Wow! Ed: Newsletter from the Center for Educational Improvment
Tearing down Walls, Opening Doors to Learning
July 2015
In This Issue

Two Featured
Four schools -- in California, Kentucky, and Baltimore -- use varied methods of engaging students for more than learning. Drop-out rates fall and collaboration among students reaches beyond data.

Follow the school  houses on the right!

Did you miss the NAESP Long Beach conference?

Click here to read a summary of the session sponsored  by CEI. Below, Dr. Christine Mason addresses issues of 21st century learning.


Dear Educators,
This summer we have been blessed to collaborate with 10 interns, most of them with backgrounds and expertise in education or psychology, and some of them specializing in history, economics, early childhood education, or serving students in English Language Learning.

At CEI we try to talk the talk and walk the walk. This issue of  
Wow ! focusing on learner-centered education and learner preferences, was developed with some consideration of the interest, knowledge and backgrounds of our interns.  We are fortunate this summer to work with Katie who is majoring in Human Services and Social Justice, Annie who has experience teaching ESL classes, and Joshua--one of our youngest interns, a history/politics major who not only is well-versed in gamification but also is an avid debater and orator. Among these interns are national merit scholars, undergraduate and graduate students, and recent graduates with significant experience both tutoring struggling students and volunteering in other countries. (See also our recent blog posts.)

We believe that to be at the forefront is not only to learn from the sages, who have weathered a few of life's storms, but to listen to youth and to follow their lead as well. See what you think about the gems they have gathered for us.
Computer-Assisted Language Learning: Using Computer Literacy to Establish English Literacy

By Katie Delis, CEI Intern

o matter the language spoken at home, the world is becoming highly computer literate. Can our technical literacy assist adult English-language learners in their quest for English proficiency? In a highly in-depth descriptive dissertation, Maja Grgurović (2010) answers our question by exploring how blended language-learning affects various components of the pedagogy of English as a Second Language (ESL) courses.

Hypothetical Case Studies. Most studies on blended ESL courses prior to this research compared the face-to-face method of language learning with Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL). Grgurović found that such a comparative set-up failed to demonstrate qualities of a successful blended language-learning classroom, but instead it highlighted differences between the face-to-face and CALL modes. Grgurović addressed the discrepancy by creating what she termed a "hypothetical case study" which took data from two lower-intermediate listening/speaking English language courses to create a classroom made up of the best practices of CALL. While her research spanned a variety of topics, two main findings are particularly salient. 


Flexible Technology Aids Learning. First, CALL learning environments are uniquely enhanced by the flexible and versatile nature of the tools and format. According to the study, language learning in a successful blended ESL course takes place in three main locations: the classroom, the computer lab, and at home. The computer lab provided a valuable middle ground for the teachers  in that it allowed instructors to monitor and guide computer-based learning in a controlled environment. Teacher interviews demonstrated that teacher roles varied widely in the computer lab and included instructing, monitoring, and facilitating. While many teachers differed on their level of student involvement in the lab, data showed that 80% of students liked weekly, guided language learning in the lab.

Teacher involvement also varied in the amount and style of online presence in the blended classroom. Although there were wide differences in how teachers interacted with students online, the majority of students demonstrated a strong preference for working outside of the classroom on language skills that included speaking activities, listening practice, and vocabulary.  


The ease with which the students and teachers could flow between different roles and environments seemed to be correlated with how well the material remained consistent within each mode. Both teachers and students demonstrated satisfaction with the courses when the activities in the face-to-face time paralleled that which was offered in the technical modality. Many CALL programs offer the instructor great control in selecting the online activities and assessment, and Grgurović seemed to stress establishing explicit correlation of activities across modalities.  


Specific Feedback Is Key. In addition to data-driven evidence of successful flexibility, the research effectively demonstrated that a valuable component of a stellar CALL mode in ESL courses is accessibility to direct and specific feedback. Computer-administered formal and informal assessments can provide ESL students with immediate feedback, which proved to be valuable for both  determining skill level and practicing grammar, vocabulary, and a variety of listening activities. 


When students participated in assessments online, they reported that thorough feedback was most helpful. For example, when responding to a speaking prompt, students benefited most from detailed responses to their performance, such as identifying specific syllables that need pronunciation correction and modeling the necessary change. This teacher-student interaction by way of the computer was most effective when the interactions were frequent and timely.  


Successful Students.  Grgurović reports that successful students in the blended English-language- learning classroom benefited from the extra language practice, preparation for university courses, and opportunities for autonomous, self-guided learning. 


As we consider her work within the context of growing computer usage, we may find that CALL methods, at minimum, provide an added sense of familiarity and commonality in the diverse language-learning classroom for all students. Discovering and sharing the best practices for computer technology in the English- language-learning process will likely become an integral component of educational improvement as we move forward into the world of 21st century learning. 




Grgurović, M. (2010). Technology-enhanced blended language learning in an ESL class: A description of a model and an application of the Diffusion of Innovations theory. Dissertation. Iowa State University. 

Student-Centered Success Stories

By Anne Quinn, CEI Intern

Recent research, drawing on the well-respected work of  educational giants such as John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Maria Montessori, and Lev Vygotsky, has shown that a learner-centered, rather than a teacher-centered approach to education can be more successful in engaging all types of learners. CEI is examining schools with different kinds of learner-centered models to better understand the benefits of altering our traditional approach to classroom learning.     


Project-Based Models - Creating In-Depth Experiences


City Neighbors and Design39 use a project-based model to engage the individual learner and make content more relevant and concrete. Instead of skimming the surface of a topic, these project-based schools prefer to research specific topics in-depth, and create a final product that not only showcases the students' mastery, but leads to better retention and recall.

City Neighbors Charter School, Baltimore, MD


The website for City Neighbors Charter School is full of examples of student-directed learning. At City Neighbors it is clear that students are actively engaged in learning through defining their learning, infusing arts into their projects, and taking meaningful field trips to give students first-hand experiences. The City Neighbors' website defines project-based learning as having three main elements:

  • The development of a compelling topic,
  • In-depth prolonged research using a multitude of sources (including primary sources and field work), and 
  • The development of a well-crafted product that synthesizes and presents learning about the topic.


Making Prototypes - Hands-On Learning. Sixth grade students at City Neighbors are learning about polymers and plastics. To reinforce the information, students conducted experiments to create their own polymers, adding different ingredients and recording the effect. To extend this into a relevant and interesting project, they experimented to find the best solution to make an athletic shoe prototype. This type of discovery with hands-on learning makes a foreign concept more tangible and relevant. Photos of the students' process can be seen on the school website. 


Dream Schools. One fifth grade project at City Neighbors asked students, "What would your ideal school look like?" Students not only talked about what they would like in their dream school, they also visited other schools in Baltimore, including a visit with  education majors in teacher preparation programs at Johns Hopkins University.A compiled video shows students talking about their experience with the project. One student says, "When the teachers asked the questions, it was kind of a 'Yes' moment because they would listen to what we think about schools." 


The 5th graders were given the chance to analyze their own education process and to create a project to present to other teachers. About her Johns Hopkins' experience one student said, "I learned a lot from them, and I think they learned a lot from us. These students demonstrated not only their knowledge about the types of schools in their areas and differences between charter and public schools, but they also articulated their understanding of excellence and mediocrity in schools. 

In 2009, just four years after opening, City Neighbors was awarded the Maryland Performance Award from the Maryland Department of Education," for its growth in student achievement as measured by standardized test scores." Since then, City Neighbors has provided quality education to children in Baltimore. According to its 2014 test results, City Neighbors has had a higher percentage of students reach proficient levels in math than both Baltimore and Maryland state as a whole.  

Design39, San Diego, CA

Storyboards. A new school using a project-based model is Design39, a charter school in San Diego, CA. This unique campus, uses technology, especially digital media, to enhance learning. In one of their videos, this school explains the example of a book trailer. The idea is that after students read a book, they work together to create storyboards and digital media knowledge to create a trailer summarizing that book. This replaces the traditional method of paper and pencil book summaries and introduces students to a more modern version, while still teaching some of the desired skills.

Design39 boasts a one-of-a-kind architecture that looks more like a college campus than a typical elementary school. With several buildings, a "Main Street," many laboratories and outdoor learning spaces, this school focuses on technology, innovation and synergy. This year, Design39 received the Classroom of the Future Foundation Award.

Since Design39 has finished its first year very recently, there is little information or feedback available. But the  success of other student-centered schools, such as Taylor County Schools and Lindsay Unified Districts (see below), as well as a project-based school, such as City Neighbors, offers high hope for Design39 and other schools that implement a learner-centered approach in the future.     

Two Other Schools with Student-Centered Models

By Anne Quinn, CEI Intern  and Christine Mason, CEI Executive Director


Performance-Based Models  


How should students be grouped to optimize opportunities for learning, at levels that are challenging, yet still foster success? Taylor County and Lindsay Unified are public schools whose leaders have opted to switch their schools to learner-centered models. Both school districts have implemented a performance-based model, which groups students according to content mastery, rather than chronological age. Students move back and forth between levels at their own pace, rather than following the traditional grade pattern. In these public schools, eacn model of learner-centered instruction was developed to meet the specific needs of the local community.


Lindsay Unified School District, CA 


Lindsay is a small town (population 11,768) in the San Joaquin Valley. Agriculture and its related industries are the major source of employment. The community includes three elementary schools and one middle school. The Lindsay Unified School District (LUSD) is unique in that it serves largely a Latino population and 71% of the students enrolled are English Language Learners. LUSD has adopted a performance-based model for all the schools in its district. It has called this custom model the Strategic Design. According to their website the LUSD developed a Strategic Design model and created a mission statement, "through a series of community meetings that included 120 parents, staff members, board members, learners, and community members." In this large collaboration, members of this education community agreed upon a performance-based model that would focus upon individual content mastery.  


Progress Based on Understanding. In the LUSD, the students advance based on their performance, not their age or the end of a semester.

A video from the LUSD website explains its Strategic Design model for 5th to 10th graders. Students describe many benefits of Strategic Design, including:

  •    The potential for finishing high school early and/or taking college courses during their last years of high school.
  •   More time for teachers to work with students who are struggling.
  •    The individual learner being in charge of the pace of his/her own education.

  In a March 2014, Wall Street Journal article, "Shaking up the class- room," Stefanie Banchero writes that,  "Lindsay is making faster gains than the state, county and a comparable district on the California Academic Performance Index, though its results are still lower." Banchero explains that since the implementation of the performance-based model in 2009, the percentage of students reaching proficiency levels of reading and math has increased. In 2013, 34% of students passed the reading test, compared to 25% in 2009. Math scores increased from 28% to 32%. Furthermore,  LUSD's learner-centered approach is having even more impact elsewhere. According to the same article, "suspension rates dropped by 41% and high school students claiming gang membership fell by half to about 4%."   

Taylor County High School,  Campbellsville, KY


Taylor County High School has also opted for performance-based education. Laura Benningfield, Principal, in a description of the school's goals indicates that each student has a personalized learning plan and that she welcomes parental input and involvement to help build the best plan for individual student success. The school's website notes: "Performance Based Education is a system of teaching and learning that places students in grade level content areas based on mental capacity rather than chronological age." Taylor County High School has been recognized in local broadcasts and newspapers and recently by the National Schools Boards Association (NSBA) for a variety of reasons including: 

  •    Zero high school dropouts, for 6 consecutive years
  •    A 1:1 ratio of devices to students
  •    Personalized learning
  •    Virtual learning, accessible 24/7
  •    Being named one of Kentucky's "Innovation Schools"

The NSBA recognized the improvement of the Taylor County High School, and interviewed staff and students, including one of the main initiators behind this learner-centered movement, Taylor County superintendent Roger Cook. In the video Cook explains Taylor County's unique approach to personalized learning: 

"If you can imagine this six-spoke wagon wheel, this is how we set our school district up. And you get to choose which spoke you go in. So we have ... flipped classroom. We have self-paced, peer-group learning, where you learn from your peers. We have the traditional classroom... There are students that still like to be lectured to, and they learn best teacher-directed, so we have that. We have project-based. We have all virtual, where you can just go in, sit down and do everything virtually."


Effective for At-risk Students. While the complexity of this system may have pros and cons, it seems that it has been enormously successful in helping at-risk students finish high school. Similar to Lindsay Unified with its many ELLs, Taylor County is unique in that many of its students are farmers. Cook explained that with virtual learning, a high school schedule becomes much more flexible to the farmer, allowing him or her to complete work during the evenings. In a 2011 KSBA article honoring Taylor County's recent PEAK award, one student said that this new system prevented his dropping out. The flexibility of virtual schooling meant that he was able to leave school early three days a week to work on a farm. And though he had previously considered quitting school altogether, "He said he decided graduation was the better path and now plans to pursue certification to become an electrician." 

In addition, Taylor County also boasts a successful S.T.A.R program, or Students Teaching and Reaching. In this program students are given the opportunity to intern with local businesses, such as a dentist office, hospital, or university athletic training room.

Improving test scores can be an indicator of school success. And Taylor County has seen a small rise in the percentage of students reaching proficiency levels, reaching 83% in 2014. Most educators, however, have focused on the Taylor schools' impressive zero-dropout record.

Conclusion. Learner-centered approaches that seemingly tear down the walls to traditional education are receiving substantial support from their local communities. Both parents and students seem to welcome the new opportunities and the supportive environment of the approaches they have chosen.  


Data to date indicate that schools are making good gains in academic achievement with these innovative approaches; yet, many questions remain. When listening to the enthusiasm of students, one must wonder if in fact there are other significant shifts that occur with these models. Are factors that potentially could be more important than academic achievement being tapped into with the shift to learner-centric education? Years from now, what will these learners tell us about their experiences? And in the short term, what is the effect on the social climate of a performance-based school? Are teachers receiving the proper training to be able to effectively become "classroom facilitators"? How do we assess whether students in this new model are actually learning and mastering the content? 


What is next for each of these schools? Where will they be five years from now?  From CEI's research, we suggest that educators at the forefront keep an eye on these colleagues. Whether it is students progressing according to competencies that are mastered or schools that offer options for primary modes of learning, these schools are shining a light on ways to be responsive to their local communities.      

Gamification: Gamer Types in Education

 By Joshua Hassell, CEI Intern


Gamification is not just useful for providing student choice and encouraging student-based (as opposed to instructor-centered) learning. It is also an immensely useful tool in appealing to the "unteachable" student.

Bartle's Test of Gamer Psychology and Personality Types. According to Richard A. Bartle (1996) in his landmark study, Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs (multi-player real-time virtual world games), most types of gamers have a mixture of four general personality types with one being dominant over the others. Bartle's landmark study,  identified four basic types of players:

  • Achievers: Regard point-gathering/"leveling up" as the primary objective, and enjoy games because of these two aspects. All other tasks are considered secondary and are done only when required in order to gain points or level-up. Some collaboration with others may occasionally be necessary in order to achieve a goal, but communication is done solely to achieve that goal.
  • Explorers: Mostly enjoy looking for interesting features, out-of-the-way places, unknown mechanics, etc. in a game; may end up scoring points due to their explorations, but point-scoring or leveling is not the primary goal. 
  •  Socializers: Mostly enjoy the game as a tool of social media; interested in interacting with other players and sharing common experiences, sympathizing with other players' problems, or even just observing play; some exploration or leveling may be necessary to communicate with players, but neither exploration nor leveling are the main goal.
  • Attackers (See note at end of article): Mostly enjoy games as a facet of competition; attack other players in order to gauge and hone their skills; may engage in leveling or point-gathering in order to combat stronger payers, but such leveling or point-gathering is primarily done to gain strength to attack others.

    Achievers and attackers are players who primarily act on the game world while socializers and explorers are primarily interested in interacting with other players.

Relating Students and Gamification. Most conventional education programs only appeal to the achievers and the explorers of the group, since attackers and socializers are not prone to valuing either points or new experiences as Vicki Davis, a gamification specialist in Georgia points out: "points don't matter in gameplay [to the attacker]. Neither do grades [in education]." (Davis, 2014) This relation is further proven when Davis changes the material her "attacker" student is exposed to from more conventional fare to, "[a] focus on "world-changing games" [with a focus on a greater struggle than just achieving an "A" or getting the high score]  he was suddenly engaged... He's an engaged gamer and finally an engaged student." (Davis, 2014)

This change in focus resulting in a change in achievement and engagement in an otherwise difficult student is a new application of gamification's principle of re-structuring the learning experience, which Wendy Hsin-Yuan and Dilip Soman of the Rotman School of Management from the University of Toronto define as, "[identifying] students who are unmotivated to push onto the next stage... [and providing] a push... defined as the motivation to advance from one stage [or subject matter] to the next" (Hsin- Yuan Huang, Soman, 2013). In this case, the push would be the use of a different game type which not only encouraged the attacker student to persevere past a certain subject but also engage him/her as a student in a more general context.

While it may not be possible to shift the entirety of the curriculum to benefit a single student, Douglas Kiang (2014) has a much more easily implemented suggestion to both utilize gaming personalities to involve students and to keep a more traditional curriculum.  


Kiang divides his students into collaborative groups where, "[he utilizes his] Explorers [to] do some preliminary research, [his] Achievers to formulate a plan, [his] Socializers to publish and share our process, and [his] Griefers [or attackers] to look for flaws in the game plan." (Kiang, 2014)  


In this collaborative group, Kiang's students are each allowed to perform tasks that correspond to their gaming personalities: The explorers are developing new concepts and thus exploring understanding, the achievers are demonstrating mastery and thus achieving results, the socializers are presenting the results and thus engaging socially with individuals both within and outside the group, and the attackers are looking for any flaws and thus pitting their wits against their classmates and attempting to attack them through discovering errors.  


While Kiang's approach requires some fine-tuning, depending on subject matter, it represents a good first step in under-standing gamer psychologies, so that educators might solve the problem of the unteachable student, gain help in socializing  students  with better learning habits, explore new teaching strategies and achieve better engagement with all students.  


Note Re: Attackers

Bartle, who is British, uses the term "killers" in his 1996 study instead of "attackers." Given the gun violence in American schools today, we substituted terms for this article and recommend that teachers use our terminology in any discussions with students.



Bartle, R. A. (1996, April). Hearts, clubs, diamonds, spades: Players who suit MUDs. 


Davis, V. (2014, March 2010). Gamification in education. Edutopia. 


Hsin-Yuan Huang, W. and Soman, D. (2013, December 10).  A practitioner's guide to gamification of education. 

Kiang, D. (2014). Use the four gaming types to help your students collaborate. 

Innovative Gems
What innovative gems are you planning on introducing in your school next year?  Each of the approaches described in Wow! this time has either a "fun factor" or at least an element of "okay, your turn to choose."  When I formed CEI in 2009, my heart was aligned with teachers  and principals who have a certain magic--the magic being a way to reach even the hardest to reach, hardest to teach students.  Six years later, my heart is still there. I am excited by the wealth of ways to excite and engage youth, ways to break down barriers to learning, to open doors to engagement. Common Core notwithstanding, I urge you to seek out innovative gems to keep schools alive and relevant.


Christine Mason
Center for Educational Improvement