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December 13, 2018

Real-World Learning in AltSchool’s Classrooms

David Dobson-Smith, Head of School, AltSchool Fort Mason

Students whiteboard about ecosystems
Middle school students analyze the systems that affect the environment before designing a strategy for environmental sustainability.

Our educators do more than impart knowledge. They provide students with the opportunity to develop skills that will help them plan, face challenges, adapt, and take ownership of their learning. In the second of this two-part series, Head of School David Dobson-Smith shares how our new workshop system is helping middle school students at AltSchool Fort Mason.

In our previous post, we talked about tackling the challenge of giving students the freedom to design their own learning while ensuring they stayed focused and used their time effectively. Our educators worked together to design a workshop system that more closely resembled how adults operate in the modern world. Students and educators collaborated to create a “menu” of necessary assignments and projects and allowed the students to plan their schedules for the following week. It was up to them to adhere to their schedules and ensure that they completed their work on time.

Read Part 1: How AltSchool Prepares Students for the Real World
In this mixed age classroom, students collaborate on a group assignment
In this mixed-age classroom, students collaborate on a group assignment.

After implementing this system at our Fort Mason middle school, the response we’ve received from students and educators has been overwhelmingly positive. “This is very different from previous experiences. There was no self-direction in my last school. My teacher would tell us what to do and when to do it,” says eighth-grader Lulu. “I like to be able to create my own schedule for the work and access help when I need it, but I don’t like having someone watching over my shoulder the whole time.”

“I have a lot more potential than I did at the beginning of the year,” Gerelt, a fifth-grader, agrees. “I have learned that I have much more potential than I previously thought and even more that I haven’t yet accessed. In the future, I will need to be able to manage and plan my time and to meet deadlines. This is important for high school but also when I am adult.”

Read More: A student’s story of transforming her passion into a school project.

Middle school educator David Rodriguez has been at the center of implementing the workshop system in his classroom. “I have a student who is brilliant as far as learning and knowledge retention, but had serious difficulty launching his own work,” David says. “Switching to this system immediately highlighted that he was having difficulty in that area. If a student can’t manage his own schedule, it takes time to nurture that skill. Being able to identify that issue so quickly gave me time and space to figure out how to teach him to become self-motivated. The improvement I’ve seen from him in that area once he had help has been truly inspiring.”

Educator David Rodriguez shares his personal story of embarking on the road to personalized learning.

Framing Challenges as Learning Opportunities

Our classrooms are designed as flexible learning spaces where students can use designated areas to complete projects. Here a student works independently to complete an assignment in the reading nook.
Our classrooms are designed as flexible learning spaces where students can use designated areas to complete projects. Here a student works independently to complete an assignment in the reading nook.

Challenges are rich opportunities for students to grow as learners. “I have learned that I was terrible at time management!” fifth-grader Sean confesses. “But AltSchool encourages mistakes and to learn from them. After you do something wrong, [our teachers] help you to understand the situation and the problem instead of getting mad. In life, we will have to figure things out, and struggle and learn from the situation.” Offering students an environment in which they can learn from their mistakes allows them to learn about themselves—how they work, their strengths, and areas that need improvement.


For educators, this system has granted deeper insight into how varied their students are as learners, which has surfaced a challenge of its own: How do we address the wide variety of needs in each individual student? One way our educators have addressed this is by providing twice-weekly syncs. As students tackle their workweek, educators check in on their progress and provide necessary support. Then at the end of the week, teachers go over students’ self-assessments and see if they have accomplished their goals and determine where they need more support the following week.

“This system has allowed me to be more responsive than I was in the past,” David explains. “Once students have had a chance to work things out for themselves, they come to me with more impactful questions. I can respond to what they’ve already tried and tested and any ways they have failed to meet their goal.”

A Student’s Story: Setting Goals and Learning Through Teaching

Building the Future—for Students and Our Classrooms

Educator Erin Kahn provides one-on-one support to a student.

Variations of this workshop program are being implemented in all four AltSchool campuses with the goals of fostering learner agency and supporting students for success in life. “We want students to see challenges and perceived failures as an opportunity to grow,” educator Erin Kahn says. “Students are able to meet their goals when they truly feel they have a solid grasp of them, working at their own pace rather than on a predetermined schedule. The portfolio of evidence and reflections that is built over the life of a goal is a powerful and tangible way to celebrate the growth a student has experienced.”

See how our technology supports learning and teaching.

This is a system designed to facilitate student agency. Visit one of our campuses to see this agency in action. You’ll see students making decisions, managing their time, meeting in groups and one-on-one, working independently, and participating in daily experiences that reflect the skills and knowledge that will help them be successful beyond the classroom.

Learn more about our lab schools and our partner school program.

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