One Good Question with Alex Hernandez: Personalized Learning and Design Thinking matter for all kids

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Education Equity / One Good Question

This post is part of a series of interviews with international educators, policy makers, and leaders titled “One Good Question.”  These interviews provide answers to my One Good Question (outlined in About) and uncover new questions about education’s impact on the future.

Alex Hernandez is a Partner at the Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit that supports the growth of the nation’s best public charter schools. In that role, he leads CSGF’s Next-Generation Schools practice focused on personalized learning and school model innovation. He is a former Area Superintendent at Aspire Public Schools and joined CSGF in 2010. He taught high school math in South Los Angeles and later served as a Broad Fellow at Portland Public Schools. Before that, Alex worked for several years with JP Morgan and Disney’s venture capital arm, Steamboat Ventures. He is a graduate of Claremont McKenna and has an MBA and Masters of Education from Stanford University. He is also a columnist for EdSurge.


In what ways do our investments in education reveal our beliefs about the next generation’s role in the world?

I see two big trends that guide how I think about investing philanthropy.

First, we are in generational change towards school choice. No matter your politics, every family wants a say in where their children go to school. Even those who fight against other families’ right to choose schools, they consistently exercise ‘choice’ for their own children. The good news is Americans are making choices in more and more aspects of their lives and the pressure to give families a say in what happens to their children will keep growing. If we truly believe in a free public education, children should not be automatically assigned to schools based on how much rent or mortgage their parents can afford. That’s not free or equitable. That’s a price tag.

Second, our society is in a relentless march towards more personalization and this will eventually impact how we organize our schools. I often think of one of our five-year-old neighbors who was an expert in trains but ‘struggled’ in school. He loved trains. He read everything he could he could get his hands on about them and had incredible content knowledge. Instead of listing all the ways he didn’t ‘fit into’ school, how could we create a school that ‘fit around’ him. Our families just need permission to hope for something better for their children. Silicon Valley’s biggest innovations are not technology solutions, they are the new business models facilitated by technology. So what will new school models look like going forward?

The shift towards choice and personalization will happen over a generation but there is no turning back at this point.

In your ThinkSchools blog, you highlight the benefits of personalized learning and design thinking as solutions to one-size-fits-all public education models. What’s the relationship between the two and how can classrooms, schools, or systems take a first step to embrace that paradigm?

My interest in personalized learning kind of happened all at once. At work, I have the privilege of visiting a number of high-performing charter, district and private schools. These schools are doing incredible work, yet, after great gains, their students seemed to be hitting these stubborn ‘ceilings’ around reading comprehension, writing, college persistence, etc.

At the same time, my twins boys began kindergarten at their local neighborhood school. I observed a four-to-five year grade level spread in academic ability among the five-year-olds in their classes. Our boys attended a ‘good’ school and the teachers did many of the things I’d want to see as an educator and a parent. But it became painfully obvious that many children were not getting what they needed academically which also impacted them emotionally. One kindergartner wrote a letter to the teacher begging her to teach her some new math content while another five-year-old arrived at the conclusion that she was no good at math because everything seemed over her head.

I began to wonder if squeezing the proverbial lemon harder would get us the results we wanted or if we needed some radical new approaches.

I believe in personalized learning because I think we can do better than organizing school into boxes with thirty children and a teacher for thirty hours a week. I see school as more blank canvas than foregone conclusion.

Design thinking is simply an approach for educators to re-think school based on deep understanding of what students and families want/need. I’m on the board of 4pt0 Schools which uses design thinking to help education entrepreneurs launch Tiny Schools. With Tiny Schools, we are rapidly testing new school concepts with students and families participating at the beginning of the design process.

Now using student input may sound obvious, but, if you’ve ever created a high school schedule, you know that the deep human needs of students are at the end of a very long list of other priorities.

Or take textbook adoption as an example. Committees of adults spend hours poring over textbooks even though there is little to no research showing that textbooks are effective learning tools. Plus, textbooks are insanely expensive. If the text selection process were based on how how kids actually interacted and learned from textbooks, I suspect we’d see some very different decisions being made.

It’s counterintuitive, but, once you decide what your innovation is, have actual kids inform the design of your innovation. I was just at Summit Schools with Diane Tavenner, who explained that their personalized learning platform relies heavily on student input. At every turn, Summit solicits feedback from students as the ultimate end user. They built the student-facing dashboard first and then they built the teacher interface. When in doubt, you don’t seek expert judgement, you ask the kid.

Alex Hernandez

Alex Hernandez

Alex’s One Good Question: I asked this question earlier on Twitter. I’ve been thinking a lot about how our philosophy of education as parents is different/similar to our approach as educators. The places where those two perspectives are in tension are the most interesting areas for me to explore. As a parent, I value personalization, socio-emotional development and self-directed learning a lot more than I did as an educator. What do those seemingly disparate perspectives mean about high quality education for all children ?

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The Author

Passionate about education reform, multilingualism, peace, diaspora dance forms, and intersectionality.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: The Year in Review: 10 Good Questions | One Good Question

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