Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

Want students to dig deep? Let them learn at their own pace.

At a New Hampshire gathering organized by the Monitor, those with a stake in personalized education discuss the advantages of an approach that is getting national attention.

There’s a lot that Hope Nichols appreciates about her high school.  

Back in middle school, the now-junior says, she sometimes struggled to keep up academically with her classmates. But at Manchester School of Technology High School (MST-HS), Hope is able to master class material at her own pace, through hands-on lessons and projects tailored to her personal strengths. 

“Knowing that I don’t have to keep up with the rest of my class takes a huge weight off my shoulders,” she told the crowd at a recent panel discussion, organized by the EqualEd section of The Christian Science Monitor. "I learn easier at MST than I would anywhere else.” 

MST-HS, a competency-based public high school in Manchester, N.H., is just one of a number of schools around the country that is rethinking how best to engage students amid growing consensus that young people learn in different ways – and that not all are able to thrive in a traditional classroom setting. To more deeply engage all types of students, some schools are moving toward a more personalized learning model, allowing a certain level of flexibility in how students access, interact with, and demonstrate proficiency in academic subjects. 

“[Personalized learning is] getting clear about what we want kids to know and be able to do, and figuring out ways that we can help each and every kid get to those ends,” said David Ruff, executive director at the Maine-based Great Schools Partnership, speaking alongside Hope and two New Hampshire educators at EqualEd’s “Reimagining Schools: Innovations for Deeper Learning” event last week. 

Defining personalization 

The northeast is home to a large concentration of innovative efforts to help all students access the resources and incentive they need to succeed, as seen in schools like MST-HS. But the movement isn’t confined to just one corner of the country. 

Nationally, “these concepts [are] really actually gaining steam rapidly,” Mr. Ruff said, noting that a number of states have implemented policies and support structures to promote the concepts of competency-based and personalized learning. “It’s not like we can say, ‘It’s just here, and it’s a crazy thing that’s happening here.’ It’s a thoughtful thing that’s happening here, and those same thoughtful things are happening around the country.” 

Both prior to and since being featured in a Christian Science Monitor cover story in May, administrators at MST-HS have received calls from educators from Ohio to British Columbia interested in adopting similar methods, said Karen Hannigan Machado, principal of MST-HS, who also participated in the panel discussion. 

But while the concept gains momentum, widespread confusion remains when it comes to defining what exactly personalized learning is – and what it isn’t. One common misconception, the panelists said, is that students do their own work in isolation, seldom collaborating with others. Another is that models that favor student-driven projects over sitting at a desk with a textbook are devoid of academic content. 

Sara Cantrell, an elementary teacher at Maple Street Magnet School in Rochester, N.H., said in last week’s discussion that while the scope of material in her school’s project-based learning model may be narrower, she believes students are able to make deeper, “more meaningful connections” to the content that is covered. 

Underlying all lessons and projects is a “common goal,” a set of “skills that we want them to know and to demonstrate,” Ms. Cantrell noted. “The personalization comes in in how they access those skills, how they access the material, as well as how they demonstrate that they’ve learned that skill.” 

At Maple Street Magnet School, Cantrell said, teachers typically assess student progress through hands-on experiences, rather than standardized tests or worksheets. Students can demonstrate what they’ve learned through projects such as creating a video, reading aloud, or making a poster. 

“We’re moving from this notion of a test-based system to an evidence-based system,” Ruff added. “What is the evidence that I can gather that can demonstrate what students know and are able to do, as opposed to, what are the ... assessment hoops that I may have created that they jump through?” 

Putting passion in learning

One central component of MST-HS’s competency-based system is its lack of age-based grade levels. Rather than moving through subjects on a set semester schedule, students advance at the rate that they master the material.

For some students, this means taking a little extra time to make sure they thoroughly understand what they’ve learned. For others, it means advancing at a quicker pace than they would at a traditional high school. Hope cites a friend who advanced through both Algebra I and Geometry during her freshman year, and is taking Algebra II over the summer. As a rising sophomore, she will take pre-calculus in the fall. 

At MST-HS, a high school embedded within a larger career and technical education center, students choose from a number of career pathways, such as nursing and policing, and are given the chance to participate in internships and other extended learning opportunities. That sense of personalization can also be seen on a smaller scale inside the classroom, as students are able to integrate the skills and strengths from their core focus into seemingly unrelated subjects.

“We try to take advantage of not just the students’ individualized learning styles, but also what is their passion,” Ms. Machado, the principal, said. “That makes all the difference in the world, for a student to be able to participate in and do work in what they love.” 

Hope, whose concentration is video and digital media production, provides an example. In French class, she says, her teacher knew of her interest in video and photography, and constructed a project for her that involved recreating a book of photos. 

“She made up that project specifically for me, because she knows that that’s something I’m good at,” Hope explained.  

Strong relationships between students and teachers – where teachers are able to recognize each student’s interests and learning styles – are a common thread in personalized learning models.

A personalized system “gives you permission to look at your students,” said Cantrell. “Who do I have in front of me today...? What’s relevant to them? What will engage them? What will create this passion within them to learn?”

But in order to succeed in a student-driven academic environment, some of that passion to learn must be self-generated. Attending a school with a more flexible curriculum requires a certain level of self-discipline and the ability to manage one’s time wisely, Hope and Machado noted. 

“It really works for some people. But [for] some people, it really doesn’t work,” Hope said. ”I suggest that if you’re going to go to a self-paced school, you need to be able to kick your own butt.” 

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