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.
Future Educator. Iowan. Passionate about People.
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