Island schools move toward ‘personalized learning’

MISD begins work toward implementing a personalized approach to student learning

It has become a bit of a buzz word in education circles. In the ever-present fight to find the best way to educate children, many local districts and teachers have started bandying around the slogan “personalized education.”

The definition is fluid, but on Mercer Island the board of directors for the district has decided that by 2011, the district will be prepared to offer “more personalized learning where student-centered education is responsive to students’ strengths, learning styles, interests, passions and affinities.”

Since finalizing its goal, the district’s administration has set out to make it a reality, including discussing what personalized education means and how it looks in a classroom setting. To get there, the district has forged relationships with districts around the country that are trying new things and with organizations that do similar projects. On Nov. 17, the School Board met with Steve Arnold, the co-founder of Polaris Venture Partners and the vice chairman of the board for the George Lucas Educational Foundation, an educational organization that focuses on new ways and philosophies in education.

“We’ve been looking at a lot of issues surrounding public education. Our Web site essentially has the tagline, ‘what works in public education’ with the goal to identify programs, wherever they are around the country, which innovate in areas which help how kids learn,” said Arnold.

One of the areas that the Lucas Foundation does a lot of work in is around the idea of project-based learning: the concept that students spend a majority of class time doing large projects designed to teach the same material as in a traditional classroom format. While evidence is mixed, many researchers have found that through this class format, students learn the same material, but are more excited about the concepts.

“One of the things that struck me when I was in Philadelphia is that project-based learning is differentiated from content-based, and I hadn’t thought of that until I heard a teacher describe it as being different,” said MISD superintendent Gary Plano, who recently attended a national superintendents roundtable in Pennsylvania. “It’s an inductive versus deductive approach. What kids have said is that it engages their passion around the project, especially when they get to pick it.”

Arnold said the feedback he has seen from students is very similar, including that they are more likely to figure out what they need to know for the project and retain the information. Students also tend to remember the information in the long-run, since it has more context to them in a personalized setting than it would if they were reading a required chapter each night.

Arnold said the Foundation is currently working on a research project through which researchers are comparing a traditionally taught Advanced Placement (AP) class with another AP class, but that is done mainly through projects.

“What we’ve found is that kids were very, very vocal about needing and taking some personal responsibility for needing to know the background in order to participate with their team. The result was that kids would say stuff like, ‘I didn’t think I learned anything in this class until I took the AP test and I realized I knew everything they asked, but I didn’t remember learning it because we did all these projects,’” said Arnold.

Adair Dingle, a member of the School Board, questioned how to balance the standard requirements and whether a project-based approach did enough to meet those requirements. Arnold responded that, at least in the foundation’s study, the curriculum was developed directly from the AP curriculum available online.

“We knew it was in there because we designed it with the objective of making sure that the same stuff the kids would have gotten had they gone through the traditional course in the same school district, taught the way they’ve always taught it, was incorporated into this project,” said Arnold. “One of the things we’re always running up against in trying to advocate for project-based learning is that a bunch of people have the view that it is only good for the soft stuff. You can do feel-good projects or art projects, but you can’t really do rigorous subjects that way. Our examples try to demonstrate that you can and that, in fact, retention is better and that style of learning is more effective for many kids. We can’t claim it’s better for all kids, but projects, we think, are beneficial for a lot of kids.”

The MISD has outlined a loose set of guidelines to help schools move toward the goal in two years. It starts with developing ideas, talking with experienced experts in the area, such as Arnold, and eventually creating a system of personalized learning in the district, with defined goals, outlines and indicators of student success.

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