Morgan Watson

First-year teacher Morgan Watson has become a student herself in a personalized learning challenge.

School districts in Utah, Illinois, Arizona, and Missouri won free support from Education Elements consultants to help drive their personalized learning initiatives forward.

Education Elements, a recognized national leader in the design and implementation of personalized learning, announced the five winners of its first Personalized Learning (PL) Challenge. Districts in Utah, Illinois, Arizona, and Missouri were each selected by Education Elements’ team of judges, and will be awarded personalized support.

Designed to provide support to districts across different stages of their personalized learning journey, the PL Challenge invited districts to submit three videos sharing their story from three perspectives: the superintendent, a school principal, and a teacher. Districts from all over the country shared their commitment and their passion for revolutionizing their schools through personalized learning. Winners were selected based on several factors, including dedication to long-term, structural change, and a foundational understanding of personalized learning.

Each district was able to select a personalized prize to best meet their current needs.

Peoria selected a Foundations Workshop for their teachers, as part of their efforts to offer high quality professional development around personalized learning. This workshop provides the opportunity for participants to understand the components of personalized learning. The workshop will include a personalized learning simulation for all participants; provide opportunities for the team to learn more about the essential elements of personalized learning; and provide an opportunity for participants to explore examples of what personalized learning looks like in other districts and schools across the country.

Kendra Bell, PUSD’s chief academic support officer, who oversees the implementation of personalized learning with Education Elements, had this to say about the Education Elements learning process. But first, she explained how it used to be.

“It might be typical we would walk into a very traditional classroom and see a teacher teaching as they did 30 or 40 years ago,” Bell said. “I remember most of my high school experience and middle school; sitting in a classroom with 30 kids and we would all receive the exact same lesson. That means in that classroom, some kids would get it, and some, maybe not. So, the teacher would present a subsequent lesson the next day, even though some students would not have mastered the lesson from the day before.

“Personalized learning is intended to personalize the learning experience so we are sure we are meeting the unique needs of that child. So, we’re apt to see teaching techniques that are aligned to a lot of different approaches in the classroom; small group instructions; and the use of digital tools (computers and devices).

“You might also see peer to peer or teamwork problem-solving. You might also see project-based learning approaches, so that the classroom becomes one that really promotes engagement, where students ‘own’ the learning. The result is a much less passive learner.

“Personalized learning includes student choice in the learning environment. That means students can select ways to show what they’ve learned. Again, back to a certain need to develop their own projects. Work with a team in order to respond to a certain problem, or set of standards, and represent that information. They could choose from a digital kit. They’re more adept at using technology, so, our kids are starting to use a playlist for learning content.”

What if they choose the wrong project, or wrong answer?

Bell said, “Keep in mind, they aren’t exactly free. The teacher is an integral part. The shift is not the teacher moving away from lecture, or giving student information. It’s toward designing instruction so kids have to work it out, and in many cases, work together. Be creative, own the learning, engage in the learning - ‘this is my learning.’

“The teacher is not standing in front of the room, lecturing and giving the students information.

“In mathematics, let’s say I have six kids who are really bright. I could take the same concept, and those six kids might be applying it in a different way, instead of taking that same objective and working with a different group of kids.

“Other kids not there yet, practicing and looking at that algebra concept and looking at prerequisite concepts before they’ve caught up with their classmates.

“It’s an environment more responsive to individual student needs. We’re just taking our camera lens and bringing it into sharper focus to examine our instructional practices in our classroom.”

Cheyenne Elementary School teacher Morgan Watson will be a student herself in the Education Elements workshop. She attended college one year at Arizona Christian University and three years at Grand Canyon University.

She teaches sixth-grade science and social studies. It’s her first year of teaching, and she is already seeing progress.

“With personalized learning, I’ve been really able to push them to take the lead in their learning; be lifelong learners, not just in the classroom,” Watson said.

 She gives them a lot of choice, two weeks to decide what they’re going to do.

“I have really loved it. I have seen a ton of growth with my students,” Watson said.

One of the indications her teaching is working: Students don’t want to leave when class time ends and it’s time to pack up.

As far as college preparing her for the personalized learning experience in her own classroom, Watson said, “I don’t know if I was quite prepared; you are adjusting a lot of instruction for independent student need. Students have a lot of options in their learning environment; 30 students on all different levels. With the brand of learning, it’s designed to help you teach students on all different levels.”

She has three different groups of students - 30, 25, and 32 in the classes. In each class, they’re all mixed up.

Watson said, “When they’re in the classroom, I do place them at their level at a station rotation, where you have four different stations, and one of those stations with a teacher. Instead of me instructing 30 students at a time, I’ll be instructing six. Others are at independent learning stations. I can adjust my instruction based on where they are (a certain level).”

Before school begins each year, students have a baseline test for math and reading. Watson will look a lot at their reading level. When students reach sixth grade, they’re learning to read information (not learning how to read) and learn about a subject.

In the first few weeks, Watson can see what they can do.

In her particular classes, she had determined the students were not self-starters; they were waiting for Watson to teach them. Not so anymore.

“I’ve already seen them take charge of their learning,” she said. “They come in every day, have choice of their assignments, have shown growth there.”

Testing is done periodically throughout the school year. With this first year of blended learning, there is targeted instruction. Watson spends a lot of time looking at data, and can spot a student who is struggling so extra time can be spent to ensure learning is taking place.

At mid-year, Watson will be reporting on the progress of her students; it is something she is looking forward to.