School & District Management Opinion

How Next-Gen Learning Boosts Rigor, Relevance and Relationships

By Tom Vander Ark — August 19, 2014 4 min read
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A recent NY Times post made the obvious point that
relationships matter to learning but incorrectly suggested that reformers and innovators don’t appreciate “bonds of caring between teachers and their
students.” I’ve found the opposite to be true.

The author argued for “tried and true” but when two thirds of American kids don’t get what they need from our schools (and communities), they deserve
improvement and innovations that (to borrow from Big Picture) boost rigor, relevance and relationships.

As recently noted, it was talent development and new school
development that led to improvement in achievement and completion over the last 20 years. These reforms were grounded in sustained relationships with great
teachers. Thousands of new and transformed schools were created based on the fact that, for most of students, learning is relational. Expectations
expressed through sustained relationships in a powerful culture are those that matter. For young people, the opportunity to be around adults they can
imagine becoming (to paraphrase Deborah Meier) is invaluable. Teachers, and great teaching, matters more than ever.

However, these improvement efforts have relied heavily on heroic efforts to optimizing an obsolete system based on textbooks and birthdays. The opportunity
set to boost engagement, personalize pathways, and sustain relationships improves every month with new tools and next gen learning models--schools that work better for students and

All the top school networks and most school districts have come to realize the limitations of the old model and the potential of blending the best of
online learning with teacher-led instruction. National new school design competitions like Next Generation Learning Challenges and local innovation incubators like 4.0 Schools in New Orleans underscore
the opportunity at the intersection of organizational design thinking and technology development. For a great example of an innovative school model and
platform, read about Summit Denali.

Innovations that boost rigor.
The Literacy Design Collaborative is an online open resource for writing across the curriculum. Hundreds
of thousands of teachers have plugged into online professional learning communities in support of higher expectations.

Part time online learning is providing millions of secondary students expanded access to college prep classes, AP and dual enrollment courses, world
languages, and electives (see Making the Most of State Course Access Programs).

In a flawed piece three years ago, Matt Richtel quoted me on the need for more evidence and Kirp chirped it again last weekend. Today there is lots of evidence from new tools and new schools suggests that
blended learning can significantly boost achievement. It’s also clear that new tools and schools are Improving Conditions and Careers for teachers.

Innovations that boost relevance.
Blended learning is helping engage students and boosting motivation. A February paper,

Deeper Learning For Every Student Every Day

, profiled 20 schools that use technology to support project-based learning.

The Department of Education launched a series of competitions that will stimulate the use of online learning
and simulations to boost career education.

Blended workforce development programs like General Assembly, Koru, and Fullbridge are filling the gaps left by K-16 education.

CTE flex academies combine online learning and internships. GPS Education Partners is a network of manufacturing flex
academies in the upper midwest. Career Path High near Salt Lake City is an early college flex high school at an
applied technology training center.

Making stuff can get kids excited about careers. There is a growing range ofK-12 coding resources, Maker Faire and and DIY activities. Baltimore’s Digital Harbor Foundation is making hands-on learning
available after school and during the summer. Project Lead The Way offers applied hands-on STEM learning in
engineering, biomedical science, and computer, along with post-secondary credit for students who qualify.

Innovations that boost relationships.
New secondary schools usually include an advisory structure--a distributed counseling system. As discussed in Core & More, the best student guidance
systems are blended (leveraging technology and in-person instruction and services), distributed (leveraging staff in addition to school counselors), and
scheduled (utilizing an advisory period) to ensure effective implementation and attainment of outcomes. They must connect academic preparation, thought
patterns, interests and learning to students’ college and career aspirations. The infographic summarizes 10 benefits students should expect
from secondary guidance.

New tools create the opportunity for new school models that extend the reach of great teachers. Adaptive learning systems power
rotational models that create the opportunity for teachers to work with small groups of students.

No question about it--relationships are important to learning. That’s why innovations in learning are creating more of a good thing and supporting great
learning environments for students and teachers.

The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.