At Whittle, “Personalization” is an emergent property of a complex educational ecosystem, not something embedded in a single role or in one person. Students are guided by advisors, teachers, family and experiences to develop a life path that builds on and extends the interests that they bring to and develop in their lives. The components of the system—advisory, mastery bands, integrative blocks, all mirrored and elaborated in X-Day, expanded in C.O.E.s, Studios, and global rotation opportunities—are nested, matryoshka-like, in a way that allows learners to experience increasingly rich learning environments as they are ready to engage with them.
Let’s start unpacking this system by thinking about the “world of the learner." We can think of learners’ lives in two big parts: life with family, friends and community, and life with Whittle School & Studios. At the intersection of these two halves are homeroom teachers (for younger students) and advisors (for older students). Studios sit at this intersection, too, as families and the broader community also have the opportunity to be involved in Studios.
The Roles of the Advisor
With those two worlds in mind, the advisor fills two roles. One is to be the point person for information flows between family and school, in both directions. This could mean informing parents about their child’s life at school so that they can continue to engage with those topics as opportunities arise. Or it may be about problems that one side or the other might need to be aware of, like the death of a pet or hurt feelings on the playground. In this portion of the advisor’s role, the structure of our information system is particularly crucial.
The other, and fundamentally much more important role of the advisor, is that of nurturing the innate human desires to explore and learn, helping students become progressively more competent at managing their own educational trajectory. They actively help students learn to navigate in ever more complex learning environments—from the physical context of early-age learning classrooms to the more abstract environments constructed by, for example, the team of teachers in their humanities block. Whittle teachers are not primarily information conduits. They are learning-environment designers and guides. They design, coach, and observe in these educational spaces—be they physical or intellectual—and students, in turn, learn by exploring them.
This is probably clearest when we think of early learning space, where the physical environment is set up in ways that leads kids to explore, to follow their interests and attention. The homeroom teacher helps them learn about quantities, materials, language and relationships by guiding the learners in the physical. The whole-child perspective is vital to this role. In Early Learning (ELC) and Lower School (LS), the role of advisor is filled by the homeroom teacher. Because of the nature of the schedule, the role is much more integrated into the flow of the day than it is in Middle School (MS) and Upper School (US).
Another distinctive component of advisory will be the means by which we approach the college process. Beginning in the first year of US, students and their families will receive thorough grounding in the nature of tertiary education. Learners and families will be guided to understand the complexities of university structures, including disciplines learners might not yet even know about, undergraduate and graduate education in different countries, and the nature and purpose of a liberal arts education. They will learn about the approaches that work best for different colleges and universities, specific areas of expertise that line up with learners’ interests and goals, how to make good use of visits to campuses, and more. We want the transition to university to be more about “the logical next step for me” rather than “how I did in the status lottery.”
If the goal in ELC and LS is to encourage the natural “explorer spirit” of learning, our goal in MS and US is to make sure we don’t extinguish it. Our methods take advantage of the things that learners are attracted to and to use those interests to hook them into learning more and more. Let’s take a look at the daily schedule to see how that works.
Essential Components of a Middle School and Upper School Student’s Schedule
Advisory is at the center of the MS and US daily schedule. Advisors are responsible for groups of ten students, with whom they meet for an hour-long period, four days per week. It is up to them to decide what each individual child needs, as well as what the group needs. The role of the advisor is to view the advisory group as a small community. Learners need to feel safe with and learn from the advisor and from the group. We want our students to be good at learner-driven education and at interdependent learning. The former means that Whittle students develop superb metacognitive skills and, with their advisor, learn to map their personal projects onto school and life, with the distinction between school and life becoming progressively less relevant.
Interdependent learning takes into account the fact that humans learn in important ways not just from one another but also through and with one another. Our personal neural networks exist in our own brains, but can be enriched by plugging in, as it were, to the networks of others. From this perspective, empathy becomes almost a by-product, rather than something that must be taught as a splinter skill. The Zulu word ‘ubuntu’ captures this notion and means, roughly, “I am what I am because of my relationships with others.”
Projects are an essential part of how human beings understand the world. People have internal algorithms for determining the roughly half dozen things that are of central importance to them at any given time. Just as we naturally categorize “animals,” “trees,” and “friends,” we also develop a subtle system (which takes into account attributes like short- and long-term importance; personal, parental and and societal values; and degrees of pleasurability) that helps us pretty effortlessly come to a list of personal projects. As if by magic (a common trait associated with emergence in complex systems), it turns out that in business and academic settings, people also function well when they think in terms of projects. “Projects” are, thus, a psychologically grounded unit of measure, and they inform much of our work at Whittle.
A large part of the advisor’s role is helping develop the capacity of children to become self-directed learners. In working with each advisee, the building block of conversation will be personal projects: the five to six things that at any moment are of central importance to a learner. By following the evolution of personal projects, advisors come to gain deep insights about some of the constants and the variables in the make-up of their advisees.
The advisory block will be about an hour each day. The advisor might say at the start of each session, “You four go to lunch and come back in 30 minutes. You six stay with me for now so that we can go over what you need to be doing in acceleration for the next couple of days. On Thursday and Friday, I’ll be meeting with each of you individually over lunch.” In organizing this time, the advisor will be drawing on information from each learner’s teachers and family, as well as knowledge of each learner’s personal projects. The nature and flow of information is thus of vital importance to advisors, learners and families alike.
As part of advisory and the way we structure classwork, learners develop an astute awareness of effective learning techniques and their own progress and propensities. This is a vital piece of cognitive development for learners, and it is one that has a lifelong impact. Similarly, within homeroom and advisory there will be significant focus on social-emotional learning. Not an afterthought in the Whittle system, it is an area in which all advisors—and faculty members—will receive training. Since it is part of the professional development infrastructure, everyone will have the same vocabulary and a clear understanding of how to promote healthy human development, whether in the classroom or outside of it. This will also be a component of parental development orchestrated through the advisory system.
Let’s move now to classes. Some of our classes are offered in a shorter daily timeframe (approximately 45 minutes)—which we call “bands”—because they address the more concrete skills of math and second languages. It is in these two areas that so-called mastery-based progression is most clearly on display. We guide learners in the development of specific competencies and structure their learning to increase their levels of proficiency. Crucially, learners will advance in these areas because they demonstrate mastery, not because we’re ripping a particular page from the calendar.
We envision this working through the use of small groups within a section, where the organization of work typically involves topics that can be talked about fairly quickly before having students work individually or in small groups to master the given material. Groupings can be of various kinds: homogenous groups may work together to master a given skill; heterogeneous groups may involve one or two more advanced students helping other students with material they have not yet mastered. Teachers will keep track of individual learners and their progress, and it may happen that extremely fast learners move to a different section of the same course, likely at the end of a term, if they have moved far beyond the rest of the class. Similarly, a very slow learner might move to a section where the core of the class is continuing to work on a particular topic or at a speed more appropriate to that learner.
A useful mnemonic for this is approach is “stage, not age.” It is an important aspect of personalization in that learners move at a pace that works for their learning, not at a predetermined pace of coverage. It is also important to remember that there is more to think about than just the speed of coverage and the linearity of the process. “Fast” learners might benefit from going into greater depth than normal for their grade level, rather than jumping “ahead.” In language, this may involve spending more time on work related to culture or a deeper range of vocabulary on the current topic rather than pushing ahead to cover new grammar or the vocabulary of a new topic. Similarly, as any teacher knows, there is no better way to learn than to teach something, so these students might also solidify their learning by working on previously mastered material with peers who are working on it for the first time.
A particularly powerful component of the “bands” section of the day is what we call acceleration. This is a period of the day during which we can customize the learning pace of each student. Together with their advisors, students decide in which area or areas they need to be working on a daily or weekly basis. The flexibility that this period provides is another important aspect of personalization. A learner might use it to move ahead in math in order to prepare for a particular STEM project he or she hopes to engage in. Slower learners can then have time built into the day so that they don’t fall behind. Faster learners might use this time to complete additional work, purely out of enjoyment for the subject. Other learners might use this time to work ahead in order to free up more time in the afternoon or evening so that they have more time for a Studios program they care deeply about. A Chinese language learner who wants to develop deeper reading skills than are otherwise part of the program may use this time for specialized work. The possibilities are remarkably broad.
We call the longer class periods (approximately 70 minutes) blocks, and we use these as learning spaces to do integrative work. We organize this learning by means of project-based learning in STEM, Humanities, Arts and Physical Education. These involve less linear competencies, which typically take more time to develop and may overlap. We’ll still use “competencies” (knowledge, skills, and dispositions) to describe the domains of learning, but this learning cannot typically be done within such a strict mastery-based framework. Projects, once again, are the organizational construct that allows us to integrate learning to look at issues in a coherent fashion across disciplines.
Our project-based learning (PBL) program is structured to confront major world challenges, meaning that the skills and interests that our learners develop will align with the needs of the world. Over the course of their Whittle education, students will spend a lot of time working on the world’s major problems, and their growing competencies will be reflected by growing ownership and interest in the very areas that need leaders and leadership the most.
Our take on “learner-centered education” derives from relatively new knowledge from cognitive science, which happens to line up very neatly with the philosophy espoused by John Dewey. In a nutshell, what we know about brain function tells us that the external source for learning is experience. In that sense, the phrase “experiential learning” is almost a tautology. A lecture is one kind of experiential learning, but it happens to be simultaneously “impoverished,” from the perspective of breadth of experience, and very taxing from the perspective of the learner, who is forced to take in information at a pace determined by the speaker, presumably a specialist in the material. We know that there are far better ways to organize learning experiences than sitting in a chair and listening for extended periods, and that is what our teachers will be especially skilled at designing. One of the ways we seek to distinguish Whittle is that our teachers at all levels will develop their syllabi and lesson plans based on this knowledge.
Throughout each term, two or three projects will serve to periodically integrate the learning that takes place in each block. There are two clear reasons for this approach: One is that the problems of the world rarely, if ever, present themselves within the scope of a single discipline. Energy problems, for instance, involve a network of issues, from geography to physics and chemistry to human behavior. Second, by embedding learning in real-world contexts, rather than in a comparative vacuum, learners will develop richer cognitive connections, including the multiple ways that a project may engage them emotionally. Discipline-based approaches may not have this result.
For teachers, this will mean several things. First, they will have to be comfortable not knowing everything about a given topic. In that sense, they will be modeling learning behavior for their students as they integrate material that is new to them into their lesson plans. Second, it will mean that planning is obligatorily a team effort among faculty members. Disciplinary siloing will not be an option as projects are being planned. Third, the planning will be more complex, because there will still be times when, say, math and chemistry topics need to be covered in a particular order. And at the system level, it will mean that achievement of particular competencies will take place not at the course level in some gross sense (“Algebra 2”), but will instead be broken down into components. Microcredentials will be tracked individually based on a student’s role in a given project.
This is another way in which personalization comes to the fore. Two different learners—say one learning algebra and the other calculus—could both be involved in the same project at different stages of their learning. While STEM will be required for everyone, students will have choices as to which of many STEM projects they sign up to be involved in. These choices may be influenced both by the learner’s interests and by the need to acquire certain competencies.
Personalization does not mean that students do what they want when they want. It means that, with their advisor, they have great flexibility in how they go about learning the things required by the curriculum. A student who loves skateboarding above all else will not be advised to spend all his or her days perfecting kick flips and grinds. Rather, the love of skateboarding might prove to be a pathway into physics, city geography or maker space projects. This is where the role of the advisor is clearest, and where knowledge of the evolution of a learner’s personal projects can provide important insights.