Rewriting the Game of School: An Alternative Model for Learning

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The “game of school” hasn’t changed much since it was designed. Instead of focusing on individuals, we focus on accountability measures; we expect students to fit into rigidly defined roles and a highly regulated system. Like pawns on a playing board, kids are told to follow the rules of the game and comply with adult-driven systems, teacher requests, and standardized tests. Only students that successfully strategize and comply with the rules are likely to find gratification and reward for their efforts. But even if they can succeed, “winning” does not translate to life and career readiness.

Norris, a small rural school district in southeast Wisconsin, has sought to leave the “game of school” behind and create a new, innovative and student-centric system. Returning to its roots of changing the lives of disadvantaged learners, the School District of Norris has dismantled common practices in public education and designed a new system that rethinks the experience of learners to create personalized experiences that build learner agency and self-efficacy.

No more classrooms, no more teachers, no more scope and sequence and pacing guides. Instead, Norris Academy embraces a model that leverages a robust learner profile to design multidimensional plans, and pathways with learners. The personal pathways include anytime, anywhere learning experiences that include competencies across four dimensions: Academic, employability, citizenship and wellness.

Norris’s model requires a shift in culture and roles throughout the school. Learners and educators co-design learning plans to include plans and pathways that are meaningful and relevant to their interests and struggles, all within a multidimensional competency framework. We believe this multidimensional student centered approach leads to life, career and community success.

Norris’s “Dimensions of Learning” defined

At Norris, learners establish personal plans that are based on a continuum of defined competencies across each of the four dimensions. These competency frameworks provide a framework of skills necessary for life, career, and community success.

  • Academic and Career Planning encompasses core academic and career based competencies along continuums that includes skills, practices and concepts.
  • Employability Skills address the development of skills essential in the work force including critical thinking, creative problem solving, communication, and collaboration.
  • Citizenship highlights the dispositions of learners and the ability to advocate for one’s self and identify with and contribute to the values and practices of relevant communities as they actively engage in the world around them.
  • Personal Wellness is comprised of a learner’s social, emotional, behavioral and physical health. This dimension addresses barrier needs and includes clinical and community-based evaluation and treatment planning.

These four dimensions provide a framework of key competencies that learners must attain. When, how and where they work on these competencies is personal to each learner.

Turning the dimensions into action: Profiles, plans, pathways and proofs

The multidimensional competency framework provides a foundation for the development of personal learning plans. The development of the plan begins with the creation of a robust Learner Profile. The learner profile is realized through participation in numerous assessments within each of the dimensions.

The assessments are varied and include objective academic assessments. We use iReady, and adaptive assessment along with formative observations of students engaged in learning experiences. Student interviews and self reflections help to gather information about a learner’s grit, perseverance and other dispositions. As learners explore who they are and who they want to become, they come to understand themselves as learners—their interests, learning style, and future aspirations. Members of the learning team interact with young learners throughout the process discussing results and experiences directly with the learner broadening their scope of awareness. Equipped with a deeper understanding of who they are, the learner completes their profile and prepares for a “Who Am I?” conference.

The “Who Am I?” conference is a time for learners to celebrate their accomplishments and confer with a Learning Specialist to co-design their first plan and pathway. Plans and pathways are informed by the learner profile. Plans are specific and measurable and consist of relevant cross dimensional goals selected from competency continuums within each of the dimensions. Pathways are interdisciplinary learning experiences co-designed by the learner and his specialist. Plans and pathways consist of a wide array of possible learning experiences including isolated skill acceleration, interdisciplinary pursuits, or Extended Learning Opportunities (ELOs). Learners have voice over when, how and where they engage in learning. Flexible scheduling and customizable ELOs break the mold of rigid school day schedules and classrooms. Learners now engage with community partners, employers and other content specialists to support the attainment of learning goals through participation in real and relevant life activities, problems, and community or career based learning opportunities.

Learning Specialists meet with students regularly to monitor progress, provide feedback and make adjustments. Learners demonstrate proof of progress toward meeting the identified competencies rather than measuring seat time or traditional grades or credits. Evidence of competency mastery may include real time feedback from online adaptive assessments, rubrics, and student designed demonstrations of learning. Learner profiles are continually updated and new iterations of the learning plan developed.

Roles and practices of learners

Reshaping a culture of learning where learners are at the center of designing personal plans and pathways requires a redesign of the roles both educators and learners play. Teachers who instruct classes and provide evaluation of student achievement no longer exist. They are replaced by an interdependent team of professionals who co-create personalized plans and pathways with learners and coach and engage with learners to maintain focus on the learning plan. The learning team at the Academy consists of Specialists, Coaches and Extended Learning Practitioners.

  • Learning Specialists are essentially learning managers confer in a cyclical process to develop Learner Profiles, co-design personalized plans and evaluate and proof of learning for rigor.
  • Global, Employability, Citizenship and Wellness Specialists serve as resource coordinators. They locate, curate, coordinate and broker learning experiences necessary for individual pathways. These specialists contract with Extended Learning Practitioners who provide time, talent and treasure within the learning plan.
  • Learning Coaches are active partners who learn along side of of students guiding “coaching” them through their pathways and assisting with the creation or curation of rigorous proof of learning.

The transformation of learning at Norris Academy required a complete redesign of the practices of adult and youth learners. A significant shift from adult driven to learner driven is evident. It is this shift that empowers learners to engage in relevant and meaningful learning. It is this learning that creates a sense of ownership and confidence. It is this ability that prepares learners to tackle the challenges that lie ahead of them our new global marketplace…whatever they maybe.

Johnna Noll is the Executive Director of Norris Academy, where she provides visionary leadership to guide the development, implementation and scaling of Norris Academy as a world-class educational service provider.

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