I clearly recall one day, in elementary school, when the rabbi came to our classroom and announced that the average class grade on a recently taken standardized test was better this year than it had been the year before. That was the way teachers and students were measured: as a whole, how did a class perform? The educational system focused on aggregate; if more students performed better, the average would be higher.
This reliance on test scores to measure educational progress has been the norm in the educational world for decades. Standardized testing measures school achievements by averages and statistical methods. This results in a focus on improving the test scores of those students in the middle of the class, creating small improvements that move the school above the necessary threshold. While this tactic may help elevate schools’ average test scores overall, it results in less educational energy being expended towards the many students who fall outside the focus group. But excellence is not defined by high test scores; excellence is achieved when each student is able to fully develop his or her own potential. As we have come to understand that there are different kinds of learners, and different ways to support them, the conflict between “teaching toward the middle” and excellence becomes very apparent. The magnitude of the differences in how students learn, and the quantity of teaching options available to address these differences, open up better ways to address student achievement than raising test scores by raising average scores. Time is often also a significant hindrance to differentiation: schools often do not allot sufficient time and resources to enable teachers to individualize their teaching.
One option for personalized learning is the use of online and blended learning modalities. Online learning makes it possible for any given school to offer an incredible catalog of courses, with unprecedented opportunities for students to excel in subjects not offered by the local school. Taking an online course seriously is a commitment, and many times these courses are rigorously graded, just like face to face courses.
Enabling schools to offer a more flexible and larger program of courses provides an opportunity to meet diverse students’ needs, and therefore for more students in a school to excel. Once online learning becomes mainstream, schools can offer online courses for scheduling conflicts and catch-up courses as well as advanced courses for those students that need more.
Blended learning takes a different approach in enhancing personalized learning. Each child receives instruction appropriate for their own needs, within the framework of an in-person class. Students come to school every morning and step into class; however, what happens inside the room is very different from how your typical class is structured. Many times the room is larger, there may be computers stationed in certain places around the room and tables are not organized in rows the way they were when I went to school. Instead, students rotate between stations: the computer station, independent work, group work, small group instruction and personal meetings, as needed or based on a set protocol. Data gathered by the computer program enriches the educators’ understanding of individual student needs and helps to tailor the learning path of each student.
A classroom organized for blended learning is really about each and every student succeeding, working in different spots within the class on different elements designed by the teacher specifically for each particular student. At times, the learning experience may look more like a workspace, with individual, group and personal meetings taking place. In fact, this model may better prepare our student for the future, as it resembles the “real world out there.”
While the online and blended learning modalities are very different, both allow education to better fit individual needs. They also allow flexibility, which changes the way teachers use their time at school, in class and outside of the classroom. This flexibility is in contrast with the common structure in many schools, where teachers and students have a schedule set for weeks ahead, as well as a static set of goals that cannot be changed, even if students can achieve more. While these structural changes may seem threatening (not to mention the noise level, which may be louder than what I remember from my days at school), they offer the chance to meet individual needs. In general, where there is less structure, there is a place for personal focus.
Tracking each student and ensuring every child gets a chance to learn—not only the ones “in the middle”—supports achieving excellence for everyone. Extraordinary gifted students are able to do more, above and beyond their grade level, and learn subjects not available to them at their local school. Special needs students benefit from blended learning opportunities while not being pulled out of class. The more we learn about education, the more we understand that there are no “typical” students. There is no “middle”: everyone is special and deserves his or her own treatment.
So where do we go from here? One can go visit or read about schools that have started working with online and blended learning modalities. One can also research available online courses. While content is currently more readily available in general studies than in Judaic studies, AVI CHAI and other foundations have been involved in efforts to increase available Judaic studies offerings. DJLN (Digital Jewish Learning Network) has developed a resource portal which lists many of the available programs both in general and in Jewish studies. Other parts of the DJLN site address professional development opportunities. One example of an online learning opportunity in Judaic studies that middle and high school students can take advantage of is the Lookstein Virtual Jewish Academy.
Once a school decides that excellence is defined by giving each student the opportunity to get the most out of their educational experience, many structural discussions need to take place. Is the schedule flexible enough to allow teachers the time they need to meet, collaborate and prepare? Is there time for them to investigate and learn online content? Analyze data? Meet students?
One size fits all is no longer an option. It is only when educators use their time as efficiently as possible that personalized learning benefits can be realized and excellence can be achieved. The school house may look the same, but what’s inside is very different and enables all of us to achieve excellence.
Eli Kannai is the chief educational technology officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation. firstname.lastname@example.org