Future of Learning

‘Personalized’ concepts gain steam, credibility at OSD
Scott De Laruelle

Personalized learning series
January: Project overview
February: Elementary schools
March: Rome Corners Intermediate School
April: Oregon Middle School
May: Oregon High School
June: A look back at Year One

Personalized learning is taking off in the Oregon School District, even in kindergarten classes, where students are able to work in smaller groups with teachers.

Ask Jon Tanner the value of personalized learning to the Oregon School District – or public schools in general – and the district’s director of technology will pull no punches.

“(It) is absolutely essential to the survival of public schooling,” he said. “If we don’t change, we are dead, because there are more opportunities than ever before for people to learn outside of schools.”

Personalized learning has become a major movement in the United States and Europe, as well as a buzzword around the district, said Tanner, who heads up the district’s Personalized Learning Initiative and is taking a graduate course on the subject.

In basic terms, personalized learning means helping students succeed by finding out their individual learning needs, interests, and aspirations and then providing customized learning experiences. In doing this, teachers can work with students in smaller groups which allow lessons to more closely match students’ ability levels.

Tanner said an “overwhelming” amount of research says while it can work, it’s up to the teachers to get the most out of students.

“Unless learning is personally relevant to students, it is not effective,” he said.

That, then, will be the challenge for OSD administrators and staff.

Looking to provide more effective learning for students and keep pace in an increasingly competitive educational marketplace, school districts like Oregon are increasingly turning to personalized learning to gain an edge.

Starting this year, several teachers have joined forces or begun working separately to try out new methods to help students become better prepared for their futures.

Long time coming

The road started back in 2007-08, said district superintendent Brian Busler, when
school board members drafted a paper called “Visioning for the Future” and the district hosted a Vision 20/20 Conference that included 50 school staff and 50 parents and community members to discuss the district’s future.

While a “quality and caring staff” was identified as a strength, a clear weakness was student disconnection from school as they moved through the grade levels.

Busler said this information forced district officials to examine factors such as student motivation for learning, student engagement, and the relevance of school approaches to individualized learning, which was gaining recognition in “high functioning schools” in the country. At the same time, a Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction task force released a report stating as a primary recommendation the need to focus on individual students rather than on a “one-size-fits-all” system.

School board president Courtney Odorico said members recognized the educational model the district had been working under was based on a system more appropriate for another era, namely a “factory-type” model.

“It was becoming increasingly apparent that this system was not working for many kids,” she said.  

With changes in mind, since 2010, a district task force study group has explored ways to individualize learning, eventually changing the phrase to “personalized learning.”

And this year, teachers began implementing these ideas into their classrooms, from changing around classrooms to better serve students to grouping students in different ways to keep different levels of achievers focused and working at their level. Many classrooms are making use of new technology tools to help students work at their own pace, or to communicate better with classmates and teachers on projects.

The district also joined forces with the largest personalized learning network in America, located at CESA 2 in Milwaukee, and Busler said district officials have been pushing ahead ever since.

“Teachers and administrators have … created new structures for classroom learning and personalizing education to the needs of their students,” he said, noting both an increase in student engagement in class and an increase in their motivation for learning. “I am so proud of the steps our teachers and administrators have taken to study, prepare, work countless hours and bring personalized learning options to students.”

Staff buys in

While the school board had a large role to play in bringing personalized learning to the district, member Jeff Ramin said the teachers are now doing the heavy lifting.

“Teachers are the agents of change,” he said. “The teachers that have started using (personalized learning) techniques report that they are invigorated by the process. It’s a lot of work and quite different from what many are used to, or comfortable with, but I haven’t heard a single teacher say it wasn’t worth the effort.

“Our hope is that as more and more teachers give it a try, and they see the positive results, others will be willing to give it a try also.”

With increased emphasis on standardized testing in the past decade or so, Ramin said some teachers have told him they only have time to cover the standards and prepare students to take tests, making it more difficult to get to know students. With personalized learning, teachers can spend more time with students in smaller groups, or one-on-one, rather than standing at the front of a room lecturing to 25 students all hour – hopefully restoring that important personal relationship.

“This is a much more effective way of teaching,” he said.

Rome Corners Intermediate School teacher Dawna Wright said by giving students a choice and a voice in what they’re learning, they tend to be more active in their education.  

“A few of my students were done with the educational system as we knew it, and this could be seen in the way they dressed and acted,” she said. “By giving them more choice, they started to care more about everything, including themselves. It allowed them to really shine.”

Netherwood Knoll Elementary School kindergarten teacher Jennifer Landas said personalized learning helps teachers “gently nudge” every child toward their maximum potential, rather than “teaching to the middle.”

“I may lead a large group phonics lesson for all 46 of my students,” she said. “Once my pre-teaching is over, some students are sent in a very small group to receive more instruction, some are sent to work independently on a topic that is ‘one step above’ a majority go off to practice the skill that was just taught. This way we’re able to give students intervention services in real time and not wait until we’ve finished teaching something; we aren’t constantly trying to ‘catch kids up.’”

Netherwood Knoll second-grade teacher Andrea DeNure has instituted a “genius hour” each week, dedicated to students’ passions.

“They had to think about deeper questions, ones that couldn’t be answered quickly through a Google search,” she said. “I couldn’t believe how engaged my learners were. We’ve only just begun, but our learners and parents are very excited about this process.”

Odorico praised teachers and administrators for their commitment to personalized learning, something she called, “the most important thing going on in our district.”

“They tell us that while the work is hard, they know their individual students better than they ever have and that the strides in learning are exciting to them as educators,” she said.

The key to success in personalized learning is raising the teacher-to-student ratio to allow for more individualized attention, Ramin said, but in the past, that was not possible because of public schools’ financial position. Advances in technology, however, have made it much more appealing. From “flipped” classrooms to make better use of teachers’ time to software that allows for individual feedback to each student to devices in every student’s hands – at home or in the classroom – today’s schools have many more ways to reach students and hold their attention.

“The ultimate goal, of course, is to improve the quality of education that our kids are obtaining,” Ramin said. “I’ve seen the excitement in the kids’ faces and heard the feedback from teachers that indicates this initiative is achieving what we had hoped for.”

Theory to practice

After years of preparation, several teachers have jumped into personalized learning with both feet this fall.

In the district’s three elementary schools, teachers and administrators have worked together to redesign classroom teaching in small and large groups settings, while at Rome Corners Intermediate School, some teachers work as a team with three classrooms of students while others work within their individual classroom settings.

Busler said this “student voice and choice” in learning goes beyond what would have been taught in the past.

“We still teach reading, writing, math, science, social studies, world language, fine arts and the list goes on,” he said. “However, we teach our students with a focus on their learning styles and provide them with opportunities to master the learning objectives with students having choice and say in their learning.”

The focus is on “innovative, creative thinkers who not only know a lot, but can apply their knowledge to new challenges,” as each child is unique, according to the district website.

“In order for each child to be successful, their learning needs to be personalized to their unique needs, abilities, and motivations,” it says.

At the elementary level, ways to promote personalized learning include dynamic grouping, which means moving at a pace that is specific to each child and teaching in a way that captures an individual child’s natural curiosity and involves them in the way they learn best, such as listening, watching, moving and creating.

As students grow and mature, then, they will develop more of an ownership of their learning, because they find it challenging, interesting and meaningful.

At the middle school and high school level, personalized learning may take the form of online classes that let students learn about a specific topic of interest they can complete at their own pace under the guidance of a trained facilitator. For example, it could be a class that can be completed five different ways, and students can complete the course by demonstrating mastery of specific skills and then move on, rather than having to wait until the end of the semester.

In addition, the district’s policy requires 2018 grads to complete a “personalized learning plan” and demonstrate proficiency in roughly 20 “exit outcomes,” including “the ability to communicate effectively using a variety of media, attainment of a knowledge base in the creative arts and acquiring knowledge necessary to live independently, including a knowledge base in personal finances.”

Why it can work

Ramin defines personalized learning as tailoring the curriculum, environment and teaching practices to promote learning for each individual student – active learning, rather than passive.

Allowing students to learn at their own pace, and in a manner most effective for them, he said, is a definite advantage for learning.

“Some kids may be visual learners, others aural and perhaps others learn best by working on a project with others,” he said. “If a student picks up a math concept quickly, they can spend more time on a subject that doesn’t come as easily, instead of sitting in a class listening to instruction that they already comprehend.

“If learning is an enjoyable experience that students get to take part in, as opposed to something that is done to them, they are more likely to succeed.”

The key to personalized learning, Odorico said, is making it relevant.

“By doing so, you engage kids and make them active participants in their own education, hopefully guiding them to successful life after high school and beyond,” she said. “We are on a transformative path that will benefit our students for a long time.

“The goal of making relevant, rigorous and authentic learning experiences for our students is an important one, and we owe it to our children to prepare them for life in a world that will be different than the one we were educated for.”

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