In March, Grade 7 Students Designed their own School Days

When our Grade 7 students arrived on campus on Tuesday and got off the bus, they were ready for another exciting school day at Western Academy of Beijing.

What lay ahead for them was at once completely different from every other day at school, but also the same. Grade 7 was in the midst of a month-long experience designed to enhance individualized learning.

At its core, individualized learning is an approach that creates flexibility in a student's school day, based on their needs. Each student's strengths, challenges, and interests – social, emotional, physical, and academic – are considered as they collaborate with school faculty and their parents to co-construct school experiences that maximize their individual potential. WAB has been implementing this in different ways for many years, but this is the first coordinated effort across an entire grade level.

"We want children to have every possible opportunity to learn, and our current structure only allows for most students to have good opportunities to learn most of the time," Grade 7 Level Leader Ken Forde told a group of parents at an informational workshop. "What we're aiming for is to have an individualized and personalized program that allows all students access to a range of opportunities to support their learning styles and their ability."

At the start of March, Grade 7 teachers collaborated to create a list of necessary accomplishments and assessments to be completed by the end of the month. Our students evaluated assignments, assessment deadlines, and required work to determine the time and resources they needed to succeed. From there, they built their own individualized timetable with the help of a mentor in small groups that met briefly each day.

Several sessions were offered in each subject throughout the week, and students were able to sign up for time slots that would help them toward their goals. While gaining real-life experience in time management and self-assessment, they became more aware of who they are as learners and what they need to succeed. It was an exercise in student agency.

Part of offering our students that agency, or ownership, over their learning was five weeks of preparation for the month-long exercise with lessons on soft skills, such as email and face-to-face communication, time management, organization, and note-taking.

"Development of these soft skills creates a foundation for deeper, richer, sustained understanding and success," Grade 7 teacher Liam O'Shea said. "These are life skills that prepare students not only for high school or university, but for the rest of their lives. They built an increased self-awareness and realized what actions they need to take to succeed."

It should be no surprise that there were mixed feelings of excitement and apprehension going into the process. It required the development of a lot of new skills, better organization, and increased responsibility to ensure their own success.

"I'm nervous that it will be hard for me to stay on task and stay focused," one Grade 7 student said at the start of the process. "But I am also excited to learn independently because I've never really tried it before and think I can do pretty well."

"Working with new people outside of my homeroom is something I'm really excited about," another student said. "But I'm a little bit worried that I will be confused about where to go and lost, and also worried that I will not get things done in time and lose track of my work."

But as the month progressed, the functionality and flow began to iron out not only for our Grade 7 students, but for their teachers and mentors. Some teachers mentioned they initially missed the cohesive unit of a homeroom, but found their mentorship role allowed them to develop deeper relationships with individual students. They grew increasingly aware of requirements for other subjects and how students balanced their workloads and utilized their time. They identified students who needed increased support or structure and worked with them one-on-one to tailor their experience.

Teachers who were originally concerned about students' learning progress in such a flexible environment reported that they began seeing students' soft-skill development flourish as they took more ownership over their day.

An attempt to keep track of everything that is going on for every student is a difficult task for teachers. High School Assistant Principal Brent Abrahams coded from scratch a new learning management system that allowed for teachers and students to make updates on their progress, communicate events and activities around the school, track schedules, and allow for direct communication among teachers and mentors to help guide students.

The month-long experience was not only a positive one for teachers. Our students were faced with the challenges of evaluating their own learning needs, looking ahead to create plans, and managing their time efficiently to accomplish their tasks. And while practicing these new skills did bring challenges, many students reported that their new day-to-day operation didn't take long to feel natural.

Moving forward, the majority of teachers and students expressed that they would support a mix of the traditional model and the one they experienced in March. There are expectations that the successes of the program will spread not only to the rest of the middle school, but also inform, support, and guide the work to come in both the elementary and high school sections.

"Being able to choose which classes I attended for the day and being given the freedom to order them myself was positive for my learning," one student said. "I could go to more of the classes that I needed to work on, and less to the ones that I had no trouble with."

Other students spoke about the ability to meet and work with new friends, a preference in selecting which teachers they learn from, and how the soft skills they developed will serve them going forward.

Parent communication was a key feature of the month-long experience. Teachers and students updated blogs throughout the month, invited parents in for information sessions and workshops throughout the process, and met with parents for a review of the experience at the end. Parents were both concerned and supportive at the start of the experience, and by the end of March many realized the incredible growth they had seen in their children in a short time.

"For the first time, my daughter knows the goal and how she's going to get there. It's up to her how fast she's going to get there," a Grade 7 parent said. "She's learned the word 'procrastinate,' so now she will learn how to manage her time. And that's what she needs in the real world."

"I cannot think of anything more powerful than introducing our kids to the idea that they have control of their own futures," another parent said.

The Grade 7 experience was born of a school-wide goal related to the Future of Learning at WAB, a continuous, community-wide transformational journey known as FLoW21. Inspired by the recognition that traditional school experiences lack the personalization and direct attention that would help students learn best, WAB has called on its entire community to re-think the way we approach teaching and learning and update our practices, methods, and philosophies to meet the needs of every individual.

While this experience was a challenging and beneficial experience for students in Grade 7, FLoW21 philosophies will allow even younger students to begin learning these skills in different ways.

To learn more about the Future of Learning at WAB, explore FLoW2 online.

As the WAB community continues to progress on its FLoW21 journey, parents, students, and teachers will continue to see and feel the positive changes in the school experience. Here are some of the specific actions WAB will take as part of Phase 2 in the coming school year.