Friday, October 7, 2016

Customized learning expanding in South Dakota

A column by Secretary of Education Dr. Melody Schopp

“Mass customized learning,” “MOD/CL,” “customized learning.” It goes by a variety of names, and you are likely hearing them more and more. I recently visited several South Dakota schools that are implementing customized learning. It’s happening at different grade levels and through a variety of methods. I believe it presents the opportunity for transformative change in education.

Change is hard (but often good)
Customized learning looks much different than the traditional classroom in which most of us grew up. It has the appearance of students just “doing their own thing.” And they are “doing their own thing,” but with clearly laid out expectations from well-developed coursework. Teachers in these schools have spent extensive time developing materials and assessments. Continuing this work and expanding it to other schools will be one of the primary uses of the Classroom Innovation Grants the Department of Education awarded this summer, as a result of the 2016 education package.

This kind of learning can be a difficult switch for older students who are used to traditional classrooms where teachers tell them what to do and when to do it. Customized learning requires students to take charge of their time and choices.

The concept of mastery is another big change inherent to customized learning. This can be a difficult transition for parents who grew up with GPAs, honor rolls and valedictorians. Mastery removes competition among students, as everyone is expected to do well. There is no longer an averaging of grades because the expectation is that students cannot move on until they have mastered the content. Everyone must do well. They just do it at their own pace.

At Harrisburg High School, this year’s seniors will be the first graduating class of students who began as freshmen in the program. The school’s new wing, built for students in the customized learning program opened this fall. Students can do their work throughout the commons area and go to different classrooms if they need small group or one-on-one instruction. The common theme I heard when visiting with students was that it is more rigorous than the traditional program. However, every student I spoke to also indicated they would not want to go back to the traditional setting.

Students are committed because they see the relevance and how it is helping them prepare for life after high school. They are required to achieve mastery (defined by the learning targets staff members establish) and until they do so, they redo assignments and assessments to demonstrate their understanding before moving on.  Many are earning dual credit or taking AP courses at the same time.

In a new program at Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary School in Mitchell, three teachers are facilitating a 1st-5th grade classroom with 64 kids. All students are on individual learning plans with direct instruction provided throughout the day when and where needed. A couple of the school’s former kindergarten rooms have been converted into a large open room with tables, couches, high-top tables and bean bag chairs to accommodate students’ various learning styles. Technology is one-to-one, and the room is equipped with white boards for instruction. I spent time with students at all levels. Their ability to articulate what they were learning and how they use different strategies, was fascinating. There were kids all over the room working individually, while teachers also led some students in small group instruction.

Mitchell’s middle school program is a bit more structured. Students are all in traditionally arranged classrooms, but each student works at their own level and pace. One 8th grade student is starting geometry after having completed algebra last year. That’s just one example of the success students can experience.

In Gayville-Volin, the atmosphere of the entire district is different, as they have implemented customized learning in grades K-12. Again, students can be found sitting all over, engaged in learning at all levels. The community just supported a $2.6 million bond (about 75% voter approval) for a new building to better facilitate customized learning. The community and surrounding area sees and appreciates the student engagement and success. I walked into a room of juniors and seniors, some of whom already had 21-27 credits. They were working on courses from a couple different Board of Regents institutions as well as one of the technical institutes. Some of them will graduate with not only a high school diploma, but also an associate’s degree; others will be very close to it.

At the state level, it is our aspiration that all South Dakota students graduate high school ready for college, career and life. Customized learning is helping them get there.