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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Facebook-Engineered Learning Model Forces Milwaukee Students To Think Differently

Rachel Morello
More of the responsibility for learning rests with students this year at Milwaukee Collegiate Academy.

This year, for the first time, a Milwaukee charter school is trying a new system of teaching and learning created by Facebook engineers.

The Silicon Valley-based company worked with Summit Public Schools in California to create Summit Learning, a computer-based model that puts more of the responsibility on students to take charge of their learning.

It’s a project-based curriculum designed with the goal of personalization for each individual student. And Milwaukee Collegiate Academy, a charter on the city’s north west side, is one of only 120 schools across the country piloting the model this year.

Credit Rachel Morello
Students transition between classes in MCA's freshman wing.

The ninth-grade wing of MCA looks like your typical high school hallway: students chatting between classes, ducking in and out of lockers.

It’s only once you enter a classroom that you notice something different is happening here.

The teacher begins class by addressing the students as a group. She gives some direction, then releases her kids into what’s called “personalized learning time.” They scatter across the room – some curl up in bean bag chairs, a few start listening to music. Each works independently, on his or her own laptop.

Freshman Lasha Castro is taking a biology test. Right next to her, a friend works on some math problems. Other students choose to attack Spanish homework, or a history project.

This is a key element of MCA’s new “personalized” learning model: all students are given the same assignments. Each will eventually have to take the test Lasha is filling out now – but each one decides when.

Lasha says she prefers her schedule this way.

“We got computers all day, instead of teachers writing notes on the board,” she explains.

“Do you like it better?”

“Yeah, because then we don’t have to wait on the teachers,” she adds.  

Credit Rachel Morello
MCA freshman work independently -- and some in small groups -- during "personalized learning time."

Technology is key to the Summit model. Students do all of their work on computer software, called the “personalized learning platform,” or PLP. It’s a one-stop shop for students. In fact, the platform houses every assignment expected of them for the entire year – usually, the sequence consists of introductory reading materials, followed by homework or worksheets and study guides, and then unit tests. Projects are scattered throughout each course.

Students work at their own pace. They’re able to see how far they’ve come – as well as what work remains to be done – thanks to a little blue line that moves along their screen each day.  The system also relies on color-coding: for example, completed assignments are highlighted in green.

Credit Summit Learning
A sample of the home screen students encounter when they log onto their school's version of Summit's "personalized learning platform,"

Once students finish an assignment, they hit “submit.” Then teachers, who have their own logins, correct the work and send it back. 

Sound like college?

That’s the goal, says MCA’s freshman director, Kourtney Bauswell.

“We are teaching students how to be self-directed learners, how to set goals, and then developing the action steps to meet those goals,” Bauswell says.

"We are teaching students how to be self-directed learners"

Bauswell says Summit is nothing like traditional high school. While teachers still outline expectations – and will instruct in large groups if they notice multiple students struggling with a concept -- the students must take the initiative to complete their work.

“I put myself in my college shoes: I had this syllabus, and I had all these things that were due. I knew the due date, and it was my job to complete those things,” Bauswell explains. “Many of our students didn’t just show up here the first day of school and have those skills already instilled in them. I think we’re creating that space for students to be able to do that.”

MCA principal Judith Parker says her school has a solid record of getting kids to college. It’s getting them through that has proven a bigger challenge.

That’s where she thinks the Summit model will help.

“We know that it’s more than just about getting good grades,” Parker says. “It’s also about managing your time. It’s about seeing the big picture of everything you’re working on. And a lot of times, trying to figure that out in college is really difficult for kids who’ve led a very prescriptive existence of, show up at this class on time, fill out this worksheet.”

Credit Rachel Morello
Posters explaining elements of the Summit model dot walls in MCA classrooms.

That biology test freshman Lasha Castro was taking? It’s only 10 questions. And depending on how Lasha performs, she can take it more than once.

In fact, according to Summit terminology, these aren’t “test” – they’re “assessments.” They’re designed to test content knowledge. The goal is to keep students on track to get to from one phase of a subject to the next.

This is another element of the Summit model: emphasizing mastery over memorization.

“When a student takes a test in a ‘traditional’ model, let’s say they get a 75 percent, so they pass the test,” explains freshman director Kourtney Bauswell. “But what that really means, is that they only mastered 75 percent of the material. There’s still 25 percent the student didn’t master. And often times, we move on from that.”

“The idea of our shift is that kids are going to come back to that 25 percent,” she continues. “That pushes us to make sure students leave ninth grade having completed all we say is necessary to move up to tenth grade.”

Credit Rachel Morello
A grading rubric for Ms. Pietrantonio's freshman science class.

As such, “grades” aren’t really emphasized in the Summit model, because they can change as students master more material. If Lasha answers six out of 10 questions correctly on her biology test, she’ll earn a 60 percent; but if she retakes the test and identifies eight correct answers the second time, her grade gets bumped up to an 80 percent.

Grading rubrics are another tool that helps students identify the skills they need to master. For example, in Spanish class, MCA students are working on an oral presentation with partners; they’re graded on a sliding scale from one to five, on skills such as pronunciation, and remembering key vocabulary.   

Other key elements of the Summit model include assigning each student a staff mentor in the MCA building, and weekly team-building activities in small group settings.

MCA students, teachers and administrators agree the new model took some getting used to, at first.

“Having our teachers go from being very prescriptive in the classroom, to this more relaxed and collegial atmosphere has been a journey,” says principal Judith Parker. “Some of our kids were having some difficulty with the freedom, too. It didn’t necessarily feel like ‘school’ to them, at first.”

"The idea of school is shifting, but I think everything we're doing makes a lot of sense."

Despite the unconventionality of the model, staff has had few issues to troubleshoot.

“The idea of school is shifting,” Kourtney Bauswell says, “but I think everything we’re doing makes a lot of sense,”

If all goes well with MCA’s ninth grade class this year, the students will continue using this learning style throughout their high school days – and so will all future MCA students.

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