Sketchbooks. Makerspaces. Student Startups. Inside America’s Largest Personalized Learning Experiment, How One Rhode Island ‘Lighthouse Laboratory’ Is Reimagining School

Sixth-grade students in a math class at Barrington Middle School in Rhode Island learn about ratios by designing makerspaces for the school’s new building. (Credit: Kate Stringer)

It was the silence that made technology teacher Rebecca Henderson look up. Moments before, her sixth-graders had been giggling over two robots, which they’d nicknamed WALL-E and Eve, from the popular Pixar movie. But now, they were huddled in a circle, whispering. Finally, a few broke the silence and walked over to their teacher with an important question: Could they have a robot wedding?

She thought for a moment. In any other school, in any other year, she might have said no. After all, it was the beginning of a new trimester, and she already had lessons planned out for the next month. But something else was turning in her head, and in two seconds she decided to scrap those plans.

“Yeah, let’s do it,” she said.

It was exactly the kind of impromptu decision Henderson was supposed to be making. Her school, Barrington Middle School in Barrington, Rhode Island, is one of three personalized learning laboratory schools for the state, experimenting with deeper, experiential learning practices that officials hope will expand to encompass all of Rhode Island’s 142,000 K-12 public school students and eventually become national models.

As personalized learning has gained traction nationally, Rhode Island has become a leader in the field after launching a statewide initiative in 2016 under Gov. Gina Raimondo’s Office of Innovation. Central to this $2 million public-private partnership are the three Lighthouse Laboratory schools — 360 High School, Barrington Middle, and Captain Isaac Paine Elementary — that are receiving $200,000 over two years to help fund professional development, curricular materials, or staff stipends.

The goal is to devise scalable methods of empowering students to drive their own education through personalized learning, to better prepare them for careers. “We need to take this moment to catch our education system up to the 21st century,” said Daniela Fairchild, director of education for the Office of Innovation.

The Lighthouse schools check in at least once a month with the office, which has staff available for ongoing support, is bolstering professional development for teachers, and created an open resource database for educators statewide to share their materials, curriculum, and best practices.

The three schools had already been delving into personalized learning before the grants, so the state money is meant to help them accelerate work in two years that might have normally taken six to seven years, Fairchild said.

In Barrington, interest in personalized learning was sparked by the district’s performance on the 2014 PISA exam. Administrators poring over the results of the international test noticed something that concerned them: Students weren’t able to connect the material they were learning in school to the questions on the exam — and, by extension, to skills they’d need for successful careers after graduation.

“We want kids to own things, not just test well,” said Paula Dillon, assistant superintendent at Barrington Public Schools. “ ‘Can they apply it?’ is more important than ‘Can they regurgitate it?’ ”

So the district decided to move toward a deeper, experiential learning model that would connect student learning with projects and real-world impacts. Specifically, they focused on teaching the “4 Cs”: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.

Eighth-grade students work together on a spring-scale lab in science class at Barrington Middle School in November 2017. (Credit: Kate Stringer)

Part of that effort involved a partnership with Northeastern University’s NExT — Network of Experiential Learning Teachers — program, which connects educators from innovative schools across the nation to collaborate and share best practices. The university has long practiced what it preaches, with its college students participating in learning projects around the globe.

For Chris Unger, associate teaching professor in Northeastern’s graduate school of education, who helps facilitate NExT’s outreach, teaching through experiences works for the same reason driver-education schools put students behind the wheel of a car. “Employers aren’t asking, ‘Do they know this book knowledge?’ ” Unger said. “They’re asking for people who can critically think.”

The kind of teacher collaboration modeled at NExT has been built into teacher schedules at Barrington. The school has Hackathons, where teachers share the projects they’re working on with other educators and community members to get feedback. The Rhode Island–based Highlander Institute, which supports personalized learning efforts, has partnered with the district to help with teacher training.

Teachers are encouraged to work with their colleagues to create interdisciplinary projects for students. For example, Henderson and several colleagues formed a new entrepreneurship class by combining their technology and business classes.

To encourage idea sharing and feedback, Principal Andrew Anderson hung a chart with an image of a pineapple (a traditional symbol of welcome) where teachers can write down upcoming lessons, in case their colleagues want to observe and learn from them or offer advice on how to improve on what they’re teaching.

This deeper, experiential learning has led to increased teacher leadership and student voice.

“From an educator standpoint, it means that administrators trust the learning that is going on in the classroom,” Henderson said. “For my students, it means they can see I trust them … and I am completely interested in who they are as individuals.”

Hands-on learning

In Julie Abruzzi’s math class, sixth-grade students were talking animatedly as they designed 3-D models for makerspaces. Barrington Middle School is constructing a new campus next to the current building, and students will be involved in deciding what should go into the new makerspace that will be housed there.

Calculating ratios, students first sketched out their designs on graph paper and then selected scraps from a recycling bin to create their models. Their dreams for the space included everything from green screens to bookshelves to chairs that swung from the ceiling. “It’s a place where you can make learning fun,” said sixth-grader Ethan Knight.

Student sketchbooks from sixth-grade math class line a table at Barrington Middle School in Rhode Island. (Credit: Kate Stringer)

In science class, teacher Shawn Henderson used national news to inspire a lesson that combined the skills of math, science, and language arts. After a girl was hit by a baseball in Yankee Stadium in September, he divided national baseball stadiums among his students and had them calculate the distance between the seats and home plate, and whether fans had enough time to react to a fly ball. The students then wrote to the ballparks’ directors recommending improvements to stadium safety. The students received several letters back, thanking them for their advice and providing feedback on how their suggested improvements — like a clear wall — might be impractical due to weather.

“Please let your students know the Houston Astros are proud of them for their research,” wrote Bobby Forest, vice president of baseball stadium operations, in a letter to the class. “It is because of them change can and will happen.”

Over in Rebecca Henderson’s technology lab, eighth-graders were finishing up prototypes for their entrepreneurship class, where they’ve been creating their own businesses, tracking would-be competitors, and learning marketing skills for the product designs they’ve invented. These creations can be anything they want, as long as it tackles a solution to a problem. The students’ inventions range from a goalpost that tracks how fast a ball is traveling to dog collars that serve as a housebreaking training tool by causing a doorbell to chime when the pet approaches the door, signaling it needs to go out. The students said they like the freedom that comes from this open-ended entrepreneurship.

Sixth-grade students are designing models of makerspaces as part of a lesson on ratios. Some of the designs will be incorporated in a real makerspace that Barrington Middle School is constructing as part of its new school building that will be built in the field outside the students’ classroom window. (Credit: Kate Stringer)

“You experience it on your own,” said student Eva Brieger. “You figure it out on your own.”

“It’s cool that you don’t have any answers,” classmate Morgan Alverson added.

But this kind of autonomy can be frightening for educators, who have their eyes on standardized tests and feel the pressures of preparing students for a wide span of knowledge rather than spending time digging deep into a few topic areas.

“I’m not going to lie and say it’s not a concern of ours, how we will continue to do [on standardized tests],” said Andrew Anderson, principal of Barrington Middle School, where, in the 2016–17 school year, proficiency rates in math and reading were 64 and 81 percent, respectively. “But I feel like teachers have found a good balance of making sure curriculum and content is being taught but also having these opportunities where kids can explore.”

Students work with math teacher Julie Abruzzi during a lesson on ratios in November 2017 at Barrington Middle School. (Credit: Kate Stringer)

Rebecca Henderson said some teachers feel trapped because of the traditional demands of testing, but over time at Barrington, she’s seen them loosen up because of the freedom project-based learning allows. “I’m starting to see more teachers let go of traditional teaching that spoke to tests,” she said. “That has been a gradual process.”

Fairchild emphasized that state assessments aren’t the only way students are evaluated. She pointed to the Every Student Succeeds Act, which allows for states to measure accountability based on indicators like chronic absenteeism and suspension rates as well as reading and math scores. “Assessments are an important way to measure our performance and progress, but they’re not the only way,” she wrote in an email to The 74. “The best preparation for a test is great teaching and challenging and engaging content.”

To measure the performance of Lighthouse Schools, the Office of Innovation is working with the nonprofit Education Development Center to analyze the three schools’ assessments. They will be looking at local tests, rather than state exams, because of recent changes that make comparisons challenging. The state is also measuring school climate and culture data that should be released this month, Fairchild said.

A preliminary look by the state at Barrington Middle School showed that all teachers have begun plans for project-based learning units in their classrooms. At the beginning of the school year, 49 percent of students were tracking their own performance data, and the school has a goal of 100 percent by year’s end.

The state is still developing tools for assessing the effectiveness of its schools’ personalized learning strategies. Next up: a partnership with Highlander Institute and Mathematica Policy Research to create and test a tool for teachers to measure the effectiveness of their personalized learning instruction with their students.

Rhode Island may be the nation’s smallest state, but that’s part of the reason it can effectively serve as a laboratory to experiment with best practices around personalized learning, said Richard Culatta, head of the International Society for Technology in Education and former leader of Rhode Island’s personalized learning work. He thinks personalized learning has the power to level the achievement gap.

“Over time, what I hope to see — I think the students will see in Rhode Island and other places where this is implemented — is narrowing the equity gap,” Culatta told The 74. “I think one of the reasons we have so many gaps is because we don’t have a learning model that’s tailored to individual student needs.”

Students work on Chromebooks during science class at Barrington Middle School last November. The school is one of three piloting personalized learning practices as part of a statewide initiative. (Credit: Kate Stringer)

The state’s ESSA plan also makes the work of personalized learning easier, Culatta said. The federal law gives states more flexibility to innovate and measure success beyond traditional academic indicators. When Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos approved Rhode Island’s ESSA plan in March, she praised it for its personalized learning opportunities, specifically “Pathway Endorsements” that allow students to focus on subjects that fit their interests.

The word “personalized” appears six times in the text of Rhode Island’s ESSA plan, utilized as a method for improving low-performing schools, a priority for awarding out-of-school funding for disadvantaged students, and a way to enhance high school diplomas.

The word also manifested itself in the students’ robot-wedding preparations. In the month after Rebecca Henderson agreed to her students’ proposal, the sixth-graders had learned to program the robots to walk down the aisle and dance at the reception. They also learned how to plan a ceremony and to collaborate with their classmates to come to agreement on wedding music and formal attire for the bride and groom. And when the big day finally arrived, students invited teachers and community members to come see WALL-E and Eve get hitched.


“I was more accepting [of the idea] because allowing them to personalize their projects empowers them to learn,” Henderson said. “I no longer have to ask them to learn. I guide them to learn.”

Disclosure: The Highlander Institute, which supports Barrington Middle School’s work, receives financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provides financial support to The 74.

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