When we talk about education on this site, we are often talking about the systems of education. Curricula, standards, teacher salaries, and where exactly technology fits into all of this. One thing we don’t talk about as often are the best ways a student learns. If there was new science around learning we would report on that, but so much that goes into learning is personal, and so wrapped up in motivation, curiosity, and self-image. Reading a how-to on learning is a little like reading a weight loss book. Often times the only way to know whether it works is to jump in and try it for awhile and see what sticks
This is what makes what Dr. Vince Carbino does so interesting. Personalization is the name of the game.
Dr. Carbino is the principal of City of Angels School, a K-12 independent study school that has been in existence since 1993. Independent schooling started in California in the San Joaquin Valley in the 70’s. Children of farm workers study time was dictated by the seasons and the needs of the farm. Independent schooling allowed students flexibility to study when they had time and still be available to help with farm work. It later expanded across the state.
Dr. Carbino himself actually started his independent school journey in San Diego where independent study in K-12 became especially important to allow students to go to school without having to cross gang territories, something of serious concern for low income students at that time.
Now it serves a more varied crowd, a crowd that includes young actors, children of professional athletes, and really “any kid for whom for whatever reason, coming to school 5 days a week, 6 hours a day is not optimal”. As you can imagine, that encompasses a wide variety of needs including students who are neuro-divergent.
But it takes a special kind of teacher to excel in that environment, which has been mostly remote since long before the pandemic.
“Our teachers are trained in ‘psychological first aid’… and they go through a 3-year onboarding process with us … because they have to learn the pedagogy of independent study”, which leads to a very different kind of, relationship based, strain on teachers. “Teachers are trained to teach classes, we teach one kid at a time.”
The school starts with a focus on self-management. “You talk to anyone in independent study, the first thing we have kids do is develop a schedule and develop self management because if they don’t have that, they won’t learn.” This isn’t always easy and sometimes it has to be revisited many times throughout their schooling.
Self Management is a topic which is still taught infrequently at most schools. Pre-pandemic, in-person schooling featured a very regimented day. Several hundred students started their school day at the same time, moved classes at the same time, ate lunch at the same time, usually at the behest of bells or a bell sound played over a PA. In addition to that many schools have students all wear a uniform.
In the move to online, this structure, these visual and auditory reminders, disappeared and we were left with a system which is less structured than what even many adults lived in before the pandemic. Students now had to manage log periods of semi-structured time, some of which required them to be in front of a laptop.
But a device which previously meant some combination of homework and play became their primary window into school, then even under the best conditions, as Dr. Carbino says, “optimally 30% of the kids can do online and learn the same way as if they were sitting in a classroom. The rest will struggle as long as online-school tries to mimic in person (school).”
And should online-school mimic in-person school? We are still in the infancy of what the online medium can do to learn and trying to recreate the in-person experience is like filming a play and calling it a movie. The result is neither as good as being there in person, nor making full use of what not being there can do.
This does not stop new EdTech products from promising to be the next best thing to in-person learning. And Dr. Carbino thinks he can tell which ones will actually be useful just from the emails they send.
“Anytime people are saying silver bullets or all-in, [think] red flags”
Dr. Carbino’s commitment to limiting new technology means he has to do less of the “subtraction” that Dr. Reich talked about. It is easy to become an over-decorated “Christmas tree”, as Dr. Carbino called them, piling edtech solutions on teachers in the hope that buying more products and expecting more of teachers will lead to more learning for students. Instead he focuses on only a few ed-tech products.
Edgenuity (now part of Imagine Learning) provides the courseware for a lot of the classes. The kids can stop and start, learning at their own pace. Dr. Carbino’s idea is to draw on the skills and tasks that instructional frameworks provide and then augment the courseware provided by Imagine Learning to achieve understanding through depth and complexity.
Parents and students sometimes know best, but sometimes they are an impediment to learning as well. Conflicts can arise sometimes because parents will choose City of Angels if they have specific religious backgrounds that they feel can’t be done fairly in normal public school. And students can feel cheated if the system comes down on them too hard.
But even the view of cheating that is more prevalent across education is not completely shared by Dr. Carbino. “Plagiarism is a time management issue, not an integrity issue” and any student who is sufficiently strong in self-management won’t run into the time management problem.
But in the end, a student who has the self management skills and who has the relationship with the teachers will be a student who can actually learn effectively in independent study.
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