Special Report
Executive Skills & Strategy

‘Learning Menus’ Empower Students to Tailor Curriculum

By Benjamin Herold — March 10, 2014 3 min read
Freshmen Rachel Schoeff, left, and Adun Obisesan make a DNA model out of candy in a science class at Darby High School, part of the Hilliard city school district in Ohio.

When the science department at Darby High School outside Columbus, Ohio, received new iPads two years ago, the devices came with a challenge from the school’s principal: Make classroom instruction look different.

The result has been new student “learning menus” that offer “voice and choice” via the chance to decide among a variety of assignments and activities to meet class requirements, said Mike McDonough, the 16,000-student Hilliard City district’s director of secondary education.

“The resounding response from students is that they feel like they have ownership of their learning,” Mr. McDonough said.

That’s just one example of an emerging trend in educational technology. Sometimes called “curriculum playlists,” the idea is pulled from other sectors of society in which content is “unbundled” so that users can reassemble the pieces according to their individual preferences.

It’s iTunes meets public school, said John Bailey, the executive director of Digital Learning Now!, a digital-learning advocacy group based in Tallahassee, Fla.

“The same way you and I might like most of what’s on a [music] album, but might want a couple different songs, the same is true for teachers,” Mr. Bailey said. “They want to be able to pull resources from PBS, from publishers, and from other teachers.”

As experimentation with learning menus is still new, many questions about academic rigor, developmental appropriateness for different ages, and best practices remain to be answered about this approach, according to educators.

Sometimes, as at Darby High, teachers are solely responsible for pulling the learning menus together. For a recent science lesson on continental drift, for example, all students were required to complete a guided note-taking activity, answer questions about a video, and complete an exercise about plate tectonics. But they had their choice of assessments and could select whether to do a puzzle activity, a virtual lab, or a custom-made geography challenge in order to complete the lesson requirements.

“Students appreciate that [approach] and find it much better than the traditional drill-and-kill or lecture models,” Mr. McDonough said.

Because customizing daily or weekly playlists for dozens of students isn’t always possible, software often plays a role, too; some tools make it easier for teachers to curate content, Mr. Bailey said, while others, like Knewton or Read 180, use algorithms to tailor their offerings to individual students.

“I don’t know if there are any platforms where the algorithms overrule a teacher’s judgment,” Mr. Bailey said, “but having a tool that can get you 70 percent there frees teachers to spend more time on higher-value activities.”

Customizing Content

Karen Cator, a former Apple executive who previously managed the U.S. Department of Education’s office of educational technology, said the learning menu or playlist approach is tailor-made for the Internet age.

“We can only leverage all the content online if we can come up with better ways of organizing it,” said Ms. Cator, who currently heads the Washington-based nonprofit Digital Promise.

“Curating content playlists helps teachers ensure that there’s relevant material for today,” she said, citing teachers who pulled together for their students readings, content, activities, and math challenges related to the Winter Olympics.

In Hilliard, 600 middle and high school students have used the learning menus over the past two years, and the practice has started to spread from the science department to other subjects.

Other schools doing similar work include the Summit Public Schools charter network in California and the School of One in New York City, Mr. Bailey said.

The key, he maintained, is making sure the variety of available materials is rich enough to provide differentiated options to students not just based on their skill levels, but on their learning styles and preferences.

“Just the right content in just the right way at just the right time,” Mr. Bailey said. “That’s the hope.”

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