Want to Give Students More Voice and Choice? Start with Teachers

Professional Development

Want to Give Students More Voice and Choice? Start with Teachers

By Michele Eaton     Oct 10, 2017

Want to Give Students More Voice and Choice? Start with Teachers

This article is part of the guide: What Personalized Learning Looks Like Across the Country: The 2017 Fifty States Project.

Stop me if you’ve seen this one before: In an effort to encourage teachers to abandon traditional, lecture-style instruction in favor of next-generation learning models, we sit them down and ask them to listen for an hour or two. Or, in other words, we lecture teachers on the merits of ditching the lecture.

Conversations around personalized learning are nothing new for the staff at the M.S.D. of Wayne Township in Indianapolis. Teachers in our virtual high school and blended learning programs, which I help direct, have been having them for a few years now via webinars and seminars. The discussions are always rich and engaging, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, our efforts to scale them were always coming up short.

When I began piecing this all together, I realized how absurd it was for me to not only be leading relatively traditional professional development on this topic, but specifically on a model of learning that I had never actually tried myself. It should have come as no surprise that I wasn’t seeing much transfer into our classrooms.

Personalized Professional Development Takes Root

At this point, I decided to shake up our learning plan for teachers and create a personalized experience tailored to their interests and needs. If I wanted staff to take a risk and rethink what learning looks like in their classrooms, I needed to take that risk myself and help them experience the power of personalized learning for themselves. From there, it was only natural to start applying some of the concepts we discussed using with students in our own professional development.

Learner Profiles are tools that students can create to reflect on who they are as learners and subsequently use to take an active role in the personalization of their learning. I took the idea from the professional development team at Denver Public Schools and used their “SNIC” template. SNIC stands for Strengths, Needs, Interests, and Constraints. Our teachers created their own learner profiles, some digitally and others with markers and paper, to reflect on what worked for them as learners. These were not collected or turned in, but rather used to create an Individualized Learning Plan (ILP) for the school year.

ILPs are built into our learning management system, which is handy. However, an LMS is not a requirement for this type of professional learning to work. An ILP could be developed inside of a spreadsheet. Teacher voice is the most important characteristic of a successful plan, not the tool itself.

The ILP itself looks like a table. The first column includes an un-editable text describing the topic of the learning. This is determined by our school improvement plan goals and is the same for everyone. The activities that the teachers complete are listed in the next column and are completely determined by the teachers.

For our first year, we created one ILP for the whole year. I encouraged teachers to include activities to learn the content and activities to demonstrate mastery. They have a column where they can indicate their progress. The final two columns are for teacher and mentor reflections and communications.

In that first year, I worked harder than I ever have, and the work has never been more fulfilling. I still did the same number of webinars, led the same number of discussions, and created the same number of online mini-courses. But I also met with the teachers face-to-face more often, and saw higher attendance at what has always been voluntary professional learning sessions.

How Much Choice Is Too Much?

To prepare for the second year, the most important thing for me was to ensure that I did not lose the teacher voice in the process. While we were seeing success, I wanted to improve and continue to make this a positive learning experience for my teachers.

Last summer teachers at our public virtual high school, Achieve Virtual Education Academy, met to reflect on their experiences so far. A large part of the discussion centered around personalized learning. For the first time, teachers felt more confident in their ability to personalize for their students because they experienced the benefit of that type of learning firsthand. The buy-in and excitement were there, and teachers felt ready to really get serious about personalized learning.

During that summer meeting, the teachers answered three specific questions. What about the ILPs worked well for you? What did not work for you? What ideas do you have to improve the process?

Almost unanimously, the staff reported an appreciation for the flexibility of anytime-anywhere learning. They could do things they felt were the most beneficial when it was convenient for them. Several others shared that they had a better understanding of how they could begin to personalize their courses for students now that they had experienced a form of personalized learning themselves.

Most of the ideas for improvement centered around finding the balance between too much choice and not enough. Many of the teachers appreciated the completely open approach at the beginning, but soon began to feel a bit overwhelmed with options. When I researched this, I found the teachers’ suggestions aligned really well with social and psychological research. While Daniel Mochon found that having no options creates negative reactions, Barry Schwartz found that too many choices on the other end of the spectrum can lead to “paralysis of the mind.”

Based on this feedback, we decided to scale back some of the options. Instead of having one ILP for the whole year focusing on different topics, the teachers are given a new ILP to create each quarter with a different focus. The topics for each ILP are still the same for all teachers and based on school improvement plan goals. But teachers can select from different activities—such as taking online mini-courses, participating in online discussions and course-development exercises. And of course teachers are still encouraged to seek out opportunities of interest, even if they are not listed. (Some teachers loved the endless possibilities, so I did not want to take that away from them).

Building Stronger Learning

A couple of months into the process, I can see a massive uptick in participation. With a more limited number of options and four deadlines instead of one, teachers are reporting that they feel less overwhelmed and more motivated. Gathering the insight from the teachers also helped us to create a system that was massively more manageable from my position, as well. Being vulnerable and taking a risk is a lot less intimidating for me now. I’m truly looking forward to standing in front of our staff and saying, “Let’s tear this thing apart and build it stronger.”

Not only is professional learning for our online and blended teachers much more authentic and successful, our students will reap the benefits, too. Personalization is now part of our course design process and is making its way into each and every one of our classes.

Student voice is a critical aspect of any modern classroom—and one of the best ways to make that possible is to honor teacher voice in the professional learning process.

Michele Eaton is Director of Virtual and Blended Learning for the M.S.D. of Wayne Township in Indiana.

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