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Litchfield program a semi-finalist in national competition

Union Leader Correspondent

July 04. 2016 8:41PM
Campbell High School is the origin, and one of the potential future sites, of Socrademy, a new approach to high-school learning. (Eli Okun)

LITCHFIELD — Campbell High School teacher Justin Ballou had been working for years on a concept for an education platform that would transform the way high school students learn. But by late last year, promising funding streams had dried up, and he was wondering whether he should let the idea go.

Then, on Dec. 18, he led a psychology class discussion about education — and opened up to students about his idea for Socrademy, a personalized learning platform and program. Ballou asked if they wanted to help bring it to life, and a team was born.

“I kind of re-found my motivation once I realized it wasn’t about me, it was about them,” he said last week. “Once I started living Socrademy’s purpose of empowering through opportunity as an individual, that’s when everything started to kind of push forward.”

Now Socrademy is a semi-finalist in the XQ Super School Project, a national competition created by Laurene Powell Jobs that next month will award at least five winners $10 million each over five years.

And if the Socrademy team — which includes students, teachers and industry members like Salem’s Extreme Networks — wins, then their vision for a new approach to high school could launch in several Granite State schools next fall.

“The traditional education system doesn’t allow kids that latitude of experimentation,” Ballou said. “It’s like this recipe assuming that every single student is exactly the same, when in fact every single student, even based on the time of day, is completely different.”

The Socrademy model seeks to leverage those differences by focusing on competency-based learning and project-based assessment, allowing students to move at their own pace and focus on specific interests.

Its plans call for creating designated labs within existing high schools that are outfitted with workspaces and technologies like virtual reality equipment and 3-D printing. During study halls, before and after school, or on school breaks, students would virtually connect with teachers who have built “aporia,” or learning modules, that they could take for high school credit.

That model allows students and teachers across different schools to connect over shared interests, with all curricula emphasizing conceptual understanding, critical thinking, creation, curation and communication.

And at “HackEDU” professional development events, teachers would gain the skills to create the aporia and collaborate across schools.

“The concept of the different modules that plug in — that’s very well thought out, and that’s key,” said Bob Nilsson, director of solutions marketing at Extreme Networks, which is providing networking and marketing/PR support to Socrademy. “The underlying platform technology has just caught up to allow that.”

Nilsson added that innovating in education is critical for the country to keep up with the economy’s rapidly shifting needs for its skilled labor force.

It’s a vision of high school that centers student engagement on personal passions without sacrificing core classes.

Whereas the current school system teaches virtually the same American government class to every student, for example, Socrademy could connect the 20 Granite State students and teacher who care deeply about 19th-century judicial cases to learn together. And it would allow those students to work on their own schedules and in their own styles to reach the same objectives.

Now Ballou tells his students that saved his near-failure of an idea.

And the team of students, teachers, architects and more who have created the concept, business model and floor plans believe that Socrademy could expand to 15 New Hampshire schools and beyond within just a few years if it proves successful.

“If you give teachers the opportunity to teach what they love with a group of engaged students that want to learn that content,” Ballou said, “you have magic.”

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