Sunday, August 18, 2013

Personal Pathways to Graduation

John H. Clarke has worked for twenty years at Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School in Bristol, Vermont on personalization in several roles. John helped develop the Pathways Program and wrote Personalized Learning: Student-designed Pathways to High School Graduation (Corwin, 2013) - a book we highly recommend. 

We are honored to have interviewed John and learn more about the pathways program so we can share it with you.

Why do you believe all learning is personal?

Each one of us controls the work of our minds. Within the boney fortress of the skull, we can do what we want with our intellectual abilities, slowly constructing simple models explaining how things work – so we can manage the complex world in which we live. Yes, we have five senses that bring in information from the outside, but we don’t let everything get in – or we would be overwhelmed by chaotic impressions. We have to make a decision to learn, to be intentional about the work of our minds.

Learning depends on a decision to engage information, not just to bring it in, but to move it around with other information so it makes sense. Choosing what information to manage increases the commitment to learn. Learning follows a personal choice and, thank goodness, we all choose somewhat differently. Learning lies under our personal control, while teaching is controlled by others. As test scores clearly show, the connection between learning and teaching is pretty loose because control over learning is personal. Personalized learning begins by activating what we already know, throwing it up against new ideas and fashioning a sensible explanation of both together. We do that continuously; our ideas expand so we can explain more and more of our experience.

Personalized learning emphasizes the beliefs, talents, interests and aspirations already in place, using them to probe deeply into the questions that the individual finds meaningful or useful. Personal questions then become tools for analysis and creative work. Personalized high schools use this dynamic process to make learning more effective as well as more applicable. Learning is a personal process that produces all the different skills a society needs to adapt to change. In a personalized high school, each student learns to design and revise a personal pathway to adult independence, assembling knowledge, skills, perspectives and connections that allow  her to achieve goals that become increasingly clear as the process unfolds.

Why is it necessary to consider personalized learning as a feasible approach to secondary reform?

In a large, comprehensive high school, personalized learning seems almost impossible to imagine. High schools are built to manage large groups – divided into grades, subject areas, “tracks” for people that we can treat the same way.  As teachers facing 20 – 40 students in one room, we crave order above all else. High schools are monuments to predictable order, but predictable order does not allow all kids to learn. They learn quite differently. Smaller schools – such as charters, pilots, magnets and model high schools such as the Met in Providence and other Big Picture schools are showing how personalized learning can work – but few large comprehensive high schools have managed to personalize themselves. That’s why I wrote about personalized pathways to graduation – to show how a relatively large high school could develop reliable processes for personalizing the experience of all its students. The transformation is feasible, but surely not quick and easy.

Can you explain what these pathways entail? What led to Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School to consider personalized pathways to graduation?

Pathways at Mount Abe engage each student in looking at their talents, skills, interests and aspirations with a skillful faculty advisor to discover the things that drive them forward. The student and advisor begin to ask questions and set goals that open a desirable pathway to the future. Then the student begins to test possible pathways – doing site visits to professionals in their interest area, finding a mentor for in-depth experiences, taking college courses or virtual courses – while also searching widely for ideas from the widest possible array of choices -- conventional courses, community experience, reading and other media. Invariably, students change direction as the semesters unfold, but they are gathering evidence from all their explorations to show that they are meeting the school’s graduation standards. Each student has an “e-portfolio” web site where work is developed and stored, assembles in collaboration with the advisor. Each student web-site contains all the program graphics, guides, models of acceptable evidence, assessment rubrics and timetables, accessible to the student, advisor and anyone else the student invites in.

The Pathways Team at Mount Abraham designed a sequence of guides to help students move forward, each of which produces a “product” created by the student. As learning projects take form, the advisor introduces the standards and criteria that will be used to assess student work. As a semester ends, students and advisors refocus their energy on revising and refining the collection of evidence to show they are evidence of competency in five areas: 
  • communication
  • critical thinking
  • collaboration
  • global citizenship
  • independent learning

Each area is to be presented in an hour-long exhibition at the semester’s end. Revised and refined, the evidence, reflections and assessment become part of the student’s “best work” e-portfolio, to be used in college and job applications. The same process continues each semester with increasing focus as a student moves along his or her personal pathway.

Independent work at Pathways usually takes the form of a personal project – clearly defined processes and products. Kids have designed an enormous array of pathways: film-making, music production, medieval weapons, fire-fighting, computer programming, blacksmithing, game design, emergency rescue, nursing, film, theater, architecture, forestry, taxidermy… The list goes on. Last year, I took two kids to the Adirondacks to mine for iron or they could smelt down to make steel for the tools they hammer out on an anvil.  None of these pathways has been straight and orderly. Dead-ends, wrong leads, boring internships, deep reading, sudden inspiration and plain old discouragement can bring an inquiry pathway back to the beginning. Some kids start with three projects that slowly fuse into one.  The process is cyclical so a student is always moving toward some compelling purpose that evolves with further learning.

Pathways evolved over 15 – 20 years of exploration into a school-wide option, driven at the start by an appalling dropout rate. Twenty years ago, too many kids were leaving the secondary pathway entirely. Others were bored and resentful. Some listless. Others energized by clear prospects. In the following years change has accumulated incrementally. An early principal pushed block scheduling into place, moving classes away from lecture/recitation. Thinking skills, writing-to-learn, differentiated instruction, an advising program, team teaching, problem-based learning, portfolios, standards-based transcripts and other student-centered strategies washed through the school, leaving useful residue for later application in personalized learning.

The school then received a small grant from the U.S. labor department to start a program called “Futures”, giving students credit for self designed explorations of life after high school. A new department called Horizons gathered “Futures”, dual enrollment, service learning, senior projects and personal learning plans under one roof and laying the foundation of a new department called “Personalized Learning”, where kids could use computers and to put all these options into a framework based on their hopes and plans while showing that they had met the five graduation standards. A second grant from the Nellie Mae Foundation began the process of developing a comprehensive way to support student-designed pathways that could combine academic courses with all the available options for learning in the community. Students could design their own curriculum, or self-design a few interesting choices within a conventional program to check out career choices. Personal pathways gives a great deal of control over learning to students and their parents.

What are the new roles for teachers when learners take more control of their own learning?

Advising, mentoring and team leadership are new roles for teachers at Mount Abe. The Personalized Learning Department depends on four teachers with much of their time devoted to advising and program development. Recently, the Pathways Team Leader was asked to split her time between Pathways and consultation with teachers who are personalizing their courses within the conventional curriculum. Several courses now follow a personalized format, including physical education, human development and a senior course on citizenship, all of which are required. Two teachers now teach a middle level course initiating PLPs for each student, and another middle-level course introducing the Pathways design process, project based learning and the high school’s graduation standards. Two Pathways faculty teach a graduate course for teachers in the County’s four districts.

Teaching roles develop as the need expands. Rather than changing teacher contracts to define these fluid roles, all are identified as “teaching.” Like much of the secondary experience, teaching roles faculty loads have become standardized, trapping teachers in old conventions and preventing pioneers from exploring new ways to work with kids. Redesigning high schools to meet the needs of each student depends on having the freedom to expand our profession, making room for program development, faculty development, leadership, virtual teaching, mentoring and research within any teaching assignment. To grow and adapt, this profession needs flexibility and the authority to propose fundamental change. With information and creative power distributed universally on computer networks, failing to change is no longer a viable choice.


In 1966, John Clarke taught high school English and writing in Massachusetts, then moved to the University of Vermont where he focused on improving secondary teaching and redesigning high schools.  He has written, co-written or edited eight books on high school teaching and the process of educational reform. At the Education Lab at Brown University, he wrote two books about personalized learning and a research study of change in five Vermont high (Dynamics of Change in High School Teaching, 2001) With Joe DiMartino, he wrote Personalizing the High School Experience for Each student. (ASCD 2008). 

When we read his latest book: Personalized Learning:Student-designed Pathways to High School Graduation, we believe the strategies and tools provided can help all ages of learners personalize learning. We really love the stories he shares of the kids at Mt. Abraham and their journeys.

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