Saying the American classroom system is a 19th-century relic that leaves too many students behind, the Bush Foundation has launched an initiative to help schools use new teaching strategies, technology and a support network to tailor education to individual learners.

The St. Paul-based foundation will devote most of the $7 million-plus it spends annually on education to the "School Design for Individualized Learning" initiative. The aim is to help schools develop learning strategies that could transform how kids experience school, how teachers teach and even how classrooms look.

"Today is about opening our minds to the possibility that the best education model for kids today may look really different from what we experienced," said Bush Foundation President Jennifer Ford Reedy.

The foundation, which has been laying groundwork for the initiative for nearly a year, formally unveiled its new strategy Wednesday at a conference in Minneapolis attended by hundreds of teachers and education advocates.

Instead of the Industrial Revolution-era, mass production model, Reedy said that schools of the future should shift to mass customization where students' learning styles, cultural backgrounds and career aspirations are all taken into account.

Sound impossible? Businesses are already doing mass customization, Reedy said, pointing out that Starbucks serves 87,000 drink variations.

International education expert Sir Ken Robinson, the keynote speaker, said learning is an inherently individual human process. But for the past three decades, he said, countries around the world have stripped that out of schools.

"From the moment they are born, kids love to learn. They are learning organisms. The problems tend to arise when they go to school," he said.

Robinson pointed out that schools have standardized curriculum and standardized tests, now a $16 billion annual industry pitting individual schools, states and countries against each other for the best scores.

"It hasn't made any difference whatsoever," said Robinson, pointing out America's international education rankings haven't improved and that a yawning achievement gap remains between white students and students of color.

"Nothing will be fixed by doubling down on the system," he said.

Instead, he said, schools must personalize education and expand definitions of success to include creativity, innovation, collaboration and communication — all skills that businesses seek.

'About what works best'

To propel the initiative from talk to action, Bush Foundation leaders say they will focus on three areas: adopting techniques and technologies to help students learn at their own pace and manner, creating schools that support students from all cultures and backgrounds, and helping students plan for careers.

The foundation has convened a group of nine public, private and charter schools that have already invested in individual learning. And it's working with 2Revolutions, a national education design lab, to help a second group of schools create individual learning strategies and start to implement them.

Stakeholders from the schools meet regularly to exchange ideas, successes and failures. They include representatives from Avalon Charter School in St. Paul and the Farmington Public Schools.

In Farmington, nearly all students are supplied iPads. The technology helps teachers make the classes more interactive and students explore new ways to research topics and present reports.

Farmington Superintendent Jay Haugen said that while everyone has different strengths and interests, most kids grow up never having seriously explored them.

"Now students are creating their own pathways and being in charge of their own learning and do projects that make sense to them," he said. "It's very natural, but it's so different from what schools have been asked to do for the past 100 years."

Gretchen Sage-Martinson, an adviser and program coordinator at Avalon, said her school's 228 high school and middle school students create their own learning projects, working with teachers from at least two disciplines to ensure the projects meet state graduation standards. For example, a student researched the Great Depression and then wrote a children's book about it.

"It's all about what works best for them," she said.

Avalon offers more conventional classes in math and science, but looks for new and better ways to teach them. She said it doesn't look or sound like a conventional school.

"There is a healthy hubbub. It's not quiet. Kids are not sitting in rows," she said.

Reedy acknowledges that changing the current system, which works for some, feels "pretty risky and even scary." One visit to an individualized learning school made her brain hurt, she said, because so much looked wrong.

"But the students were engaged," she said "I could really imagine my kids very happy there. I could imagine so many types of kids could be happy there."

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804