Mastery-based education. Competency-based learning. Personalized learning. Project-based learning. Differentiated instruction.
These are some of the terms used to describe different education practices. Maybe you’ve read about them. Maybe you’ve heard them used in reference to your child’s school.
The commonality amongst them is a shift away from the traditional classroom model of students seated at their desks and teachers lecturing from the front of the classroom. While that is still part of each of these practices, what else is happening in the classroom can vary.
The shift seems to be in involving students in more exploratory learning, more projects that are hands-on and many that are student-led.
Through his involvement with the American Association of School Administrators, Fayetteville-Manlius Central School District Superintendent Craig J. Tice has visited several schools across the country that have adopted personalized learning and has seen first-hand how instruction is evolving and students are actively engaged and enthusiastic about what they are doing in their schools.
“There are some institutions out there that have created mock emergency rooms, with nurses’ stations that will give the students the opportunities to learn about health-related medical concepts and actually allow them to practice them on a mannequin in a bed in a hospital environment,” Tice said.
This type of experience allows students to realize why they have to learn a particular skill or concept, because professionals in the field actually use them, he said.
“Personalized learning gives educators an opportunity to stimulate creativity and encourage students to think outside of the box rather than conforming to a set of concepts and skills that have been narrowly defined,” Tice said. “We need to encourage students to ask the ‘so what’ and ‘now what’ of the application of new knowledge.”
Many districts are embracing blended instruction, which combines face-to-face teaching, technology-assisted instruction and student-to-student collaboration to leverage each student’s learning style and interests.
“What,” “so what” and “now what” are the underlying questions of personalized learning, Tice said. It’s taking students’ experiences in the classroom and figuring out how to extend them into the real world.
“Now that I know this, what does it mean for me,” he said students are asking. “It’s the application and the ‘what ifs,’ the exploration.”
Students in these learning environments take more ownership for their learning because they realize it isn’t about just replicating a skill, it’s about applying that skill to real-world situations and problems, he said.
The LaFayette Central School District launched its Big Picture High School in 2008 to improve its graduation rate and reach students most at risk for dropping out. The school is part of the national Big Picture Learning Network.
The projects LaFayette Big Picture students work on throughout the course of the academic year are student-driven and interdisciplinary, and each student’s advisor is responsible for ensuring core concepts are part of the project.
“Our kids are really engaged with the content on a much deeper level,” said Susan Osborn, LaFayette’s Big Picture School principal. “It fits so many learners.”
When students are not working on their individual projects, they are spending their afternoons in workshops where staff are focusing on core subjects, such as math and English language arts. Big Picture students graduate with a New York state Regents diploma, so they need to master the required curriculum.
“This type of learning leads to better student engagement because the content is relevant to each student and tailored to their unique needs. It also leads to better student outcomes because the pace of learning is customized to each student,” according to the U.S. Department of Education.
As part of their personalized learning experience, LaFayette Big Picture students are required to spend a portion of their instructional time volunteering in their communities and interning with local businesses and organizations.
“Many of our students may have been disengaged. We are hoping we are producing adults who are providing service to the community,” Ms. Osborn said.
These activities allow students to gain experience in areas they have identified as interests. The internships provide opportunities for students to hone their skills while developing a relationship with another adult– and someone in their field of interest.
“Many of our kids get offered summer or weekend employment opportunities through these internships,” Ms. Osborn said.
When I ask my second- and fifth-grade sons about what they are doing in class, I hear more and more about hands-on, creative projects they are working on, often on subjects they picked, that they are excited about. And I see them becoming problem-solvers with the knowledge they are gaining in their classes, which is something that could have far-reaching impacts.
“Personalized learning will give educators an opportunity to stimulate creativity and encourage students to think outside of the box rather than conforming to a set of concepts and skills that have been narrowly defined,” Dr. Tice said. “We need to encourage students to ask the ‘so what’ and ‘now what’ of the application of new knowledge.”
Who knows, maybe the teleporter that my younger son is writing about in class will one day become a reality and help curb pollution. I’d be in favor of that.
What is Big Picture Learning?
- Each student at a Big Picture Learning school is part of a small learning community of 15 students called an advisory.
- Each advisory is supported and led by an adviser, a teacher that works closely with the group of students and forms personalized relationships with each advisee.
- Each student works closely with his or her adviser to identify interests and personalize learning.
- The student as the center of learning truly engages and challenges the student, and makes learning authentic and relevant.
- Each student has an internship where he or she works closely with a mentor, learning in a real world setting.
- Parents and families are actively involved in the learning process, helping to shape the student’s learning plan and are enrolled as resources to the school community.
- The result is a student-centered learning design, where students are actively invested in their learning and are challenged to pursue their interests by a supportive community of educators, professionals, and family members.
Nancy Cole is a public information specialist and grant writer for Capital Region BOCES. She lives in Onondaga County, NY, with her third- and fifth-grade sons.