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By Alex Groff

Alex Groff is a world history Teacher at Riverside High School in Durham, North Carolina and a newly appointed digiLEARN Digital Scholar. Below, he reflects on a Learning Lab visit to fellow Scholar Sally Schultz’s classroom. Learning Labs are a core part of the Digital Scholar program. During a Lab, teachers observe and interact with Scholars in the classroom to learn more about how to incorporate digital and personalized learning techniques. For more on our Digital Scholars work, click here.   

Stepping into Sally Schultz's classroom is like walking into the best possible future of education.

This is the second time I've become a teacher. I went to college at the University of Maryland, where I earned my Bachelor of Arts in History, and then I began teaching in the sprawling suburbs outside of Baltimore. I was raised and trained to teach through lectures, textbooks and worksheets, and after a few years, I had burnt out. In 2012, I left education completely. 

When I returned to the classroom in 2015, I knew that the teaching experience had to be different. The goal of my classes in Durham has been to help students develop their knowledge and interests through projects, research and discussions. It is a learning process, but I've been happy overall with the results.

But what Schultz—a science teacher at Knox Middle School in Salisbury, NC and a digiLEARN Digital Scholar—does is on the next level. Articles sometimes refer to schools as laboratories of learning, but this is the first classroom I've seen that truly fits that image. 

Armed with iPads, Schultz’s students have units that cater both to their specific academic focus and their personal whims, creating an environment that fosters a sense of agency as well as a knowledge of science. To begin with, Schultz's class is divided into two domains: veterinary science and sports medicine. This division is in itself no small feat, given that she teaches over 40 students in one classroom. However, what Schultz does beyond that is truly astonishing.

Each student has a variety of activities to choose from, including readings, videos, quizzes, and review games. It is their choice as to which activities they complete, and in which order. They know their deadlines, and what has to be done, but otherwise they are able to work at their own pace, and learn in a way that best suits them. The class is unified by a series of anchor activities and projects, so that all students learn the same core information. However, students also have freedom to grow in a way that appeals to them, rather than being forced into the same mold as their classmates. 

The results I saw were students who were actively engaged in learning and open to talking about what they were doing. A number of kids wanted to share their projects with me, and every student I asked was more than capable of explaining to a very confused adult how they managed the freedom and choices provided to them. So much of education has been standardized to the point that it is hard for anyone, especially teenagers, to relate to it. Schultz's classroom was an antidote to standardization. While many people see whims as unnecessary or inefficient, a distraction in the classroom, I find whims to be profoundly human, and teaching in a way that lets students be both learners and people makes them better at both.

As a world history teacher, I found this model of teaching and learning full of potential. There are, for example, things we have to learn about China or Brazil or Iran, but these countries are so much more than what is covered in a textbook or a lecture. By giving students space to explore these civilizations in ways that interest them, they can start connecting to these places and peoples in a personal way. This makes the required information, the anchor activities, all the more meaningful and relevant because they are more than facts in a void. Foreign places become less foreign, and distant peoples become more human. 

When Ms. Schultz called for her class' attention, she had it instantly. I wonder how much of that was because they weren't expected to spend every minute hanging on their teachers' words, and how much was because they knew that she cared about them. It was probably a little bit of both, but it was a fine example of what education should be.