Here’s a good introduction to a topic we will be talking about a lot – how schools in New Hampshire and other states are going beyond traditional teaching and helping each child learn in the way that fits best. It’s a movement that started long before states adopted the new standards but personalized learning has been strengthened by the Common Core emphasis on teaching students to formulate their own solutions real world problems.
This Atlantic piece features the great work going on in Pittsfield but represents the direction in which many other New Hampshire schools are moving as well:
“There used to be a lot more of teachers talking at you—it didn’t matter if you were ready to move on. When the teacher was done with the topic that was it,” said Noah Manteau, a senior this year at Pittsfield. “This is so much better.”
Educators, researchers, and policymakers at the state and national level are keeping close tabs on Pittsfield, which has become an incubator for a critical experiment in school reform. The goal: a stronger connection between academic learning and the kind of real-world experience that advocates say can translate into postsecondary success.
Pittsfield, a former mill town, has about 4,500 predominately white residents, and the Middle High School serves about 260 residents. Fifty-six percent of them qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Student-centered learning is fully in place in the high school, and elements of it are being phased in at the middle-school level. The long-term plan is to eventually add it to the nearby elementary school.
Pittsfield’s superintendent, John Freeman, is among the first to acknowledge that adopting student-centered learning was a bold move. Student performance on statewide assessments has long been uneven, and teachers and administrators know there is still significant work to be done. But test scores are just one indicator, and based on multiple other measures, including higher graduation and college-going rates, Freeman feels confident that student-centered learning is moving Pittsfield in the right direction.
At Pittsfield, student-led discussions, small-group work, and individual projects dominate. The traditional grading system has been replaced with a matrix of “competencies,” detailing the skills and knowledge students are expected to master in each class. Students are graded on a scale of 1 to 4—with 2.5 considered “proficient”—and those numbers are converted into letter grades for their transcripts. Teachers meet at regular intervals to review how closely their instruction is aligning with the competencies; they use an online database to continually track individual student growth. Additional online classes allow students to further challenge themselves and earn college credit. Family engagement is considered a key part of each student’s progress. And the Extended Learning Opportunities (ELO) program allows students to earn credit for workplace experiences that reinforce their academic studies, such as interning at a dentist’s office or the local radio station.
All of this means students are shouldering more responsibility for their own learning. And they are expected to develop the kind of critical thinking skills—not just rote knowledge—required for “real world” success. As a result, advocates of student-centered learning say it provides superior preparation for both college and career.
As senior Ryan Marquis put it, “I had to switch from ‘Here’s your study guide and here’s your answer sheet’ to ‘How do you want to learn the content, and how can we support you?’”