EdSurge is on the road. This past week, we traveled to Golden, Colorado to attend the Conference of Online and Blended Learning (COBL), put on by the iLearn Collaborative. There we got the chance to learn what was on the hearts and minds of educators—some who are just beginning their personalized learning journey and others grappling with new challenges that have emerged from years of implementation. Here is what we learned:
In his opening keynote, Tom Vander Ark, CEO of Getting Smart, asked the audience, “Why student-centered learning?” A few chimed in. One audience member explained that “sustainable learning starts with students thinking the learning they are doing is relevant and real world, not just about passing a test.” Another shared that “student-centered learning should be an organic process, not the path that the teacher chooses.”
The shift towards student-centric can be hard for schools at first. Sand Creek High School in Colorado Springs, for example, began its 1:1 initiative this year. While the school is seeing successes, educators said one of their biggest challenges starting out was that many teachers felt tied to the content they had been teaching for years, and moving towards personalized learning has required them to let go of lessons that they love.
But personalized learning doesn't mean teachers have to give up the content they are passionate about. Snowy Peaks High School in Dillon, Colo. figured this out, and found a way to marry personalized learning and teacher content by allowing every teacher to teach an elective on anything they want as long as it is tied to standards. This allows those teachers connected to a particular book or unit the freedom to teach something they love while also sticking to the competency-based model.
When James Smith became principal at Snowy Peaks three years ago, the school was a dropout prevention program on turnaround status. After taking the helm, Smith realized that students who had previously failed in other places were coming to the same model of education that had previously failed them. He knew they had to do something different. So the entire school, including the students, held a weeklong design thinking exercise on what they thought school should look like. They toured other schools and made decisions together to create buy-in.
First, they focused on the physical environment. They tore down the walls and recreated the space to accommodate many different working options. Then they looked at the instructional model. What they realized was students were unsuccessful because sequentially based units can leave many students behind and frustrated because they are not successful. They made the decision to go blended allowing each student to work at their own path and pace.
However, new initiatives don’t always work as planned. After about a month into the new model, students at Snowy Peaks began growing sick of screen time and in need of more human connection. To ease the issue, the school decided to give students choice around how they learned each day: They could choose instruction with a teacher or learning independently. The solution decreased discipline needs, and the school went from nearly losing its accreditation to receiving Colorado’s highest ranking a school can receive in just two years.
Roots Elementary School in Denver, Colo. is a seasoned pro at implementing personalized and competency-based models. Students at Roots Elementary are not constrained by grade levels and instead learn in an open area called “the Grove” (pictured below). The school’s model is entirely competency-based, and students move on to the next learning station when they are ready to progress.
You might look at Roots and imaged they have the model figured out, but implementing personalized learning comes with its challenges no matter what stage you are in. Jonathan Hanover, founder and executive director at Roots Elementary, said that one of the biggest challenges the school is grappling with is supporting students who come from high trauma backgrounds within the flexibility of the model. In addition to lack of a consistent schedule, Hanover explained how some students struggle without the support of one caregiver to attach to at school, as would often occur in a traditional model when students have only one teacher. To address the issue, Hanover said educators from Roots will be attending a workshop this week on how to support students with trauma in a personalized learning approach.
Whether you’re switching to a personalized learning model for the first time or overcoming bumps down the road, the journey to student-centric learning can be difficult. But ultimately, as Vander Ark reminded in his keynote, it is all for the student, and “never has there been a more important time to have critical thinkers.”