Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School

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Jun 29, 2008

I recently visited the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Dorchester, Mass. It’s a fascinating place—and not at all what one would expect to see in the middle of Dorchester.

It’s one of these schools that provides a laptop for every child; there are no textbooks. But how the students use the laptops is what makes the school so interesting.

They don’t use the laptops just to do research or type up a report. Students actually receive instruction and learn from the computers. And the school takes advantage of this to differentiate instruction for each student in every class.

For example, in one class where students were learning about tornadoes, all the students read at different levels. In the traditional classroom with one teacher for many students and the same textbook or handout for everyone, this would be a big problem.

Not so at this school. Here, the faculty has selected software that can offer the content in multiple ways to target students with dramatically different reading levels—from a student who reads at a third-grade level to one who reads at an 11th-grade level. After students learn about tornadoes on the computer, the teacher facilitates a discussion among the students about what they learned. Sure, they didn’t learn it in the same way, but nonetheless, they all know something about the content now and can have an engaging and informative discussion that reinforces and deepens the learning.

In a school where one-third of the children are special education students, one-third don’t use English as their primary language, 87.5 percent are on reduced lunch programs, and 50 students can’t read at all, it’s striking to see how focused and engaged the students are in their classes. Walking around, you see students engrossed in their learning and proud of what they are accomplishing.

This isn’t an example of computer-based learning being introduced disruptively, but as we think about what needs to change as computer-based learning makes bigger inroads into the traditional system through a disruptive path, we could learn a lot of lessons from Lilla G. Frederick. As a Boston pilot school, Principal Debra Socia has established a heavyweight team to redefine the process of schooling and provide us with lessons for how students and teachers should interact in the classroom of the future.

The school had many other striking elements, so I’ll blog about my visit a few more times over the next few weeks.

– Michael Horn

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.