Friday, February 17, 2017

Is Personalized Learning the Future of Education?

(Note: This was created for a university reflection. Thus, it is rather lengthy.)

Today, I was given the opportunity to attend a paid trip with my fellow SDSU student teachers to Eastern Carver County School District in Chaska, Minnesota. We stayed overnight last night, and woke up this morning for an early arrival at Pioneer Ridge Middle School. The middle school was a fantastic example of what personalized learning looks like. We were greeted by staff members, and a personalized learning instruction coach, that guided us to what they call the “Hub” or more commonly the media center. The staff was quick to note that this middle school was much more advanced in the process of personalized learning. The district is on board with personalized learning, but every school is on a different step of the journey. Therefore, this was a great school to observe due to their highly structured personalized learning curriculum.

Our tour began with a little over an hour presentation on how personalized learning has evolved for them, and what the school day looks like. This particular middle school offers two tracks for students, thus choosing which type of learner they feel they are. There exists an Explorer and an Adventurer path. The Explorer track is more traditionally based with direct instruction at the helm of learning. On the contrary, there is the Adventurer course in which the students decide daily their class schedule. What this looks like is “Daily Dish” to begin their day and the core teachers of Language Arts, Social Studies, and Science presenting to the students what they are offering for each period of the day. During this time, the students have their choice of which classes they will attend at which time. Each class period consists of its own unique set of activities on the agenda. Below is a list of the types of “Structures & Environments” the school offers within the classrooms.

·      Seminars – Direct instruction
·      Coaching Workshops – Similar instruction and Q & A
·      Conferences – Individual meetings
·      Personal Flex – Individual work time
·      Group Flex – Collaboration as groups or to discuss learning
·      Learner Led Workshops – Learner leading an LT or a passion
·      Critical Thinking Circles – Discussion
·      Learning Hubs – Peer teaching interactions

The structure above is what’s evident within this personalized learning system constructed by the school district. Notice the two “Flex” options. The personalized approach of the flex options is that the students are able to sign up (on their phones or devices) to essentially opt out of class for a certain period. This gives them the opportunity to work on other homework if they feel their progress in the class they are flexing in is satisfactory. There are dedicated flex zones throughout the classrooms and school for students to meet or work individually. The core principal behind this system is to give students the opportunity to understand how they learn best. I also found interesting that offered in the Hub was peer tutoring. I am unsure how the students are chosen to tutor, but students are encouraged to help one another collaboratively. Lastly, I will note that the school uses standards based grading, which does not reflect behavior in any form. The administration at Pioneer Ridge Middle School feel that traditional schools include far too much influence from student behavior. As the interim principal informed us, “Kids will be kids.” They do not believe in penalizing a student’s academic performance solely for the reason of behavior.

I have produced this lengthy reflection of our visit at the middle school, but notice how math was not included within the core subjects. The math teacher within me was curious how seriously the math track is taken. To my pleasure, I feel the math program is taken rather seriously, but much more personalized in regards to pacing. There are four options for students to progress through the math program at the middle school. Included below is said four-year plan.

The beauty of this plan is that students who either struggle or excel end up either on pace or ahead of Minnesota state standards. Standardized tests also help determine which pace is suited for a learner. Math, along with the other classes offered, are taken during the other time left throughout the school day for electives. This reminds me that the middle school uses standards based grading. Not the entire school district uses standards based, but most teachers are gradually implementing a four tier “grade” for each standard. For more information on standards based, Dan Meyer has a fantastic blog post included with many resources on standards based grading.

Following a lunch break at Tommies Malt Shop, we were given a brief presentation at Chanhassen High School in what they call the Union. This is supposed to reflect a college Union in the manner of a room to just be kids. This includes a pool table, foosball table, table tennis, stereo system, couches, comfortable chairs, etc. This is a possible room to visit during flex time. The assistant principal informed us of the overwhelming process of visits and interviews necessary to construct the high school personalized learning system. This included, but was not limited to, businesses in Minneapolis to observe what the “workforce” looks like in the twenty-first century. The ending result is an identical set of furniture and classroom structure to reflect what the students may experience further on in life.

Personalized learning wasn’t quite as stressed in the high school as the middle school, but I understand why it’s not easy. In Chanhassen High School, they have what’s called a “Quad” for 9th graders. This Quad is comprised of four block periods. This is similar to the middle school system in which students choose their schedule for that four-period section. This also allows for the student-teacher interactions listed above in the middle school. Students do not have to take the Quad track if they do not wish to, but many find it beneficial to transition into high school. When I say transition, I mean that from 9th grade on, the elaborate personalized learning structure is nearly eliminated. I am sure the school would love for personalized learning to be evident among the higher grades, but it is very difficult for a system like Adventurer to be setup in the high school when only ten students may be taking a class. Due to the variety of tracks students take in high school, it is nearly impossible to treat the entire school in a similar manner as the Quad.

Although the structure isn’t identical, personalized learning still exists in the high school. There are spaces called “caves” throughout the school placed underneath staircases and sheltered areas where students can work on schoolwork. This is due to our desire as young kids to build “forts” and hangout under them. Even as high schoolers, they enjoy being in their “sheltered” space to focus. These spaces may be typically occupied by students who are “flexing.” Similar to the middle school, the students have an electronic scheduling system in which they may choose to flex out of a class, as long as the teacher chooses not to lock them from doing so. In relation to the students choosing to flex, there are dedicated spaces on the upstairs level of the high school for productive behavior. The first of which (pictured below) is what they call the “Garage.” This is a room dedicated for student tutoring/collaboration. Similarly, the “L” is and L shaped room connected to the Garage that is quiet and monitored by a teacher for assistance in whatever the students need. The classrooms are intelligently structured, students may flex, and they understand how they learn best. Evidence is submitted by each student to meet a standard; in whichever manner they desire. Personalized learning is very much so existent within the high school, and they are constantly making changes as the system is not yet perfected. Lastly, several teachers have even offered to teach five classes at once, due to the very low enrollment in very specific classes, such as art and engineering.

Studio portion of the “L”

The assistant principal, and staff, informed us they wish someday for grades to be eliminated. It is understood that this is very difficult in today’s educational system of GPA’s and applying to universities. Administration fully believes this is what’s best for the student’s learning and where education will eventually move towards. It took baby steps for change to occur, but the teachers were cooperative. They realized after observing teacher cooperating in the personalized learning system that they can do so as well! The district has created this community mentality, and the community provides support to this very diverse environment. There exists unending support that the pedagogical theories are very much in place, just wrapped in a different package. The students drive the bus of curriculum. A commonly asked question in Eastern Carver County is, “What’s best for your learning?” Students understand they have the choice, and know what is and is not a wise educational decision. Therefore, I conclude this reflection with a few questions. Is this the future of education ten, twenty, thirty years from now? How do these students transition into very concrete college classrooms? Does this system better prepare our students for the workforce and improve collaboration skills? The answers to these questions may be found several years down the road after personalized learning has been completed by a student K-12.

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