Messy, Hectic, and Exciting: A Very Ambitious Statewide Personalized Learning Experiment
Zoe Prue does not like doing anything she thinks is a waste of time.
So when she was told to put together a presentation at the end of her sophomore year for a personalized-learning plan, she was not happy. "At first, I thought it was the silliest thing and a waste of time and fluff," said the junior at Champlain Valley Union High School, the largest high school in Vermont. "But I did it."
The teenager said that the process—part of a sweeping, state-mandated personalized-learning program—made her take a hard look at her intellectual and social strengths and weaknesses. Teachers and other adults watched her 30-minute presentation and provided critical feedback. "I realized I needed to try to be more assertive, take more risks, and get involved in more collaboration," said the self-described introvert.
That realization led Zoe, in cooperation with her school, to begin work this school year on a documentary about sexism through a program for high school students at nearby Middlebury College called "What's the Story?" Zoe will work with two to three students from other high schools to produce the documentary. In addition to learning how to interview and write more effectively and collaborate on a team, Zoe hopes to pick up key technical skills in recording and editing video. And she will earn a full credit in English from her 1,250-student high school along the way.
Vermont is taking ambitious steps to create similar opportunities for students across the state through its relatively new personalized-learning law, Act 77. Schools in the Green Mountain State are now working through the challenges of figuring out how to make adjustments in their curricula, teaching approaches, and daily schedules to meet the expectations of the law, which will require that students in grades 7-12 have personalized-learning plans, more flexible options for earning academic credit, and proficiency assessments to measure their skills.
But making it work is not easy. In addition to overcoming skepticism from students like Zoe and teachers wondering how this fits into their work, there are additional concerns from parents and educators about how schools will ensure academic rigor and evaluate teaching and learning.
Plus, the interpretation of the law is proving to be very different from district to district. Some are putting a heavy emphasis on transferable skills outlined in the law, such as problem solving and effective communication at the possible expense of traditional academic content. Others are not even talking about transferable skills, said Julie Longchamp, the director of professional programs for Vermont-NEA, the state teachers' union.
"Who is measuring the effectiveness of all this work?" asked Longchamp. "How do we know students are learning more? I wish there was a better vehicle for teachers to communicate district to district on successes and challenges."
Penny Bishop, the director of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont, said Vermont's personalized-learning law rests on three pillars: personalized-learning plans, flexible pathways to earn credit, and proficiency-based testing.
Bishop explained that the best way to give personalized learning a chance to work is to build the three pillars simultaneously. But most schools have focused first on personalized-learning plans because that is the part of the law with the most imminent deadline for showing evidence of progress. "The three pillars support each other so there is a danger in pursuing one without the others," she said. "PLPs [personalized-learning plans] are fairly empty or meaningless in the absence of those other two pillars."
Such plans may also be meaningless—or students might perceive them as empty—if they do not travel with each student as they progress through the grades, and are taken seriously.
On a Friday afternoon in late September, as students were getting into school buses or heading to an afternoon high school football game, a group of CVU 9th grade teachers gathered in a room to talk about the shift to personalized learning. They said it's messy, hectic, and undoubtedly changes what learning looks like. Even so, they see it as an exciting step in the right direction, because they believe it will improve student engagement and build the skills students need to succeed in college and the workplace.
But there is still a weak link in the system for these 9th grade teachers. When asked if they had seen the personalized-learning plans their students had created as 8th graders as a way to more fully understand those students' interests, they all said those plans had not been passed along. The goal is for those plans to evolve as students progress through middle and high school.
Rebecca Holcombe, Vermont's secretary of education, recognizes that Act 77 is a work in progress.
"[Implementation] is the conundrum of any transformational change," she said.
Further complicating matters is the fact that Vermont recently saw its state test scores drop slightly from the previous year across several grade levels.
Holcombe is not hitting the panic button. She believes Vermont needs to stay the course on Act 77.
But she conceded there are big challenges ahead. "Change is really hard. And the story of education is one of variability. How do you bring up your floor and then encourage the top just to take off and flower?"
Champlain Valley Union High School is beginning to find answers to that question.
On a sunny Friday morning in late September, Willem Hillier, a senior with shoulder-length, wavy brown hair and glasses, is bent over a table examining a saxophone, a circuit board, and crisscrossing computer wires. His goal is to build a self-playing saxophone. Willem has already programmed an organ to play the "Flight of the Bumblebee," which he proudly shows off on YouTube.
Willem is constantly thinking, moving, iterating—more intellectual energy than nervous energy. For the saxophone project, he made a custom design for a circuit board, sent that to a Chinese company to build the physical board, and then had to solder the components onto the board once it was shipped back to him.
"Our job is just to help Willem be the best he can be," said Troy Paradee, the lead teacher for the Nexus program, an effort to pump up personalized-learning opportunities inside the high school. "We are honoring his work, attaching it to standards, and putting it on his transcript."
But it's not all driven by Willem. Teachers play a role, too.
Last year, computer design and engineering teacher Olaf Verdonk challenged Willem to take on an engineering project with a social purpose, not just a fascinating technological experience. Using an online program called "Instructables," Willem took a Fisher-Price toy car and re-engineered it into a working wheelchair for a 4-year-old child with physical disabilities. The final project was featured on a national ABC News show.
"This was a project that allowed for that empathy piece to happen," said Verdonk. "Now, Willem is in the process of rewriting the Instructables manual [for that project]. He is asking, 'What can we improve about the improvement?' "
In the course of doing that project, Verdonk said Willem, who hopes to attend MIT next year, fulfilled the academic requirements for two classes: robotics and computer-aided design.
But the reality is most teenagers are not blessed with Willem's motivation, intellectual curiosity, and technical skills—at least not at this point in their lives. And some would rather not be in school at all.
How do you use personalized learning to engage those students?
Technology is not a silver bullet, but it is a powerful tool for analyzing the individual strengths and weaknesses of all students, said Paradee.
CVU has a software program called JumpRope that teachers use for every student to track transferable skills—such as creative and practical problem-solving, clear and effective communication, and informed and integrative thinking—across subject areas.
The school is also gradually expanding the use of LiFT, a software program that uses artificial intelligence to analyze student course taking, extracurricular activities, and interests, and then suggest possible career paths. Students can also use LiFT as an online workspace to build their personalized-learning plans.
But for some students, the biggest game changer might be something much more low-tech: the school's farm, an outdoor space set up on school property to teach students about agricultural sustainability.
After helping a student in one of his classes who was on the brink of tears over a graphing assignment, science teacher Dave Trevithick takes a walk out to the farm. Along the way, the gray-bearded teacher mentions that the school is thinking of adding a beehive. An obvious question emerges: Have you considered the liability?
Trevithick has a quick, serious answer: Students are already investigating those implications as part of the project.
The farm produced 30 pounds of peppers and 30 pounds of tomatoes, which were used in the school cafeteria. It now features livestock, too—goats are grazing inside an electric fence and several chickens are pecking at food on the ground. A small movable wood house for the goats and chickens was built by students. The teenagers who participate on the farm learn math, science, and sustainability principles and earn academic credit for projects they do.
"Last year, I hated school—I didn't want to come to school," said Hailey Hallock, a sophomore who earns average grades.
Then she got involved in helping design and build the movable wood house, and earned math credit for her work. "I do think more often now about careers," she said. "I feel more comfortable about my ideas."
Standing near the goats and chickens, Trevithick ponders a question about what it will take to make personalized learning work for all students.
"If the kid gets the right project, they don't stop thinking about it," he said. "Part of my job in the classroom is being able to recognize that as soon as possible."
Vol. 37, Issue 12, Pages 18-21Published in Print: November 8, 2017, as The Challenge: Turning State Law Into Classroom Reality