In the last week I have posted two blogs about Harrisburg School District in South Dakota, where they are implementing a remarkable program of personalized learning. Here is the final of three posts; focusing here on the evolving program in the middle and high schools. For more details, look at Travis Lape’s blog:
Students in the personalized learning track at the middle school meet by grade level each morning and are offered a buffet of options for the day by their teachers. These might include project or group activities, coaching and review sessions, or the introduction to a new unit. The students know that, over a period of a week or so, they all need to participate in a full range of all the offered activities, but it is their choice when to include each in their own personal schedule. At the end of a very quick introduction about each activity, the students take a few seconds to sign up for their choices on their iPads. If an activity is “full” based on the allowable numbers submitted by the teachers, the student selects a different option, knowing that the activity will be offered again in subsequent blocks or days until all students have had a chance to participate.
I watched the morning meeting, and it was about as seamless and stress-free as one could imagine. All the students knew what they needed to do, and quickly made their selections and headed off to whatever room was next on their block schedule. My big takeaway from the system was this: teachers get to teach what they want when they want, and students get some voice in how and when they learn. Of course, over the period of a semester and a year, all of the standards are being met. The teachers I spoke to said that the students are inherently more engaged more of the time, which is a pretty simple route to more successful learning.
As with almost every high school I visit, personalized learning runs into a more rigid set of college preparation courses in the schedule, and the use of time during the day becomes the single most difficult obstacle to allowing personalized learning pathways. Harrisburg is struggling with this same issue. There are no simple answers but they are making headway for many students. One powerful innovation is the large, open “study halls” where students who have a free period or are working ahead at their own pace can gather, and there is always a teacher present to help guide and facilitate their work. They have a “math” hall and and “language arts” hall with teachers in those disciplines ready to work with students during the day.
As students in Harrisburg school rise up from the personalized learning tracks in elementary and middle schools to the high school, they will not only expect, but will be well equipped, to learn in a more fluid ecosystem. I suggested to the high school admin team that longer blocks of time rather than shorter will allow teachers to break subject boundaries (STEM and Humanities courses, for example) and students to work on theme-based projects that meet the standards but allow for different rates of progression. Yes, students will have to make choices: do I work on an independent project or take a singleton class? But these are the kind of choices they will be making as soon as they leave high school, so why not prepare them?
Congratulations to the educators and families in Harrisburg School District! You are leading the way!