Student Experiences with a Personalized Learning Environment: A Study Of High School Redesign

Posted: May 13, 2018, 12:06 PM THEMES: ALL Articles, School Design / Redesign

school redesign graphicstock-couple-of-concentrated-young-studen

by Daniel New, Pamela Adams, Carmen Mombourquette

 

Daniel New, M.Ed
University of Lethbridge 

Pamela Adams, PhD
University of Lethbridge

Carmen Mombourquette, Ed.D
University of Lethbridge

 

Abstract

 Over 200 secondary schools in Alberta are currently reforming school practice by implementing High School Redesign initiatives that seek to increase student engagement, improve student achievement, and enhance teacher practice through flexible and student-centered learning environments. This study sought to answer the primary research question: What are students’ understandings regarding how reformed and personalized learning environments have impacted student perceptions of success? Specifically, student perceptions of success were examined in the areas of 1) key relationships in schools, 2) academics, and 3) students’ pursuit of goals during and beyond high school. Qualitative data was collected by conducting focus group interviews with 16 diverse students in grades 9-12 from three High School Redesign schools. Findings illustrate how flexible and personalized learning environments are perceived by students to positively impact relationships in school, enhance students’ academic outcomes, and increase interpersonal skills.

  

Introduction 

High school reform has been a focus for many school jurisdictions across North America (Alberta Education, 2009a) in response to documented challenges such as student disengagement, dissatisfaction with their schooling experience, and high dropout rates. Several of these challenges have been investigated and findings have been linked to the nature high school learning environment (Alberta Education, 2009b). Specifically, students experience improved academic and personal growth when learning environments accommodate their individuality (Darling-Hammond, Ancess, & Ort, 2002; McClure, Yonezawa, & Jones, 2010; Quint, 2006). Similarly, Ancess (2008) found that effective high schools implement personalized learning structures to optimize unique learner needs and contexts.

These findings have compelled an examination factory model that characterized education throughout much 20th century, during which only a few students were educated for purposes of post-secondary admission while the large majority were prepared for jobs in manufacturing (Darling-Hammond et al., 2002). Across Canada, it is increasingly expected that high school programming and instruction will support students’ pursuit of their life goals and preferred futures; one way of achieving this is by offering students differentiated pathways to learning (Alberta Education, 2014a) that adopt “an individualized approach to supporting student achievement” (Wise, 2008, p. 9).

To accommodate students’ unique identities as learners, personalized learning has come to be defined as the alignment of learning environments with students’ individual strengths, passions, and interpersonal preferences (Alberta Education, 2009b). This focus has given impetus to implementation of hundreds of High School Redesign Projects in Alberta designed to increase student engagement, improve student achievement, and enhance teacher practice through the development of flexible and student-centered learning environments. Participating Redesign schools are exempt from the required 25 hours of classroom instruction per unit of course credit (Carnegie Units). With this new-found flexibility, high schools are changing the structure of classrooms, schedules, and instructional approaches to best suit the needs of learners (Alberta Education, 2014).

Because foundational research into the relationship between personalized learning

and reforms such as High School Redesign is relatively new, questions remain as to the impact

of personalization on students. The study described in this paper explored student perceptions about the impact of High School Redesign on their success, as defined by 1) key relationships, 2) academic achievement, and 3) pursuit of goals within and beyond the high school context. The research sought to answer the question: What are students’ experiences with the impact of reformed and personalized high school environments?

 

Describing High School Redesign

The Foundational Principles of High School Redesign in Alberta are outlined as:

  • Mastery Learningimplementing instructional strategies that result in a comprehensive grasp of curriculum unfettered by time and singular summative assessment;
  • Rigorous and Relevant Curriculum—developing stimulating and inspiring curricula that set learning objectives that support meaningful, goal- oriented experiences for students;
  • Personalizationacknolwedging each student’s unique developmental level, learning style, passions, skills, and foundational knowledge based on meaningful relationships between students and staff;
  • Flexible Learning Environmentsallowing for learning to take place beyond the scheduled classroom hours where students accept responsibility for their learning;
  • Educator Roles and Professional Developmentbuilding the role teacher as guide, coach, and career mentor, and the role administrator as instructional leader of professional learning communities;
  • Meaningful Relationshipseliminating the anonymity of students through regular student-teacher interactions where teachers are committed mentors who support students in achieving their desired goals;
  • Home and Community Involvementfostering collaboration between schools and communities to provide students with learning experiences that prepare them for successful experiences beyond high school;
  • Assessmentproviding a variety of assessment opportunities for students that emphasize the value of on-going formative assessment to promote student mastery and continuous improvement;
  • Welcoming, Caring, Respectful and Saferespecting students as individuals, valuing student voice, and setting high expectations for student and teacher interactions.

(Alberta Education, 2014)

Implementing these principles requires consideration of ways that school environments may or may not be tailored to meet the needs of all students. Contemporary high schools host a variety of learners; personalized structures should ensure all learners experience some degree of benefit. Further, if projects such as High School Redesign are to be deemed successful, measured and careful consideration is required about how flexible learning and personalization is impacting learning.

 

Methodology

This study utilized a phenomenological methodology (Aoki, 2005; Pinar, 2011) to investigate the ways in which students are experiencing High School Redesign. van Manen (1979) described how phenomenological analysis relies on the question ‘What is it like?’ Specific to this study, the phenomenon of High School Redesign was examined through students’ lenses to seek answers to the question “What is it like to experience high school redesign?”

Student participants in this study were drawn from three schools that are multi-year participants in the Alberta High School Redesign Project and that were identified as sustained adopters of structures and processes of the Foundational Principles of High School Redesign. Participating schools ranged from populations of approximately 700 to 1500 students. The principal of each participating school identified students from each of grades nine through twleve who were on diverse academic pathways, including university bound, vocational bound, or general diploma bound. From these nominated students, one focus group of four to seven students of various pathways from each school site was formed.

The use of focus groups as a data collection tool was chosen to obtain the richest data possible in a single episode. Robust data that resulting from effective focus group interactions have been shown to outweigh some limitations of the method (Belzile & Oberg, 2012). Focus group interactions can “ensure that priority is given to the respondents’ hierarchy of importance’, their language, their frameworks of understanding” (Kitzinger, 1994, p. 108). As such, participants’ authentic voices assembled a key body of data for this study. The student focus group composition for each school is presented in Tables 1, 2, and 3 below.[1]

Table 1

 

School A Student Participant Demographics.

Pseudonym

Gender

Grade

G     Goals/ Interests/ Aspirations

Wendy

Female

12

Academics

William

Male

11

Academics

Wanda

Female

10

Athletics

Warren

Male

9

Athletics and Academics

 

Table 2

 

School B Student Participant Demographics.

Pseudonym

Gender

Grade

G     Goals/ Interests/ Aspirations

Nathan

Male

11

Academics

Naomi

Female

11

Undisclosed

Neil

Male

10

Athletics

Nicole

Female

11

Academics

Nancy

Female

9

Athletics

Natalie

Female

9

Undisclosed

Nolan

Male

11

Arts

 

Table 3

 

School C Student Participant Demographics.

Pseudonym

Gender

Grade

G     Goals/ Interests/ Aspirations

Ellen

Female

12

Music and Academics

Eric

Male

11

Leadership and Athletics

French Immersion Student

Edward

Male

11

Outdoor Education

French Immersion Student

Emily

Female

11

Leadership and Athletics

Emma

Female

12

Undisclosed

 

Focus group participants first took part in an introductory activity in which they completed a worksheet to identify several Redesign structures as being important or unimportant to their success in high school. Following this introductory activity, students were asked a series of open-ended questions about aspects of their school day and structures they felt were positive or negative; and how the structures in their schools impacted their relationships with peers and teachers, their academic success; and their goals and pursuit of goals.

 

Findings

Three Redesign Schools

The first set of findings below offers student perceptions and experiences of High School Redesign within each high school and are disaggregated by school. These qualitative data describe perceptions regarding how students believe unique structures associated with High School Redesign have impacted their relationships, academics, and pursuit of goals.

 

School A

This school of approximately 800 students has a longstanding reputation of striving for excellence on the provincial standardized examinations; as well, the school offers students strong and diverse programming that supplements core academic streams. School A attains the flexibility and personalization required for participation in the Redesign Project by implementing a variety of learning structures such as a flexible timetable and a Flex Block. Flex Block allows students to make decisions about how they use a portion of their school day, offering opportunities to study, work on additional homework or projects, access additional support from teachers, or engage in extra-curricular activities such as fitness or leadership.

In focus group discussions, students spoke about their use of Flex Block time to complete schoolwork, study, socialize with friends, or seek additional support from teachers. Wanda in grade 10 believed that Flex Block positively impacted her grades by providing additional opportunities to complete her course work or get further support from teachers. She also mentioned that if she does not need time to work or to get support, “then I have time to just kind of relax and just calm down a little bit and refocus for the end of the day.” Whitney in grade 10 described how the most important change for her has been “new and/or alternative ways to demonstrate learning.” She explained that simply completing tests and creating PowerPoint presentations was boring, and how she enjoyed her experiences in social studies this year. Whitney described how the class “did a simulation for Africa where we acted out the roles of different nations where we fought for Africa…kind of like a game, but it was historical. And we got a mark from that.” William in grade 11 agreed, providing evidence of how one of his unit tests was being replaced by a similar project surrounding the Paris Peace Conference.

Students also identified the importance of flexible programming in enhancing their high school experience. William explained:

There’s a lot more options and stuff that could give you backdrop to what certain professions might be like…I think it’s a good idea to help people learn about building things so they can maybe see if that’s something they might like to do.

Another key structure identified by focus group students at School A was the extra time to work or learn from teachers beyond scheduled class time. Wendy contended, “the teachers actually care, compared to my old school at least…they actually want you to succeed and want you to do well and are willing to help you better understand. Overall the teachers are really supportive.” Students elaborated on how access to teachers beyond class time and during Flex Block had positively impacted their academics, as well as their relationships with teachers.

 

School B

Home to 1400 students in grade 9 to 12 and approximately 110 staff members with 70 teachers, School B attracts students from several suburban communities around a small city. The school takes pride in celebrating students as individuals by connecting with them on personal levels and is currently focused on creating more meaningful student relationships that are not hampered by large class sizes and busy scheduling.

School B adopted a similar flexible schedule to that of School A, but with more structure for additional support from teachers during “re-teaching sessions.” Some teachers were also provided additional assigned time to make connections with students and their families during this flexible time. The goal for this time at School B was to provide more structures that could foster meaningful connections between caring adults and students at the school. Time was not only designed to provide students with greater access to academic support, but also to provide them with social-emotional support.

In focus group discussions, students such as Neil in grade 10 outlined how the Focus Block (the term used for the flex time in this school)provided him with “one-on-one access with the teacher or in a smaller group than our class. That went a long way to helping me academically than just having class time.” Similarly, Naomi in grade 11 stated that, “with Focus you have the freedom. If you have a lot of work you are able to use most of that time and have a small lunch. Or, if you don't have much work, you could use that as mostly lunch period.” Nathan added, “I think it is really helpful for students…you know where the specific Science or Math or English teachers are during Focus, and you just get help there. It's not difficult to find them.” This note was similar to what Nicole in grade 11 indicated as important during the re-teaching sessions. She explained how teachers have, “after school times where you can talk to them and they will reteach you the entire lesson….some teachers will actually videotape their whole lesson and post it on Google Classroom and you can go back and re-watch the whole lesson.” Nick in grade 11 explained how Focus and re-teaching has impacted his grades through a specific example. “Last semester my final math mark was 91. In a previous year when we didn't have Focus my mark was like 70 percent. So it went up like 20% since having Focus, in a more challenging course as well.”

When asked about other structures or ideas at School B that might be different from other high schools, students’ discussion moved beyond the timetable to the nature of their studies. Nathan in grade 11 described how he feels his teachers are passionate and engaged in their teaching, “I've never had a bad teacher. Every single teacher I've had is motivated…I have been to other schools where teachers just show up and teach. I feel like every single teacher here is doing a good job and more.” Many other students agreed with this notion. For example, Naomi stated how “there are definitely are a lot of teachers who go above and beyond.” This sense of caring from teachers has encouraged students to make effective use of their flexible timetable because, as Nicole in grade 10 asserted, “since we have different lunches [and focus blocks], we don't get to see the teachers we prefer to see. I personally find that okay because you get to meet different teachers, which is okay because they are all equally caring.”

Students at School B also believed they had access to flexible and personalized programming, and identified conversations with teachers or counselors that were helpful in identifying and meeting goals. Naomi provided her experiences when,

All the teachers and stuff are trying to help me meet my personal goals… if I talk to my counselor like once in a while, she will ask me how I am doing and stuff. But she will ask me questions like what my goals are and what I want to achieve by the end of the year. She helps me plan and organize it.

Nathan expanded upon Naomi’s ideas, connecting his personalized programming to his personal goals and daily life at School B. He outlined how his Advanced Placement (AP) courses are enabling him to pursue his goals, and that he can choose when and which AP courses he would like to have as a part of his program. Another student, Nolan, took a different perspective when looking at flexible and personalized programming by indicating how he feels his passions in the arts have been supported through personalized scheduling. He stated, “Having arts at school [is] very important for me. They have allowed me to get into extra-curricular things, and they have been fantastic for my personal life.” Similarly, Neil said, “the school has been supportive in ensuring I have the credits to graduate but making sure I can stay on that science-oriented track.”

 

School C

School C hosts approximately 680 students in grades 9 to 12. This school has a longstanding history as one of the oldest schools in a rapidly growing city. The school seeks to foster lifelong learning, diversity, and success through collaboration. The many co-curricular and extra-curricular offerings at School C are an important part of the schools’ identity, and these grow in number, scope, and capacity as the school enters its fourth year of participation in the High School Redesign Project.

To achieve the Foundational Principles of High School Redesign, teachers implemented cross-curricular projects with extra time embedded during the day to support students who required it. This embedded time is a flexible block of time from Monday to Thursday called Focused Learning Time (FLT). This block of time alternates from morning to afternoon. In addition to FLT, there is also a literacy block referred to as Connect.

When students from School C were asked to describe their experiences with personalized structures in their school, they initially responded by explaining their schedules outside of regular class time. Ellen, in grade 12, is often at school early for choir or band and Eric, in grade 11, has a Physical Education class early in the morning, also before school starts. Eric outlined the rest of his day: “I'll have my 2 morning classes and then it's almost guaranteed that I'll have a meeting at lunch. Then I have two more regular classes and then Tuesdays after school I'll stay for yoga.” Many students alluded to how busy their schedule was beyond classroom time and identified the many curricular, co-curricular, or extra-curricular opportunities and meetings at lunch or before school. Eric expanded on these busy lunch hours stating, “there are meetings for leadership, bike-a-thon, lots of people meet for newspaper, I had to step away from that…but then there’s grad, and the bike-a-thon is a pretty big one cause there are several sub committees.”

Grade 11 student, Edward, addressed a unique opportunity he had last year to spend a portion of his semester in Australia that would only be possible through the flexibility of credit hour requirements provided by Redesign. He explained,

Our schedule was completely different. We had our first semester the same. Then in second semester, I took French with a French teacher but we sped up the process since we left a month early for Australia…Then throughout the day we did special projects learning more about Australia and that was second semester. Then at the end of second semester we went to Australia we did back country camping and surfing, and in New Zealand we went caving.

Beyond opportunities like the Australia trip and building homes, students expressed their understanding of the diverse opportunities available to them at School C. Edward believed that the school

Ha[s] certain classes that a lot of schools don't. That's why we have some kids that come here in the afternoons or who come to school in the morning here and leave in the afternoons. Cause we have certain courses that kids want to take, but can't take them at other schools. Like Japanese and other unique things.

When students reflected on scheduling at School C, they discussed ways that their schedules varied from each other and, perhaps, from students at other schools. Eric believed that, “other schools are more standard, like classes, lunch classes, then go home. We have scheduled time to read, we have FLT (School C’s term for flex time). Our schedule is really modified but I think it really helps with students who might need help.” In response, grade 11 student Erin characterized what she believed is the most important part of her school day:

For me its FLT and lunch. If I have homework I haven't done I can catch up or study. Or if I need to write a test I can use that. And lunch, just to get out and clear your mind cause you get stressed at school, unless you have meetings and other things.

The final structure that students discussed was the Connect block. This discussion delved into relationships with peers and teachers, which will be highlighted in the discussion section of this paper. However, some descriptions structure itself are relevant here. For example, Emma in grade 12 outlined how “on Mondays you have to go see your connect teacher for FLT. And I feel like students have a better relationship with that teacher.” Emma perceived that these relationships “gave everyone a choice of where to go, a group of teachers. Related to who you matched interests with.” Eric responded to this with his experiences this year in Connect:

I do really appreciate the way that they did that. I got paired up with our learning support teacher. And she is a teacher I would have not otherwise not known in the halls. But I would have never known her. And I think we’re pretty close now so it’s really made a difference for me. 

Students also agreed that Connect has added to the already important relationships between teachers at students at School C. They spoke of how their relationships with specific teachers have impacted them. Eric described how one particular teacher “always talks to me about volleyball and getting scholarships…it stresses me out a little bit. But, at the same time, I like how she helps me… it takes away the stress a little bit.” Emma also offered similar perceptions:

The fact that they understand and believe in you, helps encourage you and you start believing in yourself as well. Like for Physics, it is a really big struggle for me. But because Mr. W is there and he really does understand, he is always telling me that I can do it. So now my mark has actually gone up a lot.

 

Common Themes Among All Three Schools

The student focus group responses across all sites provided basis for cross-referencing and thematic comparisons. When qualitative data from all three sites was compared, key themes emerged regarding student experiences with the impact of high school redesign. Findings were categorized[2] into three emergent themes: (1) flexible school structures and their relationship to personalized learning, (2) the impacts of flexible structures on relationships in school, and (3) the impacts of flexibility on students academic programming and academic success.

 

Theme 1: Personalization and Flexibility

One most prevalent commonalities between the schools examined in this study was the notion of flexibility. Alberta Education (2014) described this flexibility as learning that transcends specific classroom hours and provides students opportunities to take personal accountability for their learning. Although this definition of flexibility does not specifically reference daily class structures or credit hour requirements (CEUs), all schools in this study implemented a flexible block of scheudled time to acknowledge students’ need for flexible learning spaces and times.

The concept of personalization fits closley with flexible learning environments and timetables. Personalization in education has been a widely utilized term, often describing any student-centered learning design. However, through the lens of High School Redesign, Alberta Education (2014b) defined personalization as the implementation of any educational choice that accommodates for students’ individuality as learners and that promotes their success.

In the case of these three schools, students identified the benefits of flexible time that were additional to their ability to spend time completing or attending to work. The findings of student focus groups indicated how this flexible scheduling was experienced by students to be a key component of High School Redesign. Flexible scheduling afforded students and teachers the opportunity to personalize their use of time; it also had meaningful impacts on relationships, which fostered individualized instruction, and that allowed students to more readily pursue their individualized goals.

Theme 2: The Academic Impacts of Personalized Learning and Flexibility

Perceptions from students surrounding how they defined and pursued academic success were uncovered. Students at all sites outlined several instances of how personalized and flexible reforms associated with High School Redesign impacted their levels of academic achievement. In fact, when initially asked to identify the benefits of Redesign, most students identified the concept of flexibility as providing them with time and choices regarding how to approach their learning.

 

Theme 3: Personalized Learning and Relationships

In each focus group, all participants described their experiences with how High School Redesign provided additional opportunities for teachers to recognize the individuality of students and make educational choices for students based on unique needs. Alberta Education (2014) described how personalization in the High School Redesign context requires implementation of instructional strategies based on an understanding of students as individuals developed through relationships. This definition identifies the importance of relationships in understanding how learning should be personalized for each student. In the three sites studied, there were clear indications that students perceived that relationships in the schools were foundational to bringing to life the remaining characteristics of High School Redesign.

 

Discussion

Data from student focus groups yielded key understandings consistent among all school sites. Students articulated how their high school impacted them as learners. In its analysis, this study does not make direct conclusions about specific Redesign structures that are universally successful or unsuccessful for student learning. Rather, this study conveys how the lived experiences of students within the High School Redesign Project have uniquely impacted their academic success, their relationships, and their pursuit of goals within and beyond high school. The discussion that follows integrates participants’ voices, experiences, and perceptions with literature in each of these three areas.

 

The Effectiveness of Flexible and Personalized Learning

Literature indicates that flexible learning environments are often linked to personalized and experiential learning (Dewey, 1938; Kolb, 1984; Lunenburg, 1992). In this study, the concepts of personalized and flexible learning extended beyond student scheduling toward a pedagogic shift in instructional practices. This mindset was evidenced in all three schools. According to participating students, personalized learning has a dramatic impact on the nature of the high school experience for them, as actualized through the High School Redesign Project. Quint (2008) described the “twin pillars of reform [as] (1) instructional improvement and (2) structural changes that personalize learning” (p. 66). In the case of the three schools in this study, students frequently referenced how daily learning experiences were personalized. Students suggested that their ownership over this personalized time provided opportunities for teachers to support learning by differentiating and individualizing instruction. These enhanced pedagogies were also aided by embedded time and supportive relationships between teachers and students (McClure, Yonezawa, & Jones, 2010). In other words, Redesign allowed students to pursue learning that would not necessarily be accessible within a traditional framework. The flexible structures were the bedrock that provided students with opportunities to delve deeper into learning that was most meaningful to them. As evidenced within all focus groups, students were being afforded unique experiences and learning opportunities that emerged as a result of the individualized approach to instruction afforded by Redesign. The personalized environments were also most successful when they stemmed from an understanding of students as individuals developed through increased teacher-student relationships (Wallach, Ramsey, Copland, & Lowry, 2006).

Interpersonal relationships were a key factor in students’ perceptions of success and engagement in the Redesign contexts. Students described how flexible scheduling and flexible learning environments contributed to positive relationships with both peers and teachers. This was in part due to diverse learning opportunities students had in the form of smaller or personalized groupings embedded into their learning day. The flexibility afforded to the schools through the Redesign project provided unique avenues to explore student groupings, scheduling, and access to unique learning experiences such as cohort learning models. These smaller, more focused opportunities were instrumental in the development of meaningful relationships for students.

The idea regarding student grouping aligned with Peters (2011) description of effective reformed High Schools. He contended that successful schools have restructured their student groupings into “smaller, more personalized learning communities focused on developing students academically, socially, and emotionally” (p. 89). The flexible implementations at the three sites examined had some type of student learning community grouping that was specifically designed to provide additional connection and support for learners’ academic studies. These groupings took different forms in the three schools: some were more fluid and flexible, while some were structured and selected. However, all schools adopted variations of those collected by Fijal (2013) in the Alberta Education (2009a) review of Redesign literature.

The schools in this study took their lead from early reform models across North America in the “America’s Choice Model; the Breaking Ranks Model; the Career Academies Model; the Early College High School Model; the First Things First Model; several Small Schools models; and the Talent Development High School Model” (p. 17). Each school implemented some aspect of these smaller schools within a school models. Students described the many successes that resulted from these personalized groupings or models. The models embedded at each school provided students with improved access to learning opportunities through personalization, increased accountability for learning, and ultimately a greater connection to the learning or the school itself for students. These learning communities in practice also evidenced the Alberta Education (2009a) description of effective redesign schools as those that value extensive student support, developed by small learning communities fostering meaningful relationships.

The successes of these Redesign schools make a strong case for flexible scheduling as introductory step to effectively undertake Redesign. In the provincial context, the High School Redesign Project asks more of schools than simply flexible and personalized programming. However, the perceptions of students convey a much deeper meaning behind flexible structures than simply choice and extra time. These initial steps toward flexibility created a shift in the culture of these schools. By providing students and staff with embedded time, they were able to think beyond the requirements of the regular school day and think differently about student learning. Perhaps most importantly, these small groupings and flexible structures provided students and teachers with the ability to build relationships and, through these relationships, allow personalized instructional practice to develop. In this regard, High School Redesign is “building a community of independent learners” similarly to aims of Neill’s Summerhill school (Cassebaum, 2003, p. 578).

 

High School Redesign Impacting Relationships, Academics, and Goals

McClure et al. (2010) described how making more explicit connections between students and their learning environments results in positive personalized school cultures. The development of these personalized cultures lead to valuable relationships among teachers and students in which success was more likely (McClure et al., 2010), thus linking flexible and personalized learning environments with student success. Both past literature and the findings of this study indicate that redesigned schools can provide flexible student-centered structures that lead to improved relationships that, in turn, result in student success within and beyond high school (Ancess, 2008; Eaton & Nelson, 2007).

This literature and the findings of this study provide clear answers for the research question examined: how personalized reforms impact student perceptions of relationships, academic success, and goals within and beyond high school. In the case of High School Redesign, this personalized initiative did not impact relationships, academics or, goals as independent factors. Rather, the flexible reforms and structures in place led to increasingly valuable relationships within the learning environments of these three high schools. In turn, these relationships contributed to increased student academic success linked with instructional practices. It was when students were more successful in the high school context, that they were enabled to successfully pursue their goals both within and beyond the high school context.

The flexible underpinnings of personalized reforms were not as explicitly stated throughout recent literature to the extent that they were present in the findings of this study. There were clear links between flexibility, personalization, relationships, and success throughout the literature (Ancess, 2008; McClure et al., 2010). However, the findings of this study went further to reveal that flexible learning environments can serve as foundational steps to fostering improved relationships and student success within high schools. Each Redesign school in this study initiated a large portion of their Redesign journey by making structural changes that pursued flexible learning conditions for students. Findings described how flexible timetabling and a flexible approach to student learning created conditions that led to increased student independence, increased student engagement, and improved relationships within these Redesign schools. Further, students provided evidence for how flexible time was a key condition that provided them with an increased advocacy for their own learning, which in turn was manifested in interpersonal and academic success.

There is a great deal of importance in understanding flexibility as a foundational component to implement and sustain high school reform. First, this indicates that students are already actively looking to be greater advocates for their learning and want to pursue meaningful relationships within schools. Redesign schools should consider how to effectively create conditions for students to pursue independence and relationships. When students are given flexibility within their academic schedules, they are able to make independent and reasoned choices about how to effectively learn, achieve academically, and build positive relationships with peers and school staff. Therefore, before schools attempt to look to create additional structures or initiatives geared at providing students with academic success, school leaders should understand that the provision of independence and flexibility can have a great impact on student experience of high school. If the goal is to provide students with tools and opportunities to effectively pursue goals within and beyond high school, then improved academic success and relationships are necessary underpinnings.

 

Relationships as a Foundation

A majority of participants in the study conveyed the importance of teacher-student and student-student relationships. These relationships were clearly central to the successes of students in feeling connected to their schools. Additionally, these stronger relationships contributed to a greater sense of commitment to curricular learning. As a result, these feelings of increased belonging and investment were linked to improved academic success. Additionally, many students who developed improved relationships with teachers experienced a more personalized approach to their learning and assessment. This personalization also led to improved academic achievement for students.

This study’s finding that relationships are foundational to student success is clearly supported by previous literature and research. Ancess, Barnett, and Allen (2007) described how small communities, such as those in these three Redesign schools, provided students with greater success, in part, due to the fact that teachers were available to support students. Quint (2006) also acknowledged that flexible learner communities of this nature offered students “a sense that there is an adult in the school looking out for their well-being” (p. 16). Similarly, students in these Redesign schools communicated how the flexible structures led to students feeling connected to their teachers. The students ascribed to the belief that their teachers cared about their success, and began to appreciate the support their teachers provided them both personally and academically.

Akin to the title of her article “Small Alone is Not Enough”, Ancess (2008) purported that students need more than effective time and groupings to be successful within a redesigned high school. Ancess (2008) contended that successful schools demonstrate “community, intellectual and personal engagement, authentic learning and assessment, and trusting relationships among adults and students” (p. 28). Ancess’s (2008) assertions were supported by the findings of this study, particularly the development of trusting relationships between adults and students. Students felt that the importance or value that teachers placed on building trust and rapport to accommodate their individuality led to personalizing student learning in many aspects of students’ daily high school experience. Klonsky and Klonsky (1999) described how this personalization was attained, asserting that developing relationships allowed teachers to “take into account the varied experiences, interests, and learning styles of students” (p. 40).

McClure et al. (2010) contended that positive relationships are worth the work put into personalized reform. They cited “growing evidence that indicates greater personalization—improved, trusting relationships particularly among teachers and students—are able to raise students’ expectations for themselves and teachers’ expectations for students” (p. 4). This implies that other reformed high schools should focus on creating opportunities and conditions for student relationships to flourish. Academic success and student achievement of goals will follow.

 

Relationships’ Impact on Academics

The relationships developed between teachers and students at the three participating schools had an impact beyond increasing student belonging, engagement, and individualization. According to the students, there were many instances where improved relationships contributed to more effective instruction and assessment. These instructional improvements support the remaining Foundational Principles of High School Redesign. Prain et al. (2013) posited that student-teacher relationships:

Create a mutual responsibility among teachers, teachers and students, and among students, where teachers are responsible for designing and implementing a curriculum that (a) engages all students, (b) provides opportunities for differentiated teaching and learning that addresses group and individual student needs, and (c) motivates and develops students’ capacities to become independent learners. (p. 662)

The students in this study described how effective teachers built relationships through their curricular and non-curricular interactions. Students described how effective teachers interacted with them about their interests and goals, and would then develop instruction and assessment that aligned with student needs. In doing so, these teachers were extending the personalized and flexible attributes entrenched within their schools to pursue the remaining aims of the High School Redesign Project. This provided a concrete example of what Gini-Newman and Case (2015) characterized as student-centered curriculum in which “both educators and students have expertise that must be respected” (p. 33).        

Each Redesign school examined in this study had a strong grasp on the personalized nature of Redesign. The schools are now leveraging the information that personalized cultures provide about students to impact how learning is taking place within classrooms. The schools are modeling how to effectively pursue and attain the Alberta Education (2014) foundational High School Redesign principles associated with instruction and assessment: Rigorous and Relevant Curriculum, Mastery Learning, Assessment, and implement the necessary Educator Roles and Professional Development to make this a reality. It certainly was evident that these Redesign schools understood that flexible structures lead to improved relationships. In turn, improved relationships have and are now continuing to impact how students learn and there are signs that the focus on relationships are also beginning to change how students pursue their goals.

 

Student Goals and Personalization

A great deal of conversation about the goals of effective 21st century high schools surrounds the idea of preparing students for what lies beyond high school (Darling-Hammond, Ancess, & Ort, 2002). Darling-Hammond et al. noted that the most effective high schools are those that give students the opportunities to practice the skills required to be successful in whatever they pursue beyond graduation. Current literature also mirrors the importance of goal achievement as a foundational reason for high school reform and redesign.

Fijal’s (2013) review of literature for effective high school redesign in North America made several references to how emerging reform models emphasized characteristics aimed at making student transitions to post-secondary training more effective. Models like the Early College High School, Career Pathways, Vocational Training focused routes, and Dual-Credit Programs have all sought to effectively implement programming to create student pathways to success beyond the conventional high school classroom. In fact, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development asserted that personalized learning occurs when students “work with educational mentors and career coaches and take ownership for connecting their learning with future goals” (Fijal, 2013).

With respect to goals, this study yielded findings that were less consistent with many of the aims of these early reform models. Many students understood the various routes available beyond high school and were pursuing pathways that were academically diverse; yet, there was a strong perception from students that they wanted to attend university. Nearly every student described their future pathways as pursuing careers in medicine, law, nursing, or other similar professions. This meant that no focus group participants viewed themselves as transitioning directly to the workforce, pursuing vocational training at college, or moving into the trades, even though several of their high school programs may have been leading them towards more vocational future pathways.

Both societal expectations and current high school structures seem to have had impacts on how these students set their individual goals. Staff and teachers at these schools are not explicitly stating these students should be setting goals of pursuing university. Yet, these are the goals these students believe they should be working towards. Setting the societal and socio-economic factors aside, there are ways in which high schools could more effectively serve students who might be well suited to pursuing diverse pathways beyond high school other than university. Rather than specific initiatives impacting small cohorts of students, Redesign schools should seek to exemplify practices that provide students with daily authentic experiences that apply curricular learning to a wide variety of pursuits beyond high school. With these reforms in place, students become more readily able to connect learning in curricular subjects to a variety of goals beyond high school. This could mean that students would value academic achievement as more than a grade that ensures university entrance, but rather as a way to gain knowledge and skills that they see as serving them in their preferred futures.

 

Additional Impacts of Flexible Scheduling on Student Development

In addition to findings specific to the research question, other important tangential findings surfaced about the impact of flexible time beyond students’ academic success. Despite not being specifically asked, students often referenced how flexible scheduling and instruction provided time for them to develop maturity and independence. The three sites selected to participate in this study were chosen because each had experience with implementing a flexible timetable that provided students with some degree of independent learning time; although this was known and noted before the interviews were initiated, the importance that this flexible time would play in the narrative and lived-experiences of students at all three schools was not anticipated.

In the context of Redesign across the province, there is clearly something meaningful about this flexible time, given that a majority of the over 200 participant schools have implemented it in some form. Yet, in the years since the High School Redesign Project began, there have been criticisms of this flexible time. Some stakeholders ascribe to the belief that students are not using their flexible time effectively and that it should be more structured or eliminated to restore time for conventional classroom learning.

However, responses from students indicated the tremendous value that flexible scheduling provided for both their academic learning as well as their personal and interpersonal development. According to the students, Redesign has allowed them to engage in activities beyond the curriculum, to develop interpersonal skills, to build relational skills with peers and mentors. Students communicated how increased flexibility provided them opportunities to take a break from what they perceive to be stressful daily schedules, to build peer relationships that were previously lacking, and to give time to communicate with teachers in ways that were not necessarily directly linked to academic achievement.

Students discussed busy school, extra-curricular, interpersonal, and work schedules and how flexible schedule encouraged them to make independent choices about their needs. Students were being empowered to make choices about whether this time should be used for academic purposes, used to access mentorship from trusted teachers, or perhaps just to use as time to connect with a peer with whom they had not had opportunities to interact with outside the regular school day. Some students even talked about how flexible time could extend to their mental health by accessing opportunities like yoga sessions, or reading a book to get a break from their daily textbook fatigue.

These types of comments served as a reminder that education is about more than academic achievement and university transition rates; rather high schools must grow citizens. The self-advocacy and independence provided through flexible timetabling provides an avenue to develop skills that extend beyond the curriculum.

The statements made by students about the non-curricular value in flexible time provide important considerations for future iterations of High School Redesign. These three schools have provided excellent case studies for the implications of High School Redesign on students’ personal development. These schools are evidence of the value of schools in teaching students to be self-aware, future oriented, and how to make reasoned choices about their needs to be successful, educationally and otherwise.

 

Conclusion

The past successes of personalized learning have been explored and documented (Keefe & Jenkins, 2000). Specifically in the province of Alberta, there appears to be support for the continued development of these reforms through the High School Redesign Project (Fijal, 2013). This support has been the result of data pointing to increased student engagement as evidenced by decreased drop out rates, improved attendance, and some improved academic achievement (Klonsky & Klonsky, 1999; Wiggins, 2011). This study, however, was not focused on quantitative measures of student success. Rather, the study elicited perceptions of students regarding how aspects of High School Redesign have impacted their learning and experiences at school.

The findings of this study reveal that Redesign schools are doing more than implementing a set of structures, they are embracing a new mindset about what secondary education can and should look like. The students in this study offered their voice as evidence that Redesign schools are enabling students to become more independent, make effective and reasoned choices about their academic and personal needs, and build valuable relationships with teachers and peers.

 

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[1] All student names are pseudonyms.

[2] The analysis of this data followed a qualitative data analysis framework in which the data was organized “into categories on the basis of themes, concepts, or similar features” (Neuman, 1997, p. 421). As a basic method of generating these themes or concepts, Neuman’s (2009) method of analytic memo writing was applied. In addition, the focus group data was analyzed using the three-level coding structure outlined by Strauss (1987).