Elisabeth Stock has been at the education game for decades as the head of PowerMyLearning, a nonprofit focused on personalized learning. I recently chatted with her about the organization’s promising new technology and the simplest way to get your daily caffeine fix.
Do you drink tea or coffee? How do you take it?
I love the simplicity of classic black coffee.
Who or what was the inspiration behind you starting PowerMyLearning? How has the organization evolved since 1999?
The inspiration behind starting PowerMyLearning was the insight that students are most successful when supported by a triangle of strong learning relationships between students, teachers and families.
If you ask an adult, “What’s the educational system?” they’ll usually say, “Well, there is the superintendent, there is the district, there is the teachers union.”
But if you ask a student, they’ll say, “I have my teachers and my family.”
At PowerMyLearning, we are all about empowering teachers, families and students to work together as a system (everyone rowing in the same direction) to support student learning.
While we leverage technology to make that happen, we never have technology play the role of or replace the humans in the triangle. This is at odds with what most folks in the “tech world” are building. Many coders look at the same triangle and say: “Oh, I could build some amazing software to play the role of the teacher or to do what a parent is supposed to do at home.”
I think that is a mistake (and I am saying that as an MIT graduate!). We should never use technology to push the teacher or family out of the triangle. Instead, we should use technology to pull them closer in.
Since our founding, PowerMyLearning has evolved to leverage the amazing gains in technology, while always staying true to our vision about the triangle. We want to keep innovating and leveraging the best of what’s out there—continuous improvement is in our organizational DNA.
What’s your approach to parent engagement? How does PowerMyLearning work with families to better support their students’ education?
We take the same approach to family engagement as we do in the rest of our work, focusing first and foremost on strengthening the relationships of the people who matter most in students’ lives: their parents and teachers.
Most recently, we observed a disconnect between the type of family engagement that schools typically pursue and the type of family engagement matters the most. Schools typically go after what they can “see,” such as bringing parents into the school building for events and workshops. But research shows that the type of engagement that matters most involves families supporting their children’s learning at home.
We developed Family Playlists as a breakthrough innovation that engages families in a way that’s really authentic and meaningful. Family Playlists transform the learning relationships between students, families and teachers and provide a groundbreaking new way to drive student mastery and social-emotional learning.
When a teacher assigns a Family Playlist, students’ family members receive a text alert in their home language with a link to the activity. After mastering a concept in school, students teach what they learned in class to a family partner using a collaborative activity—this leverages the “protégé effect,” which shows that students understand a concept better after explaining it to someone else.
After completing the assignment at home, family members close the loop and provide feedback to students’ teachers on how well the child understood the concept, allowing for rich family-teacher communication around learning. Teachers can then view reports and determine how to better meet students’ academic and social-emotional needs.
Last spring, we piloted Family Playlists at a high-needs district middle school in the Bronx. This school had historically struggled with family engagement, so the results were powerful.
Remarkably, 91 percent of families participated, and all the families agreed that Family Playlists helped them understand what their child was learning in school.
Teachers were able to communicate with families more frequently, and they developed stronger relationships with each other. Students were not only teaching academic concepts to their families, they were also teaching socio-emotional learning competencies like persisting when struggling and keeping a growth mindset about learning. I’m a big believer that there is no better way to learn something, than to teach it to someone else!
How have parents, teachers and students contributed to the development of PowerMyLearning’s programs?
We regularly collect feedback from all of our direct stakeholders—parents, teachers, students, and school leaders—and combine it with our deep understanding of learning science and learning engineering to evaluate and adjust our programs. For example, when a national survey found that while teachers and principals know family engagement is important, they lack necessary tools and supports to implement it, it reinforced feedback we had received over the years from various school partners. We developed Family Playlists and a number of supportive materials to address this gap.
Once we rolled Family Playlists out, ideas for improvements came from the teachers, students and families we served in the beta. For example, one teacher made this great “Family Selfie” wall in her classroom, where students took photos with their families holding up their progress reports. This inspired us to build photo functionality into the platform so that students and families can upload photos of their work—or themselves—when submitting Family Playlists.
Which demographics benefit most from PowerMyLearning’s support, programs and resources? What disparities or trends have you noticed in working with those groups and why do you think they exist?
At PowerMyLearning, we’re committed to meeting the needs of all students, especially students from low-income families, students with learning differences and English-language learners.
These are the demographics at the top of our minds as we developed Family Playlists. We identified a number of common challenges that our partners and schools nationwide face when engaging families—particularly those in low-income communities—and developed this program to overcome them.
For example, parents in high-poverty communities often lack the English language skills, technology access or confidence to help their children with schoolwork. To overcome these barriers, Family Playlists offer automatic translation and use the most prevalent technology in low-income communities: the mobile phone. And they put the student in the role of “teacher” and the family partner in the role of “student,” so that all families can participate, not only the few who know how to discuss math, science or other subjects.
Where do you see PowerMyLearning in the next three years?
We’ll continue to grow the reach of Family Playlists and do continuous improvement and evidence-building around it. I hope Family Playlists can become a new measure of family engagement for schools across the country so we can ensure all students have a strong learning triangle with a supportive adult helping them with their learning outside of the classroom. Every child deserves that.
What’s the best part of your work day?
The best part of my work day is seeing the triangle come to life.
For example, I recently met Deshia, a mother who had always found it difficult to get to the school building given her work schedule. When she participated in the Family Playlists pilot, she saw the family feedback portion—where the family partner gives feedback to the teacher—almost as a portal for her to develop a relationship with her son’s math teacher.
So for every single Family Playlist, she shared rich detail about how her son, Jaylen, was doing on the math assignments at home. Later, when she came in for parent-teacher conferences, the teacher jumped up and gave her a huge hug because they had been communicating all spring about Jaylen’s work in math. So, rather than starting new, they were continuing a conversation.