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July 3, 2019

The Roots of Our Growing Learner-Centered Movement

Ben Kornell, President and CEO

Altitude Learning President and CEO, Ben Kornell, announces the launch of Altitude Learning at Partner Forum 2019.

As AltSchool becomes Altitude Learning, I’m excited for this next phase of partnering with schools and districts to power the growing learner-centered movement. At the same time, I find myself reflecting on my past two years with AltSchool, criss-crossing the country on a mission to catalyze and accelerate the shift to learner-centered models of education. 

The Language of Meaningful Change

In these travels, I have had the great honor of meeting hundreds, perhaps thousands, of educators who have embraced learner-centered practices at their schools and in their classrooms. It has become a true movement, where even first meetings feel like a reunion where we marvel, “We speak the same language!” Behind our shared dedication to putting learners at the center is often a common origin: powerful educators in our own schooling experience who changed our lives.

For me, that educator was Mrs. Kirts. I landed in her 4th grade class at Parkside Elementary, my third school in less than a year following my parents’ divorce. I immediately felt the embrace of Mrs. Kirts and her generous spirit. However our first writing assignment was a doozy: a fictional narrative with a hero’s journey, coupled with vocabulary words and grammar. Until then, I had never written more than a paragraph. 

Perhaps sensing my rising panic, Mrs. Kirts walked by my desk and whispered, “You’re so creative. I’m looking forward to what you come up with.” All these years later, I can remember that whisper and the warmth in my chest as I thought, “Yes, I am creative.” What proceeded may not live in the annals of literature, but for Parkside Room C3 it was epic: “The Adventures of the Four Tacos.” It was my homage to The Three Amigos and included classmates as main characters—a sort of olive branch. Mrs. Kirts asked me to read to the class and I quickly shifted from “new kid” to “funny writer.” It soon became a weekly serial and my writing career was launched! 

In that magical year, Mrs. Kirts encouraged us to try on countless identities: scientist, explorer, architect, journalist, artist, archaeologist. We built balsa wood towers, developed PSAs about the ozone layer, and rapped about the rainforest. Despite these experiences, I always came back to “writer” and ultimately, nine years later, I declared as an English major in college, ready to write the next great American novel.

Dynamic Learning for a Dynamic World

What I didn't realize then is that Mrs. Kirts was employing learner-centered practices. Learning experiences were focused on building skills and competencies. She found ways to make learning relevant and contextualized and allowed for student choice and voice throughout the learning process. We bridged our classroom and community with partnerships at Cummins Engine Company and we practiced anytime/anywhere learning through mentorship models.  All of this as a 4th grader and before the internet.  

This kind of experience is spreading—countless educators, schools, and districts have realized that industrial school models are insufficient to prepare learners for an increasingly dynamic world. Organizations like Education Reimagined, the Mastery Transcript Consortium, and Big Picture Learning are building coalitions of schools committed to student-centered education.  As the limits of “call-center classrooms” becomes apparent, even educational technology companies are embracing Deeper Learning approaches.

The spark I felt in Mrs. Kirts’s class is a spark I am seeing in countless classrooms across America. Just in the last month, I have been blown away by Altitude Learning partners who are reshaping the school experience to align with learners. 

Learner-Centered Education in Action

At Odyssey STEM Academy in Los Angeles, students are co-designing their high school experience with advisories that help them develop 22nd century competencies and navigate workplace experiences. Enabled by the Altitude Learning platform, students can set and track progress toward goals - both on campus and at internship sites - so that they can own their success across all work. Recently, each freshman presented an end-of-year reflection highlighting their unique learning journey and goals for next year. 

Read Odyssey’s story to see how a public high school is engaging students in deep, meaningful learning.

At Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park, two joyful 6th grade girls talked about their newfound love of math in Mrs. Yob’s class. Mrs. Yob has developed a multi-pathway approach that blends digital resources and textbooks with feedback and reflection that is tracked in the Altitude Learning platform. The students not only explain how they have grown as mathematicians, but also relay a huge reduction in stress and anxiety because of this iterative, mastery-based approach.

In Danbury, CT, I had to dodge student-constructed catapults to meet with the science and math team at Wooster Academy. Embracing a flipped classroom and integrated project-based learning, the teacher team shifted away from AP exam prep for deep learning experiences that drive conceptual understanding and core academic skills. Normally this shift would have taken years, but with Altitude the plan was enacted in a few months. At the end of the year, parents were so shocked with student levels of interest and engagement in chemistry and physics that they got behind a school-wide plan to shift to competency-based learning in the coming years.

Inviting Students to Become Active in Their Learning

My visits to these schools and so many others feed my belief that all schools can evolve to deliver high-quality, learner-centered experiences. It has also helped me realize that in every school in America, there is at least one Mrs. Kirts, inviting students to discover and explore their world and themselves and whispering words of inspiration into their ears that might change their lives. 

In the end, I didn’t end up becoming a writer. This blog post is about as close as I’ll ever get to the great American novel. Instead, I ended up following Mrs. Kirts’s footsteps and became a teacher. Now as the leader of Altitude Learning, I have the privilege and joy of supporting all of the Mrs. Kirtses out there, to give them the support they need to bring learner-centered experiences to all students and give them the opportunity to reach their full potential.

Learn how we can partner to support your shift to learner-centered education.