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Innovation at the Secondary Level: 5 Misconceptions

Innovation at the Secondary Level: 5 Misconceptions

Personalized Learning  |  Competency-Based Education  |  Classrooms

Time and again we have seen that assumptions or misconceptions can get in the way of progress and success. Personalized learning is no exception; misconceptions about it often lead educators away from strategies and practices that could help students succeed. Sometimes, misconceptions represent more than small gaps in knowledge--they can be ingrained into industry-wide best practices, with disastrous results.

For example, for centuries, doctors believed that mothers would die during childbirth due to patient-specific issues such as inflammation, pain, or other factors. However, in 1847, Ignaz Semmelweiz, a Hungarian physician, hypothesized that doctors themselves were the root cause of labor-related deaths. He believed that doctors and midwives caused this negative impact as they went from patient-to-patient without washing their hands. While first mocked for his proposal, Semmelweiz’s theory was proven true---by thoroughly washing their hands, doctors and midwives saw a drastic decrease in labor-related deaths as the rate of puerperal fever caused by the spread of germs plummeted. Challenging and fixing this misconception (that the problem was the patient) allowed doctors and midwives to greatly improve conditions and create new best practice.

As Design and Implementation Consultants, we have the privilege of working with passionate educators in schools and districts across the country. This work allows us to gain insights into common misconceptions that exist throughout the K-12 system in regards to innovative practices like personalized learning. It also means we have the opportunity to reverse the misconceptions, and look at things in a new light.

In many ways, the spotlight for innovation has recently turned to the secondary level, from initiatives like the recently-announced XQ Institute winners to ongoing discussions about competency-based learning and the transition to higher education. In this post, we focus on five common misconceptions of personalized learning at the secondary level.

1. Subjects must be taught as separate and distinct from all other subjects.

Instead of approaching secondary classrooms in a siloed approach, educators have a powerful opportunity to connect subjects in an interdisciplinary format. In a similar way, work- and life-related challenges will certainly require students to draw upon knowledge from a variety of sources (including courses and subjects) rather than a solitary domain. Educators can accomplish this by leveraging learning strategies such as project-based learning that create an interconnectedness across courses. Teachers from multiple disciplines should focus on collaboration to develop projects and work alongside each other to facilitate the experience for students. Students can then demonstrate core competence in multiple subject areas at once.

2. Small-group instruction should only take place in elementary classrooms.

Some high school educators believe that utilizing small group instruction should remain at the elementary level, claiming that students at the secondary level have the maturity for whole-group lectures. However, small group instruction is not a matter of maturity but of effective pedagogy. It enables teachers at all levels to deliver targeted instruction that better meets the needs of students. Utilizing data, secondary teachers can identify the needs of a specific group of students and tailor instruction to meet these group-specific needs. Additionally, teachers can leverage small-group instruction to more feasibly provide mentorship, set goals, and build relationships. Even adult learners will tell you that professional development delivered in a small group setting is often much more effective than large, whole-group "stand and deliver" lectures.

3. Since secondary teachers have content-specific knowledge, their primary objective should be delivering content.

Students now have access to libraries of information in their pockets. In today’s classrooms, teachers are not the only source of content-specific information. This being the case, the role of the teacher at the secondary level can shift to focus facilitating higher levels of Bloom's Taxonomy. In fact, many students may better succeed after developing habits in accessing knowledge from a variety of sources other than the teacher, such as peer tutoring, the internet, or classroom discussions. Teachers should take advantage of technology to provide students with multiple ways to access information. In this way, the role of the teacher can shift to that of a facilitator, mentor, tutor, listener, and coach. This allows teachers to spend more time focusing on the specific needs of students.

4. To prepare students for college, students need to listen to lectures, take copious notes, and complete lots of homework.

Multiple problems exist in this type of logic. First, many college classrooms are shifting away from whole-group lectures to innovative strategies such as collaborative projects, flipped classrooms, and case studies.

Second, the underlying purpose of college is changing. It is estimated that by the time a student graduates in a given field, roughly 50% of the information originally required as a freshman will be outdated. In response, college (and high school) should focus on the development of skills rather than simply acquiring expert-level knowledge in specific subject areas. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the Top Skills Employers Want to See on New College Graduates’ Resumes include leadership, ability to work in a team, communication skills, problem-solving skills, and a strong work ethic. A good question for secondary leaders to consider is how they will foster these skills in their schools in order to prepare students for college and for the workforce.

5. There is not enough time in a high school classroom to be innovative.

Although time may directly affect the types of innovative strategies that can feasibly be implemented in one class period, many secondary teachers have found ways to make creative use of the precious minutes they have with students. We encourage teachers to view themselves as designers who have the ability to create a dynamic classroom experience for students within the time constraints they face. For example, teachers can consider utilizing a first exposure technique in which students come to class with prior exposure to the class objectives via a flipped model.

Additionally, secondary teachers can better structure innovative practices by viewing their class time over a few days rather than a single day. In this way, some teachers have been able to implement a station rotation model in which each day is one “station” of the rotation. Finally, secondary teachers should consider ways to empower students to self-select the support that is best for them and allow a certain degree of independence. In this way, teachers will support the practice of skills such as self-directed learning that will help them to succeed beyond high school.


Just as Ignaz Semmelweiz questioned standard medical practices to drastically improve life expectancy, we need to challenge our own assumptions about education. We particularly encourage educators at the secondary level to question ingrained practices within the high school system. And who knows? By doing so, educators may identify common misconceptions which, once eliminated, can lead to gains previously considered impossible.

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