Bill Gates is one of the most successful people in history, but even he admits his education could’ve been better.
“I was good at math, but when it came to writing, I felt less sure of myself,” Gates wrote in a recent Gates Notes blog post. “I’d be working on an essay and start wondering, ‘Am I going to get an A or a C on this thing? What skills do I need to improve?'”
That’s why Gates says it was so heartening to take a trip to Summit Sierra, a Seattle-based charter school where kids get heaps of feedback as they guide their own learning.
The model is known as personalized learning.
Under the personalized learning framework, teachers don’t lecture so much as supervise. With the help of personal laptops and tablets, they give kids individual work and group-based projects to learn as flexibly (and in as many contexts) as possible.
Not all schools can afford to employ the personalized learning model — cutting-edge technology is expensive — but the model has shown success when districts make the investment.
A study published last year, for example, found that among 62 schools using personalized education, many of the kids scored higher in math and reading compared to kids learning normally. Many who were below-average scorers ended up above-average.
“To be fair,” Gates says, “we don’t know yet how much of this improvement is due to personalized learning, versus other good things these schools are doing.” But at least at Summit Sierra, and many schools like it, the dynamic between students and teachers seems to be a productive one.
Not only do kids get to learn at their own pace, which gives them more confidence, but teachers at Summit get matched with students who they’ll mentor for all four years. Instructors can use in-house software to see which of their dozen or so students has completed certain assignments and exams.
The end result is that kids don’t have many opportunities to slip through the cracks. And by taking an active role in their education, they learn responsibility and self-reliance.
“I love that approach,” Gates says. “When students get out in the world, they have to organize their own time, have goals, and realize what they’re behind on. It’s fantastic to see them getting a head start on those skills in school.”