Friends School of Baltimore Private School Blog

The promise of personalization

Posted by Matt Micciche, Head of School, Friends School of Baltimore on Jan 10, 2019 2:54:37 PM

“Personalized education” is a trendy buzzword in education circles these days. (Indeed, it is one of the goals articulated in Friends Connects, the School’s strategic direction.) Yet, as a recent article in Education Week details, there is no clear consensus on what exactly it means.

The traditional school model was purposefully designed to avoid personalization at all costs.  The convergence in the late-19th century of the movement towards universal, free public schooling and the Industrial Revolution produced a system of education that was proudly based upon the factory model of mass production. Schools focused on standardization and efficiency, intent on making education a largely homogenous and impersonal transaction in which, as education expert Sir Ken Robinson has put it, we “educate children by batches: we put them through the system by age group” and we operate with a “production line mentality.”  Sadly, the vestiges of this mindset are all too evident in today’s high-stakes testing regimen in many schools and in the outsized importance of standardized exams as a measure of academic potential and achievement.

The work of moving away from standardization is an act of educational rebellion – one that raises the valid question of why an individual teacher, much less an entire school, would want to adopt such a direction in the first place. As my fellow Friends educators will attest, the answer lies in the experience of seeing students come alive with remarkable passion and excitement when they are given the chance to explore areas of particular interest to them, to read books that speak to their own life experiences, or to research topics that they have always been curious about.  As teachers, we want more and more of those moments for our students. We want them to take ownership of their learning and do the hard work of charting a course for their educations that will be unique to them. And we want this because of our shared conviction that doing so will offer them the most meaningful and enduring educational experience possible.

As we embark on this exciting and novel terrain to provide a “personalized and deeply meaningful education to all students,” we plan to visit a number of schools, including  High Tech High in California and Eagle Rock School in Colorado, that have made personalization their guiding star.  And we intend to work closely with our students to hear about their vision for the future of this kind of learning at Friends School.  We’re under no illusion about the difficulty of the task we’ve taken on, but we are motivated by our memories of those magical moments in our classrooms when personalization made all the difference for our students.  Stay tuned!

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What is Personalized Learning? --  The Medium (Jan. 18, 2017)

 The Power of Personalized Learning for School Improvement -- EdSurge (May 27, 2015)


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Topics: joy in learning, personalized education, student-led learning, personalized learning

Final exams: Are we having fun yet? Actually, yes.

Posted by Matt Micciche, Head of School, Friends School of Baltimore on Dec 20, 2018 2:18:29 PM

Exam Week; hardly a phrase that conjures visions of innovation in pedagogy or laughter and collaboration among students. And yet, for 10th grade U.S. history students, all of these qualities were on display yesterday during a most-inventive final exam. Teacher Molly Smith ’82, in lieu of a standard multiple choice or blue book exam, had devised a pair of historical whodunits for students to solve and, in the process, demonstrate their knowledge of history.

In one room students playing the roles of various real-life individuals gathered information to solve the actual murder of a governor in colonial New York.  Meanwhile, in the next classroom over, another group worked their way through an escape room challenge that required them to research and analyze historical incidents from the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

Later when I asked one of the students engaged in cracking the escape room code how her exam went, she furrowed her brow and said, “I thought it was going to be easy, but actually it was really hard – and also fun!”

The stark contrast between Molly’s Project-Based Learning (PBL) exam and those we recall (often, in my case, in still-vivid nightmares) from our own school days demonstrates that, contrary to conventional wisdom, joy and rigor can - and I would argue should - be a common and seamless pairing.  As humans, we thrive on overcoming challenges, and, as we all know, the opportunity to master difficult tasks, particularly in collaboration with others, can be intensely rewarding. Brain research has also taught us* that “play is critical to the emotional and intellectual development of every child.  We must create appropriate opportunities for play at every grade level.”

There may well always be a place in schools for the kind of cumulative production of factual information that the exams of our childhood epitomized. Surely, the ability to summon discrete pieces of knowledge is valuable and necessary, even in the age of Google, when the sum of human knowledge is, quite literally, in the palm of our hands. But we must also make room for new ways for students to demonstrate what they have learned (content knowledge), what they can do with it (analysis, synthesis, and hypothesis), and how these learning experiences will shape their developing hearts and minds. And all educators need to obliterate the false dichotomy between joy and rigor, relegating that antiquated distinction to the ashes of educational history.

*  Mind, Brain, and Education Research Informed Strategies, from the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning

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Project-based learning is a new rage in education. Never mind that it’s a century old. Washington Post, December 12, 2018

8 Play-Based Strategies to Engage Youth in Learning Edutopia, October 16, 2014


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Topics: Importance of play, student assessment, final exam, project based learning, joy in learning

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