By Rachel Abrahams
It’s now been about eight years since AVI CHAI became interested in the field of personalized learning and the potential that this new model of education has to impact student growth and classroom experience. We concentrated our efforts on supporting a shift to blended learning, the strategic combination of teacher-led instruction and technology, as a way of creating more student-centered classrooms, where teachers are personalizing instruction based on data from technology platforms. Of course it now is satisfying to witness the adoption of these methods in many North American day schools. At the same time, we have learned a great deal about the most effective ways to approach this work to help schools actually make these changes.
A Critical Strategic Shift to Focus on the Teachers
Initially, we began this work focusing our projects on school leadership – with:
- education and advocacy (online courses for school leaders) so principals could learn more about blended learning;
- school change initiatives like BOLD day schools (in partnership with the Kohelet Foundation and the Affordable Jewish Education Project), DigitalJLearning and JBlend (now in Miami and Boston).
While those ventures were successful, they ultimately impacted only a small fraction of day schools. So, about four and a half years ago, we shifted our strategy to work directly with teachers. We realized that for this shift in pedagogical practice to take hold, the unit of change was the classroom. We set out to provide professional development to as many teachers as we could – reflecting a wide range of experience and years in the field – before we close at the end of 2019. After funding a scan of the field to learn what was available in general education, we became interested in the work of BetterLesson. BetterLesson provides personalized professional development for teachers via biweekly online video coaching. They had already developed a rich database of lesson plans and an online video bank of master teachers employing personalized learning strategies. Coaches work with teachers one on one to explore and try new tools and methodologies that will help them embed new these practices into their classroom routines.
From a pilot of 46 teachers from 14 schools in 2016, the program has grown exponentially. Last year 295 teachers from 58 day schools participated. In the current academic year there are 195 new teachers from 54 schools and 95 teachers who have returned to continue coaching for a second, third or even fourth year.
Big Picture Takeaways
This strategic approach to work directly with teachers and to utilize BetterLesson offers three key takeaways:
- A “trickle” up effect in schools. Teachers go through BetterLesson’s individualized process and return to school ready to implement more personalized learning. They then become the champions of BetterLesson in their schools and demonstrate how the coaching influences what they are able to do in the classroom. As a result, their school leaders are ready to commit school dollars (this year at a 50% match to AVI CHAI) to have some teachers continue past an initial year. To further support the trickle-up effect, last year AVI CHAI began to support Leadership coaching through BetterLesson. Leadership teams from nine schools are participating this year. Our hope is that support at various levels within one institution will accelerate the shift to personalized instruction.
- Pedagogic training crosses content areas. Learning how to implement personalized learning is a process that brings together teachers of all grades and all subject areas, including general studies, Judaic Studies, and Hebrew. While BetterLesson coaches do not have content knowledge in Jewish Studies, the pedagogical discussions are not confined to specific subject matters. As there are fewer professional development opportunities for Jewish Studies faculty, BetterLesson has provided a unique chance to support all teachers.
- Teachers of all levels and years of experience can shift instructional practice. Both new and veteran teachers engage in this professional development and both categories of teachers are able to change their practice. Even some educators with coaching roles in their school are participating, helping to embed the capacity in the school to continue this work beyond BetterLesson.
Evaluation and survey results demonstrate the positive outcomes of the program back in the classroom. Here’s what we know:
- Last year’s cohort registered a 8/4 satisfaction rating. When asked how likely they would be to recommend BetterLesson Coaching to a colleague, the group answered with a 9.1/10 average likelihood rating.
- After just one year (12-16 coaching sessions), participating teachers shifted their mindsets and practices related to personalization, most commonly in the area of differentiation. Teachers also made shifts in practice related to formative assessment, small group work, and student self-reflection.
- The shifts that teachers made in their practice as a result of BetterLesson coaching typically represented small steps towards personalized instruction, such as experimentation with a new teaching strategy.
- Teachers were much more likely to experiment with new practices as a result of coaching than to build on existing ones. This experimentation often entailed perceived risks or new ways of thinking on the part of the teachers, pushing them out of their comfort zones and expanding their repertoires.
As a sunsetting Foundation, we are very pleased that schools see the value in BetterLesson and are opting in. Beginning last year in Miami and this year in Seattle and Boston, AVI CHAI has partnered with local agencies and funders to run regional cohorts of BetterLesson. This creates a community initiative to support teacher growth and a shift to greater learner-centered classrooms. Additionally, it saves local schools money since there teachers do not have to travel to a national design studio.
As AVI CHAI looks towards its sunset, we are looking for partners to continue these efforts – additional communities that would be interested in starting regional cohorts and funders that might sustain the momentum. If you are interested in learning more, please reach out to me at [email protected].
Rachel Mohl Abrahams is a Senior Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation, where, for the past 16 years, she has developed and managed an array of Jewish day school related projects.
Cross-posted on The AVI CHAI Foundation Blog