Thursday, April 2, 2015

Transforming Schools with Personalized Learning Experiences

Guest Post by Bob Lenz, co-founder and Chief of Innovation for Envision Education

KQED interview about experiences at Envisions

Over ten years ago, after earning acclaim for his leadership of an innovative academy within a comprehensive high school, Bob Lenz founded the first Envision school, dedicated to the ideas of performance assessment and project-based learning. More than a decade later, Envision has grown into three Bay Area high schools, a small charter management organization, and an educational consulting division. In this post, Bob describes how Envision Education delivers personalized learning experiences that prepare students well for college and career success.
It's twenty-seven days until Kaleb Lawson's high school graduation ceremony. He is standing alone at the head of the room, and he has just been told that he is not ready to graduate. 
He faces a small audience, fronted by long table, behind which sit two adults and a fellow student who have been asking questions and taking notes. Obvious to anyone who has ever seen an episode of American Idol, this is a panel of judges.
“Your reflections on your leadership skills don't show the depth that we are looking for,” says one of the panelists. “Plus, we don't see evidence that you have practiced this presentation enough. You relied way too heavily on your notes. You didn't make enough eye contact with your audience.”
Staring at the floor, Kaleb nods slowly to acknowledge what he has heard. He is taking this hard. Preparation for this presentation was not a matter of days, weeks, or even months. This was years in the making. For the last forty-five minutes, he gave a presentation that told his entire high school story. He showed examples of his best academic work, reflected on his successes and failures, tried to make the case that he was ready to graduate.
“You're not ready, Kaleb,” another panelist says. “You can do better than this. Work with your advisor to revise your reflections. Polish your delivery. In ten days, you need to try again.”
In order to graduate, every Envision Education high school student must go through the same public presentation Kaleb attempted above (which he did indeed pass with flying colors on his second attempt).  Each Envision student needs to stand before a panel and make a sustained, evidence-based claim that he or she is ready to move on from high school. It is the culminating moment of what we call the Envision Defense Model, and it is what defines an Envision education.

Photo © Envision Education (
The Defense concept is nothing revolutionary, an idea as old as the trial of the hero's journey and as traditional to education as the relationship between apprentice and master. It is the PhD defense, the bar exam, the IPO presentation, and the playoff game. Many learning journeys culminate with a challenge that draws on everything that you have learned to meet it, proving to all that you are ready to move on.
But how do we know when a high school student is ready to move on? 
In most high schools in America, the de facto answer to that question seems both arbitrary and abstract. Four years of seat time, 120-something “credits.” Perhaps a certain number on a standardized test. We count the inputs with one abstraction (course credits) and diffusely assess them with another abstraction (letter grades). After decades of this approach, our high schools have lost touch with any concrete or personal sense of what their students know and are able to do at the end of four years.

It's not OK. Every institution of learning should know its purpose and design itself accordingly. 
  • What do we want for our students? 
  • What are we preparing them for? 
  • What do we want them to know and be able to do by the time they move on? 
  • What kind of people do we want them be?
Photo © Envision Education

Designing effective personalized learning must start with thoughtful answers to these big-picture, purpose-driven, goal-oriented questions. Although there are different ways to answer these questions legitimately, there are kinds of answers that we should not accept.

For one, the answers must come in the form of words, not numbers or symbols. Test scores, numerical school ratings, and statistics on grades are abstractions of reality, not descriptions of concrete, personal learning experiences.

And a school's overarching goal must be framed around its students, not reflect circularly back upon the school. Each student's success is its own end; students are not in school to make the school successful, which is effectively what happens when a school defines its goals in terms of test score rankings.

The mission of Envision Education, our particular answer to the question of purpose, is to prepare all students, especially those whose parents did not go to college, to succeed in college, career, and life.  For each student, this is a transformational—and above all personal—endeavor. 

Watch the academics, the skills, and the critical attitudes 

Defining Success: Know, Do, and Reflect

Before designing a way to measure our graduates, we had to determine what to measure. As stated above, the goal for our students is college success. We are not content with getting students into college; we want them to navigate the university with confidence in their knowledge and skills and with perseverance in the face of inevitable adversity.

We wrote about Envision Schools and college success in a new book with co-authors Justin Wells and Sally Kingston, Transforming Schools Using Project-Based Learning, Performance Assessment, and Common Core Standards, published this past January by Wiley.  Research by such thinkers as David Conley (2005) helped us take inventory of what's needed for success in college. When Conley surveyed professors on this question, they responded with a refrain: intellectual skills and habits of mind; 

“these were considered by many faculty to be more important than specific content knowledge.” (Lenz et al. Transforming Schools. p. 173)

The professors emphasized some of the general skills we would expect: critical thinking, analytical thinking, problem solving, reading and writing skills. But they were equally adamant about the importance of certain attitudes:

“an inquisitive nature and interest in taking advantage of what a research university has to offer; willingness to accept critical feedback and to adjust based on such feedback; openness to possible failures from time to time; and ability and desire to cope with frustrating and ambiguous learning tasks." (Lenz et al. Transforming Schools. p. 173)

The implications of Conley's study are clear as day: high schools must do more than teach content to students; they must develop intellectual skills, habits of mind, and those critical academic attitudes.

So how do we wrestle this complex picture of what it takes to be a successful student in college into a measurable and manageable set of outcomes for our high school students? At Envision, our next step was to create was our own graduate profile, a community-accepted statement describing what a learner should know and be able to do in order to graduate from our schools.

After a great deal of thinking, discussing, reflecting and collaborating, we came down to three simple verbs – KNOW, DO, REFLECT – and we structured and balanced our graduate profile around them. The prepared graduate knows the content and the discrete skills of her academic subjects. She can do what typical college courses demand (research, analyze, inquire, and create) using her intellectual, interpersonal, and executive skills to make things happen. And she has the ability to reflect, a habit of self-awareness and revision that sets her on the path of continued growth.

Envision’s graduate profile has led to the development of a four-year program, bolstered by high-quality assessments, calibrated rubrics, and excellent daily instruction, that culminates in our Graduation Defense.  Preparing for the defense, and for every exhibition and project along the way, defines each student’s personal educational journey, a story they get to tell in their Defense presentation.  This is personalized learning at its best, when students can articulate what graduation means to them, why and how they are ready, what they are prepared for, and where they want to go next.  

Bio and Contact information

Bob Lenz is the Co-Founder & Chief of Innovation for Envision Education. He is a nationally recognized leader in high school redesign, deeper learning, project-based learning, 21st century skills education, and performance assessment.

As Envision’s Chief of Innovation, Bob works to bring the Envision model to schools across the country, and to guide the national conversation on school reform and student success.

Previously, Bob founded Academy X, an award-winning leadership and humanities program at Sir Francis Drake High School in San Anselmo, California. In 1999, Drake High was named one of thirteen New American High Schools by U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley. In 2000, the school was featured on the cover of U.S. News & World Report as an example of successful high school reform. Bob was the first in his family to receive a college degree, obtaining a BA degree from St. Mary’s College and an MA degree in education from San Francisco State University

Twitter: @envisionschools

No comments:

Post a Comment

Join us in the conversations and share your feedback: