feeling even more hopeful about what personalized learning might do for students and teachers.

At its best, personalized learning doesn’t just let students work at their own pace. It puts them in charge of their own academic growth. Summit, the network of charter schools that Summit Sierra belongs to, worked with Facebook to develop software that guides the students’ learning. For example, you might set a goal like “I want to get into the University of Washington.” Working with their teachers, the students develop a personalized learning plan in the software. They can see all the courses they need to meet their goal, how they’re doing in each class, and what it will take to get a given grade. They set weekly objectives and note their progress in the software.

I wish I’d had a system like that when I was in school. I was good at math, but when it came to writing, I felt less sure of myself. I’d be working on an essay and start wondering, “Am I going to get an A or a C on this thing? What skills do I need to improve?” There were times when I was surprised by my grade–for better and for worse.

A personalized learning plan like the one I saw at Sierra would’ve taken the mystery out of things. After my visit, I emailed Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook to tell him how great it is that their engineers are working on this project. (Summit is making the platform available to other schools for free.)

Personalized learning represents a big shift for teachers, too. As most will tell you, it’s rare to find a school that gives them the opportunity to connect one-on-one with their students. But in personalized learning, that’s not the exception–it’s the rule.

For example, Summit teachers are matched with students whom they will mentor for all four years in school. During my visit, teacher Aubree Gomez showed me how it works. First, she took out her laptop, pulled up a list of the 17 students she’s mentoring, and explained how the software showed her what each student was doing, down to the level of which lessons they had looked at and which tests they had taken.

Then I sat in on her mentoring session with Jerald, a ninth grader. Aubree knew that Jerald hadn’t taken any assessments that week–he was working on a big science project, which he had just turned in–and she asked him how it had gone. Then they talked about Jerald’s bigger goal of getting straight A’s. He knew exactly what he had to do; which lessons he needed to finish, which tests he needed to take, and how high he needed to score.

I love that approach and, more importantly, so did Jerald and Aubree. Jerald wasn’t passively sitting there while his teacher talked. He was deeply engaged in his own learning. When students get out in the world, they have to organize their own time, set goals, and realize what they’re behind on. It’s fantastic to see them getting a head start on those skills in school.

We still need more data about the strengths and weaknesses of personalized learning, but the results so far are promising. One study found that among 62 schools using personalized learning, students made more progress in two years than their peers at other schools. They started below the national average in reading and math; two years later, they were above it.

To be fair, we don’t know yet how much of this improvement is due to personalized learning, versus other good things these schools are doing. In any case, personalized learning won’t be a cure-all. It won’t work for all kids at all ages, and it’s just one model among many promising ones. But, I’m hopeful that this approach could help many more young people make the most of their talents.

This blog post was originally published on Gates Notes, the blog of Bill Gates.

BE Smart is a grantee of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.