As the education world continues to buzz around student-centeredness and personalized learning, teachers are stepping away from the front of the classroom and allowing their students to dive in head first and take control of their school experience. These are huge milestones which are monumental in our move away from traditional classrooms and toward a system which better prepares students for their futures in our workforce. BUT… (you had to know that was coming) I’d like to push us a step further. How many of your students know what iowacore.gov is and why we use it? I’d like to argue that the Iowa Core doesn’t need to be a secret, but instead should be used as a tool in our student-centered classrooms. Here’s why:
Students, like us, want to know why.
Maybe showing them the standards the state sets will help them understand the “why” or maybe it won’t, but here is a first step which eliminates the middleman (you) and helps students be held accountable for their performance.
Speaking of the middleman, why do we need one?
If we are truly student-centered, why does the teacher need to hold anything a secret? What is so bad about the students being involved with the whole process. I’d argue that giving your students all the information from the get-go gives them that much more of an advantage as they think, explore, and learn in your classroom.
Who is it really all about anyway?
You’re not gaining anything from keeping this information to yourself. Nothing. Nada. Relinquish control. It’s not about you, it’s about them.
Face it, they're more creative than you anyway.
Your students, like it or not, probably have better ideas than you some of the time. If you hide the end goal from them (whether you realize it or not), you’re sacrificing those totally awesome, out-of-the-box ideas which rarely come from a seasoned educator. Their ideas may need some coaching, redirecting, or (hopefully) could even need to be reeled back in a ways, but there’s no harm there, and in fact that’s what you’re there for! My point is, your ideas aren’t always the best ideas, so why not give your students ALL the tools to get the very most out of their school experience?
Accountability. Accountability. Accountability.
It’s hard to hold someone accountable for something they don’t understand. How can you expect your students to meet standards they don’t know about? Give them all the information in the beginning, and use that to push them further. Set the bar high.
Your tech-savvy students won’t need help navigating the easy-to-use Iowa Core sight, so there’s nothing stopping you from letting them in on the secret. Why not? Here's a video from Palisades Community School District about their approach to personalized learning. Once you've watched, how can you take something like this and better help your students understand the why? Try showing them the CORE!
I am one of the growing number of students in Iowa who was given the opportunity to benefit from Personalized Learning. Throughout high school, project based learning was often incorporated into my teachers’ classrooms, and in my last year I was fortunate enough to spend 50% of my time doing school the entirely competency-based way. This means a lot of different things for a lot of different people, so I will explain. Rather than meeting state standards in ways designed by my teachers in their classes, my classmates and I designed projects and experiences which would help us understand the concepts laid out by the state to be completed before graduation. This allowed us to take some ownership in our learning and cover important content in ways we enjoyed and looked forward to. This exciting new approach to school is beginning to take off all over the state of Iowa, however I would argue it isn’t growing fast enough.
One of the most common arguments in opposition of this new take on school is that it hurts college-bound students in both the application process and their pursuit of scholarships and does not adequately prepare them for the tests and papers often associated with higher education. Admittedly I was also fearful that college would be a rough transition from the way I had been doing school (my own way). I worried about my study habits... what’s studying? I worried about multiple choice tests... you mean there’s only one right answer? I worried about class discussion (or the lack thereof)... what do you mean you don’t want my opinion and input? On the bright side, though, scholarship committees and my college admissions office seemed to have no issues with my unorthodox transcript.
Here’s the honest truth. I had no reason to be worried about this new flavor of personalized learning preparing me for college, because it did something more important. It prepared me for life.
I’ll start out by admitting that college classes were an adjustment for me. I was used to setting my own pace (fast and furious), being in constant conversation with others, carrying my classwork into every other part of my life (yes, I thought about school work all the time, but only because what I was working on was meaningful), and seeing constant growth and advancement in myself. After my first round of tests I quickly realized that the age-old complaints of hours in the library were realistic and I should probably take a lesson from my roommate and study a little more. These tests weren’t what I was used to. They weren’t testing my knowledge, they were testing my memory. I also soon learned that if I was interested in a particular subject we were discussing I should probably not drop all my studies and look into it - this always resulted in my falling behind. To top all of this off I really struggled with the idea that my mistakes could not be corrected. Some of my professors never handed a single test back to us... How was I supposed to learn the content that I had obviously not understood in the first place? And which information was it that I didn’t understand like I thought I had? As for those multiple choice, scantron tests... yeah... they aren’t kidding about there only being one right answer. (When in life is there only one right answer?!) I cannot count how many times I wrote all over the tests explaining just how each response could be the right one. I still had to choose a, b, c, or d though.
I never could have imagined the impact my school experience would have on the way I think about things. While all the tests and papers and homeworks I encountered this year were out of my norm and a little difficult to adjust to, they also showed me just how much I’ve grown as a learner. In the past I had always relied on my memory for information, but I had learned that all you really need is to think and search and apply. Suddenly, in college, I was able to take the things I was learning in one class and relate them to topics in another. I could use information I remembered from before to draw conclusions and reflect on lecture to better understand the content. My high school experience taught me how to connect all the useless wires in my head and get some use out of them. Isn’t this how the world works? Every tiny bit of information works into the big picture... how was I just realizing this? Once I began making all these connections it became very real just how small I am in this big world, but just how big of an influence I have. A seed had been planted in me to reach out and do huge things in this world with my tiny hands.
So my GPA is a bit lower than I’d like, I require an extra hour per paper to figure out that MLA/APA stuff everyone else knows like the back of their hand, and I really have got to figure out how to memorize things. All of these skills are just plain necessary to succeed in some college classes. The future teacher in me cringes at the hours I’ll spend perfecting these skills just to make it through the system “successfully,” but that’s my reality right now.
I’ve been pretty beat up about the GPA thing lately, but today I think I’ve finally got it in perspective. The tools and skills I learned through having some freedom and choice in my education have prepared me to take on the world in so many ways. I can see the leg up I have in conversations with many of my peers. I can walk into an interview with steady hands and clear thoughts, ask meaningful questions that lead to good discussion and great results, and contact anyone about anything fearlessly. I set reasonable goals which challenge me and put me outside my comfort zone, but also construct effective pathways for myself to achieve those goals. I have a desire to learn, actually learn, that I rarely see in others in my classes. Personalized learning didn’t prepare me for college, and in fact I would probably be a way more successful college student had I done high school the traditional way. What it did do for me, though, is make me a thinker, a leader, and an innovator. It showed me that there’s so much more we need to explore than the worlds they expose us to in textbooks. It showed me that I can take control of my learning and have an impact on my world. We need to be constantly searching for truth and coming up with new ideas. Kids need to be accountable. They need to set their own goals so they have the drive to not only meet them but burst through them at full speed with no intentions of stopping any time soon.
The reality of higher education is that it’s the best thing ever and the worst thing ever all at once. Some of us need it to achieve our dreams and some of us don’t. For those of us who do, it’s easy to feel trapped in the system and lacking a voice. I’d like to challenge that idea. While it probably won’t work to go in, guns blazing, and demand some change, it will work to show them that change can work. Give your kids teachers who facilitate their exploration, classrooms that support their curiosities, and school districts that care about their brains, not their scores. Don’t worry about preparing them for college. If you do, you’re limiting their learning to lectures and textbooks. Let them explore and make them want to know more. Teach them how to learn. An open mind and enthusiastic heart can accomplish anything. It can even succeed in college. We need to stop zeroing in on the next step and look at the big picture. Who cares if I’m a stellar student? I’ve got an eagerness to learn and a passion for the world around me.
In Kindergarten I couldn’t wait to be in 5th grade. They got to have homework, dump their trays by themselves at lunch, and use the sledding hill at recess. In fifth grade I couldn’t wait for the independence of middle school. In middle school I couldn’t wait to be a sophomore, couldn’t wait to drive, couldn’t wait to start choosing my own classes. All through high school I couldn’t wait to be a senior. I wanted to be one of the oldest, one of the smartest, one with all the opportunities, friends, and responsibilities. Then, at the culmination of all this expectation, I realized that my peak had happened months ago; perhaps even during my junior year. How, after all this waiting, hoping, and hard work, did I become another senior in a class full of kids just like me who only wants to get it over with?
I hate this expectation that in the second half of my senior year I am supposed to be wrapping things up. Don’t assume I mean that my teachers are telling me that, but rather that it is an unwritten, never broken, end-all say-all law of your senior year. “I don’t want you to start something you can’t finish.” “Who’s going to continue that when you’re gone?” “Remember we need this all turned in by the 13th of May” Okay thanks, but I’m not dying, I will still be passionate about this in the future, and I definitely am aware of my graduation and all that it entails. I’m really, really tired of graduation being an end. I’m tired of the idea that your world changes after high school, and I really think this is a bigger problem than we all want to admit.
I love the idea that school is a place where kids can learn to be successful and grow themselves as people. I love that we expect kids to graduate being dedicated citizens and passionate adults, but I just don’t understand how we can be “taught” to care. I have been so lucky to grow up in a home where I am expected to go after my dreams, embrace my talents, and do all that other cliche stuff. The disconnect, however, is in the idea that everything we do in school is for school and school only. If life were a disney movie, school kids would be the poor princess banished to an island alone until our knight in shining armor, or in this case our graduation ceremony, came to save us from our solitude and give us a life full of all we could ever want. If we are learning to be dedicated citizens while in school, why is the learning not just doing? Why should I make a powerpoint about my role in our government, when I could talk to my legislators, vote when I’m 18, or talk to adults about my opinions?
Students are begging to be allowed a taste of work that has meaning. We crave projects with genuine, real-world outcomes. In my dream world students are valued as much as adults in our society’s function. We get to experience failure which has more at stake than a grade, and we get to celebrate success that isn’t defined by a score. It may not sound realistic, but I know it could happen. As for today, my assignments are turned in, I’ve taken my tests, my locker is empty, and I’m ready to start a new chapter.
Perhaps the best way to promote change in this situation is to work at it completely differently than expected. If so, I have a request.
Students: take advantage of all you are given. Push the limits. Ask for more and don’t settle for no. If you can connect school to the other parts of your life, do it. If you’re going to be graduating soon, make sure you have something you’re passionate about that you can take farther than your graduation. Talk to professionals and annoy your teachers with your desire to dive deeper into the things you find interesting. Those are the kind of limits that need to be pushed, so focus your efforts there. If you don’t want to hear it from me, then remember that Gandhi told us to “be the change you wish to see in the world” and Victor Webster had a point about our role in the world when he said, “Everything we do, even the slightest thing we do, can have a ripple effect and repercussions that emanate. If you throw a pebble into the water on one side of the ocean, it can create a tidal wave on the other side.” Stop waiting for schools to change, because by the time they do you’ll be gone. If you want to be given responsibility and freedom, then just take it and run. Stop asking for permission and start being a catalyst for change.
I have this theory that adults don’t listen to kids enough. I realize how arrogant and naive that sounds coming from a kid, but I really believe the world is missing out by telling those of us still in school that we need to wait to have our voices heard. I could go on for days about why my 10 year old cousin’s ideas are better than mine, but that’s not what I’m writing about today. *sigh* Personalized learning has become a rather hot topic recently, and day after day I find myself increasingly more frustrated with the fact that adults are the only ones talking about it. My classmates have never even heard the two words used together, and here I am reaping the benefits of it every day. So back to this adults not listening to kids idea; they also don’t like to tell us stuff. It’s as if us knowing that there are other ways to do school than the traditional classroom will suddenly lead to an imbalance of power. So, because I have rarely seen the student side of personalized learning in word form, and because I believe that if I’m going to complain about it I had better do my part to fix it, here it is:
I’m about to sound like one of those weight loss commercials, “I lost 15 pounds with ____ and you can too!” Bear with me.
Personalized learning. Do it. Here’s my story: Last year I took a class called Engaged Citizenship. My summary of the syllabus is, “Find something you want to fix in your community and do what it takes to fix it. I’ll figure out how to grade you. Do some good.” I’ll admit, it’s scary to be left to structure 8,100 hours of your year with that much direction, but I can proudly say that we did it! A couple classmates and I managed to raise awareness for a nonprofit organization in our community working to build a track and football field for our school along with hold a few fundraisers and solicit some rather large donations. It would be easy to say that my biggest take-away was the good we did for the cause, but selfishly I know that isn’t true. That class taught me that you can learn so much more when you don’t mean to than when you’re trying to. It taught me that you set the standard for your own progress.
This year I have had the opportunity to embrace personalized learning in a whole new way. I am taking a class we call CBE or Competency Based Education. In a nutshell, I need one English credit to graduate and can get any other credits I desire. My classmates and I find projects we are interested in, or that we see need to be done, or that community members have asked us to take on, and we just do them. Later we sit down and look at standards laid out in the Iowa Core Curriculum and match up what we have done to standards. We will not be given grades, but I can say that I have completed an English class this semester which meets well over 20 literacy standards. (In this process I found that not many of my peers realize that our teachers are required by law to teach us certain things. To me that’s just messed up. You know iowacore.gov? Yeah it shows up in my browser history more than YouTube, but why shouldn’t it?)
Why should a teacher choose to facilitate personalized learning in their classroom? Why should they give up control for a bunch of completely different projects which will of course be horrible to grade, and risk losing the structure of their classes for total and complete chaos? Because teachers care, and students need to learn to be thinkers. It is plain and simple. If we are going to be completely honest with ourselves then we can say that there are few teachers that pursue education to get rich and retire early. Teaching is a profession that’s more about passion than paychecks, and while we’re on the topic, isn’t that how it should be? Shouldn’t we go through every day with goals that build us up and help something or someone improve?
It’s time for me to be real with you now. It would be so much easier to just keep things the way they are. This isn’t something that just happens, but it is something I think needs to happen. It’s important that the next generation of adults (that’s us) knows how to follow instructions, but I saw something today that said 65% of us will have jobs in fields that don’t even exist yet. Whether that’s true or not, it gets me thinking. Yes, we need to know about how our world works now, but we also are going to need to be ready to learn as we go. Right now, we’re at the risk of becoming adults who are way too skilled in the art of memorizing, regurgitating, and forgetting. If we learn how to be learners, problem solvers, question askers, thinkers, and communicators, however, it’ll be close to impossible to throw us a curveball we can’t hit. I’ll call my own bluff here (someone has to), personalized learning isn’t the only way to do this, but Jenny Craig isn’t the best weight loss program for everyone either.
Future Educator. Iowan. Passionate about People.
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