How Intrinsic Schools is Breaking the Laws of School Innovation
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How Intrinsic Schools is Breaking the Laws of School Innovation

Alex Hernandez

Intrinsic Schools, a public charter high school in Chicago, hatched in fall of 2013 with the mission of personalizing learning for each student by “changing the way we teach.”

But instead of neatly reimagining high school in year one, Intrinsic ran headfirst into the natural laws of school model innovation. The First Law of Conversation states that talking about school innovation tends to cause feelings of awesomeness while the actual work of innovation can be soul-crushing (Alex Hernandez, 2015).

Intrinsic Schools Belmont Campus serves approximately 440 students in grades 7, 9 and 10. At full capacity, the school will enroll 900 students in grades 7-12. Belmont students are 75% Latino, 86% low-income and 14% qualify for special education services.

The school learned a lot in its first year, like the fact that futuristic rolling chairs can be used as bumper cars during independent learning time if work is not engaging. Utopian visions of perfectly self-motivated, independent learners were temporarily shelved. But Intrinsic overcame these early disappointments to become, in its second year, one of the more interesting high school redesign efforts in the country.

Let’s look at the latest iteration of their personalized learning model and the tactics they use to break the laws of school model innovation.

Changing the Way We Teach

“Changing teaching” at Intrinsic meant ditching the traditional classroom. Intrinsic’s “pods” are designed so students intuitively use different areas of the learning environment for teacher-led instruction, peer-to-peer learning and independent work. Pods serve 60 students and are staffed by three adults, two core subject teachers and a special education or assistant teacher.

Each area of the pod is named and uses visible landmarks for easy student navigation. For example, The Ocean features soft blue riser chairs that resemble waves where teachers and students can engage in small group discussion. The Shade is large orange shade that hovers above tables designated for students to do structured group work or projects. The Coastline wraps around the perimeter of the room and is where students complete independent work.

Ashley Haywood, who teaches 9th grade English, says, “I love the pod because it allows me to do small group instruction or one-on-one tutoring the majority of each day,” an extraordinary statement for a high school teacher to make. Because students rotate through each space during the 90-minute English block, Ashley and her co-teacher Bryan Podell never teach more than 15 students at a time.

While 9th grade English students complete the same curriculum units, Ashley and Bryan can plan four or more literacy lessons, sometimes using different novels, that are tailored to the needs of each group.

Tenth grade math teacher Alison Ortony and and her colleague Waleed Mansour are currently piloting a mastery-based classroom where students are learning six different levels of math ranging from Algebra to Pre-Calculus, reflecting the diverse academic needs of their students.

The pod structure is helping Intrinsic break the Second Law of Tradition which states that any attempts to shed traditional classroom structures are often met with swift, opposite and disproportionate reactions. Here’s why.

The structure makes it difficult to revert back to the whole class approaches found in traditional classrooms. In the pod, it makes sense for teachers to group and regroup students, develop targeted lessons, plan lessons for different learning modalities and collaborate with colleagues. Clearly teachers have the option of teaching the same lesson four times to groups of 15 students (or once to 60 students) but that is not the intuitive approach given how the learning environment is organized. To further underscore that point, Intrinsic gives its co-teachers 90 minutes of common planning time every day so teaching teams can thoughtfully design the flow of student activities across the different pod spaces.

Paradoxically, adopting more structures and systems in its second year resulted in more innovation, not less.

The Intrinsic Paradox: Using Structures and Systems to Promote Innovation

The Third Law of Everything posits no school shall innovate on 100% of their program at once--changing everything means changing nothing. It is very difficult to “reimagine” 30 hours per week of teaching and learning, especially across six academic subjects and seven grades for 32 weeks.

Rotating students through a predictable set of stations emphasizing teacher-led instruction, independent study and group work reduces white space, helping the 10th grade math team focus their energies on creating a mastery-based classroom. The 9th grade English team currently runs literature circles on Wednesdays, close reading on Thursdays and Socratic seminars on Fridays. This predictable structure simplifies planning and lets Ms. Haywood and Mr. Podell allocate scarce planning time to tailoring lessons.

In both cases, structure unlocked innovation. These initiatives lie in stark contrast to Intrinsic’s earlier innovation attempts where too much complexity meant defaulting back to traditional structures and approaches.

As the staff gains its balance in the pod model, the school is beginning work on second-order innovations, like creating a “genius hour” to support more student choice and independence, building mobile data tools that teachers can use while commuting on the bus and strategically using adaptive software to further individualize learning.

Most impressively, Intrinsic has overcome the Fourth Law of Overwhelm, which states that actual school innovation tends to go down once students start showing up for class. For Intrinsic, the messiness of early innovation has turned into the palpable momentum and confidence that comes from successfully bringing new ideas to life for students. “We are still at the beginning of our journey but we are making progress against the goals we originally set out for the school - to personalize learning and change the way we teach,” says Intrinsic’s founder and principal Melissa Zaikos. “Now we want to share our work with the education community across Chicago and beyond.”

Postscript: Under the Hood

For those of you wondering what tech underscores these initiatives, here are the brass tacks.

Intrinsic has a one-to-one Chromebook implementation and uses Hapara for course management and Securly for content filtering. Grade level teams choose online content but popular math software includes Think Through Math, ST Math, Khan Academy and IXL. ThinkCERCA, NoRedInk and Reading Plus are the primary literacy programs. Intrinsic builds custom data dashboards for its teachers using the Jasper programming language and pulls data from Illuminate Education, its student information system.

Editor's Note: Alex Hernandez is a partner at Charter School Growth Fund, a venture philanthropy that provides growth capital for high-performing charter school networks. Charter School Growth Fund is a philanthropic supporter of Intrinsic Schools. He is also an official EdSurge columnist.

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